Feb 2001

Implications for the CSE (CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems) Research Portfolio of Alternative Scenarios of Socio-economic Development in Australia

Doug Cocks 

We're looking for something that will stimulate people to think outside the constraints of the present  (Sarah Ryan)



How should we think about the task of managing the Division’s research portfolio over, say, the next 25 years ( a human generation), given that Australia will change enormously in terms of its landscape/ ecosystem mix and function over that time; and that these changes will have major quality of life implications for present and future Australians?  

In the act of asking this question I am implying (a) that the Division should be thinking about its next 25 years of  research and (b) that the Division’s research should mostly be somewhere in the area of  landscape and ecosystem dynamics.  That is a very broad agenda and within it I would have little trouble locating the bulk of the Division’s current research.  Mind you, I could locate Star Wars research there too with a dollop of imagination.

The process of landscape/ecosystem change

Before thinking about research portfolios, what can we say with some confidence about this process I am suggesting to be the target of our research agenda?

Over periods as short as decades, landscapes and ecosystems mainly change when land use and management change.  With minor exceptions land use change tends to be a one-way street where land use in any landscape/ecosystem moves, in fits and starts, along the spectrum from pristine to heavily urbanised/industrialised (Cocks and Walker 1994).  Such changes entail the introduction of exogenous materials and energy flows.

So, in coming decades, Australian landscapes will see a process of spatially-variable intensification in land use, one which will be driven by changes in:

·        Market forces
eg growth in primary product exports; growth in inbound tourism; price of fossil fuels; prospects for new industries 

·        Institutional arrangements and social structures
eg the degree of development control exerted by the community over private land use; devolution of governance

·        Relevant technologies
eg further substitution of capital for labour in resource-based industries; advances in landscape remediation

·        Population size and distribution
eg immigration into larger cities and displacement of prior population from these into adjacent coastal  areas

·        Secondary changes in landscape and ecosystem processes
eg capture of flow resources(eg sunlight, water)  in usable form; degradation and depletion of stock resources (eg soil loss, biodiversity, minerals).

·        Community values and attitudes
eg  a shift in the consumerism-materialism vs post-materialism tradeoff; support for government as a vehicle for collective action: preference for a collaborative rather than a competitive society 

Consider the last of these a bit more.  Where do community values and attitudes about landscapes and ecosystems come from?  They are moulded by a process of  public debate on a plethora of issues (issues can be thought of as ‘matters for concern’) including:

Organising the research program

Back to the research portfolio problem.  But before I can discuss  the question of choosing research topics, I need to make a few assumptions about how the Division’s research program is going to be organised.

  1. A research portfolio concerned with landscape and ecosystem dynamics probably needs to be similarly dynamic and a commitment to a portfolio developed around a number of rolling themes is a reasonable assumption for discusson purposes.  A theme is an issue or family of issues to be investigated within the portfolio and, if not resolved by research, at least clarified in terms of the options (and their possible consequences) available for managing that issue.  The term ‘rolling theme’ refers to the idea that themes that get added to the portfolio carry a startup date and a default sunset clause, ie research on any theme will, all other things being equal, cease on such-and-such a date. 

2.      For the purposes of discussion, we might assume that the Division’s research portfolio is organised around 10-12 themes each with a 10-year life.  Whatever the right number, it is important to have a critical mass of researchers working on each theme, ie to have a research environment within which researchers have plenty of colleagues around with whom they can discuss their research in detail. 

  1. The portfolio will be strongly applied, ie with the mission of helping society manage the landscape-ecosystem change process in the public interest, eg identifying problems and opportunities (Option 1).  In assuming an applied research program, at least for discussion purposes, I am bypassing more basic ‘mission’ options such as:

    Option 2.  A less applied, and perhaps more traditional view of the mission of a landscape/ecosystem research group, would see the core task as (a) learning what we have in the way of natural systems, ie inventory work (b) monitoring how those systems are changing and (c) understanding how our natural systems work  This is a philosophy no longer open to us I suspect, even if we wanted it. 

    Option 3.  Nor is the contemporary version of that more basic approach, one where the evolution of landscapes is viewed in terms of complex adaptive systems defined to include a human component.(currently we talk the talk but do not walk the walk). 

