Science

Jul 072014
 

Report WritingReport writing is an area of writing that should be expanded upon in undergraduate courses in academia. I frequently explain to my students that the majority of writing that they are likely to do in their professional careers will be report writing. Yet, universities don’t seem to value this as a skill as much as the professional world does. Report writing, and highly technical writing underpins all other writing types and formats promoted and necessitated and prioritised by universities. Even many purely research oriented journal articles are actually in a report format, so I don’t understand why it has become the black sheep of undergraduate course assessments.

Despite the importance of report writing, and the structured nature of report writing, it is the format that I find my students struggle with the most. Even mature age students who have written reports in the private sector, or for government, tend to fall apart when confronted with writing reports for an undergraduate course.

I understand that essays, critiques and analyses providing summaries and carrying arguments are important and are the backbone of undergraduate assessments. However, these can be present in reports as well. The fact that a report is structured seems to make it seem much more elementary than other writing formats. But for mine, it is the basis for presenting and demonstrating primary evidence – whether this is qualitative or quantitative.

Specificity, accuracy and succinctness are great skills developed and assisted by practice in report writing. Students who hide a lack of understanding with wordiness and vagueness tend to struggle with report writing due to the nature of what is required. Assessing report writing in an undergraduate course would encourage students to learn to focus their writing, and promote a balanced approach to argument.

Report writing is also as varied and adaptable as the other writing formats promoted in undergraduate courses. Reports can be generated for the representation of data, for the documentation of a process, or for providing recommendations and conclusions to an audience.

Being able to demonstrate ability to present primary evidence is something I would like all of my students to be able to achieve. The rise of evaluations for research programmes, community programmes, or projects undertaken by the private sector in my opinion necessitate a greater emphasis on teaching the basic parameters of report writing in greater depth.

Although I studied various science subjects, social sciences and humanities over the course over my studies, it wasn’t until I began working as a research assistant, and writing reports and evaluations for government, that I felt comfortable with writing reports. Apart from publications, I can’t remember writing anything else – which I find strange when I look at what is required in undergraduate courses.

So what do my students struggle with when writing reports?

Abstracts are the biggest problems that students face. Somewhere between an introduction and an executive summary, the abstract is hung out to dry. An executive summary is something that should be promoted as a tool to be used as an assessment piece, in and of itself, but I digress. I find that students haven’t read enough peer reviewed material to be able to write successful abstracts. Writing abstracts for students will be the subject of another post, as it is worthy of more discussion than what I can offer here.

Introductions are also problematic for many students, strangely enough. In reality, an introduction for a report should be no different to an essay or other format – just that it is structured differently. And this is where I believe reports should be used more frequently in higher education, because in the process of writing a report, students are forced to state their hypothesis or what they are attempting to prove/ disprove. The matter of factness of stating the intentions of what is being written and presented is not something that is done well by undergraduate students.

The inability to write in this way has consequences once students become involved in their own research, through further study or as a research assistant. I know that I had problems with this, and it probably took me the entire length of my thesis to realise this flaw.

The presentation of data is also something that students struggle with. It’s quite often lumped in without much thought given to it. There is often no lead in to the results presented, or context provided. Results and data are simply thrown in without much thought as to how they are to be interpreted. It’s perhaps my most common feedback in report writing assessments – that data in tables and figures must be referred to in the text of the document.

Discussions are an area where students really need a lot of guidance to be able to extend the concepts that they are analysing in their report. I don’t understand why this is so difficult for students. It’s essentially a mini essay within the report, which students should already be familiar with. However, it requires dovetailing and being tied into the investigation, experiment or other process which produces the primary evidence.

What are the opportunities for promoting report writing?

A lot is made of the technological savvy of generation y. For mine, the ability to be creative, using new technologies and data tools is an area on which this generation should actually focus. I would like to see new ways of analysis and presentation of data. Using traditional data tools and new tools alike to present and promote data in new and interesting ways. Presentation and explanation of data as a standalone assessment piece, is something I think should be promoted more explicitly in undergraduate courses.

