124 – Linking natural resource research to the real world

Attempting to ensure that complex research into natural resource management or the environment is used by decision makers is very challenging. Here I outline the strategy we are using in current Australian research.

Recently I attended an interesting workshop in Adelaide, on the theme of “Integrated Landscape Science”. The focus was on the establishment of a new research centre on that topic, but in the course of the discussions we spent time talking about the process of linking research on natural resource management to the real world, particularly to policy makers and environmental managers. There was a good discussion about the process we have gone through in the SIF3 project (http://dpannell.fnas.uwa.edu.au/sif3.htm . Our facilitator captured the process we had used, which I’ve elaborated on below. There are obviously different approaches or different emphases that one could apply, but this is an approach that has worked well for us.

Problem definition phase

This requires good interaction between decision makers and researchers. The researchers need to take a problem-solving approach to the issue, rather than concerning themselves with capturing its full complexity.

Complexity phase

Researchers (bringing in input from various stakeholders) set about understanding and modelling the system, with an emphasis on management decisions. This process needs to bring together physical, biological, economic and social aspects of the problem, perhaps in a highly integrated computer model, but not necessarily. In the case of SIF3, we made use of results from a large variety of models and analyses, but didn’t try to represent the entire system in a single complex integrated model. We got to that degree of integration in the simplicity phase.

Simplicity phase

From the results of the complexity phase, develop a decision framework based on robust rules of thumb about management. How does the best management response vary in different bio-physical or socio-economic circumstances? Which are the variables that have the greatest influence on management? The focus is on developing messages that are scientifically valid, but as simple as possible. This is a highly creative process, and is probably more difficult than the complexity phase. There isn’t a well established way to go about this, although sensitivity analysis is certainly an important element. During this phase, the researchers need a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. Based on our experience with SIF3, and the general experience with computerised tools, it is probably better if the decision tool developed in this phase is not computer based. SIF3 is simply a documented decision tree. It would be “paper-based” if we printed it out.

Application of the tool proceeds through three phases: pilot, help-desk and consultancy.

Pilot phase

With SIF3, we underwent a phase of applying the initial version of the tool with two partner organisations. This helped to test the applicability, usability and understandability of the tool. It also identified gaps that needed to be filled and concepts that needed to be explained more clearly. It built trust and confidence with our partners, and helped us develop a process within which the tool could effectively be applied. It allowed us to develop capacity among a group of users, which has paid off in later phases through us employing two of them to work with other users.

It is important that the researchers be heavily involved in the piloting of their decision framework. Leaving its application to users at too early a stage carries a high risk of it being misinterpreted or misapplied, so that it is not able to be evaluated fairly.

Help-desk phase

Once the researchers are confident about the usefulness and validity of the decision tool, the next phase is somewhat more hands off: supporting users to apply the tool themselves. We are currently offering a help-desk service and detailed advice about the process to five environmental management organisations who are applying SIF3 or INFFER (a more general version that allows threats other than salinity to be assessed). We judged that it was important to include this phase, mid-way between us doing it for them, and them doing it entirely themselves. Through this phase we are learning what level and what type of support is needed over which issues, and we are developing training materials for a broader group of users. Given the complexity and difficulty of management decisions for the environment, it is not realistic to expect people to find it easy to understand and apply the framework. Indeed, there are likely to be aspects of the framework that conflict with their preconceptions and their current way of thinking about the problem.

Consultancy phase

Our aim is to reach a stage where the framework is very widely used, and support is provided as a commercial service (not by us), or else is provided by government. We expect that the training materials we are currently developing will be an important part of this.

Other requirements

Most research in this area concentrates on the complexity phase. If the research is directly commissioned by decision makers, this is perhaps sufficient. Otherwise, a considerable additional effort by the researchers is probably needed to ensure that the research can have its potential impact. Few researchers actually attempt anything like the process outlined above. The process requires: extra resources beyond those for the research phase, patience, persistence, excellent communication and good partnerships with users. Given this, perhaps it is not surprising that few researchers take such an approach. On the other hand, it certainly is satisfying to see our work having an impact, and my experience with this work has convinced me that research impacts in this field don’t come easily.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Ridley, A. and Pannell, D. (2008) Piloting a systematic framework (SIF3) for public investment in regional natural resource management in dryland salinity in Australia, Proceedings, 2nd International Salinity Forum: Salinity, Water and Society – Global Issues, Local Action, 31 March – 3 April 2008, Adelaide (CD-ROM). Paper (49K)

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