Communication, Policy, Research

95 – Linking research to policy

There is a lot of environmental research, and a lot of environmental policy, but the links between the two are often not nearly as strong as you would hope or expect. This story is about a case where the links are relatively strong.

For some years now, I’ve been trying to influence policy makers in Australia to improve the design of the national and state salinity policies. My concern has been that, from what we know of the science and economics of salinity, the approaches being used in the main policy programs are not making a meaningful difference to salinity management in most regions. Indeed, there are cases where policy has probably made matters worse.

There are quite a number of factors that appear to have contributed to the poor political response to salinity (Pannell 2005) including: the short-term focus of politics being inconsistent with the long-term nature of salinity; the tendency for political debates to manufacture a “crisis”, which can result in urgent ill-considered responses; the conflict between effectiveness and the perceived fairness of policy; the complexity and diversity of the salinity problem; and the fact that new research findings may not be quickly noticed and responded to by policy makers.

Then there is the question of knowing how to respond to new research results. I have spent quite a bit of time and effort communicating with people about the science of salinity and its policy implications. Initially I thought that, as a researcher, the appropriate thing to do was to give the relevant information to decision makers, and then step back and allow them to make the decisions. However, even in the face of compelling evidence, people seemed to flounder when it came to making decisions in response.

There were at least two lessons from this experience. Firstly, given a problem as complex and multifaceted as salinity, most people don’t have a way of stitching together the different parts of the problem into a coherent and logically consistent whole. For such problems, it seems, intuition is not enough – one needs a reasonably structured decision framework to help make sense of it all, and especially to work out how to respond to new knowledge.

Secondly, even providing a good decision framework is not enough, for several reasons: lack of commitment to it, lack of knowledge of the required inputs, unanticipated confusion or misinterpretation of the framework, and so on. It seems that, for problems as challenging as salinity, decision makers need help in quite a hands-on way. The decision should still be theirs, of course, but they need help integrating and interpreting the evidence.

So my collaborator Anna Ridley and I set out to provide both of those needs. First we created the Salinity Investment Framework III (SIF3), a much more detailed and easy-to-apply version of a framework previously developed in Western Australia (see here).

Then we offered to help two catchment management organisations to pilot SIF3: the North Central Catchment Management Authority (CMA) in Victoria, and SCRIPT, on the south coast of Western Australia. So far, we have finished our analysis of salinity for North Central CMA, and the outcomes have been very positive.

The CMA has broadly accepted the recommendations from SIF3, and is set to substantially alter the shape of its salinity investments. The new approach will target investment in on-ground works to a small-ish number of locations that meet a combination of criteria:

  • there are public assets of particularly high value in the location;
  • these assets face a likely high impact from salinity;
  • there are changes in land management or engineering responses that will substantially reduce the impact of salinity in a reasonable time frame;
  • if changes are required on private land, those changes are not excessively costly or unattractive to landholders;
  • the responses required to address salinity will not cause other major natural resource or economic problems.

In addition, the CMA will increase their investment in technology development, to provide options for landholders who do not fall within the tightly targeted areas for on-ground works, and to reduce the long-term cost of targeted interventions. As a result of their positive experience with SIF3, the CMA says that it will increase its emphasis on relevant science to improve future decision making.

Getting to this point has required persistence, patience and a lot of good will on both sides. The lessons of SIF3 are not yet fully embedded in the CMA’s operations, but progress has been very encouraging.

As well as being useful to environmental managers at the regional level, SIF3 has strong implications for policy design, and we’ve had increasingly productive engagement with governments about this at the state and national levels. The demonstrated success with the CMA has increased the credibility of related messages to policy makers. Two weeks ago, our recommendations for changes in salinity policy, supported by a paper summarising the evidence behind them, were considered by the NRM Standing Committee, a key national policy body that brings together senior bureaucrats from the Australian Government and all states and territories. They will now advise the NRM Ministerial Council, the top-level decision making body for NRM policy.

There is still some way to go, but the current signs are good that we may move towards a policy framework for salinity that is more consistent with the latest technical and socio-economic research. If so, there are also likely to be positive spin offs into other areas of policy for natural resources in Australia.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Pannell, D.J. (2005). Farm, food and resource issues: politics and dryland salinity, Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 45: 1471-1480. Full journal paper (103K)Summary version (19K)

Ridley AM and Pannell DJ (2005). SIF3: An investment framework for managing dryland salinity in Australia. SEA Working paper 1901. CRC for Plant-based Management of Dryland Salinity, University of Western Australia, Perth. Summary version (simple 2 pager in pdf)

A new approach to public investment in dryland salinity – 2 pager (49K pdf file) outlining the need for a new approach, and illustrating results of SIF3 in North Central CMA region.

Why a new approach to dryland salinity planning/investment is needed