There is a perception that report writing should be formulaic, traditional and ritualised. I think this has led to most reports going left unread and unused in the workplace. But they are an untapped resource, especially for promotional or corporate education purposes. I want to see my students playing around with different data visualisation techniques. I want to see them be able to show potential employers that they can reinterpret “boring” reports and evaluations in new and interesting ways. We live in a world which is data driven, and data is demanded by bosses and management. But we also live in a world where this data is hidden, and underutilised.

Using elements of reports as assessment items that will be required in the workforce is the area of opportunity. Students are going to demand to be provided with relevant skills to what they will require once in the workforce. I can’t think of anytime I have been asked to write an essay. But I have been asked to write evaluations, procedures and policies. All of these are potential ways to integrate report writing as an assessment task within an undergraduate degree course, which will provide long lasting value to students.

Apr 162014
 

Market Based InstrumentsIn a previous post I explained that the Carbon Price is not a Carbon Tax. That it was an Effluent Charge with a Tax Differential component. Regardless of this, they are all examples of Market Based Instruments. What they are is actually known as Price Based Market Based Instruments or just Price Based Instruments. There are generally three kinds of Market Based Instruments: Price Based Instruments, Quantity Based Instruments (or Rights Based Instruments) and Information Based Instruments.

You may have heard the Minister for the Environment explain that they will replace the “Carbon Tax” with a market based mechanism, insinuating that the Carbon Price is not a market based instrument. He is quite wrong; my master’s thesis was entitled ‘Market Based Instruments for Reducing Pollution Loads Entering Darwin Harbour’ and I will explain in basic terms what these actually are.

Price Based Instruments

Market based instruments that set a price, a charge or a fixed unit cost are known as Price Based Instruments. As previously discussed, Price Based Instruments might include policy mechanisms and instruments such as effluent charges and taxes. But they may also include:

Full Cost Pricing (and include different pricing structures)

Tax Rebates and Tax Differentiation

Insurance Premium Charges

Reverse Deposit Schemes (Container Deposit Schemes)

Subsidies, Rebates and Grants

User Charges

Performance Bonds

Covenants

These are what is known as Pigouvian Taxes. And I think the term Pigouvian Tax is where a lot of the confusion has entered the debate. However, all this term means is that the polluter absorbs the full cost of the production (or consumption) process. How this is done most efficiently and effectively is to be determined by the policy maker, and will be the subject of a later post. How price based instruments act as a market based instrument will also be discussed at a later stage, because it isn’t necessarily intuitively apparent – which is partly the problem that gives rise to comments and purchase in the population that pricing is not a market mechanism.

Quantity and Rights-Based Instruments

Quantity and rights-based Market Based Instruments are what most people think about when they think of ‘Market Based Instruments’. There really only a few types of instruments in this category and it is probably the narrowest policy set for Market Based Instruments. There really are only two types of Market Based Instruments in this category:

Cap and Trade Schemes, Permits and Tradeable Permits

Total Maximum Daily Load Schemes (including accounting and budgeting schemes)

These Market Based Instruments contain a strong regulatory basis as well as frequent market transactions. Offsets can be created and in this sense they operate both as a futures exchange and also a quasi options exchange, with regulatory bodies acting as market-makers. The exchange’s effectiveness is successful or not successful depending on the interaction of these elements.

Theoretically, such Market Based Instruments are most suited to environmental policies where there are a large number of diffuse polluters, and the impacts of pollution are not isolated. That is, a reduction in pollution in one area will benefit the whole, not just the local environment. I will discuss this dynamic at a later date. But in short, it is why Australia’s carbon pollution reduction policies have favoured a cap and trade scheme.

Information-Based Market Based Instruments

Information based Market Based Instruments are also known in the literature as Friction Reduction Schemes, or Friction Reduction Market Based Instruments.

You may ask why these are included as Market Based Instruments. The simple answer is that markets function on the basis of information. There are two things that move a market – noise, and information. Companies listed on stock exchanges are regularly releasing information. It is a legal requirement. There is legal recourse for some buyers when they have been sold something under false pretences in many different kinds of transactions.

