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A literature review on the economic, social and environmental impacts of severe bushfires in |
Fire and adaptive management report no. 87
Research Officer, Centre for Risk and Community Safety
RMIT University and Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre
© Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre 2010.
No part of this publication must be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form without prior written permission from the copyright owner, except under the conditions permitted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 and subsequent amendments.
ISBN 978-1-74287-063-2 (print)
ISBN 978-1-74287-064-9 (online)
Please be advised that the information contained in this report comprises statements based on the data available. The reader is advised and needs to be aware that such information may be incomplete and will therefore need to reference back to the original source to fully understand the information in its original context.
Photo: Front cover: Bushfire CRC
Thank you to the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) for funding this research and to the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (Bushfire CRC) for managing the project. Thank you to Liam Fogarty (DSE) for providing me with the opportunity to undertake this research and for feedback throughout the data collection and report-writing stages. Similarly, thank you to John Handmer (RMIT University – Centre for Risk and Community Safety, Bushfire CRC) for supervising this work and providing guidance and feedback throughout the data collection and report-writing stages. Lyndsey Wright (Bushfire CRC) is also thanked for providing helpful feedback on the report structure and contents at different stages of its creation. The Advisory Panel, consisting of Liam Fogarty, Lyndsey Wright, Aimee Haywood (DSE) and Cain Trist (DSE), have been a valuable resource, providing direction and constructive comments along the way.
I would like to thank Adriana Keating (RMIT University – Centre for Risk and Community Safety), Mark Morrison (Charles Sturt University), Tony Hand (Marsden Jacob Associates) and Andrew Gissing (Victoria State Emergency Service) for reviewing this report in the final stages of its development and providing valuable feedback.
One: Introduction 2
Two: Economic Impacts 4
2.1 Infrastructure 5
2.1.1 Road Networks 5
2.1.2 Electricity 6
2.1.3 Water 6
2.2 Economic Production 7
2.2.1 Retail, Commercial and Industrial Sectors 8
2.2.2 Tourism 8
2.2.3 Forestry 10
2.2.4 Agriculture 10
2.2.5 Horticulture 11
2.3 Property 12
2.3.1 The Destruction of Property and Research into its Minimisation 12
2.3.2 Insurance 13
2.4 Government Services 13
2.4.1 Firefighting Arrangement 13
2.4.2 Recovering from a Bushfire 14
Three: Social Impacts 15
3.1 Community 15
3.1.1 Effect on the Community as a Whole 15
3.1.2 Effects on the Firefighters, Support Personnel and their Families 18
3.2 Health 19
3.2.1 Physical Health Problems Arising from Bushfire Smoke 19
3.2.2 Mental Health Problems of Individuals 21
3.3 Cultural Heritage 22
Four: Environmental Impacts 24
4.1 Soil 24
4.2 Water 25
4.2.1 Erosion 26
4.2.2 Sedimentation and Water Quality 26
4.2.3 Returning Hydrological Processes to Pre-fire Levels 27
4.3 Air 28
4.3.1 Soil and Plant Nutrients up in Smoke 29
4.3.2 Smoke and the Enhanced Greenhouse Effect 29
4.4 Biodiversity – Flora 30
4.4.1 Fire-Adaptive Plant Mechanisms 31
4.4.2 Fire Regimes 31
4.4.3 Managing Fire in Relation to Maintaining Vegetative Diversity 33
4.5 Biodiversity – Fauna 33
4.5.1 Terrestrial Fauna 33
4.5.2 Aquatic Fauna 34
Five: Conclusion 36
Six: Appendices 38
Appendix 1: Brief Overview of Each Fire 38
Appendix 2: Methods for Estimating Ecosystem Service Values 49
Seven: References 50
Eight: List of Reports in this Series 59
List of figures and tables
Figure 1: Phases of a community’s response and recovery process during and after
an emergency 16
Figure 2: Soil temperature profiles for different types of fire 25
Figure 3: Relationship between mean annual water yield and regenerating stand
age for Mountain Ash forest catchments after bushfire) 28
Figure 4: Area burnt by the1983 Ash Wednesday Fires (DSE 2010) 39
Figure 5: Area burnt by the 2003 Alpine and Canberra Fires (DSE 2010) 41
Figure 6: Area burnt by the 2005 Deep Lead and 2006 Mount Lubra Fires (DSE 2010) 43
Figure 7: Area burnt by the 2006–07Great Divide Fires (DSE 2010) 45
Figure 8: Area burnt by the 2009 Black Saturday Fires (DSE 2010) 47
