Lessons from CERF & NERP
Transdisciplinary research, involving close collaboration between researchers and the users of research, has been a feature of environmental problem solving for several decades, often spurred by the need to find negotiated outcomes to intractable problems. In 2005, the Australian Government allocated funding through its environment portfolio for public good research, which resulted in consecutive four-year programmes (Commonwealth Environmental Research Facilities, CERF; and National Environmental Research Program, NERP). In April 2014, representatives of the funders, researchers and research users associated with these programmes met to reflect on eight years of experience with these collaborative research models.
This structured reflection concluded that successful multi-institutional transdisciplinary research is necessarily a joint enterprise between funding agencies, researchers and the end users of research. The design and governance of research programmes need to explicitly recognise shared accountabilities among the participants, while respecting the different perspectives of each group.
Experience shows that traditional incentive systems for academic researchers, current trends in public sector management, and loose organisation of many end users, work against sustained transdisciplinary research on intractable problems, which require continuity and adaptive learning by all three parties. The likelihood of research influencing and improving environmental policy and management is maximised when researchers, funders and research users have shared goals; there is sufficient continuity of personnel to build trust and sustain dialogue throughout the research process from issue scoping to application of findings; and there is sufficient flexibility in the funding, structure and operation of transdisciplinary research initiatives to enable the enterprise to assimilate and respond to new knowledge and situations.
Campbell CA, EC Lefroy, S Caddy-Retalic, N Bax, PJ Doherty, MM Douglas, D Johnson, HP Possingham, A Specht, D Tarte & J West (2015). Designing environmental research for impact. Science of the total environment doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.11.089 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969714016830
Strength in diversity
An excerpt from Campbell et al, 2015
The ability of the five NERP hubs to respond to the needs and interests of their research users meant that they evolved subtly different structures and modus operandi. Three had a strong and extensive geographic focus: the Tropical Ecosystems Hub focused on the Great Barrier Reef, its rainforest hinterland and the Torres Strait; the Marine Biodiversity Hub focused on Australia’s marine territory; and the Northern Australian Biodiversity Hub focused on Northern Australian aquatic and terrestrial systems. These foci largely determined their research users and stakeholder groups, and resulted in a combination of bottom-up self-organisation around specific research issues and top-down coordination to resource and deliver large, complex research programmes.
The Environmental Decisions hub worked in partnership with a wide range of research users in the public and private sectors across the country, identifying discrete research topics through focused workshops after which small teams worked with end users on projects of varying duration from several months to several years.
The Landscapes and Policy hub identified several regions as case studies, with biophysical and social researchers working in interdependent teams on questions defined by the management agencies in each region.
While the NERP hubs were all selected against the same national prospectus and funded by the same government agency against the same overall objectives, guidelines and accountability measures, it is notable that each developed in quite different ways. All now have distinct and markedly different identities and modus operandi, yet the recent evaluation found each to be effective against both hub and programme level objectives. This suggests that there is no single ‘magic bullet’ formula for designing a successful collaborative applied environmental research programme. Rather, programme design, management structure and research practice should respond to the specific ecosystem/issue, mix of stakeholders and end users and the nature of their knowledge needs, cognizant of the history of research investment in that context.
An independent evaluation of NERP
Excerpt from NERP mid term evaluation (2014)
This evaluation found that the program has been effective in meeting its objective in several key areas, most notably in informing national park planning and operations, and also across several high profile Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) responsibilities. The survey undertaken as part of the evaluation identified that a significant proportion of end-users, both in the Environment portfolio and other stakeholders, consider that the following have been the three major achievements from the NERP:
- improved capacity of decision-makers, policy developers and environmental managers to connect with researchers and make the most of research outputs;
- improved capacity of researchers to meet environmental decision-makers’ needs; and
- improved knowledge of biodiversity or the functioning of ecosystems.
Spencer C, P McVay & S Sheridan (2014). Evaluation of the National Environmental Research Program (NERP). http://www.environment.gov.au/science/nerp/publications/evaluation-nerp