These Market Based Instruments are said to reduce friction because they are designed to provide the user or the transacting parties with the available information. Available information is an important component of rational choice making in decision theory in classical economics, and I have some level of qualms with this philosophical position. But for the purposes of policy making, it is at least a worthy aspiring goal for policy.

Information based Market Based Instruments include:

Right to Know legislation

Eco-labelling

Public Information Campaigns

Accreditation

Summary

I hope that I have had some success in helping shed light on what actually Market Based Instruments actually are in environmental policy. There is a broad range of policy options at the hands of decision makers. The pros and cons of each and in what circumstances each market based instrument is likely to be effective will be discussed over time in this blog. But don’t be fooled by politicians and their use of jargon when discussing Market Based Instruments and the underlying philosophy for addressing environmental problems.

If you have any questions or queries, leave a comment, or suggestion. Or if you want me to go over anything in detail, let me know!

Mar 262014
 

Environmental PolicyEnvironmental policy development can be a mystery to many, but it is generally not that difficult to understand. Most environmental policy is developed based on the “extrinsic values” that we place on them. This is a materialist approach, based on human uses, as opposed to “intrinsic values” which are the value of the ecosystem in and of itself.

I’d argue that over the long term, they are actually one and the same. And that it is only over the short term where the immediate extraction and exploitation value are highest that it actually has any tangible meaning. Long term policy is not an area where economics covers itself in glory when it comes to the environment, but I guess that is another debate for another day.

Despite its philosophical failings, valuing human uses of an environment gives us a starting point to be able to develop environmental policy in the most pressing areas. To explain the rationale for environmental policy development, I’ll be using the ‘Securing Western Australia’s Marine Future’s’ report: ‘How We Use and Understand the Marine Environment’ as an example. Hopefully this will illustrate how environmental policy is developed, and the factors that go into making informed environmental policy decisions.

The Requirement for Environmental Policy

The marine environment is an ecosystem, in particular in Australia that is under pressure from multiple uses. These include fishing and boating, recreation activities like surfing and even on shore development for housing, pollution runoff and so on.

As such, human use reports and evaluations at least allow policy makers the option of prioritising the highest value human use above other uses. This does have its own problems however, and if the highest value human use is not sustainable, then it is not good policy.

Methods and Data Collection

Human use reports can assess whether the human activities are sustainable over the long term, what impact they are having and have had, and how use interacts with other activities. Typically, these reports synthesise a substantial amount of pre-existing data – qualitative and quantitative, scientific and social. The range of data used to form conclusions is why these reports and studies are useful for environmental policy formulation. The Marine Futures report collates a substantial amount of data from WA State Government departments to form the basis of many of its topics of investigation.

Through interviews with recreational and commercial fishers, as well as quantitative data from various departments it was concluded that changes in the South West fishery have occurred. These changes led the interviewees to conclude that the current use of the environment was unsustainable. It was only through the collection of both the qualitative and quantitative data that the conclusion that fishing in the South West and Southern zones was unsustainable.

Outcomes in Environmental Policy

The biggest advantage of human use reports for the formulation of environmental policy is that they often provide reasoning behind changes in the environment. In the Marine Futures report, the explanation of changes in technology, demographic changes and policy changes are able to be put together to form a coherent “story” as to why things are the way they are, and what needs to be done.

For environmental policy, a coherent narrative for why something is the case is important (as I have explained previously), when the public requires a full explanation of why something is being done, or is required to be done. If the public is not informed then misinformation is likely to run rife, and interest groups will dominate any policy discussion. But if the public is fully informed, and provided with the available data, it is much less likely to face opposition.

The Economics of Environmental Policy

Economic considerations are also able to be evaluated and this is where the highest value user can be given priority in a policy discussion. But it is also where the greatest rub and greatest debate lies. As I pointed out earlier, it largely depends on what time frame is being analysed. Over the long term, activities and users that are least extractive will produce the greatest economic benefit. But this disregards economic imperatives over the short term. It is another area where human use reports are valuable to try and make decisions which balance these factors. A prime example of policy decisions being out of kilter with human uses and sustainability in favour of a narrow economic and political interest is the shutting out of commercial fishers in the Perth region, without restrictions being applied on recreational fishers.