Figure 9: Area burnt by the Kilmore East–Kinglake and Murrindindi Mill–Marysville
Complexes (DSE 2010) 48
Table 1: Types of loss and measurement 4
Table 2: Comparison of the number of days that PM10 did not meet the air quality
objective of 50 µg/m3 during the 2003 Alpine and 2006–07 Great Divide Fires at
various locations around Victoria 20
Table 3: Comparison of the highest PM10 levels recorded in each location during the
2003 Alpine and 2006–07 Great Divide Fires for various locations around Victoria 20
Table 4: Changes in soil, plant and animal material following heating at different temperatures 24
Table 5: Expected effects on eucalypt forests of fire of different intensities 32
Table 6: Summary of methods commonly used to estimate ecosystem service values 49
Severe bushfires are capable of causing widespread economic, social and environmental impacts across spatial and temporal dimensions. This report explored a number of these impacts, primarily focusing on five major bushfires that have occurred in south-eastern Australia, being the 1983 Ash Wednesday Fires, 2003 Alpine and Canberra Fires, 2005–06 Grampians Fires, 2006–07 Great Divide Fires and 2009 Black Saturday Fires. As well as exploring the impacts of these fires, this literature review also examined and compared the literature in this area.
For the purposes of this review, economic impacts were those that were typically bought or sold and were grouped as being direct (e.g. loss of infrastructure or equipment) or indirect (e.g. business disruption). Social impacts were generally those that could not be bought or sold, and included such impacts as fatalities and injuries, health problems or the loss of cultural heritage assets. Environmental impacts related to the natural environment, such as the soil, water, air, flora and fauna, were, along with social impacts, classified as intangible.
In terms of important works that encapsulate many aspects of the economic, social and environmental impacts of severe bushfires, the reports of the Ministerial Taskforce on Bushfire Recovery after the 2003 Alpine Fires, 2005–06 Grampians Fires and 2006–07 Great Divide Fires contain loss data, information on many impacts across the three broader impact types (i.e. economic, social and environmental) and the range of grants and services made available to those affected. The Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority (2009) also produced a report covering the same areas after the 2009 Black Saturday Fires. Other documents that relate specifically to each broad impact type are highlighted under their respective categories.
Apart from the information provided in the reports of the Ministerial Taskforce on Bushfire Recovery, The Nous Group (2007) and Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA Victoria) (2003) provide detailed accounts of the impacts on infrastructure, namely from the disruption of power to thousands of Victorians and the impacts on the quality of potable water.
For impacts relating to economic production, Gangemi et al. (2003) and The Nous Group (2007) report on the losses sustained by the retail, commercial and industrial sectors. Tourism impacts can be found in Cioccio and Michael (2007), Gangemi et al. (2003) and Rural and Regional Committee (2007). For impacts sustained by the forestry industry, the best sources of information were found to be Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) and Parks Victoria (PV) reports, such as DSE (2005) and DSE and PV (2008). Information on agricultural and horticultural impacts was scattered throughout different documents, including Fleming et al. (2007), Gangemi et al. (2003) and in articles published on the Australian Wine Research Institute’s website.
Property losses resulting from bushfires have been documented in numerous reports, with the most relevant to this research being found in Blanchi and Leonard (2005), the Country Fire Authority (CFA) (1983), Orchiston (2003) and Healey (1985). Insurance is another important flow-on effect resulting from property loss, with Clayer, Bookless-Pratz and McFarlane (1985) providing an insight into people’s experiences when lodging claims.
For government services provided during and after severe bushfires, the reports of the Ministerial Taskforce on Bushfire Recovery provide the most useful information. For information relating to the functioning of the government centres responding to the event, Owen, Hickey and Douglas (2008) contains a detailed account.
