Audit of Australian research capacity

in eco-social sustainability

Murray RiverA full audit of ‘research capacity’ in ‘eco-social sustainability’, broadly defined, would entail a description of all research undertaken within the social and physical sciences that might assist in preventing the collapse of the Murray-Darling Basin. There is no shortage of information about the current state of the Murray-Darling, or single-discipline research material on ways in which aspects of the situation might be remedied. However, research and discussion on integrating these ideas is less common and is only a comparatively recent development. 

As we have described in our application for seed funding, the basic aim of our network is to:

  • advance knowledge, policy and practice though interdisciplinary analyses of what we already know about the Murray-Darling Basin
  • create exciting new research themes though exploring trans-disciplinary approaches to problem identification and research design
  • produce bold models of action and policy on eco-social sustainability
  • communicate new and innovative representations of the Murray-Darling Basin to a range of Australian publics.

The main focus of this summary of research into Australian research capacity is thus on existing areas in which interdisciplinary work linking social and economic aspects of sustainability is already being conducted. Many of these are represented in our current network. Others are areas of expertise with which we will be looking to form partnerships as our network progresses.

Network partners

The following organisations are associated with the Australian Population Research Network, with which our network component is allied and with which we will be applying for ARC Network status. Our position paper describes in detail our collaborative arrangements with the APRN.

Queensland Centre for Population Research
Australian Centre for Population Research
ANU Demography and Sociology Program

Other network components

Several other networks have made applications with agendas that are related to our own. Once our network is established we will develop links with the principal researchers in these organisations, particularly where their research produces models of best practice in regional sustainability. The networks are (listed by administering university):

  • Australian National University: Sustainable Futures through Understanding Past Human Responses to Environmental Change. This network is run from the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at ANU.
  • University of Wollongong: Nature, Culture and the Challenges of Environmental Sustainability: Bridging the Science/Humanities Divide. This network is run from the School of Geosciences Research Centre for Landscape Change. Their Human Interactions section has projects on GIS use in land management, and on the marketing of Australia’s environment.
  • University of Tasmania: Social Research Network for Sustainable Rural Communities. This network is run from the Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research.
  • Flinders University: Sustainable Regions for a Competitive Australia. This network is run through the School of Geography, Population and Environmental Management, host of the journal Sustaining Regions.
  • Adelaide University: Understanding the Australian Ecosystem: Integrating Contemporary and Historical Perspectives on the Evolution, Ecology and Management of Australia’s Living Resources.

Main academic centres

Australia has 5 primary academic concentrations with a stated focus in the field of social sustainability (all of which are discussed further in our links and resources section).

Hawke Research Institute, University of South Australia
Institute for Sustainable Futures, UTS
Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy, Murdoch University
Global Sustainability Institute at RMIT
'Sustainability Studies' at Curtin University
National Centre for Sustainability (Swinburne University and various other Victorian institutions)

Our network has members in the Hawke Research Institute, and the Institute for Sustainable Futures (Helen Cheney). We are in the process of making contacts with staff in RMIT, Curtin and Swinburne.

Other main centres in which an interdisciplinary approach to sustainability is being pursued

Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia

This institution has recently completed a broad interdisciplinary project to measure the social sustainability of rural areas in Australia, culminating in the report Community sustainability in rural Australia: a question of capital (ASSA, 2002), edited by Margaret Alston and also involving contributions from network members Graeme Hugo (see below) and Ian Gray. The premise of the project was to study by example the various factors leading to the success or failure of community sustainability and in this sense the various studies in the volume will form the genesis of our collection of best practice in regional social sustainability programs.

This, as well as the indicator systems for and definitions of social sustainability in the volume, are discussed further in our position paper.

National Centre for Social Applications of GIS, Adelaide University

This is a research centre run by network member Graeme Hugo. One of the centre’s primary goals is to examine potential uses of geographic information systems technology in policy analysis and development and in that regard the centre is engaged in dialogue between physical and social scientists. The centre ran the Sustainability of Australian Rural Communities project investigating the development of economic, social, human, institutional and environmental capital in the Gilbert Valley Region of South Australia, part of a large ARC-funded rural sustainability project series run by the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (see above).

Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, ANU

A multi-disciplinary research centre, including network member Deborah Bird Rose. The centre is running a large number of environmentally based sustainability projects including:

  • Economic water management in the Murray-Darling Basin
  • Policy and institutional analysis for sustainability
  • Economic principles of sustainability.

The centre also runs the Cultural Environments Initiative. The group studies social factors such as how people produce and disseminate environmental knowledge and how their interactions with environments change both environments and themselves. It also considers how people understand and evaluate environmental change and sustainability, how these domains vary historically and cross-culturally, and how policy interventions contribute to change. Links to individual projects on indigenous knowledge, environmental histories and others are available at the site.

The Institute for Rural Futures, University of New England

This institute focuses on sustainability in rural regions, in particular on sustainable farming. They are also running a study on the Environment and the Arts (on the influence of the visual arts in people’s perceptions of the environment).

Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology

This organisation is noteworthy largely due to the work of Mike Salvaris who has undertaken a wide range of statistical reporting framework projects on social welfare for the New South Wales, Tasmanian and Victorian governments. Salvaris has been seconded to the ABS to work on the Measuring Australia’s Progress reports (see government section, below).