Education and Social Policy Recommendations

The report also makes clear why an education campaign for certain activities is needed for the sustainable use of the Western Australian environment. According to the report, recreational fishers who were new to fishing attributed environmental changes that were inconsistent with the views of long term users and the available science on these topics. When frictions are occurring in the use of the environment such as these, it is of maximum benefit to provide accurate information to inform this section of the public.

Promoting Environmental Policy

Some human uses and interactions with the environment can actually enhance human amenity, environmental productivity and value. This is the gold standard in environmental policy and protection, and should be the aim of policy makers when making decisions. One such example of this is the Busselton Jetty, where physical infrastructure – the jetty – provides habitat for the surrounding ecosystem (an artificial reef), but also provides a site for human recreation and education which would otherwise not be in place if it weren’t for human intervention.

So What?

As you can see, human use studies and reports provide the basis for developing environmental policy. By matching science with human use and the interaction between people and the environment, environmental policy can be enacted that is least harmful to the environment, or most beneficial to the community. In many parts of the country, Marine Parks have been set aside on the basis of human use studies. Without acknowledging the human uses of the environment, observations and community wishes are often excluded in the environmental policy development process. It is why any policy, such as those looking at pollution reduction, is much harder to justify and provide emphasis without human use studies. It is why one of the policy recommendations in my thesis was to conduct a human use study in the Darwin Harbour region.

If you have any thoughts on the development of environmental policy, or this brief explanation, feel free to let me know below. Point out any of the obvious problems inherent in this approach and I’ll take the time to look at examining these problems down the track.

Further Reading

Davies, A., Tonts, M., Pelusey, H., & Niedzwiadek, M. (2008). Securing Western Australia’s Marine Futures: How We Use and Understand the Marine Environment. Perth, Western Australia: University of Western Australia.

Mar 132014
 

Science of the Unseen / Creative Commons Public DomainOne of the many problems with new scientific endeavours is the inability of the general public to understand them. Much of what is now being discovered in the scientific field is beyond the ability for one single human to be able to perceive, to analyse or to comprehend. It is the science of the unseen. I previously wrote about the development of oceans and how so much is still to be explored. This post follows that up by looking at how and why we can comprehend science related to such huge endeavours.

The inability for people to be able to understand matters from their own perspective leads many to be sceptical, and often invokes incredulous responses that hark back to a previous time where science was pitted against religion. This can result in appeals to erroneous “facts” based on experiences which appear logical or rational but actually make no sense and are not true.

A classic example of this recently is our now Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, battling with his own opinions, up against the weight of evidence of science in relation to human induced climate change. How could a “weightless”, “odourless“, “invisible”, unseen element be the source of so much trouble? After all, we can’t observe it. Not least from our cosy individual position in the universe.

It is only because of multiple observations, multiple experiments and the use of multiple senses that we can make such claims about the impact of carbon pollution. In that sense, our Prime Minister’s claim has absolutely no relevance to the point he was trying to make. Even if his “facts” were true, they are probably irrelevant to the impact of carbon pollution on climate change. But what they do point to is the natural human scepticism of things that are unseen.

This phenomenon can also be seen in the “debates” regarding Darwinian evolution. For anyone with some degree of scientific knowledge or contemporary understanding, they are painful to watch. Richard Dawkins in his book, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence For Evolution‘, proposes to invoke the mathematical terminology “theorem” to redress this problem – where evidence is overwhelming from a multitude of sources so that it is no longer a theory, but is as proven, or free from disproof, that this ever likely to occur. But once again, it is a scientific endeavour only understood from multiple generations of scientific observation and analysis. It is difficult for the layperson to understand the science without deferral to experts, or trust that multiple viewpoints are correct.

All of these issues came to mind when I began to look at plate tectonics for Oceanography. I hadn’t really thought these actually had any connection previously, but they definitely do.

Plate tectonics is the study of continental drift and other features related to the movement of continents. It is a relatively new area of study, and has been shrouded in much controversy, much like the sciences above that also aren’t immediately visible. However, plate tectonics, seismology and related fields don’t appear to have the same sceptical weight that those involved in climate science and evolutionary biology do.

