Gunilla Oberg

Professor

Research Interests

Science and knowledge production
Scientific controversies surrounding the evaluation of chemical risk (epistemic and ontological)
Indigenous data justice as related to chemicals regulation & management
Social and cultural factors of chemicals regulation & management
Vocabulary, Knowledge, Significance and Thought Building
environmental health
The challenge of teaching science as a process and not a deliverer of irrefutable facts
The role of deliberation in science

Relevant Thesis-Based Degree Programs

Affiliations to Research Centres, Institutes & Clusters

Research Options

I am available and interested in collaborations (e.g. clusters, grants).
I am interested in and conduct interdisciplinary research.
 
 

Research Methodology

Mixed social science methods

Recruitment

Master's students
Doctoral students
Postdoctoral Fellows
2023

The Egesta Lab seeks outstanding graduate student applicants to obtain doctoral or masters degrees under the Resources, Environment and Sustainability (RES) graduate program. Indigenous students are particularly welcome as part of our growing program "Weaving Indigenous world views into existing chemicals management practices" which is conducted in collaboration with Indigenous scholars with expertise in Indigenous Studies, Indigenous Data Justice and Indigenous knowledge systems.

Successful candidates will study the production and use of science for policy addressing questions such as What kind of knowledge is needed, used and trusted? Why are some types of knowledge privileged and others silenced? How does privileged knowledge impact perceived solutions? In what ways do existing systems perpetuate harm to Indigenous peoples? How might we facilitate decision-makers and the public to ‘unpack’ assumptions, values and preferences embedded in dominant knowledge? What is the role of values in science-for-policy?

My research program is presently focusing on science for policy related to chemicals management, particularly endocrine disruptors in collaboration with staff in Health Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada.

I also conduct research in higher education, with the questions above in the center but then asking how to teach about science for policy  (knowledge about knowledge).

 

Applicants should have a background in a relevant field in the social sciences (e.g. law, Indigenous studies, data justice, political science, planning, risk perception), the humanities (science studies) or the natural sciences (e.g. toxicology, endocrinology, epidemiology, risk assessment, environmental chemistry). Double expertise is an advantage

I support experiential learning experiences, such as internships and work placements, for my graduate students and Postdocs.
I am open to hosting Visiting International Research Students (non-degree, up to 12 months).
I am interested in supervising students to conduct interdisciplinary research.

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ADVICE AND INSIGHTS FROM UBC FACULTY ON REACHING OUT TO SUPERVISORS

These videos contain some general advice from faculty across UBC on finding and reaching out to a potential thesis supervisor.

Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision

Dissertations completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest dissertations.

A life cycle assessment of the environmental impacts of small to medium sports events (2018)

In the face of climate change and environmental concerns, sport event organizers have incorporated measures to improve environmental sustainability into their event planning. In 1994, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) added the environment as the third pillar of the Olympic Movement, alongside sport and culture, to signal its importance. However, event organizers don’t have a clear picture of the impacts of their events and are only beginning to use quantitative data as part of their planning process. The scientific literature and the event industry have recognized the need for theoretical and methodological work to better assess and understand the pattern of environmental impacts of events. The need is greatest for small to medium sized events. The goal of this research was to analyze the explanatory power and use-value of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to examine the environmental impacts and inform planning of small to medium events. Two case studies were conducted: the UBC Athletics & Recreation varsity 2011–2012 athletic season (UBC Athletics) held at the University of British Columbia over a one-year period, and the Special Olympics Canada 2014 Summer Games (SOC 2014) held over five days in Vancouver, British Columbia. LCA methodology was used to quantify and compare the environmental impacts in key organizational areas. The findings show that LCA has the potential to identify environmental impacts within small to medium sport events. They also show that impacts related to venues dominated across all environmental impact categories for UBC Athletics due to energy consumption and construction materials. Travel was the dominant contributor for SOC 2014 and was a major contributor for UBC Athletics – largely due to people travelling from out of town. The activities related to accommodation, materials, waste, communication and food were significantly smaller contributors to the overall environmental footprint. Sport organizers would benefit from applying LCA as a quantitative tool to rigorously identify areas of significant impact and target planning efforts accordingly, particularly for long distance travel and activities with significant energy use. Finally, I conclude that organizers need to be more aspirational in how they design events and leverage societal change to become environmentally sustainable.

