The Australian Academy of Science celebrates 70 years today

The Australian Academy of Science celebrates 70 years today

In May 2018, more than 80 scientists gathered at the Australian Academy of Science’s Shine Dome in Canberra for its annual Boden Research Conference. That year’s iteration of the long running and esteemed conference series, supported by funding provided by the late chemist Dr Alexander Boden, was entitled ‘Ecological Surprises and Rapid Collapse of Ecosystems in a Changing World’ and explored the disturbing and global trend of collapsing ecosystems – and what could be done to stop it.

Convened by renowned Antarctic ecologists Dr Dana Bergstrom and Dr Justine Shaw, the two-day event featured 50 oral presentations – 20 of which were given by early- and mid-career researchers, and more than half by women. Collectively, they showed how common rapid ecosystem degradation is – and the combined pressures of global climate change and regional human impacts which are causing it.

Shortly after the conference – which also offered free child care – Bergstrom and a large number of her peers held workshops to further develop their ideas. Then, in February 2021, they published a paper in Global Change Biology which sounded the public alarm about the collapse of 19 ecosystems around the world, from Australia’s coral reefs to terrestrial Antarctica.

To “aid strategic and effective mitigation to alleviate further degradation to help secure our future”, Bergstrom and her colleagues also proposed in their paper a simple and innovative three-step assessment and management framework which can be widely applied known as the “3As Pathway”.

“This pathway,” they wrote, “combines adaptive management steps prior to collapse (Awareness and Anticipation) with Action choices to avoid, reduce or mitigate impact….”

The science that we did really got generated out of the Academy.

This is just one of the examples that Bergstrom – who recently retired from the Australian Antarctic Division and in 2021 won the Eureka Prize for Leadership in Innovation and Science – cites when asked about the value of the Australian Academy of Science, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year.

“The science that we did really got generated out of the Academy,” she says.

The seed of the Academy was planted in 1951 when some of Australia’s leading scientists held a conference in Canberra to discuss the future of science and technology in the country. They agreed that an Australian equivalent of the Royal Society of London, which had long served as Great Britain’s unquestioned scientific authority, was urgently needed.

The then Prime Minister Robert Menzies agreed and awarded an annual £10,000 grant to the embryonic institution. It was officially born on 16 February 1954; along with its founding president, distinguished physicist Sir Mark Oliphant, there were 23 other members – also known as Foundation Fellows – all of whom were white men.

Oliphant once said that he had a “deep confidence” in the role of science in making Australia strong and prosperous – and in the idea that “the proper use of science within its diverse territories may point the way to a secure and good life for all.”  The Academy’s current president, Professor Chennupati Jagadish, concurs – which is precisely why he says he is committed to ensuring the Academy continues to “be a real champion for excellence in science.”

Jagadish – who is also the Head of Semiconductor Optoelectronics and Nanotechnology Group in the Research School of Physics, at The Australian National University – says the Academy fulfils this mission in several ways beyond providing funding and research opportunities to individual scientists like Bergstrom, including by facilitating the exchange of scientific information across international borders – a point echoed by Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist Professor Brian Schmidt, who has just retired after serving as the Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University from January 2016 to January 2024.

[The Academy] does provide a very valuable connection to the rest of the world.

Professor Brian Schmidt

“[The Academy] does provide a very valuable connection to the rest of the world,” Schmidt says.

Jagadish points out that the Academy also provides independent scientific advice to all levels of government in Australia, as well as the criminal justice system.

This advice has often proved highly influential. In October 2021, for example, the Academy published an evidence brief detailing the environmental impact of feral horses on Kosciuszko National Park since 2018 and provided an open letter to the NSW Government which recommended reducing feral horse numbers in the park “rapidly” by using “all available methods that are effective and meet animal welfare standards.” After much delay, this recommendation was eventually heeded in November 2023 when a trial of aerial culling of feral horses commenced.

Similarly, Jagadish says the Academy played a “crucial role” in overturning the convictions of Kathleen Folbigg, who was imprisoned for more than 20 years after being charged with murdering her four young children. As well as acting as an independent scientific advisor to the second inquiry into the case, the Academy also petitioned the Governor of NSW in 2021 to pardon Folbigg based on additional scientific evidence uncovered by its Fellow, Professor Carola Vinuesa. This pardon was eventually granted in June 2023 and a few months later, Folbigg’s convictions were quashed.

Professor chennupati jagadish.
Professor Chennupati Jagadish.

Another key way that Jagadish says the Academy champions excellence in science is through the educational resources it has developed such as Primary Connections which build the scientific capability and literacy of Australia’s teachers and students.

“About thirty percent of Australian primary schools don’t have a qualified science teacher,” Jagadish explains. “So, that means we have English teachers trying to teach science to kids across the country.”

This problem is compounded by deep-seeded problems with the research and development system in Australia. As well as being severely fragmented, spread as it is over 176 programs and 14 federal portfolios, it is also chronically underfunded. In 2022-23 Australian government spending on R&D was 0.49% of GDP, marking a thirty-year low.

This is why, Jagadish says, the Academy is now advocating for the Australian Government to develop a cross portfolio and cross sectoral 10-year investment plan that reverses the decline in investment of the R&D system, which he describes as “the engine house for innovation in the country.”

According to Schmidt, who was elected as a fellow of the Academy in 2008, it is “unfortunate” the Academy has become something of “advocacy organisation for funding of the sector”, as this isn’t its primary purpose. “But because we are in dire straits, I can’t be very critical of it. It has to say something.”

Jagadish agrees. “If governments realised that science is important for the development and progress of the nation, and they started investing properly in R&D, then I wouldn’t have to spend so much my time on advocacy.”

People who come from diverse backgrounds have diverse perspectives and look at a particular problem in different ways and can find new solutions.

Professor Chennupati Jagadish

Instead, Jagadish would be able to commit more energy to not only providing critical scientific advice but also addressing what Schmidt says is a “wicked problem” still afflicting the wider scientific community in Australia: a lack of gender, sexual and cultural diversity. Unsurprisingly, this is reflected in the Academy: for example, although improvements have been made since it was established seven decades ago, as of June 2023, only 19 percent of its 600 fellows were women. 

Jagadish – who is the Academy’s twentieth president but its first non-Caucasian one – says he is “proud” of the Academy’s ongoing efforts to fix this issue, such as working alongside First Nations’ knowledge holders to co-develop a paper on the intersection of Traditional Knowledge and other scientific knowledge systems.

“Diversity enhances innovation,” he says. “It’s a fact that people who come from diverse backgrounds have diverse perspectives and look at a particular problem in different ways and can find new solutions. That’s why it’s important that we make use of the community’s diversity in the broadest sense possible and help to open the doors of science to everybody.”

Even when these doors are fully open, however, Jagadish, being the true scientist that he is, knows that the Academy won’t be perfect – that it will still have much work to do in order to be the best possible champion for science and society.

“There’s always going to be scope for improvement.”

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