2 2020
The view from home: Bowen Mountain, Australian forest and prescribed burn, circa 2019. PHOTO: Hamish Clarke.
The view from home: Bowen Mountain, Australian forest and prescribed burn, circa 2019. PHOTO: Hamish Clarke.

A reflection on the human interface – the wildest fence we may work in our fire profession – from a scientist who seeks to connect across the divides in Australia.

(Editor’s Note: This reflection was crafted during a mentoring process with fire historian and writer Steven Pyne. For more on this process, see this Q&A, “Words on Fire,” that explores the mentoring process between Pyne and Clarke.)

By Hamish Clarke

Australia is on fire, state and federal governments are under pressure, debates over risk mitigation are raging and the elephant of climate change is about to knock down the walls of the room it has been hiding in for the last few decades in an attempt to flee the oncoming fire front. Which is to say, there’s never been a more salient time to work at the science-policy interface. Having stood on both sides of that fence, I can share a few observations which may be relevant.

When I worked as a government scientist, I frequently wrestled with the role of public sector science. Officially it was to provide the evidence base for policy. Unofficially we were couriers, discovering scientific answers (or ferreting out others’ discoveries) and then dutifully delivering them to management and policymakers. There was respect for the special powers we scientists had that were unavailable to other public servants, especially the magic dust of peer-reviewed publications. Yet there was also a clear line over which we could not cross. Because we weren’t great communicators, because we liked to complicate things with words like unless and except, perhaps most of all because we didn’t understand the many other non-scientific factors at play in policy decisions, we were generally seated at the kids’ table, away from the decision-making adults in the room.

This was somewhat unsatisfactory as I was interested in decisions and practical results. I wanted to know what happened before and after science. This led me down the strange path of policy studies, where I encountered the inputs-outputs-outcomes framework. It argued that many government strategies focus on inputs and outputs – dollars spent, reports written, roads built etc. – rather than the actual result of all those efforts: the outcome. The outcome is the reason for policy, the reason for government, the change that we public servants are striving to achieve. The problem is not so much that government departments do not set outcomes (believe me, they do – I’ve read the corporate plans). It is that the outcomes are often exceptionally vague and have little practical relation to the work done within departments.

For example, at one stage the long-term goal of my division was to minimize the impacts of climate change in local communities. This sounds terrific but putting it into practice is hard. It requires understanding and quantifying climate change impacts (on all people? on all things people care about?) in (all?) local communities, understanding how these impacts might be reduced, and then presumably doing whatever is necessary to bring each of these impacts to their absolute minimum.

Overarching goals are often vague and dream-like, but the goal at the next tier down had a similar flavor. The five-year end of program outcome was that government, businesses and the community are building their resilience to climate change. It makes sense that before impacts can be minimized, resilience must first be built. In contrast to the first goal, which set a rather high standard, this one suggested that some action (any action? no matter how small?) was enough for this outcome to be achieved. There was always a point in these plans where these vague and universal outcomes switched abruptly to the completion of individual projects (outputs).

Defining outcomes is hard, Australia National University (ANU) Professor of Strategic Studies Hugh White once told me. “One has to be absolutely ruthless in assessing the relationship between outcomes and outputs. If you cannot establish a very direct causal link between the outcomes you set and the outputs you propose, then the outputs have not been defined well enough.” He said that the most common failings were defining as outcomes things the organization couldn’t achieve, and defining outputs that could not actually achieve the outcomes. Brash and naïve, I decided to rewrite the entire set of corporate goals in a way that met these lofty ideals. They made a bit more sense to me but were not received with enthusiasm by my colleagues in policy.

I slunk back to the kids’ table, where a job ad came across my desk. It was in academia researching bushfires and the primary partners were my old colleagues in government and the fire management agencies. I now had an opportunity to peer across the science policy interface from the other side of the fence.

Unlike in government, there was little doubt about the boundaries between science and policy making. Academics may strive to work closely with “end users”, but there are no illusions they have any say in management decisions. On the other hand, we have something that public servants, and especially public sector scientists, do not: an ability to speak freely and widely about our research and its implications, thus influencing those same policy decisions after all. It has also neatly flipped the procurer-consultant paradigm from my time in government. Previously, external consultants may have been uncharitably typecast as greedy, overpromising and underdelivering hacks. Now an academic, the uncharitable stereotype is of public sector procurers as confused, unrealistic and incompetent hacks.

