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Gamba grass-infested country near Batchelor, Northern Territory, August 2015.

The social life of policy and planning

Quiet rightly, people in the natural hazards sector hold science in high regard. Scientific research is crucial to predicting and preparing for events where behaviors are unpredictable and where consequences are high. 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 is a prime example of this). I could list dozens of reasons why the interface between science, policy and practice does not run smoothly, but let us focus briefly on two.

First, science is a diverse world of knowledge and as such, it is ripe for debate, whether by scientists, politicians, policy-makers or others. The fact that the research process is open-ended, in which uncertainties can often be reduced but 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 is 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 at the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, 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 understand from them 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 on 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.

Victorian case study

To tell you a little about these case studies, let me start in Victoria. For the past several years, the Barwon–Otway area has been the site of a pilot, led by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, to test an alternative strategy to mitigate bushfire risk. To simplify, the risk-based strategy involves, first, generating loss estimates from suites of bushfires simulated within PHOENIX RapidFire (a 2D bushfire simulator) and, second, comparing asset losses between those suites. This might involve, for example, simulating fires under worst case (i.e. Black Saturday) weather conditions, in which:

  1. no planned or unplanned fires have occurred for several decades,
  2. all public land has been prescribed burnt, and
  3. some accidental fires and some prescribed burning have occurred.

Given the model’s ability to predict house losses from the intensity of each fire, the three suites can therefore be compared to reveal the benefit of fire in the landscape and the residual risk that remains.

A more complex arrangement, also trialled, compares multiple asset losses across multiple suites, each comprising thousands of simulations using random ignition and weather scenarios. In short, it is a system for calculating bushfire risk and measuring the benefits (or not) of intervening in the landscape.

Of course, some things fit into modelling better than others. One of the primary drivers of risk management anywhere is reducing losses of human life. But human behaviour – particularly human behaviour in rare and extreme events – does not map well onto algorithms. The practitioners we have met have often stressed the importance of pairing advanced tools such as PHOENIX with professional experience, local knowledge and interpersonal trust.

The Victorian Government has announced that it would be moving to this risk-based strategy (also known as Bushfire Risk Landscapes) across the state in mid-2016. This is a “brave and positive step,” to quote Dr Trent Penman, a bushfire behaviour expert and colleague in the CRC from the University of Melbourne. It moves away from the existing focus on burning a percentage (5%) of public lands each year to reduce the risk to life, property and the environment. The hope of the research team is that our work with fire, land and emergency managers in the Barwon–Otway area will provide some insight into one of the key steps in this policy transformation and the new questions it has raised for practitioners.

Once agencies have a new level of information about where risk lies in the landscape, and the benefit and potential of mitigation, what is the best strategy for passing that information on to the wider public? While, as Eburn and Handmer argue (2012, p. 19), there “is no legal impediment to releasing reasonably accurate hazard information,” there are clear disincentives to freely releasing information that is highly complex and has the potential to be reused in negative ways.

Gamba grass burns hotter and faster than native grasses and is increasing fuel loads around Darwin. There is a big focus on mitigating the risk, but fires fuelled by gamba are beginning to claim houses and other assets.

Gamba grass burns hotter and faster than native grasses and is increasing fuel loads around Darwin. There is a big focus on mitigating the risk, but fires fuelled by gamba are beginning to claim houses and other assets.

Northern Territory case study

The Northern Territory is quite a different case from ‘down south’, as Territorians often point out, although it also presents interesting parallels in natural hazard management. As part of the tropical savannah, the Greater Darwin area has an annual bushfire season in which approximately 40% of the total area is typically burnt. Every year, as the wet season subsides around April, bushfire practitioners burn off the new grass with the aim of reducing fuel loads during the late dry season.

Unlike ‘down south,’ this abundance of fire in the landscape is widely accepted as part of Territory life and its environment. However, several trends in the Greater Darwin area are now changing the bushfire risk and its mitigation.

One primary driver in this situation is gamba grass, a pasture species introduced in the 1970s and 1980s that grows into tall, thick and flammable plants if not grazed intensively. Gamba grass is very invasive and has, over the past decade, turned parts of the Greater Darwin area to monoculture, creating high fuel loads that, in the right conditions, produce up to eight times more heat that native grassfires.

Another driver of change is the increased level of subdivision and housing development surrounding Darwin, as areas such as Palmerston and Litchfield take up some of the city’s population pressure. Bushfires, previously understood as a minor risk in the Northern Territory, are beginning to claim houses and other assets in the areas infested with gamba grass.

Our work with practitioners has given us a new understanding of how crucial science and practitioners have been to understanding this risk and responding to it through policy and planning. For example, demonstrating the characteristics of gamba grass, tracking its progress, and illustrating its economic and environmental costs have all been necessary in attracting the attention of policy-makers and the public in the Northern Territory, a place in which budgets are routinely strained and fire management is not – for various reasons – a top government priority.

Research has examined different burning scenarios around the Otway Ranges in Victoria to assess future bushfire risk.

Research has examined different burning scenarios around the Otway Ranges in Victoria to assess future bushfire risk.

Next case study

Our third and final case study is hoping to draw links between the different contexts we have engaged with. What is clear is that scientific research, whether in a laboratory or a landscape, is never simply technical. Neither is there a single stable entity we might call ‘science’; it is instead, as van Kerkhoff and Lebel state (2006, p. 454), “permeable, changeable and contestable”. As such, the ways in which decision-makers and practitioners integrate and use science is a thoroughly social question, shaped by the capacities and affordances of the contexts in which they operate. While it is important to continue to place a high value on scientific research in the natural hazards sector, it is also important to remember that this research is embedded in social dynamics and social networks – a ‘social life’ which we are, at present, only beginning to understand.

For more information, go to www.bnhcrc.com.au



  1. Eburn M and Handmer J. Legal issues and information on natural hazards. Local Government Law Journal. 2012;17: 19–26.
  2. van Kerkhoff L and Lebel L. Linking knowledge and action for sustainable development. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 20016; 31: 445–477.
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Timothy Neale is a researcher at the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC and Western Sydney University.

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