Beautifully written opinion piece in The Age this weekend from Julianne Schultz, reflecting on the ridiculous debacle of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission’s “draft framework” where, you’ll recall, the agency followed the following script:

1) Let’s propose huge reductions in water allocation to scores of Murray-Darling Basin communities reeling after decades of drought.

2) Let’s proclaim ourselves for our exemplary science.

3) Then, let’s travel to these communities to “consult” on a document that’s already fully written.

4) Wonder why everyone hates us.

Those of you with a memory for these things will recall the almost identical debacle in 2006 over the plan for drinking recycled water in Toowoomba, and, for that matter, the endless impasse over native vegetation management laws.

Ms Schultz writes:

“The scientific and environmental research was exemplary, but the glaring gap in the voluminous report was of research that used the full range of tools of the humanities and social sciences, research that engaged with people, that drew on historical and international precedents, that explored the detail of local differences, the psychological response to change, the economic consequences and opportunities, resilience and fear. Research that enabled the progressive leaders dotted throughout these towns to imagine and articulate a different future, research that put the environmental issues in human terms, and helped maintain a place for the people who know and love the lands of the basin.”

Yes, it’s true that experts from the humanities and social sciences barely participate in environmental policy making in Australia, or environmental anything for that matter. The field is dominated by smart, well-meaning people with environmental science degrees. I know this because I’ve trained hundreds of environmental managers in the basics of social science, which they welcome like parched explorers sighting an oasis.

However I’m not sure that appending voluminous social science studies to yet another “draft framework” is going to solve the crisis in the Murray-Darling.

How about this: sit down with these communities. Lay a blank sheet of paper on the table and say “We have a problem. Let’s figure out the path forward together.”

Here are four generalisations that are pretty close to the truth:

1) Every authority on community engagement will tell you that sharing power to affected publics is the only way to avoid outrage in situations like this. See, for instance, Peter Sandman’s work

2) Scientists are incapable of sharing power with the public. They don’t get that, in the human world, there are multiple valid versions of the truth. They are impatient and often contemptuous at lay peoples’ truths. Yet, in Ms Schultz words, “The non-specialists who live in these towns wanted everyone to know that they had something to add, and that in the era of connectivity they expected their hard-won expertise to be considered.”

3) The automatic reaction of scientists to any problem is to carry out more research.

4) In Australia, we have allowed scientists to dominate policy-making in land and water management. That’s why we so much research and so much outrage.

Scientists are brilliant servants but terrible masters. The simple answer is – don’t put them in charge. The solution to these complex, intractable problems is not about truth, it is about process: process that includes the people affected and relegates scientists to the role they are best at – expert advisors. And, I hate to say it, it’s a good idea to have a subtle and seasoned politician in charge of these processes, someone, in fact, just like Craig Knowles, recently appointed to Chair the Murray Darling Basin Commission in a canny move by the Australian Government.…