Why is that? Earthquakes are pretty distinctive to experience, having felt a couple whilst living in Darwin. And I don’t think people doubt the existence of volcanoes. But we also don’t seem to have to debate the causes of these natural phenomena. Despite Earthquakes and Volcanoes and related observations once being attributed to angry gods and other mythologies, I don’t see people invoking these against the science behind and theories of plate tectonics.

One reason for this is the sensory experience of the results of continental drift. These are what Karl Popper would deem to be “inter-sensually” testable. It is not something climate science or evolutionary biology has immediately at its disposal. Plate tectonics has a fossil history, observable sensory experiences, astronomical observations and measurements and data first gathered by military and naval vessels.

It is the last point that really got me thinking. Do you think if the military came out and said that evolution is a fact, and that creationism is complete boloney, that it would make a difference? What about if the defence force said the same thing of anthropogenic global warming, that it was an undeniable fact? How much does this authoritative weight influence public opinion? What if the military-scientific complex and machine actually worked for the betterment of man and understanding, rather than in self interest? Because it is the self interest and competitive advantage that resulted in deep sea mapping that helped provide evidence for continental drift. How could it be used to address our most pressing environmental and scientific concerns?

I don’t profess to know the answers to these questions. All I know is that the way humans understand things is a complicated, often paradoxical process, influenced by social pressures and individual experience. The way politicians battle to interact with and communicate science further complicates matters and it doesn’t further human understanding.

I’d like to know your thoughts on the matter.

 

Further Reading

Dawkins, R. (2009). The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution: Simon and Schuster.

Popper, K. (2002). The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London: Routledge.

Mar 062014
 
Back Beach, Bunbury
Back Beach, Bunbury

So I’ve been tasked with teaching a unit in Oceanography this semester. It’s hard to not to feel that I’m out of my depth, so to speak. As someone versed mainly in water quality management, there is only so much I can bring to the table, personally. But then I realised it doesn’t particularly matter, because almost everyone else involved in this field is in the same boat.

Oceanography is perhaps one of the few remaining “descriptive” sciences which is a collection of other scientific areas, simply because we do not know enough about the topic itself – or because it is too huge an area of investigation to be compartmentalised. In this way, I guess it is much like “climate science” or “climatology” where multiple scientific endeavours have been thrust towards forming a coherent study in an area requiring research and investigation.

We really have only begun to break the surface in our knowledge of the oceans. It is truly in many ways one of our “last frontiers”. The oceans are alien to us, so much so that much of the understanding of oceans comes from our study of the universe.

The cry of many rings out that we should stop spending so much on such far flung ventures as research in astronomy. But it is this research and investigation and its ability to look back through time that has helped us unlock many of the secrets of the formation of the ocean and the history of planet Earth. It is the best example of seemingly obscure scientific endeavour having “real world” application. We have an idea of how our oceans might have formed because we can observe similar processes happening elsewhere in the universe. Medical imaging is being improved because of the advances in space and astronomy research.

Many of our waters, particularly off the coast of Australia are quite literally unchartered. But I didn’t realise exactly how extensive this area is until I read the brilliant book Northern Voyager’s: Australia’s Monsoon Coast, which is a fantastic historical work on the maritime history of Northern Australia.

It is why the oceans are so special – they hold such a significant place in the history and culture of many civilizations. It is why oceans are the nexus of myth and science and where photographers, historians, poets, photographers, film makers, artists, surfers, submariners and a whole host of scientists all have a role to play in the study, representation, understanding and protection of the oceans into the future.

It is also why I feel comfortable about talking about Oceanography and especially in my areas of expertise. There are some pressing issues facing the water quality of our oceans. The impact of changing water quality and in particular salinity levels and ocean currents is something I personally find fascinating. As is the market failure and subsequent lack of responsibility in addressing the great ocean garbage patches. Over the next few months, I look forward to bringing you a series of posts relating to these and other issues in our oceans.

Further Reading

Powell, A. (2010). Northern Voyagers: Australia’s Monsoon Coast in Maritime History. Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne.