Issues Magazine

Disasters – Yesterday’s Salinity Issue: Grist or Grit for the Science Integration Mill?

Issues 78: Disasters

Issues 78: Disasters

By Richard Price

As salinity researchers have learnt, many funding programs in science move at speeds and in trajectories that leave the performers of science in their wake, with integration the last hope for survival.

In 2007, Issues published an article on the threat of salinity by hydrogeologist and good friend Dr Ken Lawrie. He outlined the nature and causes of salinity, its then current and projected manifestations, and the great strides that had been made in developing and implementing solutions to what was once viewed as an enormous economic and environmental threat.

Dr Lawrie concluded that drought and climate change had lessened the threat for the foreseeable future, perchance buying time to develop more integrated solutions that would deal with the social and economic considerations often central to environmental ones. The threat of salinity may have been temporarily checked by drought and climate change, but its return is inevitable, Dr Lawrie warned.

In being asked to update Dr Lawrie’s contribution I am left to wonder: has time been bought to find these integrated solutions or has it merely provided the space for the issue to be forgotten whiles limited attention spans look elsewhere?

In exploring such a question, one very quickly finds that salinity research is sharing a similar fate to that of other scientific endeavours in the context of the broad array of environmental issues society seeks to resolve. As such, salinity provides an excellent example of the fate of research programs when funding moves on to deal with the next big issue.

A Brief Update

Despite rapid advances in technology, five years is not a long time in the world of many of the sciences, including those associated with salinity research. Ironically then, the norm for most research contracts in Australia seems to be one to three years. In the US, the average federally funded R&D contract lasts around 39 months. One hardly needs to be politically astute to observe that these two timeframes fall neatly within the respective three- and four-year life cycles of the Australian and US administrations.

That aside, and given the Australian average, one could easily assume that in the five-year period since Dr Lawrie’s article was published, many salinity R&D projects would have seen out full life cycles, from conception to completion. The reality is somewhat different.

Having been a prominent hub of scientific pursuit for much of the 1990s and the early 2000s, by 2007 the issue of salinity was becoming passé in Australia. The National Dryland Salinity Program, which had commenced in 1993, was wound up in 2004, having expended somewhere around $50 million in basic and applied research. Since then, the Australian Government’s $1.4 billion National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality, initiated in 2001, came to fruition in 2008, while NSW’s Salt Action Plan, Victoria’s Salinity Management Framework and Western Australia’s Salinity Investment Framework, among other states’ programs, also came to pass.

This is not to say that salinity science funding has dried up altogether, although this is not far from the truth; it simply draws attention to overt expressions by various governments that salinity no longer warrants iconic investment level status. Priorities have changed and the “moving forward” button has been pressed.

Nor does it indicate that governments are no longer willing to support science programs of iconic stature in the environmental and natural resource management space. During the same period, for example, the Australian Government and most state governments launched impressive research initiatives addressing climate change.

What is clear is that growth in knowledge about salinity in the Australian context has basically been put on hold while other priorities are addressed within the constraints of limited science budgets. Making such decisions easier are assumptions that much of the knowledge needed to manage salinity exists and simply needs to be packaged and integrated into natural resource management practice.

Why the change? Did salinity science run its natural course having settled upon the understandings and solutions it needed to develop? Alternatively, was it made redundant by the manifestations of climate change, including lower rainfall in salinity-prone regions resulting in less groundwater recharge and less rising salt? Or has salinity science simply suffered the growing social and political phenomenon of issue fatigue, a factor already eroding the status of climate change science and action?

Certainly by 2007 the dominant discourse among salinity scientists was that their time had passed. Indeed, in 2008 the second and most likely final International Salinity Forum seemed to many of its 700 participants to provide a venue for the administration of last rights to a moribund salinity research fraternity.

Integration to the Rescue?

Salinity science is not the first to have basked in the limelight of being “the next big thing”. Other environmental issues have experienced something akin to a meteoric rise in profile followed by a shower of funding and then an imprecise slide into redundancy and foreclosure. Soil conservation, acidification and sustainable irrigation sciences are among some fields that have bid adieu to their heydays during, roughly speaking, the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s respectively. Yet Australia still experiences periodic soil erosion, inexorably acidifying sub-soils and spasmodic adaptation among many irrigators to managing with less available water.

