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UWA’s social science carve-up could cost big business billions, experts warn

James Trevelyan is an emeritus professor at UWA, where he taught engineering for 41 years and has researched how engineering work is actually performed, which he says is completely reliant on effective collaboration.

He says while Perth is a global center for mining expertise – with locally based engineers operating mines all over the world – educating and mentoring global engineers “is another thing”.

“Two thirds of billion-dollar projects fall well short on promised returns and one in six end up … being cut up for scrap metal.”

James Trevelyan, UWA Emeritus Professor

“It’s easy to think that people in Siberia and Uganda collaborate the way we do, when clearly they don’t,” he said.

“Language constraints the way we think and most engineers are totally unaware of this.”

He said this was why people educated in the social sciences were critical for success in engineering projects.

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Improving collaboration offers the best chance to improve outcomes from multibillion-dollar projects even within WA, he said.

“Over 30 years, we’re going to have to re-engineer all our industries to get to net zero emissions by 2050, that’s an awful lot of engineering work,” Professor Trevelyan said.

“In large engineering projects we have an appalling record for delivering on promises: two-thirds of billion-dollar projects fall well short on promised returns for investors and one in six end up as near total losses, and being cut up for scrap metal.

“This is a global issue: it’s not just Western Australian projects.

“Most major companies don’t understand why these projects fail, they just move on and hope people will forget.”

BHP-Billiton’s hot briquetted iron plant in Port Hedland was meant to be a cost and energy-saving project that processed 58 million tonnes of fine iron ore onshore, at a $66 million royalty boon for the state.

But a 2004 gas explosion killed one worker and seriously burnt two others and eventually the company had to demolish its $2.4 billion plant because of low production, low prices and expensive modifications.

Professor Trevelyan said the issue was not the technology but the disconnect between those promoting the project and those on the ground working to make it a reality.

It was a similar story at BHP’s failed $2.6 billion nickel mine in Ravensthorpe, where the cost outweighed reward, and the company was forced to sell it for about one-tenth of its cost.

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Professor Trevelyan said a key difficulty was retaining highly skilled engineers on major projects in remote parts of WA, and a critical factor was ensuring families could enjoy life together, with high quality education for their children.

A recent Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA survey found that 65 of the state’s mining, oil and gas, energy and contractor industries contributed a direct $83 billion to Australia’s economy in 2019-20 and directly provided more than 94,000 full-time jobs.

Behind the scenes, anthropology has played a substantial and important practical research role in native title negotiations, particularly for miners, which came into sharp focus over Rio Tinto’s Juukan Gorge blast last year.

It cost traditional owners 28,000 years of artifacts and cultural history and the company’s international reputation, as well as $US11 billion worth of iron-ore reserves after revising plans in light of the bungle.

UWA adjunct professor and University of Queensland emeritus professor of anthropology, David Trigger, said industry wouldn’t welcome a shortage in WA-trained anthropologists given the level of cultural investigation and legal appeals built into native title negotiations with traditional owners.

“So in terms of cultural heritage in Western Australia, groups can immediately appeal to the federal government Aboriginal heritage legislation and that bogs down for years,” he said.

“Anthropologists are continually being engaged, either by Indigenous organizations or by government, at times by industry, to either produce reports or assess/peer review other reports.

“These cases are not going to stop going to court. So this is just bizarre that there’s a belief that this work will be able to be done without people with those qualifications.”

He also dismissed the idea that it was a skills pipeline that could be supplanted with anthropologists graduating from the eastern states.

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“There’s a shortage already, it’s a very difficult area to work in – it’s very political,” Professor Trigger said.

“All of this means that – the political nature of the matter, as well as the big money that’s involved – it’s a set of skills in linguistic anthropology, in social and cultural studies, that can’t be just assumed to be there for anybody to use.”

Professor Trigger said the university would lose international standing, since UWA social science students and staff worked across a number of disciplines in other countries, and the move had already sent shockwaves across all sectors.

He also questioned the “strange politics” driving the idea that anthropology and the other affected social science disciplines were redundant simply because UWA had a major in Indigenous studies.

“This is a sort of a nonsense, which I fear is too much in universities these days.”

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