Yesterday I wrote that the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) and the Murray Darling Basin (MDB) are the big ticket/big budget environmental issues. Well the Treasurer has even made special allocations for both in this year’s budget.
There is only ever going to be so much money for the environment.
Can we have confidence that budget allocations are determined on the basis of need i.e. that the MDB and GBR are areas of greatest environmental need?
A functioning peer review process could assist prioritization by helping to ensure correct information as a basis for public policy decision making (see my yesterday’s blog-post).
To what extent is the peer reviewed literature setting the public policy agenda? To what extent is the peer reviewed literature relied upon by research leaders?
When it comes to the GBR and MDB, I will contend that research leaders increasingly rely on government reports and the non-peer reviewed literature rather than publications in reputable scientific journals to influence public policy decision making.
As an example, when John Quiggin reacted to my review paper ‘Myth and the Murray: Measuring the Real State of the River Environment’ in his much quoted 24th March 2004 blog-post he made much of a graph within a government report (rather than something peer reviewed) to suggest a Murray River salinity problem that was likely to get much worse.
I wonder whether the graph would have made it through a peer review process? It represents 40-50 years of daily salt readings stretched and smoothed over an 80 -90 year period with this trend line then merged into a projection from a computer model that as far as I can tell has never given a correct forecast. Certainly the model has been predicting in the wrong direction for the last 6 years.
I suggest the graph is a disgrace and designed simply to perpetuate the myth of a worsening salinity problem. Salinity levels are in fact significantly less than suggested by the graph and have been reducing, not increasing over the last 20 years.
But perhaps the worst all time unpublished, non-peer reviewed report that has significantly influenced public policy decision making in the MDB is The NSW River’s Survey by the CRC for Freshwater Ecology and NSW Fisheries.
The report’s principal conclusions include that “A telling indication of the condition of rivers in the Murray region was the fact that, despite intensive fishing with the most efficient types of sampling gear for a total of 220 person-days over a two-year period
in 20 randomly chosen Murray-region sites, not a single Murray cod or freshwater catfish was caught.”
Most remarkably at the same time, in the same years and regions, that the scientists were undertaking their now much-quoted survey that found no Murray cod, commercial fishermen harvested 26 tonnes of Murray cod!
Criticism of the report’s findings from a local fisherman goes something along the lines “The scientists, although having letters behind their name, spending some $2million on gear, and 2 years trying, evidently still can’t fish.”
This is some of the non-peer reviewed literature driving public policy decision making in Australia – including how our money is allocated for the environment as part of the budget process.