The assumption is that integrated research and integrated management programs will pick these issues up within the wider context of their broader geographic cause and effect, their biophysical inter-relationships and their managerial problem-solving and decision-making frameworks. In the case of salinity, another assumption is that we must learn to live with it; accepting the equivalent of an adaptation strategy rather than a mitigation one.

The efficacy of the integration assumption rests on the premises that there exists the capacity of science, scientists and science funding to pursue inter-related topics in a way that delivers on the rhetoric of integration. Translating these premises into salinity-speak, the hope is that we have a good landscape-scale understanding of how salinity relates to other environmental phenomena, that we know where adaptation versus mitigation is the right strategy in the context of managing several phenomena, and that we have the means to ensure that the right people are acting the right way in the right places to deal not only with these collective phenomena but also with their social and economic dimensions.

Certainly, research has made ground in these areas, thanks largely to the Future Farming Systems Cooperative Research Centre and advances in remote sensing applications. The science funds to keep these advances going, however, have all but dried up.

Notwithstanding the proliferation of inter-disciplinary, multi-organisational and cooperative research institutions over the past two decades, and notwithstanding the growing number of issues that are now expected to be researched as components of integrated science, it is not hard to contend that the political, managerial and administrative machinations of science funding continue to favour addressing issues through narrow disciplinary investigation.

If so, is integrated science little more than a convenient home through which to pension out yesterday’s research issues? Or is it truly the best way forward?

Integration is important and will be more so in future. The challenges for environmental research are no longer simply about resolving diametrically opposed stresses represented through conflicts such as production wealth versus environment health, community expectations versus farmers’ rights, urban growth versus rural values and regionalisation versus centralised governance. Although these struggles remain, they now embed a more complex entanglement of discords: environment versus environment (e.g. trade-offs between plantation forestry benefits and potentially reduced environmental flows); one form of production versus another (e.g. conflicts between farming and mining); rural versus rural (e.g. trade-offs between water allocation for growing rural towns and water to maintain large irrigation industries); and empowerment versus subsidiarity in managing environments locally (i.e. balancing the incentives of trust and the transaction costs of accountability).

Dealing with these conflicts is all grist for the environmental research mill; however, each conflict carries with it the grit of ethical dimensions as well as economic, biophysical and other social research ones. Such challenges do not suit research funding mechanisms, which have tended to deal with more narrowly defined issues. The competitive nature of research funding often acts to reinforce this constricted focus so that projects can be neatly categorised into administrative systems and can demonstrate that they have low-risk methods and feasible outputs that are easily peer-reviewed by disciplinary-based panels.

Moreover, in the midst of centralist risk-averse governance regimes, the range of research priorities tends to get contracted into narrow, manageable themes that are easy to account against, while the demand for research performers to attract complementary (matching) research funding sources helps ensure these narrow themes pervade the wider research funding infrastructure. This phenomenon has been observed in Europe where each change in European Union Framework Programme research priorities is followed by a corresponding shift in the wider research activities of research institutions, both public and private.

And it happens in Australia too, making the establishment of truly integrated scientific programs very difficult.

Perhaps then, the real issue is this: it is one thing for government to suggest that issues such as salinity ought to be picked up by programs of integrated activity, but it’s something altogether different to have the infrastructure, managerial capacity and scientific methods to make the post-transition state work successfully.

Pursuing Which Integrated Big Picture?

One of the reasons integration is advocated as the solution to many environmental problems is it apparently addresses the bigger picture; a picture that presumably takes into account the many dimensions of conflicts such as those already discussed in this article. But what if there are many big pictures attributed to any one issue or set of issues, which in a pluralistic society is inevitably the case? Even within the scientific community there may be many big pictures advanced that reflect different frames, canvasses, brushes and oils with which multi-dimensional issues are painted.

In a paper presented in 2003 at the Ninth National Conference on Productive Use and Rehabilitation of Saline Lands, I reflected on four very different big pictures that had been painted by four very different delegates at the previous conference. Each delegate was convinced that their big picture provided the logical overarching framework for dealing with the multifarious dimensions of salinity research. The paper, titled “My Big Picture’s Bigger than Your Big Picture”, went on to discuss different philosophical approaches to defining the salinity problem (see box opposite). The simple message presented was that, depending on the perspective taken, the approach to the solution will differ.