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Master's Student Supervision

Theses completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest theses.

Characterizing arguments about endocrine disruptors and human health (2023)

Scientific controversies surrounding complex questions of societal concern are at times invoked as reasons to delay policy action. Previous research suggests there are different and potentially irreconcilable ways of knowing in the sciences. The aim of the present study is to explore if distinct arguments can a) be detected in scientific literature about endocrine disruptors in relation to human health and, b) are rooted in different perceptions of the types of knowledge considered reliable, relevant, and valuable for informing chemicals risk assessment.The analysis led to the identification of a series of arguments that differed in their starting points, the type of inferences they claim can be drawn from certain evidence, the amount of evidence needed to draw a conclusion and the research questions that ought to be answered. The arguments placed different weights on methods commonly used for evaluating the link between EDs and human health, including mechanistic studies, epidemiological studies and animal studies. The present study suggests that policy relevant debates are happening in ED scientific literature. The findings also indicate that the operation of chemical regulatory systems to some extent dictate the knowledge being produced in the literature because findings are being developed with policy applications in mind, although this could be a pragmatic approach for scientists to ensure their work is compatible for the existing policy operations.

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How can we begin decolonizing the management of chemical risk? : identifying barriers towards achieving data justice and indigenous data sovereignty in Canada’s chemical management process (2023)

A growing body of research is demonstrating that the ways in which environmental and health data is collected, analyzed, utilized, stored, and shared has not only restricted the ability of Indigenous communities and experts to influence such processes, but has also lessened the relevance and usefulness of data for Indigenous communities. These present data structures, which rest on colonial thought styles, are also complicit in harms done to Indigenous peoples, making the need for change vital. My research aims to shed light on the ways in which Canada’s current data practices in chemical risk management form barriers to meaningful and respectful inclusion of Indigenous needs, expertise, and knowledge, specifically from the perspectives of data justice and Indigenous data sovereignty (IDS). This was done through a modified version of the brokered dialogue method through which I facilitated dialogue about present data practices between government staff with expertise in Canadian chemicals risk management and the research team, which includes experts with considerable expertise in Indigenous knowledge systems. The dialogue took place in the form of a series workshops and individual conversations with me, with workshops informing the content of the conversations, and the conversations guiding the direction of the next workshop. Three key barriers to data justice IDS were identified on the basis of what would be most actionable for the Government Team. Firstly, the existing methods of engaging Indigenous peoples are not inciting meaningful engagement. Secondly, the government tends to practice one-way communication wherein information is conveyed passively to the public without attempts at actively listening to the public. Thirdly, Indigenous peoples are not treated as rightsholders, but instead spoken of and treated as the public or stakeholders. These three findings present barriers to data justice and IDS in chemical risk assessment as they impede the ability of Indigenous peoples, communities, and Nations from making or determining data-related decisions and actions. For the purpose of beginning the process of decolonizing chemical risk assessments, I recommend that the government prioritizes actions towards meaningful engagement.

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The challenge of assessing effective science communication training (2023)

During the past few decades, an increasing number of science communication training events have been on offer. The focus of these events is mainly on developing technical, journalistic-type skills in ‘getting the message across.’ This training often relies on the deficit model, which assumes that the public is undereducated. This assumption is problematic because it ignores that the different targeted audiences have different types and levels of knowledge and ways of interpreting information that depend on values, beliefs, and concerns. A review of the literature suggests an assessment of current practices could motivate reflection among science communication trainers on the utility of the deficit model. To date, no tool is available that assesses the effectiveness of science communication training. This study aims to address this gap by developing a framework and a tool to assess the effectiveness of science communication training. This study employs community-based participatory action research in collaboration with the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC). Data were collected using a review of training in science communication, surveys, informal conversations, and participant observations. The framework developed in this thesis conceptualizes science communication training assessment using a modified Kirkpatrick model, the Theory of Planned Behavior, and an authentic assessment approach. The survey offers a functional tool to assess previous knowledge in science communication, expectation, and interests before the training and a change in knowledge, skills, and planned behavior after the training. In addition, this thesis provides support for the hypothesis that an assessment framework can motivate science communication trainers to reflect on the utility of the deficit model and help them design, select, and use strategies that are appropriate for their initiatives. Researching the relationship between the current state of science communication training relying on the deficit model makes it evident that a revised approach to training is needed. This study adds to the understanding of science communication assessment as the first step for improvement.