Critical infrastructure and services are damaged or destroyed when in contact with or close proximity to a severe fire. Transport networks are disrupted by the closure of roads, with roads that have been directly impacted by flames and heat remaining closed until the associated infrastructure can be replaced and the trees assessed. This is a high priority if these areas rely on tourism as the main source of income. Although rare, the loss of electricity to large towns or cities through the damage of power lines can cause widespread disruption, with the loss of communication equipment, household and business power or public transport services.
The threat of bushfires burning through catchments from which potable water is derived is always a large concern, with fire authorities doing everything possible to ensure that a severe bushfire does not reach these areas. In the event that a fire does enter an important catchment and cause these rivers or dams to be filled with large amounts of sediments, the requirement to either filter the water or find an alternative source can become expensive.
Those in the retail and tourism industries are particularly affected by bushfires, as tourists stay clear of the fire-affected and greater area, resulting in part from the media sensationalising the devastation caused. The disruption caused to local businesses during and after a severe fire can be extreme, with losses of 50–100% for an extended period being common. The forestry and agricultural industry can face ongoing costs in the event their products (e.g. timber, crops or livestock) are destroyed, as they have to regrow or replace what was lost. For horticultural enterprises, the threat of fire burning through their crops is minimal; however, the damage caused by smoke affecting the plant renders the fruit (e.g. wine grapes, berries) unusable, leading to the loss of a whole year’s crop.
Homes and other infrastructure have a high chance of being damaged or destroyed in the presence of severe bushfires, with the loss of iconic or important buildings being particularly upsetting to the wider public. The use of better building structures and products that greatly minimise the risk of ignition are important research areas that could minimise the loss of homes and other buildings in the future.
Insurance payouts assist those affected by bushfires to repair or replace what has been damaged or lost, although the behaviour of some insurance companies can further add to the stress felt by those affected by a severe bushfire.
In the event of a severe bushfire, all levels of government work overtime to extinguish the fire in the shortest amount of time. Incident Control Centres are set up at the local level to handle the direct operational requirements. Coordination Centres are established at the local, regional and state level, and coordinate response actions (e.g. distributing resources to each fire) and feed information up and down the chain. Depending on the severity of a fire, these centres may be operational 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The government initiates the recovery process as soon as the fire has passed through an area. Initiatives include the provision of counselling services for such problems as trauma, and financial and family relationship difficulties. Financial aid and relief packages are also provided to individuals, households, businesses and organisations to assist in repairing or replacing what was affected and promoting community spirit through organised events.
There is a large amount of literature available regarding the impacts of bushfires on a community as a whole and on the firefighters and those close to them. Articles by Gordon (e.g. 1997, 2004) provided a good foundation for understanding the effects on a community’s dynamics both during and after a fire. Articles by McFarlane (e.g. 1986, 1988) and Regehr, Hill and Glancy (2000) focused on the psychological impacts bushfires have on firefighters, while Regehr et al. (2003) undertook a comprehensive study that noted the experiences of the partners of firefighters.
The research available on health issues, both physical and psychological, arising from bushfires is widespread. Apart from fatalities or injuries sustained from direct contact with the flame, smoke is another major concern, with Aisbett et al. (2007), the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA) (2005) and EPA Victoria (2007) all contributing large amounts of information. The impact of bushfires on psychological health is explored in Camilleri et al. (2007), Clayer, Bookless-Pratz and McFarlane (1985) and Gordon (2006).
For impacts relating to Aboriginal cultural heritage values, Freslov (2004) provides a very detailed report on the condition of artefacts found after the 2003 Alpine Fires, while less detailed information on European early settlement cultural heritage values can be found in DSE and PV (2008).
During the immediate threat, a proportion of community members will become isolated, whereas the community will come together once the threat has passed to undertake necessary activities. This does not last, as old divisions and divisions resulting from the bushfire cause a loss of cohesion among members. A temporary community structure is subsequently created to coordinate recovery efforts, before returning to a pre-fire community structure.
Those fighting the fire are commonly exposed to physical dangers, health risks and mental exhaustion while on duty. In some cases, the psychological stress associated with fighting a fire can manifest itself as varied levels of depression. However, a strong support network can assist these people in coping with their experiences and emotions. Those close to firefighters, such as their family, also feel high levels of stress during periods of severe fires, having to cope with household issues on their own while knowing that their partner or parent is possibly in danger.
