Friday, 20 January 2012

Whither Science? Professor Emerita Diane Bell and the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists

The article below is from my friend Diane Bell.   Diane is:


Professor Emerita of Anthropology
The George Washington University
Washington DC USA 20052

Writer and Editor in Residence
Flinders University SA 5001

Visiting Professor 
School of Social Studies
University of Adelaide SA 5055

Whither Science?
‘The draft Plan released for public comment by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority on the 28 November 2011 does not provide the most basic information required to allow anybody to make an informed decision on the future management of the water resources of the Basin.’
So begins the withering critique of the MDBA draft Plan by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists (WGCS) in what should be essential reading for anyone concerned with the future of the Murray-Darling Basin, the communities and economies that rely on a healthy river. But, I would venture, it is also essential reading for those concerned with the quality of democracy in Australia. The Plan, after all, is to manage the MDB in the national interest.

In advocating that this draft Plan be withdrawn, the WGCS examine five fundamental pieces of environmental information necessary for a credible Basin Plan.

1.  The water regime that the best available science says is required for a healthy working river;
2.  The cost and feasibility of overcoming river management infrastructure constraints so that environmental flows can be delivered downstream;
3.  The impact of increased groundwater extractions on surface water flows (and vice versa), recognising that many groundwater systems in the Basin are directly linked to the river systems;
4.  Accounting for the risk to river health from climate change when setting long-term diversion limits; and
5.  The volume and frequency of flows that are required to keep the Murray mouth open during times of drought and to discharge salt from the Basin.
With respect to each point, the WGCS finds the draft is fatally flawed. For instance, while endorsing the MDBA methodology that identifies 122 hydrological sites across the Basin and the focus on 18 indicator sites for detailed analysis, the WGCS points out that the draft only addresses 4 of the 18 and even then the information is incomplete and there is no information as to the level of extractions required to satisfy the stated objective of the draft Plan.
With respect to the assertion that 2,750 GL will deliver an open Murray mouth nine years in ten, the WGCS notes the draft Plan fails to say how and whether this will satisfy the objects of the Water Act. And where is the discussion of how 2,750 GL will achieve the flushing of the 2 million tonnes of salt that accumulates each year from the MDB out to sea?
The WGCS states that no scientific reasons are given for doubling groundwater allocations. What sense are we to make of three year, $ 5 million CSIRO research project that recommended groundwater extractions be reduced? And I would add: What of the argument of Professor Craig Simmons, Director, National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training, that groundwater will be a major determinant of Australia’s future as the climate warms and our population swells?

How could it be that after so many years, reports, research and reviews, we have come to this pass? Why, rather than defend and refine the existing peer-reviewed science of the October 2010 Guide did the MDBA start again with ‘new science’? Why have the repeated calls of environmental groups, the CSIRO, and the WGCS for independent, transparent and comprehensive peer reviews of the ‘science’ fallen on deaf ears?
In part it seems Craig Knowles, the MDBA Chair, sees the scientific community as offering one view of many in a power play of diametric opposed opinions. When the WGCS walked away from the process in May 2011, Knowles reportedly said: ‘The Wentworth Group clearly have a lot of skin in this game and they're trying to make their position known and stronger and I guess that's their right.’ Of their critique of the draft Plan, he noted their views were well known. His refrain: ‘All views will be considered as part of the consultation period.’
But this is not an exercise in relativism. Some ‘views’ carry more weight than others. In developing the Plan, the Water Act 2007 sets the bar as ‘the best available scientific knowledge and socio-economic analysis’.
What then are we to make of the charge from the WGCS that the draft ‘manipulates science in an attempt to engineer a pre-determined political outcome'? Can science be practiced under political conditions that pertain? If not, what is to be done? To whom is the MDBA accountable? What recourse do we have as citizens if the Plan is an inadequate basis for informed decision-making? $10 billion of taxpayers’ money is in play. Will we insist that the MDBA deliver a scientifically credible Plan for the nation or are we beguiled by the tug-of-war metaphor?
Professor Diane Bell has published ten books 
and numerous articles. Her current anthropological research 
is amongst the peoples she calls the ‘Water Tribe’. 
Front Cover 

PLEASE NOTE: Miss Eagle has a companion blog to The Network titled Rivers Research.  There is a lot of stuff on Rivers - particularly the Murray-Darling Basin and documents relating to the Proposed Plan for the Murray-Darling Basin - there. 


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