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Uncertainty and epistemic cultures in the endocrine disruptor expert deliberation (2022)

As with other complex areas of scientific research, the risk assessment of endocrine-disruptors (EDs) involves significant uncertainty. An added complication is preliminary research suggests there are different ‘Epistemic Cultures’ present in the field – groups of scientists that, due to differing experimentation practices, framings, reasoning, and values, have divergent understandings of the problems at hand, and relatedly, different understandings of the uncertainty the field faces. This study aims to (1) take a first step towards ‘mapping’ the different understandings of uncertainty in the field and (2) evaluate if these differences provide further support for the proposed existence of different epistemic cultures in the ED scientific landscape. To do this, a methodology inspired by Parsons and Lavery’s ‘Brokered Dialogue’ is employed, involving conducting uncertainty focused interviews with two scientists understood as being members of different epistemic cultures, and then showing the footage of each interview to the other scientist for response, before repeating the process for a third and final round of comments. The data is then analysed thematically, dialogically and narratively. This research technique reveals a number of interesting similarities and differences between the two participant scientists’ understandings, most notably, a core narrative divergence in what part of the broader system they understand the uncertainty issues as stemming from. By this core divergence, it’s concluded the results broadly support the existence of different epistemic cultures in the ED scientific landscape.

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Investigating local preparedness for managing endocrine disruptors (2021)

Innovations in the biochemical industry have outpaced regulatory risk management controls, exposing human and environmental populations to the risks and uncertainties posed by endocrine disruptors (ED). ED exposure originates from everyday products such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products designed for attending to medical conditions and aesthetic qualities of life; however, exposure can bind, block, or mimic hormone receptors threatening irregular cognitive development and reproductive growth. Globally, governments are revising policies and negotiating alternative risk management approaches to reduce adverse impacts of environmental exposure. In light of growing international regulatory interests and the Government of Canada’s intention to update the Chemicals Management Plan, future regulations governing EDs are expected, and local governments will be required to respond. A major source of ED contamination is municipal sewage and wastewater systems as EDs are discharged from a range of sources: industrial discharge, agricultural run-off, disposal of pharmaceuticals, and domestic sewage. Local governments are positioned at the intersection of these uses and are responsible for wastewater management. Source control policy and end-of-pipe wastewater treatment are common management strategies implemented by local governments to manage contaminants; however, knowledge gaps and uncertainties posed by EDs and available wastewater treatment plant technologies present additional challenges. This research is designed to understand local government perceptions on future challenges, preferred management strategies, and required resources to manage EDs. This work was completed through a case study using a Canadian local government as the case. Initial desktop research of chemicals management in Canada established Canada’s regulatory context and distinguished the jurisdictional responsibilities of local, Provincial, and Federal Governments. The case study was described through document analysis of local government management plans and policies to understand the governance structure and existing management strategies. Empirical material was collected through semi-structured interviews with local government staff and decision-makers knowledgeable and involved in the community’s source control program and wastewater treatment processes. The aim of this work is to build an understanding of the preparedness of local Canadian governments by investigating the local response to future regulation, identify expected challenges and outline the resources to help local governments meet future demands.

