Developing science to inform policy and practice: Environmental case studies from Australia

Monkeygar swamp, part of the Ramsar wetlands in the Macquarie Marshes Nature Reserve. Photo by Debbie Love/OEH
Monkeygar swamp, part of the Ramsar wetlands in the Macquarie Marshes Nature Reserve. Photo by Debbie Love/OEH

By Dr Kate Wilson, Executive Director of Science Division, New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage, Australia

Dr Wilson contributed this article as part of our call for blogposts on conference themes. Submit your blogpost: 

Those in the industry of developing scientific knowledge to support policy development and management practices, are well aware of the challenges of timeliness and access. However, developing scientific evidence is not only about making your research relevant, accessible and communicating your findings to the desired end-users. When developing science that supports policy and practice, collaborating and co-designing research projects with the end users is key to research uptake.

The Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) in the New South Wales (NSW) government Department of Planning and Environment, in Eastern Australia, is responsible for the protection and conservation of the our state’s environment and heritage. OEH’s core purpose is “to enrich life in New South Wales by helping the community to conserve and enjoy our environment and heritage”. OEH’s vision is that “our environment and heritage is valued, protected, enjoyed and supports a prosperous NSW”.

OEH is a science-rich organisation. Our science is used to achieve OEH’s core purpose and vision. We are also the main provider of research, expert advice and technical services to the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA), and support the EPA in its core purpose: “Leading business and the community to improve their environmental performance and managing waste to deliver a healthy environment”. Our role in the Science Division is to provide transparent scientific evidence and knowledge to underpin environmental decision-making.

Developing ‘priority knowledge needs’

In 2010, OEH commenced the Knowledge Strategy, a strategic approach to collaborative knowledge generation to inform OEH and EPA priority knowledge needs. We started with Water and Wetlands and this grew to six knowledge themes: Biodiversity, Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation, Coastal, Estuarine and Marine Environments, Landscape Management, and Pollution.

Each of our knowledge themes is guided by a steering committee which includes representatives from across OEH (and EPA for the Pollution theme).

The steering committees work together to identify and review existing and emerging knowledge needs to address priorities in the OEH and EPA corporate plans and to meet the needs of customers. They develop, prioritise and evaluate our progress towards meeting our knowledge needs. These knowledge needs are captured in 5-year strategic plans. The Knowledge Strategy’s annual cycle brings the steering committees together to collaboratively review the 5-year strategic plans, and develop annual implementation plans that are reviewed every 6 months. This process ensures our research is strategic, transparent, accountable and addresses the end users need.

The Knowledge Strategy is also guiding our partnerships with universities and other scientific organisations. Major OEH programs and existing resources can meet some of the priority knowledge needs. Other priorities are aspirational and best achieved through collaboration. The Science Division leads a strategic research partnership program for OEH. Its objective is to review, strengthen and formalise strategic partnerships with research institutions to address priority knowledge needs.

Developing credible and rigorous scientific knowledge

OEH scientists assessing environmental harm or water pollutants.  Photo by Simone Pieta Vivers/OEH
OEH scientists assessing environmental harm or water pollutants. Photo by Simone Pieta Vivers/OEH

The Knowledge Strategy ensures our knowledge is strategic, timely and relevant but how to ensure our scientific evidence is credible and rigorous?

We’ve developed the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage Scientific Rigour Position Statement to ensure that all science undertaken or commissioned by OEH meets globally accepted standards for scientific rigour, from start to finish. This ensures OEH has robust scientific evidence which delivers defensible results on which to base decisions. It also prevents wasting resources on scientific work which does not meet standards of scientific rigour, and so will not deliver defensible and/or meaningful results.

The position statement outlines appropriate standards for research design, implementation (which includes ensuring data is reproducible, secure, discoverable and accessible), objective analysis and reporting of results, and peer review. This has been invaluable when delivering scientific evidence to support sensitive policy issues. The NSW EPA has also adopted the position statement.

Case Studies: Where strategic science, scientific rigour and accessibility meet

These case studies provide examples of science contributing to policy and programs, developed through the OEH Knowledge Strategy and guided by our Scientific Rigour Position Statement.

Water planning for environmental outcomes

The knowledge strategy process has strengthened communication between scientists and environmental water managers within the agency. This relationship has been formalised in an annual agreement which focuses monitoring and evaluation around priorities identified by water and wetland managers in regional NSW.

Since 2008, Science Division has documented the efficacy of environmental water management, both in the delivery of water to targeted wetlands, and in the ecological response to watering. This science has guided the deployment of OEH’s $150 million environmental water portfolio, helping water managers to build on the outcomes of the previous watering season.

A five-year review of OEH environmental water management will conclude this year, documenting the strengths and weakness of the current approach, and charting a course for improved transparency and efficiency in the years ahead.

Fine air particle composition study

The Upper Hunter Fine Particle Characterisation Study was undertaken to provide communities in parts of NSW with scientific information about the composition of atmospheric fine particles 2.5 microns and smaller in diameter in their local environment.

The Upper Hunter is a major coal mining area, with significant concern from residents about air quality. Initial results from monitoring stations established by OEH, and funded by industry, had indicated elevated particle levels in winter.

The study was designed in partnership with the NSW Environmental Protection Authority and NSW Health and in consultation with community representatives. It involved filter sampling of particles present in the atmosphere every three days for a full 12 months. The particles were analysed for chemical composition to enable attribution of likely sources. The research was undertaken by highly esteemed laboratories (ANSTO and CSIRO) and the results subject to extensive peer review.

The results showed that domestic wood heaters were a major contributor to particle pollution in winter, and supported a program to replace old wood heaters with newer models with better smoke control along with a community education program that helps householders to operate their wood fires more efficiently.

The results also indicated that a program to reduce diesel emissions from off-road vehicles would contribute significantly to pollution reduction, and the EPA is now designing such a program.

The fact that the EPA and the community were involved in the project design from inception, and the great attention paid to peer review and scientific rigour, helped the results be accepted and used by both the EPA and the community.

I’m looking forward to attending the upcoming Science Advice to Governments conference in Auckland, and wrote this article to support Panel 1: The process and systems of science advice and Panel 3: Science advice in the context of opposing political / ideological positions.