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Taking Charge of Change: Making Science Relevant for On-ground Action

Dr Siwan Lovett

Program Coordinator, National Riparian Lands Research & Development Program, Land & Water Australia, 91 Northbourne Avenue, Turner, ACT 2601
email web site


Making science relevant and useful for people working ‘on the ground’ and ‘in the river’ is a primary aim of Land & Water Australia’s National Riparian Lands R & D Program. This paper will provide an overview of the changes that have taken place over the past three years in this Program’s approach to communicating scientific outcomes to different audiences. It will discuss how scientific information has been given ‘meaning’ and relevance by merging it with people’s experience of living and working in river and riparian environments.


Riparian, communication, science, experience, demonstration sites, practice


A state without some means of change is without the means of its conservation
E. Burke 1790

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed that ‘everything changes’. It was he who pointed out that a person cannot step twice into the same river – for they are not quite the same person, nor is it quite the same river. This principle applies to every phenomenon known to us, from the behaviour of subatomic particles, to the expansion of the universe, from the growth and decay of living organisms, to changes in individual personalities. Societies also change, and within those societies different institutional groups and organisations change.

This paper outlines the changes that have taken place in thinking about how to make science relevant for people working in natural resources management. It will discuss the increasing recognition that is being given to merging science with people’s experiences, and how this is being facilitated through communication products and approaches that seek to build capacity within communities to use research outputs to meet the challenges of land and water management. The paper will use Land & Water Australia’s National Riparian Lands R&D Program to focus the discussion and link the changes that have occurred to the experience of those involved in making that change happen.


Land & Water Australia’s National Riparian Lands R&D Program has been in operation for eight years, and has recently entered its second phase. The Program was established following recognition by the science and practitioner community, that it was an area of research that ‘fell between the gaps’ of river and land-based research. The first phase of the Program began in 1993 and invested in ecological, physical and chemical process research that aimed to discover the key functions performed by riparian lands in the Australian environment.

Fortunately for the Program, two years into it’s first phase, a decision was made to invest in riparian restoration demonstration sites as a means of testing and trialing different techniques in a real-life setting, working with local communities. Although not fully appreciated at the time, this decision laid the groundwork for the science being undertaken by researchers to be linked to the practical first-hand experiences of those working on the demonstration sites.

The importance of first-hand experience

The most important source from which we gain understanding is first-hand experience (Figure One). For those working in the area of natural resources management, each day brings with it the challenge of distilling the information that is presented to us in many different forms, so that we can use and apply it ‘on the ground’ and ‘in the river’. In so many cases, however, the ‘reading’ pile gets bigger and bigger as people struggle to work out which is the most important bit of information to try and understand.

Figure One: First-hand experience leads to understanding

“It’s called grass, it’s softer to walk on than concrete”
Source: Robertson, I. (1981). Sociology. Worth Publishers Inc. New York

This situation has developed because western culture has come to favour the indirect knowledge gained from secondary experience, in which information is selected, modified, packaged and presented to us by others. Edward Reed, a writer on this subject, argues that we are becoming increasingly removed from the environment in which we live and that this situation has become so dominant in our technological workplaces, schools and even our homes that first-hand experience is endangered. What is required, Reed contends, is a better balance between first-hand and second-hand experience, because without opportunities to learn directly we become less likely to think and feel for ourselves.

For a research and development program like Land & Water Australia’s Riparian Lands R&D Program, Reed’s words are important, as the Program’s three broad goals are to:

1. address real life river and riparian management problems;

2. invest in science to understand those problems; and

3. translate the science so that it is easily accessed by people and assists them to improve the management of rivers and riparian lands.

These goals have meant that the Program has tried to work towards science being translated into useful and relevant information for those outside scientific institutions. This goal is not a new one for scientifically based organisations, however, it is one that they have often been unable to meet. Research and development programs have been criticised because they perform badly in the area of ‘information transfer’ or ‘knowledge exchange’. In essence, this criticism reflects a failure to move from the ‘R’ to the ‘D’ (‘R’esearch to ‘D’evelopment). That the criticism exists is understandable, as it is much easier for a scientist to package material in ways that their peers would understand, and much harder to present that material to people working outside that environment. This breakdown in communication works both ways, with communities seeking solutions to particular problems often finding it difficult to articulate exactly what it is that they require of the scientist.