Smoke is the main product of bushfires that affects a person’s health, with the level of impact being determined by factors such as the existing health condition of the individual, length of exposure and concentration of air pollutants. Smoke enters the respiratory system and eyes and causes a sore throat, runny nose and burning eyes. For healthy people, these symptoms generally disappear once the smoke has passed. For those with pre-existing medical problems, smoke can aggravate their conditions, with those suffering from asthma, other respiratory diseases and cardiovascular diseases at greater risk
The survival instincts of those threatened by a severe bushfire are greatly heightened. They generally carry out whatever work needs to be done to preserve their life, and if possible, other lives and personal property. Once the threat has passed, people will exhibit a number of reactions to deal with what has happened. In a majority of cases, those involved will resolve their responses to the experience within the next few months. For others, the trauma of living through such a threatening event can result in psychological problems, transpire into other issues (e.g. alcoholism) or adversely affect interpersonal relationships with family and friends.
Cultural heritage assets are in danger of being damaged or destroyed during a severe fire. Aboriginal assets do, however, remain relatively undamaged by even the most intense fire, as a large number of the physical artefacts are made of stone, such as cooking and hunting instruments and paintings on stone walls. In some cases, the removal of vegetation and subsequent erosion has aided in locating many hundreds of artefacts and unearthing previously unknown cultural sites. Cultural heritage values from European settlements have a greater chance of being impacted by severe fires, with many structures being made out of timber and metal. Notably, 32 historic Alpine huts and several mining complexes have suffered some degree of damage.
The literature on the environmental impacts resulting from bushfires is extensive and stretches back for many decades. Books that provide a good overall picture of fire’s interaction with the natural environment include Bradstock, Williams and Gill (2002), Gill, Groves and Noble (1981) and the Victorian National Parks Service (1996).
For soil interactions, Attiwill and Leeper (1987), Raison (1979) and Walker, Raison and Khanna (1986) are good sources of information.
Notable research into the area of water runoff and erosion includes DeBano (2000) and Prosser and Williams (1998). For research relating to water sedimentation and water-flow impacts, EPA Victoria (2003, 2004), Lane, Sheridan and Noske (2006) and Leitch, Flinn and van de Graaff (1983) provide an in-depth analysis. Key research into hydrological processes includes Feikema, Lane and Sherwin (2008), Kuczera (1987) and Vertessy, Watson and O’Sullivan (2001).
The impacts on air are described through the movement of nutrients (i.e. in smoke) into the atmosphere and the influence of smoke on the enhanced greenhouse effect. Walker, Raison and Khanna (1986) explore the movement of nutrients into the atmosphere in depth, while reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2007) and the National Association of Forest Industries (NAFI, 2007) highlight the contribution smoke makes to the enhanced greenhouse effect.
Many species of Australian flora either require fire to produce the next generation or have adaptive strategies that allow them to recover. For a general overview of fire-adaptive plant mechanisms, works by Attiwill and Leeper (1987) and Gill (1981, 1997) provide a good foundation. For information on fire regimes, Christensen, Recher and Hoare (1981), Gill (1975) and Gill and Allan (2008) offer ample reference material. Government agencies understand the delicate relationship between fire and its impacts on flora, and are undertaking a number of strategies to try and improve the floral diversity within the landscape through strategic burning techniques (e.g. Cawson and Muir 2008a).
As with flora, the impact of bushfires on fauna is well documented. Articles that study the responses of a range of terrestrial fauna during and after a fire include Friend (1993), Newsome and Catling (1983) and Whelan et al. (2002). For aquatic fauna, EPA Victoria (2006) provides numerous examples regarding the impacts on aquatic fauna.
Depending on the temperature of the fire, the effect on soil can occur at the biological, chemical or physical level. A proportion of soil nutrients and chemicals is removed from the site by the fire directly through the transfer of gases, particulate matter and ash to the atmosphere in the form of smoke. In addition, soil can be removed from a site once the fire has been extinguished through the erosive processes of wind or rain. In some cases, severe bushfires induce water repellency within the soil, making it even more susceptible to erosion.
