New research explores value of integrating social science and research in NRM

Healthy Land and Water’s Adrian Crocetti, Glenn Browning and Dr Andrew O’Neill with University of Queensland researcher Sarah Choudhury.

New research is delving into how the adoption of sustainable practices can be fast-tracked by integrating social science and research.

Frustrated by how often social science and research were being overlooked in the field of natural resource management (NRM), University of Queensland researcher, Sarah Choudhury, was determined to work out how they could be better integrated into NRM processes to improve management outcomes.

Attempting to quantify social benefits is not an easy task, and as a result, many large scale, long term benefits have traditionally been excluded from the decision-making process.

So passionate was she about uncovering approaches which strengthen decision-making, increase stakeholder engagement and improve management outcomes, that she designed a PhD around it.

“The theory is that for widescale adoption of sustainable practices there needs to be ‘transformative’ change in how natural resources are governed,” says Sarah.

“To test this theory, I embedded within a team of professionals instead of passively studying them using a traditional research approach. I wanted to demonstrate the value of participatory action research.”

Sarah decided to focus her research on the role of innovation and learning platforms in urban water management in Queensland.

This led her to Healthy Land and Water’s Water by Design program. The program promotes the adoption of sustainable urban water technologies across Queensland. The long-running capacity building program provides several platforms to engage with their stakeholders and has proven a robust initiative for Sarah to base her study.

Sarah says her research has revealed insights into how innovation and learning platforms such as those developed by Water by Design, can be tailored to better respond to the specific needs of diverse stakeholders. It also revealed ways to better document the impact of activities on behavior change. She believes that generating a better understanding of processes at this level of governance can also help inform academic theory of transformative change.

Now nearing the end of the PhD, Sarah says the Community of Practice approach taken by Water by Design has provided insights into best practice governance of these types of groups to improve their capacity to achieve desired outcomes.


Sarah Choudhury

A journey of lifelong learning

Natural Resource Management is something that has always been in Sarah’s blood. After growing up in Biloela, a rural town in Central Queensland, she moved to Brisbane in 2002 to pursue tertiary education, enrolling in a dual degree in Natural Resource Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland (UQ).

After graduating in 2006, she started working as a Natural Resource Economist at the Queensland Department of Primary Industries (now known as the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries). There, she developed a particular interest in creating innovative economic analyses which could incorporate the complex and varied social benefits associated with natural resource management.

This path led Sarah to a role at the Risk and Sustainable Management Group (RSMG) at the University Queensland, where she became involved in bioeconomic modelling of water resources for agriculture and the environment, contributing to the Garnaut Report and Murray Darling Basin Plan.

It was during this time that she decided she needed to broaden her understanding of the social sciences and began looking for courses all over Australia, before finally settling on a Master of Sustainable Systems – Resilient Communities (UQ).

“I wanted to be part of a movement that would improve stakeholder engagement in the development of social-ecological policy in Australia to be more participatory and inclusive of diverse stakeholders and their knowledge.”

While undertaking her Masters, she became increasingly interested in policy development, starting a position at the QLD Department of Environment and Resource Management (DERM). In this role, she was able to apply the learnings from her course to her work developing water resource plans, and vice versa. Following the 2012 QLD election, she continued to work in water resource management, operating as a consultant for Seqwater, the Oxley Creek Catchment Association (OCCA) and UQ.

In 2015, Sarah was granted an APA Scholarship to work on her PhD.

Sarah’s academic and professional journey has not come without challenges. Her PhD represents the culmination of 14 years of study, during which she has worked full time and been raising two children. She also had to make the difficult decision to relocate from Brisbane to Townsville in the midst of the data collection phase of her research, requiring her to continue the process remotely.

Now in the final stages of her PhD research, Sarah is looking to the future. She is currently working with Healthy Land and Water and Brisbane City Council to develop a Local Waterways Livability Assessment, a project she hopes will demonstrate how quantifiable aspects of livability can be used to empower decision-making and build a business case for improving the social benefits from our local waterways.

Eventually, Sarah hopes to be working in a role that directly connects academics and researchers to professionals working in NRM. She believes that only by bridging this divide will we be able to effectively address the issues and threats we will be collectively facing in the years to come.

“We need to develop complex adaptive solutions to manage the complex adaptive social-ecological systems we live in… to increase their resilience in the face of climate change and a growing population. This can’t be done if we continue to work within silos…”


Sarah Choudhury would like to thank her supervisor Helen Ross and Healthy Land and Water’s Andrew O’Neill for their continuing support and for making her PhD project possible. She also acknowledges Healthy Land and Water’s Water by Design team, especially Adrian Crocetti and Glenn Browning, who were an integral part of her research journey and made her feel like part of the team. She is grateful to the Water by Design manager, Rachael Nasplezes, and Healthy Land and Water Strategic Science Manager, Grace Muriuki, for including her in their activities, and greatly appreciated the support of her other UQ supervisors Natalie Jones and Severine Van Bommel.

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