    If I really thought there was a possibility of running a strong basic research program I would suggest that a good start to scoping and developing a research portfolio would be to ask every scientist here to submit a short answer to the following question: What is something, outside your current research focus,  you would really like to discover or design over the next decade that you regard  as both achievable and significant for the sustainability of Australian landscapes and ecosystems? 
  2. The Division is free to choose its own applied research portfolio. 
    Clearly this is not true in the short term.  We are committed to various contracts and to doing work that does not fall outside the expertise of the existing research staff.  It may not be true in the longer term either but we will suspend such judgement for the moment.

Guidelines for selecting  new research themes

The core of the research management task then is to select families of issues, new themes, to replace terminating themes in the Division’s research portfolio.

There are many ways of thinking about this task.  One I like is to start with a set of guidelines summarising conditions that selected themes either must meet or which, less stringently,  one would prefer to see met.  Then you look for research themes which meet these guidelines as far as possible.

For example, mandatory or ‘hard’ guidelines which must be met might include:

These three exemplary guidelines simply reflect the fact that no research program can address all landscape/ecosystem issues and that to help avoid being too thinly spread, some families of issues should be excluded a priori.  The opportunity cost of working on broad range of issues is that it becomes harder to retain a critical mass of research expertise in all areas.

Possible examples of  indicative or ‘soft’ guidelines we might prefer new research themes to satisfy include:

·        As far as possible all incoming research themes should address issues which will be seen as extremely important in the community in 5-6-7 years (just when research on the theme is really hitting its straps and  beginning to generate authoritative results and insights).

It is the last of this sample of indicative guidelines that I want to discuss further.  I will call it ‘picking future winners’ for short.

‘Picking future winners’ is a fairly bold guideline because it implies making and backing a judgement about what issues are going to be seen as important (‘hot’) some years from now.  A conservative alternative to this guideline, let’s call it ‘playing safe’, would be to favour researching issues which are seen as extremely important today (cf 5-7 years time).  And of course research funding is much more likely to be available for important contemporary issues than for potential issues.  The reward for successfully ‘picking winners’ is being able to offer more timely and influential policy and management advice as distinct from doing ‘catchup’ research.

Is there a role for scenarios in’ picking winners’?

Notwithstanding doubts about a ‘picking winners’ policy, it brings me to a point where I can articulate, in context, the question I have been asked to address: If the Division were in the busines of picking winners, would the scenarios developed in Future Makers, Future Takers be of any help?

Let me explain.  My 1999 book of that name outlined three scenarios about how Australian society might develop over the next 50 years, depending on which of three development strategies we adopted and persisted with: 

An economic growth strategy based on allowing business to self-regulate and maximally reducing the size and scope of government operations.

A conservative development strategy focussed on amelioration and strong regulation of business externalities (unintended side-effects) and on using high levels of taxation to fund jobs and environmental protection schemes and to narrow income disparities.

A post-materialism strategy focussed on managing environmental quality by limiting the overall use of energy and raw materials and boosting social capital by encouraging participatory decision-making structures.

Figure 1. plots primary energy consumption in Australia and GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as time series.  The economic growth strategy is focussed on mainataining a strong upward trend in the GDP trace.  The post-materialism strategy is strongly focussed on bending the energy consumption graph downwards.  The conservative development strategy is looking to balance movement in the two graphs in some sense. 


Figure 1


I would like to be able to claim that my book was required reading for anyone trying to predict the burning issues in landscape/ecosystem management in Australia in 2007: to declare that on p73 it confidently predicts that in five years there will be great debate about the environmental impact of the Gladstone to Adelaide  High Speed Ground Transport proposal; that p89 predicts that the effect of Western Australian land clearing on SA rainfall will be a hot topic; and on p200 that the ecology of GMOs  will be a topic at dinner parties in Toorak and Vaucluse. If I could predict such developments with total confidence it would make research planning much easier and  I would be in line for hugs and kisses from the Executive Committee.

The issue mix

Under any of my scenarios the emergent issues would still probably fall beneath the headings I identified earlier---location issues, ecosystem issues, service issues and socio-economic issues.  The mix might be somewhat different under different scenarios reflecting the pro-growth, pro-environment or pro-sustainability (ie  a growth-environment balance) values of the different scenarios but, seeing that the future is going to be some unpredictable mix of all three scenarios I am not in a position to start predicting the actual mix.