The hydrology of a landscape and the resultant quality of watercourses are significantly affected by severe bushfires. The removal of the vegetation encourages large-scale erosion that eventually flows into streams and rivers, causing sedimentation of these waterways and a deterioration in water quality. Even in areas where waterways have been severely impacted by large quantities of sediments, these sediments are typically flushed out over three to five years. On the catchment scale, the restoration of hydrological processes back to pre-fire conditions can take up to 150 years if a large proportion of the vegetation is removed, as growing trees require much more water than when they are mature.
The smoke produced from severe bushfires contains a number of chemicals, including plant nutrients. Nitrogen in particular is highly susceptible to being lost to the atmosphere, but is eventually returned to the soil through a number of processes, such as nitrogen fixation. Greenhouse gases (e.g. carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides) are also emitted to the atmosphere via bushfire smoke.
Biodiversity – Flora
Many Australian vegetative species have evolved to depend on fire for their ongoing survival, and therefore the persistence of whole ecological communities. In order to take full advantage of this element, plants have developed mechanisms that allow them to survive the initial fire front or reproduce once the fire has passed, which are: storing seed on the plant, storing seed in the soil, resprouting through lignotuberous buds (buds at the base of the tree), resprouting through epicormic buds (buds just under the bark) or spreading vegetatively through rhizomes (underground stems).
Fire can be seen as a positive element; however, if it is applied to the landscape outside its natural tolerances (e.g. too frequently or intense, not frequently or intense enough), then some species are in danger of becoming locally extinct. The ongoing health of natural ecosystems depends on how they are managed, with fire agencies needing to draw on a wide range of information sources to ensure that the natural landscape remains as healthy as possible.
Biodiversity – Fauna
Native fauna, both terrestrial and aquatic, is affected by severe fires as a result of the altered landscape, thereby influencing sheltering, feeding and breeding habits. When threatened with a fire, terrestrial fauna will burrow, avoid or make active use of it. Wombats and reptiles will generally try and burrow their way out of danger, while highly mobile animals, e.g. kangaroos and birds, will flee. Many raptor species have been observed taking advantage of the situation, feasting on those animals trying to escape. Once the fires have passed, until there is sufficient vegetative coverage, smaller animals such as reptiles and small mammals become easy prey for larger animals.
Aquatic animals are generally protected from fire by waterways; however, once the fire is extinguished, their survival is greatly dependant on the severity of the fire and the resultant erosive processes. Sedimentation can cause large short-term impacts, such as smothering stream beds with ash and silt, reducing oxygen levels, which causes aquatic life to suffocate, and increasing nutrient levels to toxic levels. Pre-fire conditions generally return within 5 to 20 years.
Severe bushfires have the potential to produce numerous economic, social and environmental impacts, which can range from short-term inconveniences to long-term life-changing impacts. While it is easy to observe the negative impacts typically found within the economic and social categories, the environment generally requires bushfires to remain healthy and support the rich diversity of flora and fauna. In the event bushfires enter a natural landscape outside its natural tolerances, however, the impacts could also be
adverse and long-lasting.
Fire is an integral component in many Australian ecosystems. A majority of fires occurring in the natural landscape, whether they are ignited naturally through lightning, or artificially through fire-authority planned burning programs or by other human activities (e.g. campfires), are extinguished before they have any adverse impacts. However, when a bushfire1 cannot be brought under control in time, the impacts can be very severe.
For the purposes of this report, the word ‘severe’ has been defined as ‘causing very great pain, difficulty, worry, damage, etc.; very serious’ (Cambridge University Press 2010), and refers to the severity of the impacts, and not to the severity (e.g. intensity) of the actual bushfire. This is because a fire can be very intense, but burn in a remote area and not cause adverse physical or flow-on impacts. Conversely, a less intense fire may begin close to major infrastructure or economic sectors (e.g. tourism, agriculture) and cause widespread impacts. Therefore, it is the severity of the impacts that generally characterise a bushfire, and not its fundamental components.
The impacts of severe bushfires have been placed into three categories in this literature review: economic, social and environmental, which are known in the business sector as the triple bottom line. The triple bottom line approach is a philosophy that describes an organisation’s processes, values and issues that must be managed with the aim of minimising harmful actions and maximising economic, social and environmental values (Spatial Vision 2006). The division of bushfire impacts into these categories was chosen for this review because this is how impacts are frequently categorised in natural disaster literature (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) 2003; Benson and Clay 2004; McKenzie, Prasad and Kaloumarira 2005) and aligns with concepts used in government policies, such as the Sustainability Charter for Victoria’s State forests (Victorian Government 2006).