For the Riparian Lands R&D Program, it was not until three years ago, when a priority was given to communicating science to those outside the research community, that traditional approaches to communication were challenged and new approaches instituted. These new approaches used the network of riparian demonstration and evaluation sites to give meaning to the science being undertaken.

Science plus experience = understanding

The demonstration site component of the National Riparian Lands R&D Program involved eleven local communities, in partnership with Land & Water Australia, working to identify particular riparian management problems, applying different treatments and monitoring changes at the site using individuals and groups living and working in the area. The sites were scattered across Australia and covered a range of bioregions, as well as very different social and cultural communities (Figure Two).

Figure Two: Location of Riparian Restoration Demonstration Sites

All of these sites had common objectives, with the development of practical riparian vegetation restoration methods the primary focus. This involved:

  • forming a group to manage the project;
  • developing a work plan;
  • site preparation;
  • species selection;
  • planting methods eg: direct seeding; natural recruitment; regeneration;
  • monitoring and evaluation;
  • communicating the outcomes of the project in a range of different forms throughout the local region;
  • conducting attitude surveys to monitor change over time in awareness and understanding about the project; and
  • undertaking a cost benefit analysis with landholders who had demonstration sites on their properties.

In addition to the common objectives outlined above, particular sites dealt with particular problems. For example, in the Blackwood and Oyster Harbour sites, management of salinised lands was the main focus; in the Bega River and Johnstone River, controlling stream bank erosion was important; and in the Goulburn-Broken and Tasmania, stock management and fencing, grazing regimes and off river watering were key issues.

The demonstration and evaluation sites provided the data to develop models so results could be applied widely and used by other groups trying to restore riparian lands. Many of the sites were also linked to other science components of the Program so that researchers could interact with those working ‘on-the-ground’ to trial and test different methods. Gaining knowledge about the right processes and techniques does, however, need to be matched with the practicalities of day-to-day management. As a result, each site included an assessment of the costs and benefits of restoration - with different economic analyses and techniques used to do this. A key requirement was also an assessment of community attitudes and perceptions towards riparian management and whether they changed over time.

The rationale behind this approach was that without getting people involved, in their own communities and in their local environments, it is difficult to reassure them that the science undertaken has any relevance for their local problems. As Campbell, in his analysis of the Landcare program points out, the old adage of:

Tell me and I’ll forget;
Show me and I may remember;
Involve me and I’ll understand;

is borne out by the results that accrue when people are brought together to work out solutions to problems facing them and their natural resources. By making the community responsible for the development and management of the demonstration site, they move beyond being shown what can be done, to being involved in making it happen.

For the Riparian Lands R&D Program, the inclusion of demonstration sites has added considerably to the strength of the material it produces, as well as in raising awareness about the need for better management of riparian lands. When analysing why the demonstration sites have been important, four factors emerge:

1. they have provided a common reference point for local communities, scientists and government agencies to focus their attention on a particular problem and develop collective solutions to deal with that problem.

2. they have become sites for the exchange of information, both formal and informal.

3. they allowed people to experience first-hand the changes that can be effected by working with different groups and applying different riparian land management treatments; and,

4. they catalysed action in the local community concerned. In all cases, an attitudinal shift occurred in those involved with the project, with the initial scepticism felt by some, moving through to a greater understanding about the problem being dealt with, the need for it to be addressed and, finally, an acceptance that something can be done.

Not all the treatments used on the sites have worked, but the failures have been as important as the successes in demonstrating what works, what doesn’t and how best to deal with the particular problem being addressed.

Learning from the ‘D’ to make the ‘R’ relevant

The demonstration component of the program has provided the inspiration for the development of a communications effort designed to meet the needs of people working ‘on the ground’ and ‘in the river’. In essence, the communications approach was to learn from the ‘D’ to make the ‘R’ relevant. Each of the four factors discussed above:

1. providing a common reference point;

2. creating sites for the exchange of information;

3. allowing people to gain first-hand experience; and

4. catalysing change;

have been, and are continuing to be, used to develop a range of different products that try to provide scientific information in ways that make it relevant and useful for people in catchments across the country. In order to show how this has been done, each of the four factors will now be discussed in relation to the communications approach developed for the Riparian Lands R&D Program.

