Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Natural Sciences


Health, Engineering and Science

First Advisor

Professor Pierre Horwitz

Second Advisor

Professor Geoffrey Syme

Third Advisor

Dr Pascal Scherrer


The Ningaloo Reef is Australia’s largest fringing coral reef and an iconic tourist destination; however tourism development in Ningaloo has been ad hoc and the area is challenged by human pressure on numerous fronts. In response to these challenges a number of research agencies brought together a range of scientists to study the effects of human interaction on the reef. Moving from research to practice has been understood to depend on the adaptive capacity of the institutions responsible for governing human activities, in this case in the Ningaloo area. Knowledge transfer describes the suite of strategies used to try to bridge the gap between research and management. Knowledge transfer efforts, however, seldom have the desired impact of seeing research applied to decision-making. The ubiquity of knowledge transfer difficulties across disciplines suggests a common root to the problem, based in our shared cultural assumptions. This study pairs a multidisciplinary theoretical investigation with action research to shed light on why knowledge transfer efforts so often fall short in terms of seeing research applied to practice.

Recent environmental management perspectives on knowledge transfer illustrate the shift towards stakeholder participation as a means of improving knowledge transfer success. As such, the action research study involved the researcher embedding herself in the Ningaloo community for 18 months, adopting the role of a knowledge broker and engaging and collaborating with modelling researchers and local stakeholders on knowledge transfer efforts. However, despite intensive stakeholder engagement, evaluation interviews at the end of the process indicated that although the knowledge transfer process had the effect of catalysing relationships between stakeholder groups in the region, and between regional stakeholders and scientists, it appeared to have relatively little effect on the representational knowledge of local stakeholders or the actual application of research in practice. This led to the question of whether knowledge transfer is itself is part of the research uptake problem, as per the principles of problem formulation, which specify that resolving seemingly intractable problems requires examining the assumptions that underpin our thinking about the problem situation.

On this basis, the theoretical component of this study explored the Newtonian assumptions that inform our understanding of knowledge transfer. An alternative complexity-based ontology is proposed, unifying the metaphysics of materialism and idealism, based on a synthesis of process philosophy, mathematical logic, quantum theory, general systems theory and the complexity sciences. The phenomena of cognition, learning, knowledge and organising are compared in relation to how they’ve been understood within the Newtonian paradigm, and how they are now being explained from the perspective of a complexity-based paradigm. By reframing the action research results from a complexity perspective, the Ningaloo knowledge transfer process does not constitute a failure in terms of enhancing the capacity of the Ningaloo system to make more sustainable decisions. Rather, the increased connectivity between stakeholder groups and scientists can be viewed as more importantly enhancing the creative capacity of Ningaloo’s governance system. It is posited that the research uptake problem should be reformulated from the basis of complexity paradigm, and the notions of knowledge transfer and adaptive capacity reconceptualised accordingly. Instead of devising rational objective arguments for someone else to improve the ‘adaptive capacity’ of human systems, scientists should focus instead on improving their own creative capacity in their local interactions.


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