13 November 2010

Here we go again – doubts about the science

If there is one thing I have learned in forty years in public policy it is that raising “doubts about the science”, as well as being the first resort of the naïf, is the first, second and final resort of the scoundrel. They teach it in Defending Vested Interests 101.

So here we go again; there is a report entitled Holes in science of Murray plan in today’s edition of The Weekend Australian (see here) which informs us that:

In technical volumes published with the guide, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority said the complexity of hydrologic modelling made it difficult to consider a large range of scenarios on sustainable diversion limits in a timely way. Hydrologic models have been developed for all major rivers in the basin in conjunction with the states and the CSIRO.

"Overall, about 80 per cent of current surface water use under current diversion limits in the basin is explicitly represented in the hydrologic modelling framework," the guide says.

The technical volume concedes the authority had developed another analytic tool to examine the numerous water flow scenarios in a timely way as it developed recommendations on diversion limits.

In response to this

NFF chief executive Ben Fargher said he would challenge how the plan had identified environmental assets for protection and the modelling for environmental water requirements.

"They are saying because of the complexity of all the hydrological models it has been difficult for them to do the modelling, and so they've used analytical tools," he said. "We are not confident in that. In our view it is not robust, not good enough and we are going to challenge it."

NSW Irrigators Council chief executive Andrew Gregson said the guide's modelling "has holes in it" and the authority needed to be 100 per cent certain, given the enormous ramifications for the communities along the river.

Never mind that Wentworth Group Chief Executive Peter Cosier says that the science underpinning the analysis is “some of the best in the world”, and that MDBA itself says that the 20 per cent of water flows not represented in hydrologic models would not affect recommendations about water allocations or environmental flows because it had been accounted for by an additional analytic tool. If you are not “100% certain”, there are “doubts about the science”.

Where have we heard this before?

The example of climate change is too obvious to need labouring, but I mention it here for the record. If you cannot tell me the exact date on which the last glacier in the Himalayas will disappear completely, there are “doubts about the science”. Of course the central question is, as Professor Ross Garnaut reminded us in his Cunningham Lecture at the Academy of Social Sciences on 9 November, what if the mainstream science is right?

Another area in which “doubts about the science” is a constant refrain is the area of quarantine risk assessment, as I discovered in 1996-97 when I was Secretary, Department of Primary Industries and Energy and, ex officio, Director of Quarantine, the person who exercises all the statutory powers relating to plant and animal quarantine.

Australia has treaty obligations under the World Trade Organisation’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement not to use quarantine measures as a barrier to trade: we are obliged to work on the basis of a scientific assessment of the quarantine risk.  The quarantine risk assessment is not an on-off switch yielding an answer as to whether we will or will not permit imports; it is intended to establish the basis on which the risks can be managed, while allowing trade to take place, with imports being prohibited only in the cases that present a very high risk of unacceptable consequences.

In my experience, just about every time we put out a draft report for industry comment the comment was that we had got the science wrong.  When we responded that the assessment had been undertaken by an independent panel of scientific experts we were told that they were the wrong experts and that they weren’t independent because at some stage in the past they had undertaken work for someone who, it was alleged, had a vested interest in the outcome of this enquiry.

We decided to overcome these endless scraps about the independence of the scientists and the quality of the science by introducing new procedures under which we would consult the relevant primary industry sectors about the panels we proposed to appoint for any given quarantine risk assessment, in the interests of clearing away any issues about the appointees before the work was done.

I then led a round of consultations with the various industry associations to brief them on the proposed new procedures and obtain their reaction. 

Most of these bodies were mature and constructive in their response to the proposals, but some of the most passionate resisters to import competition were utterly recalcitrant.  Most notable of these was the Grains Council of Australia, with which there was a long-running issue about the importation of feed grains.

When I started to outline the proposed new procedures to them the leader of their delegation cut me off with a question: “What are the appeal provisions?” I suggested that he might like to hear about the procedures before discussing what remedies were available if the industry felt that the assessment had not been conducted appropriately.

“I am not interested in the procedures, just in the appeal provisions”, he replied.  When I asked how come, he replied with words to the effect that “you people” will lie and cheat your way to whatever outcome you want, “so I am only interested in the appeal provisions”.

Leaving aside the offensiveness of his conduct, his bottom line was that he was not going to compromise the Grains Councils’ ability to say that we had got the science wrong by getting drawn into the process of agreeing on a suitable panel to conduct a quarantine risk assessment.

So when you hear someone say "there are doubts about the science", reach for a lump of 4"x2".

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