EGU General Assembly 2023
© Author(s) 2023. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Social production of ignorance – the role for geoscientists in addressing “undone science”

Fiona Johnson1,5, Philippa Higgins1,5, Martin Andersen2,5, Kirsty Howey3, Matthew Kearnes4,5, Stuart Khan1,5, and Greg Leslie5,6
Fiona Johnson et al.
  • 1Water Research Centre, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, UNSW, Sydney, Australia (
  • 2Water Research Laboratory, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, UNSW, Sydney, Australia
  • 3Environment Centre NT, Darwin, Australia
  • 4School of Humanities and Languages, UNSW, Sydney, Australia
  • 5Global Water Institute, UNSW, Sydney, Australia
  • 6School of Chemical Engineering, UNSW, Sydney, Australia

In this presentation we discuss the role of geoscientists and engineers in advocating for improved civic science that can minimise the impacts of industrial and mining activities on the environment and downstream communities, with a particular focus on water-related impacts. We argue that, if not carefully designed, data collection, analyses and communication by geoscientists does not always contribute to the wider public good because the issues that communities care about are not addressed – so called “undone science”. A case study, focusing on the environmental impacts of the McArthur River mine (MRM) in a remote part of the Northern Territory, Australia, is used to highlight key issues that should inform civic science and lead to better outcomes for communities and the environment.

Despite thousands of pages of “data” about the MRM project and its impacts, we argue that this project is an example of the social production of ignorance – because the knowledge of the communities most impacted by the mine’s activities is not improved by the reporting and impact assessments associated with the project. Based on a temporal synthesis of independent monitoring reports of the McArthur River Mine which covered the period from 2007 to 2018, we identify three main lessons for improving civic science. Firstly, without adequate baseline monitoring prior to development, data collection during a project cannot satisfactorily assess impacts of a development. Baseline data is particularly important when seasonal and interannual variability is high. Baseline and ongoing monitoring programs should be co-designed with the community, so that what matters to the community is monitored (e.g. culturally important sites, contamination in animal species relevant to the community). Secondly, geoscientists and engineers need to partner with social scientists and local community organisations to ensure that communities are effectively informed about the impacts of development, focusing on the impacts that matter to communities, not just the impacts that are conveniently measured. Finally regulatory processes need to be improved to ensure that problems identified by geoscientists and engineers are addressed.

How to cite: Johnson, F., Higgins, P., Andersen, M., Howey, K., Kearnes, M., Khan, S., and Leslie, G.: Social production of ignorance – the role for geoscientists in addressing “undone science”, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-13910,, 2023.