Science and Uncertainty in Consultation


Fiona L Solomon1

AMEEF Innovation Conference, Brisbane: August 2000

1 CSIRO Minerals, Box 312, Clayton South, VIC, 3169




This short paper will present some findings of a case study of the Wallaby consultation process. The issue of uncertainty in environmental debate will also be explored. It will conclude with some challenges for scientists and technologists who need to communicate technical ideas to a diverse range of stakeholders.




From June 1999 to May 2000, CSIRO carried out a case study of a stakeholder consultation process for a proposed new pit in Western Australia called 'Wallaby'. The research was commissioned by Placer Granny Smith and jointly funded by them, their parent company Placer Dome Asia Pacific, and CSIRO. A full copy of the report is available from the author.


The objective was to investigate and reflect on Placer Granny Smith's stakeholder consultation, through two main research questions:


  • What were stakeholders' experiences of the Wallaby consultation
  • What issues arose more generally for consultation processes?


The Wallaby project made an interesting case study for several reasons. The existing Granny Smith mine is the second largest gold mine in Australia, and the discovery of the multi-million ounce Wallaby deposit has the potential to extend the life of the mine by seven to ten years. It is also one of handful of deposits to be developed by Placer Dome since the publication of its Sustainability Policy in 1998, which commits to developing projects in a sustainable manner. The deposit itself is on the edge of a large salt lake near Laverton in Western Australia. The proposal to develop Wallaby comes in the context of an awakening understanding of the ecological importance of salt lakes. Finally, at the time of writing it appears likely that the level of State environmental assessment will be a new process which requires the company to manage the stakeholder consultation as an input into, rather than a reaction to, project development and environmental management plans.




Literature on communication tends to highlight three main themes. First, a proponent should commit to ethical values of communication, such as transparency, trust and respect. Second, a proponent should recognise the diversity of needs, interests and knowledge that exist among stakeholder groups. Third, appropriate forums and language should be used to support these different values and needs.


But what can go wrong? Kakonge (1996) has found that there are a number of factors that tend to adversely affect the effectiveness of consultation or participation processes.

  • Project documents are often drafted in technical language, preventing proper understanding except by a well educated minority;
  • Promises made during the environmental review process are not kept;
  • A lack of transparency may mean some documents are not made available to the public;
  • Engineers and scientists rarely do a good job of facilitating community participation;
  • The environmental review document can be prepared late leaving little time for stakeholders to absorb, reflect and comment on issues. (Kakonge, 1996)


The Wallaby Consultation Process


Placer Granny Smith aimed to manage a proactive consultation process to inform their development of mine management plans. Four large stakeholder meetings were held, supported by other smaller meetings with groups more informally.


These meetings were held over a period of ten months, and an array of stakeholders listened and responded as the company converged on 'a definition of the Wallaby project', that is, a proposal to the State government for development approval. For the case study, the four major meetings and ten smaller meetings were observed, and individual interviews with forty-five meeting participants were later conducted.


In the interviews, the majority of stakeholders gave positive feedback on the consultation. Most stakeholders expressed satisfaction with their interaction with the proponent as genuine. Many thought the Wallaby consultation had set new standards of process and commitment. Comparisons with other similar consultation processes were often made, and indicated that Wallaby had been a more positive experience than communication with other companies.


However a number of people suggested areas that needed improvement, particularly in:

  • Communicating large amounts of technical information
  • Tailoring a process for participation of Aboriginal people
  • Managing the different needs and knowledge of stakeholders.


Communicating technical information in a simple way, especially to a lay audience, is a key challenge for academics and scientists involved in stakeholder consultation.




The second part of the research aimed to explore issues of consultation in general. The most relevant to this paper was the concept of uncertainty.


Uncertainty is inherent to environmental decision making. By definition, 'the environment' is complex, interdependent and quite often scientific understanding is incomplete. Science cannot be sure that all the components of ecosystems have been identified, let alone whether more than a small part of the interactions between them are understood. The natural world is further complicated by the influence of human activities, and how these interactions may unfold in the future. (Harding, 1998)


Wynne (1992) has separated the concept of uncertainty into four types.

  • Risk is where the behaviour of the system is basically well known and can be defined in terms of mechanisms and probabilities, for example, mechanical failure.
  • Uncertainty is where the parameters of the system are known, but the probability distributions are not, for example, the greenhouse effect.
  • Ignorance is where it's not yet known what is still unknown..
  • Indeterminancy is where it is unclear whether the scientific questions and types of knowledge are appropriate or sufficient. (Wynne, 1992)


It has been argued (Shackley and Wynne, 1996) that uncertainty can actually be 'useful' to science. Sometimes scientists use it to avoid accountability or criticism if policies or decisions based on their advice do not work. Uncertainty has also sometimes been used as a shield to protect scientists' authority by permitting only peers and not the general public to judge their work.


Uncertainty can be useful to business too: it can excuse inaction by suggesting the need for further research to eliminate uncertainty, and thus meanwhile continue mediocre practice. However, uncertainty can also work against the status quo, for example through use of the precautionary principle. (Eden, 1999)


A consultation process can be seen as an opportunity to move forward despite all this uncertainty. However, it depends on the type of rationality that defines environmental debates and whether people can participate on that basis.


Often questions raised by 'lay people' in a consultation process can shape the direction of the science or research that is done. However, once commenced or complete it appears to be very difficult for lay perspectives to challenge it. This may be because the language used is inaccessible. Or it may be because the complexity of the science is invoked to protect one's authority.


Whatever the motives, the effect of technical jargon can mean that those who don't speak the language are left out. And the effect of technical rationality can mean that those who don't make their arguments on scientific grounds are seen as less legitimate participants in a scientific debate. Which may leave stakeholders as receivers of information they don't even understand, rather than participants in a two-way dialogue.




It is becoming increasingly important that technology and development be made more democratic. Stakeholders of technological development should contribute to decisions that affect their lives. However for some stakeholders there is a history of being excluded from such discussions and decisions. While consultation processes represent a potential opportunity for dialogue, exclusion can continue through the nature of technical communication.


In general, more care needs to be taken by scientists and technical people with how concepts are interpreted and language is presented. Where scientific advice or research is uncertain, this should be admitted from the start. However, the challenge is more than just interpreting our existing understanding of the environment to a new audience. To make environmental debates more democratic, other forms of understanding such as morality, traditional knowledge, and aesthetics should be included. This will require new mechanisms to weigh these up, and a cultural shift for many of us.




Eden, S. (1999) 'We have the facts' - how business claims legitimacy in the environmental debate. Environment and Planning A 31, 1295-1309.

Harding, R. (1998) Environmental Decision-making: the role of scientists, engineers and the public. Sydney: Federation Press.

Kakonge, J.O. (1996) Problems with public participation in the EIA process: Examples from sub-saharan Africa. Impact Assessment 14, 309-318.

Shackley, S. and Wynne, B. (1996) Representing uncertainty in global climate change science and policy: boundary-ordering devices and authority. Science, Technology and Human Values 21, 275-302.

Wynne, B. (1992) Uncertainty and Environmental Learning: Reconceiving Science and Policy in the Preventive Paradigm. Global Environmental Change 3,

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