The Ferre’ DIRECTion

So, in the last blog I was talking up Ty Ferre and his cohort of bright young groundwater programmers who have completely taken out the September/October 2017 version of the National Groundwater Association’s journal “Groundwater”.

In this post I’d like to start highlighting some of the clever, radical and creative ideas laid out in this remarkable journal edition – remarkable in how these papers are all passionately devoted to making the world better through what their writers know, i.e. how to better analyse environmental information and better understand stakeholder priorities when assessing complex environmental situations.  Unless you have a subscription to the Groundwater magazine however, you can’t freely access them and that’s a crying shame as they’re so good.  Fear not good reader, I’ll paraphrase some for you!

We’ll start with the orchestrator, the remarkable Professor Ty Ferre’.  Ty, if I may call him that as we’ve barely met, sets out to draw new maps between data, models and decision-making.  Quite a lot of what he presents in this paper builds on the DIRECT paper he co-authored in 2015 (, but this new paper is pitched at a much higher level, meaning it can be understood by most scientists and motivated others.

Prof Ferre’ starts by stating the important role that science, and scientific modelling, can and should play in development or resource decision-making – this is what we technocrats can offer but we must recognise our responsibilities to society and the environment, not just to their client.

To facilitate the stakeholder engagement, Ty makes the interesting suggestion that each stakeholder should have the opportunity to have their position heard and converted to an admittedly biased “advocacy model” – a model that seeks to codify each key stakeholder’s concerns and fears with respect to what might happen if this particular development or action were to be approved.  For example, a farmer concerned that his well might dry would have the opportunity to have the modelling team focus on all the ways the development might affect water levels in his/her bore in worst-case scenarios.

At the same time, the developer would ask the modelers to codify his/her biggest concerns, e.g. the proposed dewatering program might be too ineffective/expensive/slow or whatever.  These biased “advocacy models” could be tested and compared against an ensemble of other, perhaps more neutral but realistically possible, models – what Ty refers to as a team of rival models, which help the modeler to creatively explore uncertainties that include their being wrong about one or more conceptual aspects.

Let me quote a seminal paragraph and hope not to run foul of copyright nonsense:

“Advocacy models represent stakeholders’ initial interests and concerns within the model ensemble. Therefore, it is critical that scientists avoid the temptation to build models that discount stakeholders’ concerns. Rather, we should act as honest brokers (Pielke, 2007) of these competing narratives by formulating the most scientifically defensible representations of stakeholders’ concerns. In fact, the act of constructing advocacy models encourages scientists to sample the most consequential regions of model space. In other words, seeking advocacy models nudges hydrologists to abandon the false premise that a single scientific model, no matter how well it matches the existing data, will override stakeholders’ concerns.”  Ferre, 2017

I’ll be returning to that theme in the future about modelers playing the role of honest brokers.  I encourage all regulatory systems in the world to tilt their levers towards encouraging modelers and other advisers to that ethic, for example by levying assessment fees and engaging specialist peer review directly by the regulator. This is exactly the model being used by the NSW State Government in their assessment of Santos’ CSG project at Narrabri and the Hume Coal project in the Southern Highlands.

Ty canvasses a lot of other big ideas in his paper, and notes how the other papers in this journal explores a range of synergistic themes.  Hopefully I’ll find time soon to write about those other papers, many of which have also blown my tiny regulatory mind.

Has anyone out there been similarly pleased to see this particular Groundwater issue and to know there are these kinds of people engaged for the earth’s protection?  Please, I’m keen to hear.


Author: glassearth

Looking hard at how we can share resources sustainably through better regulation

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