Working on a few projects from within academia has deepened my sense of the fence. Partners in government and fire management occasionally struggle to separate the concrete contractual obligations of a project from the general sense that university scientists are there to do whatever the agency wants them to do. I suppose this is not wildly different from the expectation in the community that public servants are there to do whatever the people want them to. The outcomes framework is now being visited upon academics, increasingly encouraged to provide hard evidence of their societal impact beyond dusty journals and conferences. Meanwhile, even as public servants struggle with a complex array of forces pushing them in every direction, the public service and its political masters remain largely immune to serious attempts to formally measure the outcomes of their work, whether by the goals they profess or some other standard.

Sadly, my time on both sides has not delivered me an overarching theory or well-defined outcome for working at the science policy interface. It has given me a useful rule of thumb, however, which is that relationships are critical. Major initiatives which have undoubtedly helped to transform the public understanding of climate change impacts in New South Wales had their seeds in relationships, in repeat meetings, phone calls, coffees and lunches, road trips and hallway strolls. My manager at the time could have rebranded himself as a relationship guru if he wanted – he charmed, he told tall stories, he connected with people. He left in one of many restructures, his expertise and relationships, like so many others, lost to the department in the conceit that what mattered were job descriptions and capability frameworks, not individual people.

On the other side of the fence, when the Rural Fire Service Commissioner opened the NSW Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub, a multimillion dollar partnership between academia and government, he spoke not just of the daunting challenges of contemporary fire management and the world-leading research of the institutions involved. He spoke about the peace of mind he got from being able to pick up the phone and just chat with the Hub director (my boss at university) whenever he needed to. Although I haven’t been in academia as long, I have no doubt that research projects on this side of the fence rise and fall not just on the strength of their science or the soundness of their policy goals, but on the connections made and not made between human beings.

I can’t say that one side of the fence is better, or more effective, or fulfilling than the other. I’d like to see more of us work both sides. It makes it easier to see where people are coming from. And even as some are working to break down silos and enable cross-sector mobility, there is something to be said for a nice, solid fence. Good fences establish useful boundaries and, so long as they aren’t too tall or electrified, can even make good neighbors, as Robert Frost once said. As for me, I like wide fences. Sitting on the fence isn’t always comfortable or popular, but the views are great and there’s no better way to see both sides.


Hamish Clarke is a research fellow at the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, University of Wollongong, Australia, and has also been working on a Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (BNHCRC) funded project that examines the effectiveness of prescribed burning in reducing a range of risks across southern Australia. Recent research includes Climate change effects on the frequency, seasonality and interannual variability of suitable prescribed burning weather conditions in south-eastern Australia. Published in 2019 in Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, the research highlights that while “Changes in the seasonality of burn windows are likely … overall decreases are not. Results are highly sensitive to how weather conditions are defined [and] may help fire managers assess their exposure to changes in burn windows. (DOI: 10.1016/j.agrformet.2019.03.005.) 

+  +  +

Words on fire

A conversation on a mentoring tutorial

In response to the IAWF appeal for mentors, Steve Pyne, an emeritus professor at Arizona State University, proposed to teach writing. We connected him with Hamish Clarke, Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, University of Wollongong, Australia. Here’s their report on their mentoring process.

Q: How did you come to this project?

Steve Pyne

Steve: I had taught nonfiction writing as my contribution to graduate students at ASU, and did a Research and Conference course with Stephen Fillmore, then a distance student with the University of Idaho. I was thinking about ways I might adapt that experience when I saw the IAWF mentoring program.

Hamish: I saw a call from the IAWF for participants in their mentoring program. It seemed like a good opportunity to connect with and learn from experienced folks in wildfire management and research. To my surprise – and delight – I then got a short note asking if anyone was interested in receiving writing mentoring from none other than Stephen Pyne. I love writing and have been trying to do more – this was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Q: So how did it go?