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Chemical controversy: exploring scientific disagreement around endocrine disrupting chemicals (2020)

Jurisdictions around the world are currently developing regulation to manage endocrine disruptors (EDs)–substances that have the potential to disrupt the hormonal system–but the scientific community is divided over what regulatory approach is best supported by science. Some ED scientists support a hazard-based approach, which restricts substances based on their potential to cause an adverse health effect. Others support a risk-assessment approach, which assesses the likelihood of real-world exposure at a harmful dose. The typical response to scientific controversy is to call for more research with the aim of clarifying facts and achieving consensus. However, this approach is rarely successful in complex fields surrounded by uncertainties, potentially because it ignores value-related and cultural differences between sides, which commonly underlie controversy in policy-relevant fields. This exploratory thesis aims to describe the modes of thinking characteristic of hazard and risk scientists. To address this, two focus groups were conducted with hazard and risk scientists whose work informs environmental ED regulation. The focus groups were analyzed using an empathetic and symmetrical approach centering around dominant narratives about ED research and regulation. The analysis found starkly contrasting narratives: the hazard story was about the insurmountable complexity and uncertainty of environmental problems, and industry influence on regulation; the risk story was about barriers to efficient and effective science-policy processes. The narratives were supported by different framings of EDs and different archetypes of science-policy actors. The archetypes from the two sides functioned as tools in a boundary struggle over the definition of good science for use in ED regulation: each story highlights the biases of the disputing side and asserts their sides’ epistemic authority. The dispute has broad ramifications: certain hazard scientists view ED research as an early step in a paradigmatic shift in regulatory toxicology. In line with Knorr-Centina, I conclude that although the hazard and risk approaches are incommensurable; each adds distinct epistemic value to regulatory research on EDs. In concordance with other studies, this conclusion reveals a need to revise science-policy processes so as to leverage a plurality of sciences. Dialogue and increased transparency are suggested as next steps towards this goal.

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System dynamics analysis of impacts of biosolids and biosolids-derived biochar land application on agricultural soil quality (2020)

Modern sewage treatment results in the production of biosolids (treated sewage sludge), and more biosolids are produced as populations grow and minimum treatment standards increase. This leads to the question of what to do with the biosolids we create. For decision-makers determining a biosolids use strategy, choosing an appropriate use for their context is not a straightforward decision, as it involves weighing pros and cons and making trade-offs. One jurisdiction currently engaged in biosolids management decision-making is the Capital Regional District (CRD) in British Columbia, Canada. The CRD is constructing a new sewage treatment system which will be producing dried Class A biosolids by the end of 2020 and must determine a long-term use for these biosolids. Two biosolids use options that may be considered are (1) direct agricultural land application and (2) conversion to biochar for subsequent agricultural land application. This thesis applied a systems approach to comparing the impact of these two management options (land-applying either dried Class A biosolids or biochar derived from those biosolids) on agricultural soil quality. This was done by using system dynamics (SD) modelling. Biosolids land application led to a greater amount of plant available nitrogen and both stable and labile carbon in the soil, as well as greater crop yields, but also led to more nitrogen leaching and an increased presence of endocrine disrupting compounds. Biochar land application surprisingly did not lead to a greater amount of stable carbon, but did result in a lower amount of nitrogen leaching and no risk due to endocrine disrupting compounds, however also led to a minimal crop yield and meant nitrogen needed to be added to the soil. Reducing the application frequency of biochar did not have a significant influence on soil quality and crop growth, whereas adding mineral fertilizer had a substantial positive effect, and this second strategy should be investigated further. This study contributes to biosolids management decision-making by providing a comparative analysis of the use of biosolids or biosolids-derived biochar on agricultural land as a biosolids reuse option, from the perspective of soil quality.

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Science and values in a wastewater treatment controversy (2019)

Different scholars hold that values embedded in science are a central reason why more research does not solve scientific controversies related to complex environmental issues. In the CapitalRegional District, British Columbia, Canada, different scientists have positioned themselves for and against the construction of a wastewater treatment plant in a debate framed as purely technical. This study investigates how scientists with opposing positions view nature and consider uncertainties, as well as what are their assumptions. I analyzed peer-reviewed publications of scientists who have positioned themselves publicly on either side of the controversy. Then, I conducted four semi-structured interviews with two scientists from each side. I found that scientists against treatment framed nature as tolerant to disturbances up to a limit and believed that scientific research can eliminate uncertainties. They assumed that sewage is not a risk because it is composed mainly of nutrients and traditional wastewater quality measurements have not shown evidence of harm. In contrast, scientists in favor of treatment portrayed nature as fragile and judged uncertainty as worrisome based on potentially harmful consequences. They also considered the sewage a risk because of the chemical substances it contains which are not included in traditional measurements. This study suggests that value-laden perspectives impact scientists’ positions and recommendations even in a seemingly technical controversy.