The federal government’s main contribution to the sustainability agenda has been the National Strategy on Ecologically Sustainable Development (NSESD) in 1992. This agenda promoted by this document is closely linked with the Brundtland definition of sustainability and also in trying to meet the environmental targets established in the Rio Summit in 1992.

As could be expected, the NSESD has primarily been furthered by the production of indicator systems, reporting on these systems and attempting to imbed the report findings in federal policy, with a notable focus on the environmental aspects of the sustainability agenda. The major reports include:

  • Are we sustaining Australia: a report against headline sustainability indicators for Australia, a periodic report by Environment Australia, which measures performance against the core objectives of NSESD using a range of indicators first released in 2001
  • State of the environment report, a five-yearly report coordinated by Environment Australia, first issued in 1996 with the second issue in 2001
  • Implementation of ecologically sustainable development by Commonwealth departments and agencies, a report by the Productivity Commission in 1999
  • The intergenerational report, a five-yearly report by the Treasurer first issued in 2002.

Until recently, there has been no federally initiated strategy focusing specifically on the social element of sustainability. The ABS is adopting various internationally approved systems of accounting that take social factors into account; see the ABS report to the OECD in May 2003. In addition the ABS has also recently initiated an entirely new reporting framework, Measuring Australia’s Progress, launched in 2002 (the second issue is due for release in February 2004). The aim of the framework is to move away from the GDP as the main indicator of health and prosperity and to examine social and environmental ways of measuring progress.

A variety of different sustainability strategies have been developed at state or territory level. These vary widely in form and purpose. The Western Australian government has a fully fledged sustainability strategy, featuring a specific model of social sustainability which is well-imbedded in government policy-making procedures and contains the most coherent set of indicators of social sustainability developed in Australia.

The ACT government Office of Sustainability has produced a framework for sustainability that is more dominated by environmental concerns, although it does contain reference to a ‘Social Plan’ for Canberra. The main activity in the ACT at the present time is the gathering of submissions on a discussion paper called Reporting on progress in sustainability in the ACT. Submissions are sought on which indicators should be used in Canberra’s sustainability reporting processes and how they should be managed.

We have noted in the position paper that sustainability agendas should be pursued at a local level, and that examples of best practice should be found and their potential investigated in other regions. It is not the intention of our network to develop a full series of general indicators of social sustainability. Our interest instead is in the way in which the adoption of these strategies affects policy and thereby affects social outcomes, measured according to the indicators developed in the individual projects.  The effectiveness of the Western Australian, South Australian and ACT models will be examined in order to further our study of best practice in regional sustainability.


The CSIRO is one of the main research bodies in the country working on environmental concerns (particularly in the Sustainable Ecosystems Unit). The CSIRO is also at the forefront of research that links environmental and social concerns in Australia. The CSIRO’s Social and Economic Integration Unit aims to 'increase the value of CSIRO research through greater attention to social and economic factors, and the delivery of integrated solutions'. The major project concerning our network is the Evaluation of Best Practice program, run by network member Dr Geoff Syme. This program reviewed the experiences and outcomes of a selection of projects that sought to integrate social and/or economic research within a wider biophysical context. The purpose was to identify what CSIRO could learn from the research that has been conducted so far and how this can inform future practice.

Non-government groups

There are several major non-government groups (not based in any particular university) involved in research into social sustainability. The following are major examples.

  • Australian National Centre for Sustainability is a Canberra-based group seeking to provide a platform for multi-disciplinary approaches to sustainability issues.
  • Australia 21 are a non-profit DEETYA-approved research institute working towards interdisciplinary solutions to major Australian issues. Working on a model developed by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the institute forms working parties of researchers with disparate backgrounds to make policy recommendations. A 'sustainable future' (including social and cultural conceptions of the term) is a key issue at the institute and the board is seeking funds to support a national research network on this issue.
  • Sustainable Population Australia is a non-profit group dedicated to examining population growth and its effect on the environment. This group’s theme is closely allied with that of the Australian Centre for Population Research, one of our network partners.

Recent events

Creating an interdisciplinary framework for sustainability studies has been the subject of several Australian conferences and workshops during 2003:

  • The 'In Search of Sustainability' conference jointly hosted by Australia 21 Ltd, Nature and Society Forum Inc, Sustainable Population Australia, and The Australian Collaboration. Face-to-face meetings were held, 86 main papers were presented online, as well as a series of online forums in which key issues were discussed over a ten-month period. The major outcome is a series of recommendations presented in a discussion paper. This will be published by the CSIRO in book form in 2004. The nature of the recommendations is general, calling for a new political charter including all aspects of sustainability to be drawn up on a federal level.
  • The Social Values Unit at CSIRO and the Institute for Sustainable Futures held a Roundtable on Friday 12 December 2003 for social scientists who work on sustainability. Papers from this Roundtable will be published in 2004.
  • The Western Australian government, in association with the Regional Government Network for Sustainable Development, hosted the Third Conference of the Regional Government Network for Sustainable Development in September 2003. The event was held at the University of Notre Dame (Fremantle), and featured strong representation from Murdoch University’s Institute of Technology and Sustainability Policy. The brief Fremantle Declaration noted: 'It is clear that an integrated "whole of government" approach must guide this process. But the conference consensus was that the regions are the most effective level of government at which the transition towards sustainability can be implemented.'
  • ANU’s Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies held a symposium on 13 May 2003 on Humanities Perspectives on Sustainability. Six online papers discuss the definition of sustainability.

Areas of study and research

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