1. Providing a common reference point

Land & Water Australia has had a solid reputation in producing good quality scientific information, however, the form in which that information has been presented could be improved. Three years ago, whilst the Riparian Lands R&D Program materials were of high quality, the look was academic and staid. Given the fact that the Riparian Lands R&D Program aimed to attract people, the question was asked - how are you going to get people to use your information when it looks drab and ‘sciency’?

Using the experience of the demonstration sites, it was decided to develop an identity that was dynamic and innovative for the Program. Through discussions with a range of people involved with the Program, it was decided that an image of rivers and riparian lands all over Australia as a common reference point was needed. Artist Annie Franklin was commissioned to produce an image that was bright and colourful, covered different environments and evoked emotion (see Figure Three).

Figure Three: River Landscapes Artwork (artist Annie Franklin)

Annie developed an image that is a map of Australia and moves from Darwin (top middle tile) down the coast to Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and to Tasmania (right hand tiles). The image then moves across to Adelaide and Perth, with the red centre and the ‘top end’ featured. Each of the tiles in the image shows different environments and different activities being undertaken in our rivers, with the greens of the tropics and the reds and oranges of the inland making a beautiful and evocative image that captures the imagination

Initially, the investment made in this artwork was questioned by some: why bother investing in art when we are dealing with science? However, over time, this image has become widely used as a focal point for talking about rivers and riparian zones and what they mean to different people in different parts of Australia.

Along with the image, a tag line was developed to which people could relate. This tag line is:

Over time, this tag line and the image have become the common reference point for the program and, rather than having Land & Water Australia’s National Riparian Lands R&D Program, the ‘River Landscapes’ banner was used to define the Program’s product and message. Combined, the image, tag line and banner have become the reference point for the work of the Riparian Lands R&D Program. The aim was to make the program relate to people so that it would capture their imagination and interest in river and riparian land management. By making the program look and feel accessible, and having people that represent the program being approachable, the barriers between science and practice have been broken down. By creating a common reference point to which each individual can relate, be they a scientist, a government official or a catchment manager, common ground through a shared vision has been established for all involved.

2. Create sites for the exchange of information

When creating sites for the exchange of information, there is a need to ensure that all those involved are speaking the same ‘language’, this means no scientific or local jargon that is not shared by the whole group.

Nor do they trust their tongue alone,
But speak a language of their own;
Can read a nod, a shrug, a look,
Far better than a printed book;
Convey a libel with a frown,
And wink a reputation down

Swift 1729

Whilst this quote is from Jonathon Swift (1729) and refers to the different language women speak (!), it holds true when two groups from different backgrounds try to communicate. The subtle informal rules that exist between work colleagues develop over time and result in shared understandings about a range of different issues. When two groups come together who have not previously interacted it is important to provide time and opportunities so that they can develop new informal and formal communication patterns, and experience first-hand what it is like working together.

Ideally, ‘knowledge exchange’ sites should be able to provide the first-hand experience that Reed talks about as being essential for learning and understanding. This first-hand experience then provides the understanding required to develop materials that will get used. People and their experiences give products their meaning, and by talking with people working on the demonstration and evaluation sites it was discovered that many felt bombarded by the amount of information they received from many different sources. This is particularly difficult for those working in a catchment management committee or agency, as they have to integrate information so that it can be used to address ‘real-life’ complex natural resources management problems.

With this in mind, the Program newsletter RipRap was revamped so that it became based around a practical management theme. The first of these themes was on ‘Streambank Stability’ with the format being to have a theme piece followed by some science and case study articles that relate to that theme. The back section of RipRap is devoted to State and Territory organisations that provide articles also relating to the theme. In this way, RipRap has become a useful resource, with information about the science being undertaken relating to a practical management theme, a Wrap Up of what is happening around the country, and a useful site for people to exchange information.

The same principle was used for the Program website, and other publications such as the Riparian Land Management Technical Guidelines that bring together the 7 years of work accomplished by the program. Over the years the Program has developed a range of different products and mechanisms for people to use including: workshops, interactive CR-Roms, guidelines, fact sheets and technical updates. Although the Program uses different products and processes to communicate, the approach stays the same - make the products meaningful by linking them to the practical day-to-day issues faced by people working in the area of river and riparian management.

3. Allow people to gain first-hand experience

The third factor identified through the demonstration sites was the need for first-hand experience, this has been mentioned a number of times in the discussion thus far. First-hand experience provides people with the understanding to ensure that the science being invested in directly relates to practical outcomes. The demonstration and evaluation component of the program had researchers and people in the community working together to solve problems. When working on common goals the barriers that often separate groups are broken down and with that the cultural boundaries and stereotypes about how a ‘researcher’ or a ‘community’ person might behave and think.