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Supporting the implementation of effective urban water conservation and demand management strategies (2017)

There is an urgent need to ensure the sustainability of urban water resources. In the face of growing challenges including urbanization, climate change, and increased competition for available resources, new and innovative water management strategies are required. The conventional approach to sustainable urbanwater management typically focusses on the supply dimension; however, this has proven to be largelyinadequate and many are calling for a new approach to addressing this issue. The aim of this thesis is toexamine how the water meter data management and analysis systems might be improved to better supportwater conservation efforts by exploring the literature and carrying out a case study of the City ofVancouver. Literature covering the field of urban water demand modeling as well as conservationinterventions and their use in reducing potable water demand were reviewed within the context of thechanging understanding of urban water resource sustainability and its dimensions. A case study of theCity of Vancouver parks system then explored how existing water meter data could be leveraged tosupport conservation efforts. The results found that while there have been substantial efforts undertakento characterize and understand the factors that influence water demand, behaviour and social factorsremain largely unaccounted for which are vital dimensions to include in the development of solutions.The case study findings demonstrated that the analysis of existing data can be successful in understandingconservation strategy options, which can be a useful entry point in addressing this highly complexproblem. Across the literature and case study the findings highlight the gap in knowledge around water use and behaviour that is evident when the focus is on sustainability. Future work is recommended to incorporate a wide range of influencing factors that go beyond the conventional supply orientedparadigm.

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Interactive Visualization to Facilitate Group Deliberations in Decision Making Processes (2015)

Structured Decision Making (SDM) and Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA) are increasingly used to facilitate municipal and environmental decision-making. Even though it is well documented that visualization techniques can facilitate analytical activities, few studies have probed into the use of information visualization (infovis) in SDM and MCDA processes. The aim of the present study is to analyze how infovis can support participants in a real-world MCDA/SDM process surrounding an urban infrastructure-planning problem with focus on meetings held to evaluate multiple alternatives over a set of criteria.I attended as a participant in a series of SDM workshops related to the renewal of a municipal sewage treatment facility. Participatory observation was conducted of visualizations used to evaluate multiple alternatives over a number of criteria. Two interactive infovis features were identified to be particularly be beneficial for SDM-based processes: information on demand and exploration of preferences. We demonstrated an interactive computer-based tool developed by our research team, ValueCharts, in a number of meetings with potential users to get their feedback. Drawing on these results and the literature, ValueCharts was extended by our research team to a new version, Group ValueCharts, to support group deliberations during MCDA and SDM processes. An experiment was then conducted with seven participants on a stormwater management decision problem at UBC. Our results show that interactive visualization features in ValueCharts and Group ValueCharts have the potential for increasing the effectiveness of MCDA decision processes. They can facilitate comparing multiple alternatives and also probing into participants’ preferences. Interactive visualization was acknowledged by participants for improving group interaction, exchange of information, identification of sticking points, and focusing discussions on what matter for the final decision. Feedback from the participants and our observations support our conclusion that the identified infovis features hold the potential of facilitating the decision process in SDM. Understanding MCDA concepts, however, seems to be essential to get the most out of such visualization tools. If participants do not grasp MCDA concepts, some of them may become suspicious of the final ranking or not be able to identify some of sticking points that really matter.

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Integrating sustainability in municipal wastewater infrastructure decision-analysis using the analytic hierarchy process (2014)

