Alumni Profile | Dr Nikki Dumbrell

Dr Nikki Dumbrell is an environmental and natural resource economist who is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow with CSIRO.

Her PhD project with the University of Adelaide looked at the social licence to operate in industries such as agriculture and energy. She studied how public expectations, economics, and regulations guide the practices of companies which have impacts outside their operations, for example on the environment or local communities. 

Nikki began her PhD at the same time the Future Fuels Cooperative Research Centre was being established. The University of Adelaide was involved in the CRC and Nikki came to know that one of its three research programs is centred on social acceptance of future fuels, which fit neatly with her own expertise. She quickly jumped at the opportunity to participate in the CRC where she then went on to study the social acceptance of future fuels such as hydrogen.

Nikki worked closely with SEA Gas, industry partner of Future Fuels CRC, during her PhD and described the industry engagement.

‘They were very clear in what they wanted, saying, “this is the situation that we want to see and/or want to avoid – how could your research help us understand this?” They didn’t want to just talk about social licence, they wanted to measure it. I was excited to help them with this.

‘We did a small study looking at the social licence of their pipeline. This has produced a baseline that they can revisit in the coming years whenever they make changes to the way they manage things.’

Nikki’s engagement with industry partners such as SEA Gas gave her insights on how to achieve successful collaboration.

‘It’s an important skill to think about their objectives, and your objectives, and how you can make them fit together. My objective was to finish a PhD and publish papers. Theirs was to obtain answers to their research questions. You must bring these two objectives together which can sometimes be quite disparate. It’s important to communicate why and how you’re doing things at every stage of the project.

‘Another skill I learnt from my PhD is being able to show the relevance of what you’re doing, thinking: Where are the value-adds? What is the impact?’ 

After finishing her PhD, Nikki joined CSIRO as a postdoctoral researcher in the Valuing Sustainability Future Science Platform. A common thread between her PhD research and her new work at CSIRO is climate change mitigation, adaptation, environmental sustainability, and the economic and social impacts of different decisions.

‘Here at CSIRO my team are exploring how we value the intangible benefits of pursuits towards environmental sustainability, for example, the social and cultural benefits of different investments in land management that will lead to improved environmental outcomes.  This might not necessarily end up being about something that a consumer will pay for, so we have to think about the demand for these benefits from impact investors, or governments, or others.’

Nikki’s CSIRO team has a variety of disciplines and skills.

‘We are doing transdisciplinary research. This includes not just knowledge from different disciplines, but also that which sits outside the research realm, such as local community knowledge and Indigenous knowledge.’

Her team manages its interdisciplinary nature by creating a shared glossary where complex terms like sustainability are defined from varying perspectives to create a holistic definition or recognise the differences in definitions.  

She has also found that smaller teams are more conducive to collaboration between people of different skills, disciplines, and expertise.

Nikki ended the interview by exploring how she and her team manage the differing KPIs of academia and industry.

‘It’s something that we talk about openly in our project [at CSIRO]. I need publications because that’s currency for future employment opportunities. The senior staff in my team recognise this and are investing in me as a future researcher, not just as a staff member on a research project.’

Nikki is part of Australia’s future workforce of industry-focused researchers. Cooperative Research Australia regularly interviews the alumni of CRCs and other collaborative organisations. You can read previous alumni profiles here. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed for an alumni profile, please let us know here.