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Dam Your Food Bowl

February 9, 2010

Yesterday I wrote about the new report on the viability of a “Top-End Food Bowl” in Australia.
The idea is to convert large swaths of land in the north to farm land, thus replacing the output lost from the (permanently?) drought-stricken Murray-Darling basin. As you can imagine, this promising idea has major implications for economic development in the region, as well as the country’s ability to deal with climate change.  The new report seems to put the kibosh on the idea, but the debate is clearly not over.

This is turning into a useful example of the role of science in providing technical advice on a difficult policy issue. It is remarkable that, so far, we can see relatively clear distinctions being drawn between values and science as the debate proceeds. It is common to bury arguments over values underneath hard-fought battles over the validity of scientific studies.

Coverage in The Australian today reveals a number of concerns on the part of some participants. But these do not quarrel with the scientific conclusions regarding water availability in the North. They relate to the values framework within which the final conclusions were made. For example:

“The report is lightweight with a political focus towards green and indigenous issues,” Senator Macdonald said.

This does not reflect an argument about the science behind the report’s findings, but instead about agreed-upon values that structure the science-based response. For some, the failure to consider dams as an option is simply a reflection of environmental values that marginalize particular groups:

Nationals leader and Coalition regional development spokesman Warren Truss said the report drastically understated possible development, in part because “people with dreams were pushed aside” when the incoming Rudd government changed the make-up of the taskforce…

The accusation relates to the values of those who prepared the report, not the validity of the data that informed it. Perhaps this has something to do with the relative openness with which CSIRO seems to have approached their “science review” (which was commissioned to inform the final report). As they put it in the opening section:

This report reflects … diversity. The 71 contributing authors and their sources have brought with them their particular expertise and, as people are wont to, their partialities and peccadilloes. The editors have not sought to conceal these; they are safer when exposed to light. Where interpretation exists, it is accompanied with information or data gathered from cited and accessible literature. Drawing from this, readers can make their own, perhaps divergent, interpretations. Needless to say, the views of the authors are their own, and not those of their respective employers.

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