Economic impacts are those that can be financially valued, and are typically grouped into either direct or indirect costs (Bureau of Transport Economics (BTE) 2001). Direct costs relate to the physical damage caused by the fire on capital assets, including private property, public buildings, commercial plantations and crops (van der Veen 2004). Indirect costs occur as a result of the impact of the fire (Handmer 2003), and incorporate such costs as disruption to business production in the event that power is cut during a fire. Direct economic costs are relatively easy to evaluate, whereas costing indirect impacts is an area of much contention. Rose and Lim (2002) identified a number of factors that make accounting for indirect costs complicated, including the difficulty of confirming these as easily as direct costs, the need to model these losses carefully, variability in the size of indirect effects and the possibility of manipulating these costs for political purposes.
Social impacts are generally those that are not normally bought or sold (BTE 2001), and include such impacts as emotional trauma from the death of a loved one or the loss of photos and other memorabilia. They are known in economic terms as intangible costs and are very difficult to measure financially. These impacts, however, are usually the most important, enduring long after the roads have reopened and buildings are rebuilt (Middelmann 2007).
Environmental impacts relate to the natural environment, such as soil, water, air, vegetation and fauna, and like social impacts, are classified as intangible impacts. Some economists believe that it is important to place monetary values on the environment (e.g. Costanza et al. 1997), thereby enabling natural environmental assets to be compared with man-made assets on equal terms (Pearce 1998).
On the surface, many impacts can be placed into one of the economic, social or environmental categories listed above; however, a more in-depth assessment reveals the complex nature of bushfire impacts (or any other disaster) and their inter-relationships, both within and between the categories. For example, the burning of an (eucalypt) ash forest allocated to be felled by a timber harvesting company can be seen as an economic and environmental impact. That is, the timber industry may lose millions of dollars from lost timber sales, whereas the forest may benefit from a severe fire, as it gives rise to the next generation of trees. This example highlights the difficulty in simply allocating certain impacts to one category or another. This literature review placed impacts into the most appropriate category; however, there will be instances where impacts can easily be placed into two or three of these categories simultaneously. For example, water has been placed in both the economic and environmental impact sections.
This literature review examined the economic, social and environmental impacts of severe bushfires in Australia, focusing on five fires that occurred in south-eastern Australia: the 1983 Ash Wednesday Fires, 2003 Alpine Fires, 2005–06 Grampians Fires, 2006–07 Great Divide Fires and 2009 Black Saturday Fires. Background information on these fires and maps of the area burnt are included in Appendix 1. As well as exploring the actual impacts of severe bushfires, the other purpose of this report was to review and compare the literature in this area. Where relevant, this report highlighted significant pieces of work, impacts with much research dedicated to them and those impacts for which there was very little research. All dollar values described in this review are in Australian currency unless otherwise specified and are in the year of the referenced work.
When comparing the volume of literature on severe bushfires, there is a relatively small amount of information compared with other natural disasters. A scan through journal databases revealed that a large amount of information was available on catastrophes such as Cyclone Tracy (December 1974), the Boxing Day Tsunami (December 2004) and Hurricane Katrina (August 2005), including books, reports and journal articles. In relation to extreme bushfires, on the other hand, it was relatively difficult to find even small amounts of information, including for fires such as the August 2007 Greek and October 2007 Californian wildfires. Another scan through the literature showed that much of the publicly available information can predominantly be found in newspaper articles.
Following this introduction, the next three chapters (Chapters 2–4) cover a range of economic, social and environmental impacts. These chapters have been further divided into subheadings, with titles reflecting the asset class titles used by the (Victorian) Office of the Emergency Services Commissioner’s (OESC) Wildfire Project (Spatial Vision 2006), with the exception of the ‘Government Services’ subheading under Economic Impacts, which was added by the author. Chapter 5 contains the conclusion, followed by the appendices in Chapter 6 and reference list in Chapter 7.
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