The other important aspect to first-hand experience is recognition that everyday natural resources management problems cannot be solved with knowledge from one discipline - what is required is a mix of disciplines. Traditionally, knowledge gained through research has been separated by disciplines, but by drawing that disciplinary knowledge together to solve a problem the Program has found that a much more useful solution is produced. For example, the Riparian Land Management Technical Guidelines that bring together the work of the Program for it’s first eight years, are separated into two volumes. The first volume has chapters on the scientific work undertaken in areas such as aquatic ecosytems etc. and is designed for use by researchers, extension staff and people with a technical background. It is A4 in size and designed for use in an office. The second volume is very different, in that it translates that science into practical guidelines for use by landholders and others working outside institutions. The second volume is much smaller in size and is designed to fit into a glovebox of a car, it is also produced on thicker, waterproof paper. This attention to detail is important, as the end-user appreciates the thought that goes into considering their needs. In this way the information is presented and packaged in a way that makes it more relevant and useful for people.

4. Catalyse change

The fourth factor learnt from the demonstration sites was to catalyse change. The Program has tried to raise issues and awareness about riparian lands through debates and workshops that highlight the importance of these highly productive, yet vulnerable parts of the landscape. This strategy has paid off, as a few years ago the word riparian was not really known, yet today, it is in common usage with the area receiving the recognition in catchment and land management that it deserves. Whilst the Program alone cannot claim all the credit for this raised awareness, it has provided science and materials that relate to the work being undertaken along Australia’s rivers and promote better management of riparian lands. Programs such as Rivercare, Waterwatch, and the increasing role catchment management committees and agencies are playing in managing natural resources have also contributed to a raised awareness about the need to manage Australia’s rivers and riparian zones differently in order to achieve environmental sustainability. It is these groups that have been the target audience of the National Riparian Lands R&D Program, and the Program encourages questions and issues to be raised about the science it undertakes. You talk about who the work is for at the start. In the context of this para it seems to me that catchment committees etc are emerging to be the targets now and increasingly in the future.

The other point to be borne in mind is that failures can be catalysts for change as well as successes.

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.
N. Machiavelli 1500

There has been a perceptible change in attitude amongst researchers who recognise that producing a list of refereed articles may not necessarily be the only form of output for their research. Refereed articles are an important output, and the reward systems within which researchers work require them to produce material in this way, however, over the past few years there has been a ‘seachange’ in how researchers get their messages across. There are now many innovative ways of producing scientific results that work for people outside scientific institutions. The important thing is for one to learn from one’s mistakes and not be afraid to share them with others as they can still catalyse change.

Future Change

This paper has shown how the National Riparian Lands R&D Program has undergone a significant change in its communication approach. The demonstration sites have provided the basis for a communications strategy that attempts to match the science with practical outcomes and products that are useful for people working ‘on-the-ground’ and ‘in-the-river’. This change has come about by recognising the importance of matching science with experience in order to gain understanding. Without ‘understanding’, the on-ground action that we need to take place to better manage our water and land resources will not occur.

The shift that is occurring in thinking about how we use science to effect on-ground change is now growing in acceptance. Although there may be some that feel threatened by this shift, the results of researchers and communities working together to produce joint solutions to real-life problems speak for themselves. Over the next five years, Land & Water Australia, through programs like the Riparian Lands R&D Program, is acting upon this shift by developing research portfolios that place equal importance on knowledge exchange and community capacity building with biophysical science investigations. This is in recognition that for the broader challenges facing rural Australia to be addressed, we need creative, innovative and skilled people to provide the first-hand experiences to inform science, and develop the shared understandings that we need to effect on-ground change.


1. Campbell, A. (1994). Landcare: Communities Shaping the Land and Future. Allen and Unwin. Australia.

2. Lovett, S. (1997). Revitalising Rural Research and Development: The Story so Far. Land & Water Resources Research and Development Corporation. Canberra.

3. Partington, A. (Ed). (1996). The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Oxford University Press. New York.

4. Reed, E. (1996). The Necessity of Experience. Yale University Press. New Haven.

5. Robertson, I. (1981). Sociology. Worth Publishers Inc. New York

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