By STEVE MORTON
Alice Springs is a significant base for science. For a town of our size there exists a cadre of scientists and scientific institutions of unusual number and influence – indeed, no other small, regional community in the nation possesses such a concentration of effort.
Not that everyday life in the town is obviously affected by science, for research is something of a ‘slow-burning’ activity.
Scientists work on things that might come to pass, perhaps at some time in the future. So it is that research may seem to other residents as uncertain in outcome, only vaguely connected to everyday concerns.
Yet science has a way of quietly insinuating itself into public affairs and unexpectedly throwing up different ways of doing things, of providing alternatives to business as usual. The payoffs may be uncertain from year to year but in retrospect it becomes evident that the successes stemming from research, occasional though they may be, eventually buoy up our daily lives.
Reflections on such matters are coloured by the experience of a turbulent period for science in our part of Australia, at the close of a year in which some long-standing trends have become plain and sharp. My observations focus on the natural sciences – environment, natural resource management and sustainability – while leaving aside medical and health sciences. Substantial change has unfolded throughout 2014 in several institutions.
CSIRO has continued shedding staff under the pressure of reduced budget allocations from the Australian Government, and the Alice Springs laboratory now has a smaller complement than at any time in the past 30 years. The previous site-leader, Ashley Sparrow, has been posted to Perth and not been replaced as yet. The Centre for Appropriate Technology also has undergone restructuring and downsizing as sources of income have moved elsewhere or dried up.
CAT has announced appointment of a new Chief Executive, Steve Rogers, to take over from long-standing stalwart, Bruce Walker.
Desert Knowledge Australia is in the process of repositioning its efforts. Numbers of staff have declined and a permanent Chief Executive remains to be appointed. Jan Ferguson retired late in the year as Managing Director at Ninti One, now succeeded by Rod Reeve; this body’s research effort on remote economic participation remains in place.
Many of the changes appear to reflect views in government about the roles of science and technology in the outback. Both the Australian and Territory Governments are emphasising economic development and creation of jobs, and signalling to their scientific agencies a desire for focused research to contribute to such needs more directly.
We can anticipate continuation of this influence in coming years because governments remain the major funder of science (noting as an exception ambitious proposals by the Hatzimihail family, recently reported in the Alice Springs News).
There are consequences, of course. The scientific community here has become used to the dominance of research in environmental and natural resource management (increasingly in recent times with an emphasis on supporting Indigenous aspirations).
But now CSIRO has no staff working on “rangeland science” with the pastoral sector, for the first time in its 60-year history in Alice Springs. Research for conservation, or for aspects of natural resource management such as weeds and feral animals, may well take a back seat across the various institutions. In addition to current declines in the numbers of scientists, significant shifts in research emphasis also seem likely to continue.
It is customary in our society for commentators to bemoan and criticise any change. Such a stance is all too easy to adopt because what is being lost is obvious, whereas what might be created in its place in future is obscure. I have little interest in that judgemental approach, as I am at heart a scientist more interested in the more difficult tasks of observation, explanation and prediction.
What might the future hold? How strongly will present efforts in natural resource management be maintained throughout this transition? Will solar energy once more become a focus as the reality of climate change intensifies, with Alice Springs a significant national player? Will the resource extraction industries take centre stage in stimulating scientific effort? What influence will become evident from an agenda of northern Australian development? Although they are still hazy, these influences are likely to be reflected eventually in scientific effort.
The consequences of ongoing change in research emphasis may not be visible to the wider community for some time. Fading of older directions and the growth of new ones will only gradually make themselves known as these longer-term influences evolve. Science is just one thread among many making up the fabric of our town. It is a subtle filament indeed, and yet in time it will become re-woven in its emerging forms into the nature of the Alice Springs community.
Declaration of interests: Steve worked for 27 years with CSIRO before retiring in 2011; he retains a connection to the Organisation as an Honorary Fellow. He served as a Director of Desert Knowledge Australia from 2011 to 2014. He is presently a Director of Territory Natural Resource Management.
PHOTO: Delegates at the DKA solar centre during the 2010 ATRAA conference. The display today has little more than historic value.
By STEVE MORTON