Despite accusations that the paper (and author) were anti-science, nothing could be further from the truth; it simply highlighted a reality that diverse sectoral groups come to the problem definition table with the different tools, sometimes compatible, sometimes not, of dissimilar perspectives and big pictures. This is a major challenge for those designing integrated science programs and can either breathe new life into particular fields or mean their kiss of death when the integration occurs.

None of this eliminates the need for rigorous science, but it inevitably means that its role and timing become a negotiated process exposed to the exigencies of, and fluxes in, interest group activism and political reactivism. Both of these forces can move at speeds and in trajectories that leave the institutional structures, administrative mechanisms, disciplinary methods and potential contributions of science in their wake.

Is Evidence-Based Policy Killing Successful Integration?

In this new millennium, the matters discussed here are also contextualised by the pursuit of evidence-based policy. In most instances, this concept is applied to mean a rigorous and formal research basis for directing financial, institutional, policy or regulatory attention towards any particular issue. The evidence-based policy mantra is now universal across western democracies, no doubt because of its incontrovertible appeal; any alternative would seem nonsensical.

In reality, evidence-based policy is contested because the very nature of evidence is contested. This is not simply because different forms of evidence are derived from different philosophical approaches but also because, as British studies certainly suggest, there appears to be a hierarchy of evidence in terms of perceived credibility, with lay forms of evidence coming down the hierarchy. In the context of many environmental issues, this hierarchy gets messy because of interest group activism and political reactivism, and because of inherent uncertainties in the science due to the complexity of the issues.

Dealing with environmental complexity and the associated uncertainties is a central theme for resilience research. Choices in community action can lessen imminent threats to the resilience of nature but often action must be pursued in the absence of complete knowledge; regrettably, the availability of good science and the need to act do not always coincide.

Fortunately, many of the features of resilience at work in nature are also features of community resilience. These factors include the capacity to self-organise, learn, adapt and cope with non-linearities and uncertainties, all of which are important elements in dealing with multiple problems and the challenge of integration. Responding through trial, error and adaptation has been the hallmark of human innovation for millennia. The role for science in informing each step of adaptation, with feedback from adaptation defining the next challenge for science, is a critical part of an effective adaptive management process in the modern era. It is a critical part of integration, and integration is a critical part of it.

Unfortunately, the fluid nature of these concepts can be at odds with what constitutes good evidence from a public policy perspective, with the result that the pursuit of developing integrated environmental solutions through adaptive management embedded into formal programs of science is rare.

Worse, despite governments’ expectations that yesterday’s issues such as salinity should be incorporated into integrated frameworks, most of these frameworks are born from concepts of accounting and reporting and do not have the level of sophistication required to adequately address uncertainty. Too often in science funding circles, an investment in uncertainty equates to an investment in uncertain outcomes – which exposes an investment to political risk.

In an era of political risk avoidance, the notion of adaptive governance as a means of facilitating adaptive and integrated management appears remote.

Partial Total Recall

Salinity has not disappeared from all Australian landscapes, and nor has the risk of further salinisation in future. Dr Lawrie’s article concluded by stating that the future management of Australia’s saline landscapes requires many different skills, many of which are in short supply and which will remain so for the foreseeable future. One skill he did not include in his extensive list, but which is desperately needed, is scientific entrepreneurship. Not entrepreneurship in a narrowly defined commercial sense, but entrepreneurship in the sense of the capacity to manage uncertainty and transform diverse human endeavour into collective and integrated investigation, learning and adaptation.

Turning everyone into generalists is not the solution to environmental or other problems; that is not true integration in that it does not recognise the value of connecting different specialist scientific disciplines and knowledge or even different specialist lay experience and knowledge.

Ultimately, throwing unresolved issues to the integration mill as we sequentially embrace the next big issue can equate to turning our backs on problems that might one day return to haunt us. Unless, of course, we build strong mills capable of adequately dealing with the multi-dimensional challenges that society faces. This should not be seen as a political risk.