Tag Archives: public policy

public policy

Evidence-based public policy needs engineers

Engineers need to be at the top table too, says Engineers Australia CEO Peter McIntyre.

McIntyre told create it is important that governments of all persuasions move away from populist policy based on opinion rather than fact.

“There’s a trend around the world towards popularism. I don’t think that’s a constructive way for Australia or the world to move forward when there are so many challenging issues facing us,” he said.

“That’s where scientists and engineers will play a role – in supporting governments in proper policy based upon evidence.”

And there are indications that both of the major parties are willing to listen. The Federal Government has recently announced a new National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), which they say will help science and technology gain a stronger voice in the policy process.

For its part, Labor has promised to establish a Prime Minister’s Science and Innovation Council and launch a $1 million inquiry into science and research, if it wins come election time.

McIntyre supports these moves to strengthen the avenues for scientific advice, and looks forward to seeing the detail of how they will be applied. He also believes engineers need to be represented on bodies such as the NSTC to expand theory and research to deployment of practical solutions for the community.

“Where the rubber hits the road is through engineering,” he explained.

Trailing our global competitors

Another Labor election promise is to boost research funding to 3 per cent of GDP by 2030. This has been welcomed by Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson, who said Australia must keep pacewith the investments of leading world nations to remain competitive.

McIntyre agreed, pointing out that Australia’s level of research and development funding is below the OECD total of 2.3 per cent of GDP.

“We’re trailing our international competitors … As a modern community, we need to continually invest in R&D,” he said, adding that the level of funding Labor is proposing will require both public and private sector investment.

According to the latest available OECD data (from 2016), Australia’s R&D spending as a percentage of GDP has fallen below China, Slovenia and the Netherlands, although it is still slightly above the UK and Canada.

Engineering thinking is critical

McIntyre said some governments have already engaged chief scientists and engineers to help inform evidence-based policy.

The NSTC will be chaired by Commonwealth Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel, who is an engineer. Finkel is a Fellow of Engineers Australia and this year’s recipient of the country’s top engineering award: the Peter Nicol Russell Career Achievement Memorial Medal.

Several state governments also have expert advisors. NSW established a combined Chief Scientist and Engineer position a decade ago. This role is currently filled by roboticist Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte, who is also an Engineers Australia fellow.

Earlier this year, the Victorian Government followed suit, appointing its first Chief Engineer – Dr Collette Burke – to provide guidance on the state’s infrastructure boom. The ACT has also announced a permanent chief engineer position, with public servant George Tomlins as the interim incumbent. The permanent position is expected to be filled early next year.

McIntyre said he would like to see more state governments appoint chief engineers and scientists. He is also an advocate for having engineers at the “top table” in government advisory boards to lend analytical and critical thinking skills to policy discussions.

While he believes dedicated chief engineer roles are ideal, McIntyre supports combined scientist and engineer positions where budgetary or political concerns make this a more pragmatic approach.

“The critical thing to my mind is there is an opportunity to channel engineering thinking and the concerns of engineers through a senior person at the table in government,” McIntyre said.

This article was originally published on create as “Election time: Evidence-based policy needs engineers to be at the table”.

water sensitivity

Water sensitivity can be achieved in Australia

Featured image above: Achieving greater water sensitivity in Australia is possible if the community is engaged in water management strategies, says a recent report.

Has pursuit of the Australian dream – house and garden on the quarter-acre block – led to unsustainable water consumption? While our population grows and climate change renders rainfall less reliable, millions of backyards in our sprawling cities continue to drink thirstily from increasingly scarce water resources.

But it is possible to adapt our suburbs to become more water sensitive, argues Associate Professor Seamus O’Hanlon, co-author of ‘Water, history and the Australian city: Urbanism, suburbanism and water in a dry continent, 1788–2015’. This new report by the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Water Sensitive Cities is part of research output for Understanding social processes to achieve water sensitive futures (Project A2.1).

The engaging historical account of white settlement and water management in Brisbane, Melbourne, and Perth suggests how such adaptation might be achieved. Arguing that good public policy must be historically informed so that lessons of the past influence practice in the future, the report demonstrates the effectiveness of simple and relatively inexpensive strategies to reduce cities’ water consumption, and makes recommendations for how these measures may be employed as part of an overall strategy toward a more water sensitive future.

Historical context crucial to creating water sensitivity

So can the Aussie dream survive in a water sensitive age? In fact, we have no choice, argues Seamus. “We simply cannot go back to year zero and start again. Rather, we must work with suburban communities to adapt to hydrological constraints.”

A central concept in the report is “path-dependency”, meaning that decisions made in the past constrain contemporary practices and policy options. For example, since the early nineteenth century, Australians have displayed a preference for low-density detached housing with gardens, despite the high per-capita cost of supplying services and infrastructure. That, argues Seamus, is not likely to change significantly.

Traditionally, water shortages in Australian cities have been overcome by increasing supply. Governments and water managers have focused on big engineering solutions, such as more and bigger dams (and, more recently, desalination plants) to “drought-proof” growing cities. Increasing water security during the post-war decades encouraged Australians to develop profligate water-use habits, such as frequent showering, growing lush gardens, and hosing driveways.

It was not until the 1980s that thinking began to turn from increasing supply to fostering more efficient usage. In some cities, residential water use had not even been monitored; and charging residents for its use was unthinkable.

Pricing and public education

The report shows that, while Australians have been extravagant with water, they have always shown a remarkable willingness to adapt water habits and usage (notably for gardens) during times of crisis. In practice, two important but administratively simple and cheap policy changes have had enormous impact on residential water use: water pricing and public education campaigns.

This offers a valuable clue about how we can make our thirsty cities more water sensitive. Our adaptability to changed water conditions demonstrates how attitudes – of both government and the public – can change significantly towards.

“Trusting in people to modify behaviour and having a price mechanism are big, big ways of making changes.”

However, the report points out how quickly lessons of water sensitivity are let go in times of plenty. It argues that we can no longer afford to forget: “In a climate-change influenced, water-constrained future, public education campaigns about the importance of water sensitivity should become a permanent component of public policy.”

Working with people

Working with people is pivotal, Seamus insists. “We need behaviour change, but we have to accept that people want to live in a certain way. So let’s adapt our policies to address that – the obvious one is rainwater tanks. The detached house allows you to capture water, which is not so easy to do in multi-storey blocks and apartments.”

Jean Brennan, Coordinator Water and Catchments at Sydney’s Inner West Council, has had considerable success in delivering water sensitive outcomes through sub-catchment programs in Marrickville that work at the neighbourhood level and involve extensive engagement with local communities and stakeholders. “Every activity we do – from involving whole communities, to individuals and local government staff – is, in effect, public education,” she says.

“This report is a fascinating read and particularly useful for advancing the third pillar of water sensitive cities: cities comprising water sensitive communities,” says Jean. “It brings to light the importance of water professionals needing to understand the full history and context before embarking on plans and decisions around water management.”

Decision makers with historical understanding and support for community participation will develop appropriate, context-specific plans that are broadly supported and likely to be implemented, Jean argues. “This report will support practitioners to do that,” she says.

– Nicola Dunnicliff-Wells

This article was first published by Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities on 26 July 2016. Read the original article here.