New regulations from the Canadian Council of Ministers of Environment, released in 2009, require all wastewater treatment plants in Canada to produce effluent of secondary treatment levels. To comply with the new law, many Canadian municipalities using primary treatment plants must retrofit or renew their old systems. There is an increasing pressure from stakeholder groups and policy makers to select new infrastructure using triple-bottom-line (economic, environmental and social) analyses. The present study aims to illuminate how differing preferences among experts from different stakeholder groups influence what is considered to be the ‘most sustainable' wastewater treatment system. Through the use of policy documents, academic literature, and the use of AHP (a decision support tool: Analytic Hierarchy Process) an objectives hierarchy was constructed. The objectives hierarchy was made up of four criteria and 13 indicators. Five wastewater experts were asked to use pair-wise comparisons to score the indicators and criteria of the constructed objectives hierarchy and provide their opinions on the same. In addition, four low foot-print wastewater treatment alternatives were selected for review. One of the participants was asked to rank the four alternatives with regards to their performance on the selected indicators. This ranking, in combination with the rankings of the indicators and criteria, previously made by the five experts, were used to indicate the preferred alternatives for each of the separate participants. Then, the overall prioritization of the alternatives was used to carry out a sensitivity analysis. In terms of results, this study of sustainability indicators for wastewater treatment selection showed that the most contentious indicators among those studied were Initial Costs and Long Term Costs, Effluent Quality and Aesthetics. Additionally, the study showed that the Sequencing Batch Reactor was identified as the ‘most sustainable’ alternative by the average scores of all five participants and separately by four of the five participants.

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Implementing climate mitigation policy at a subnational level: Lessons from BC (2013)

Owing to the undifferentiated nature of the atmosphere, the theory of collective action predicts that governments at all levels are unlikely to adopt climate policy that reduces emissions before the adoption of a globally accepted and enforced climate agreement. Yet contrary to this prediction, many subnational governments (local, municipal and regional) throughout North America have implemented climate policies that are reducing GHG emissions. Reviewing the literature assessing the implementation of climate policy at a subnational level, this thesis synthesizes a characterization of the factors understood to motivate the development and adoption of climate policy. These factors include (1) economic costs and benefits resulting from climate policy, (2) the existence of political will or an issue champion to further the policy, (3) the support and pressure from public and interest groups, (4) tangible climate impacts that require action, and (5) an institutional structure and capacity that allows for the implementation of mitigation policy. The thesis then analyzes the case of the development and implementation of mitigation policy in British Columbia (BC), Canada, against this characterization. The findings of this analysis suggest that within the BC context, climate policy decision outcomes can be understood to have been influenced by each of the decision factors identified. The study further finds that as contextual factors changed within the province, the prospects for policy longevity were diminished, which suggests that the contextual factors were necessary in achieving climate policy outcomes. The thesis argues that the characterization of motivation factors can be usefully applied to case examples, and that when each of the motivating factors established within the characterization are present, it is possible to implement politically challenging mitigation policy.

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Lessons from Oz to the Okanagan : water policy and structural reform in a changing climate (2011)

Motivated by a decade-long drought and a strategic shift towards Ecologically Sustainable Development to ensure global competitiveness, Australia’s federal government has invested billions of dollars in the water sector, spurring innovation in data gathering, modeling, water management practice and policy reform. The aim of this exploratory research project was to illuminate the context in which Australian water reforms and innovations have taken place, and to compare that to the Canadian water context through the eyes of participating Canadian water experts to identify insights, opportunities and barriers to the transfer of lessons on sustainable water management from Australia to Canada, particularly to the Okanagan region of British Columbia. I organized a two week water management tour in May 2010 and took two water experts from British Columbia to Australia to meet with water policymakers, water managers, stakeholder organization representatives, water service providers and users to discuss their drought adaptation and water reform experiences. Data was collected via participant observation during the tour and semi-structured interviews with the Canadian water experts prior to and following the tour. Field data was complemented by a comparative review of Australian and Canadian water policy literature, key water legislation and policies, and technical reports. The resulting comparative policy analysis highlights socio-cultural dimensions of the lessons transfer process and the importance of considering cultural lenses, as I argue that approaches to water management are value-laden and specific because they work in socially dynamic systems in particular environments. First, I provide a comparison of the Canadian and Australian water contexts, exploring similarities and differences in geography, water infrastructure, water resources, water uses, federalism and water policy. Second, I analyze the recent phase of structural reforms surrounding the Australian Water Act of 2007 and the proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and suggest that this constitutes one of the first large-scale attempts at water reform in line with principles of ecological governance. Third, I describe lessons learned by the Canadian water experts on social change, water governance, water reforms and the research process – including discussions of the social value of water, economic approaches to water reform, water markets and stakeholder engagement.

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