Volume of issues

Nor can I predict the rate at which issues will appear. It is however worth noting that to the extent that Australia  follows an economic growth strategy, and it is successful, the rate of landscape/ecosystem change will be higher and issues of whatever category will be generated at a higher rate.  To this extent, there will be more need and perhaps more demand for our research and consulting services.  Similarly, to the extent that we follow a post-materialism strategy, the threshold of concern at which ‘environmental’ issues are triggered is likely to be lower and issues would erupt more readily.  Under a strong conservative development strategy, it might be the centralisation of decision-making which sparks issues easily. Perhaps, combining these observations, it is reasonable to assume that landscape issues are going to become more and not less common.

Funding prospects

I can also ruminate on how the Division’s funding prospects might vary under the three scenarios.

Appropriation funding:  One thing we can say immediately is that  treasury funding for an organisation like CSE  would probably be much higher under conservative development than under economic growth or post-materialism. Under an economic growth philosphy there would be little interest in raising taxes to fund public interest research in areas where it is difficult for individuals to capture (avoid sharing) the benefits of successful research.  Under a post-materialism strategy the economy’s capacity to yield taxes might be low and, also, funding would have to be obtained from struggling regional authorities rather than from higher tiers of government.. 

Even under a conservative development scenario appropriation funding is unlikely to be generous.  There has been a loss of faith in recent decades in the power of scientific information and knowledge to improve the policy making process in landscape/ecosystem management.  I don’t know why this is but I can suggest two possible factors.  One is that unlike primary production research which is perceived as having been very successful, landscape management research has not yielded quick technological fixes (Calici virus?).  Another is that change in landscapes and natural systems has generated problems at a rate that has not been matched by an increasing scientific effort and this inevitably leads to an unfair perception that science has failed, and hence is not worh supporting.  To put it bluntly, landscape and ecosystem issues are seen as being social, political and economic but not scientific.     

Funding via agencies:  Ensuring that the Division has to get a sizeable proportion of its research funding through R&D corporations and government departments is a way of imposing political direction on the research portfolios of CSIRO Divisions while still pretending it is an independent statutory authority.  Having to get funds by participating in this bureaucratic steeplechase is unlikely to disappear under the conservative development scenario but would disappear under economic growth and post-materialism to the extent that there would be few funds to disburse.  To the extent that agency funding might be available under an economic growth strategy, it would be likely to be ‘brown’ (soil and water-oriented) and production-oriented rather than green and sustainability oriented.. Post-materialism funding would favour projects involving the creation of participatory structures.

Corporate funding:  It is fairly safe to assume that there would be more funding from the private sector available at higher rates of economic growth and hence under the conservative development and economic growth scenarios.  As another rule of thumb, the higher the land values in an area and the greater the rate of land use change, the more corporate funding is likely to be available (an argument for working in the peri-urban areas?).  Corporately funded research will continue to be short-term and self-serving and dangerous to scientific integrity.  There is no escaping the adage ‘His tune I sing whose bread I eat’

An umbrella research theme?

The only other insight I have enjoyed as a result of the present exercise is that, viewed from a very broad perspective, all components of our research portfolio will continue to fall within the theme of exploring relationships between economic outcomes and patterns of energy/materials use under scenarios of land use change.  Perhaps that is too broad to be of any help.  Perhaps not.

In terms of Fig.1, and speaking normatively, we are looking for ways to have economic growth without increasing energy/materials usage or ways to reduce energy/materials use without slowing economic growth.  Or, even more generally, and less normatively, our future research will be about decoupling economic growth and energy/materials use.    


Cocks KD and Walker BH, 1994, Contribution of `sustainability' criteria to social perceptions of land use options, Land Degradation and Rehabilitation, 5, 143-51.

Cocks D, 2000, Scenarios for Australian Landscapes, in Hamblin A (ed), Visions of Future Landscapes, Proceedings of Fenner Conference, May 1999, Bureau of Resource Science, Canberra 

Cocks D, 1999, Future Makers, Future Takers: Life in Australia 2050, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney.