Views and Visions: Posts from our People

Timothy Neale
Researcher
Key interests:
Mar
3

moggs_creek_burn_timothy_neale.jpg

Bush at Moggs Creek in the Otways after a burn. Photo by Timothy Neale.
Bush at Moggs Creek in the Otways after a burn. Photo by Timothy Neale.

The social life of science in policy and planning

This is part one of a two part post I’ll write on the Scientific Diversity, Scientific Uncertainty and Risk Mitigation Policy and Planning project, looking at the routes between science, policy and planning, and outlining the case studies we are/have undertaken where scientific knowledge is changing how natural hazard risk is mitigated. Read part two here.

Quite rightly, people in the natural hazards sector hold science in high regard. Scientific research is crucial to predicting and preparing for events whose behaviours and occurrence are both high consequence and highly uncertain. As such, it is unsurprising that government agencies often emphasise their commitment to having ‘science-led’ policies. But the routes between science, policy and planning are complex and variable. What is clear is that there is no simple relationship between having ‘more’ science and ‘less’ uncertainty, or that more or less of either leads to action (the relationship between scientific research and climate change policy are prime examples of this). I could list dozens of reasons why the interface between science, policy and practice does not run smoothly, but let us just focus briefly on two.

First, science is a diverse world of knowledge and, as such, it is ripe for debate. Whether it is scientists, politicians, policymakers or others having the conversation, there are always other theories, technologies and pieces of evidence to consider. The fact that the research process is open-ended, in which uncertainties can often be reduced by not resolved, means there are often abundant reasons to delay decisions about how to proceed.

Second, there are many obstacles to integrating science within government agencies, not the least of which are resource constraints. Other factors of institutional culture also influence how, and if, new research is utilised.

None of this is anyone’s fault - they are simply the conditions in which we operate. In the Scientific Diversity, Scientific Uncertainty and Risk Mitigation Policy and Planning project the research team is looking at three case studies where scientific knowledge is changing how natural hazard risk is mitigated. The driving questions of the project are about the science, policy and practice interface. Given that uncertainty is an inherent part of scientific practice and method, for example, how do those engaged in risk mitigation manage these uncertainties in their decision-making? What do practitioners think are the keys to bringing new scientific knowledge in? What else is in play beyond the given technical innovation? We have been very fortunate to find some great partners in the sector interested in understanding more about this space. Our aim is that this project will support the capacity of practitioners to explain and justify what they do to others, whether those others are other risk mitigation professionals, the public, the media, or courts and inquiry processes.

In each case study we begin by interviewing practitioners in the area to gain an understanding from them of how science and other forms of knowledge inform their work and what they feel are the key issues and uncertainties that they face. We then hold a workshop to discuss these factors using scenario exercises where practitioners are given different scenarios, or predictions, of what the area they work in might be like in 20 years time. Understandably, people who work in the natural hazards sector are often focused upon the immediate context: what is going to happen this season? What is happening in the community this year? A scenario exercise is a good way to move outside these parameters to think, in this case, about longer trends, how we are going to prepare for these futures, and how science can and should inform these preparations. So far, we have held workshops for two case studies, one in the Barwon-Otway area of south west Victoria and one in the Greater Darwin area of the Northern Territory – both looking at fire risk. A third case study on flooding is to be conducted this year. More on the case studies in my next post.

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