Hamish: Great! Steve had a syllabus of sorts, so we had some structure to work with. I was keen as mustard but only had small windows of time to do readings and writing tasks. Much to my relief, Steve was unfailingly tolerant of my sometimes half-baked assignments, giving constructive feedback and general comradery.

Steve: It had a slightly rocky start. The time difference, and the holidays, made scheduling tricky. We wound up doing one meeting through the wifi of a garage in Penrith.

But the real issue was that I needed to be explicit about what the project is and isn’t. It’s a limited exercise – 11 units in all. It’s about nonfiction writing on fire for a more general public than scientific papers can reach. Basically, it’s a sampler of literary techniques that writers can explore and decide which they are comfortable with.

Q: How are the sessions organized?

Steve: All great writers are great readers, so we open with a few assigned readings intended to highlight some element of craft but also to teach how to read like a writer.

The core, though, is an assignment that features some type of writing – character profiles, settings, ideas and institutions, comparisons and contrasts, figures of speech, openings and closings, narrative. Hamish sends me his text two days before we meet. I make comments and send them to him the next day. We discuss over Skype. I’ve learned I don’t have a great phone persona; I need to see some body language to converse well.

Hamish Clarke

Hamish: We met once a week by Skype, with me offering thoughts on the readings for that week and then discussing Steve’s feedback on my writing task. Each week’s topic is different – openings and closings, metaphors, ideas and institutions and so on – with four or five short readings tailored to the topic. Occasionally the sessions would descend into time delay farce as we spoke over the top of each other, but for the most part they worked well. 

Q: What was the best part?

Hamish: I’ll give a two-part answer. The first was getting a masterclass in nonfiction writing from one of the world’s leading exponents of the craft. I consider myself a good writer, so it was humbling but incredibly useful to discover that there were hard limits to how far I could get with my intuitive style. In short, Steve popped the hood and showed me how writing works from the inside out. The other best part was getting to spend some (screen) time with Steve. He was generous with his time and expertise, tolerant of my logistical and linguistic limitations and encouraging. I intend to pester Steve for some time to come.

Steve: I got to know Hamish a bit. He came with a mature writing style, so we didn’t have to fumble with grammar and topic sentences. His wry sense of humor helped keep us on message. It was also fun to reconnect with Australia – we even timed it with an outbreak of megafires – though that made me realize all my reading examples were American. I hadn’t imagined doing this with someone outside the U.S.

And, Hamish – follow-up is part of the package. Consider it an extended warranty.

Q: Suggestions for the future? Or advice for future mentees?

Steve: I’ve rewritten the syllabus, which meant rethinking what the program can and can’t do. Probably I should ask for a statement or a writing sample from prospective mentees so I can better match what I can do with what they want. It’s not a class – the work isn’t graded. But the project requires consistent commitment. Part of what the course teaches is that you write when you can, not when you feel like it.

I’d like to offer it twice a year, avoiding both (the northern hemisphere) fire season and the holidays. Say, February to April, and September to November.

Hamish: My boss (leading wildfire researcher Professor Ross Bradstock) once quipped that when asked at parties what he did, he would say “I read and write”. While there’s more to science than that, it’s an incredibly important part. I’d encourage anyone serious about improving their writing craft to take up this offer, should it arise again. I would also encourage future mentees to read the assigned tasks closely – I kept writing pieces that had little to do with the topic at hand!

Q: Any final thoughts?

Hamish: In one of my final pieces (and one of many botched closings – it’s hard to write a good ending!) I ruminated on the importance of relationships in bridging the science policy divide. More broadly, I believe one of the solutions to our various modern predicaments is to bring different parts of society closer together. For me that means deepening the links between science and society. Becoming a mentee or mentor is one way to build new connections and do your part in making the world a better place.

Steve: Well, it’s not your usual mentoring. It does, however, offer a craft that some members of the fire community will find useful. We’re not a book culture, or even a writing culture, but it would be good to have us speak for ourselves rather than rely on journalists or novelists or others with their own agendas. A lot of fire folks have something they want to say. A little craft can help them say it, which lets the real thing can come through in their writing.