An economist, a scientist and a lawyer walk into a bar...

It was with great excitement and humility that two Green Fire Science lab members, Bonnie Mappin and Sean Maxwell, attended the 2016 Wentworth Group Science Program last week.

Created in 2001, the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists is an independent collection of eminent Australian scientists, economists and business people with interests in conserving Australia’s biodiversity and natural resources. The group has been fundamental in multiple land and water policy reforms across Australia, including contributing to the Murray Darling Basin Plan and the Regional Environmental Accounts Trial. And since 2007, the Group has run their Science Program.

The Science Program intentionally brings together post-graduate scientists, lawyers and economists, and aims to enhance their ability to engage in public policy on land, water, coastal infrastructure and biodiversity in Australia. Fostering a blend of research interests and expertise ensures that sustainability questions can effectively be tackled from all angles. We also found out that having economists, scientists and lawyers in the same room inevitably leads to energised discussions around how best to achieve sustainable natural resource use. The Program is highly competitive, being opened to only nine students from across Australia in 2016.

The Program consisted of a three day master class. The first day saw Professor Bruce Thom orientate the Program scholars around Botany Bay – from Cape Banks to Cape Solander. Professor Thom engaged us with his wealth of the knowledge of the area, despite the prevailing winds constantly threatening to claim his beloved Sydney Roosters cap. We spent time discussing what the Botany Bay landscape would have looked like 50 thousand years ago. Fast-forwarding to the year 1770, Professor Thom then described James Cook’s historic landing of HMS Endeavour in the Bay. Moving forward again, we then discussed how infrastructure to store and transport oil in the Bay has destabilised dune systems, and the political preconditions and management of extensive shipyard and airport development in the Bay. Hear Professor Thom discuss these problems was fantastic, given he’s direct involvement in their ongoing solutions.

Professor Bruce Thom handling the windy conditions like a pro while explaining mangrove expansion in Botany Bay. Note his beloved Sydney Roosters cap.

Day two begun with a master class on how to most effectively communicate scientific research to policy makers and the general public, and how to build and maintain our reputations as scientists. This session was led by Professor Thom and Peter Cosier – former Environmental Policy Advisor for Senator Robert Hill and current Director of the Wentworth Group. We were then given a detailed breakdown of how the Wentworth Group operates, how it chooses what to get involved in, and where it sees itself in the coming years. The Group has had great success with generating political will to act with the use of succinct, accessible and solutions-orientated summaries of key environmental issues. The Group calls these documents ‘blueprints’, and they can be found here.

On day three it was time for the scholars to earn their keep. We were challenged to collectively present on what we deemed to be the largest environmental issue being faced currently before highlighting some feasible solutions. After much deliberation over dinner the previous evening, we decided to present on overexploitation of natural resources, and how supply and demand for natural resources might be better managed in the coming decades. It turns out that we couldn’t solve the problem of overexploitation in a 30 minute presentation, but we thoroughly enjoyed the challenge nonetheless, as well as the thought-provoking question time with Wentworth members that followed.

The scholars earn their keep by discussing potential solutions to overexploitation of natural resources in Australia and abroad.

On reflection, the three key messages we took away from the 2016 Wentworth Science Program were that: (1) environmental policy is often about incremental benefits – big wins are rare. Effective and enduring environmental policy requires persistence and functional relationships with decision-makers. It's also critical to recognize when windows of opportunity open; (2) we should only comment publicly on environmental issues that relate to our area of expertise – our reputation as scientists can suffer otherwise; and (3) all politics is local – we must find ways to make our research resonate with laypeople. Only then will it be taken seriously by policy makers.

Bonnie and Sean are sincerely grateful to the Wentworth Group to for the opportunity to learn from some of Australia’s best environmental policy makers and thinkers. We strongly encourage any who are eligible to apply for the Program next year.

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