Working together for the snubfins and humpbacks of Cone Bay
We chat with Emeritus Professor Alan Robson AO CitWA about Nobel Prizes, the big picture, and the importance of collaborative science – including marine science – for Western Australia’s future.
WAMSI: First of all, congratulations on being the Premier’s 2014 inductee to the Western Australian Science Hall of Fame – how does it feel?
Prof Robson: Well firstly I was very pleased that people remember that I was a scientist! I worked at UWA as an agricultural scientist for twenty years, and during that time I supervised a very large number of PhD and Masters students. We did some pretty interesting research that led to some significant practical outcomes for agriculture in WA. Then of course I left the lab and went and did other things – like being on the CSIRO Board, the state science council, helping establish the West Australian Institute for Medical Research, which has now become the Harry Perkins Institute, as well as continuing to be heavily involved in strengthening research institutes within UWA. So it was quite an honour to be recognised in that way.
WAMSI: In all those achievements, what are you most proud of?
Prof Robson: I guess in retrospect I was very pleased to recruit Prof Barry Marshall for UWA – he then went on to win the Nobel Prize, which has to be one of the best moments so far for Western Australian science, almost like a coming-of-age. I also felt pretty proud when the Perkins Institute’s new building was opened, and now seeing that established and functioning so well. It was also pleasing to be in a position to help drive UWA’s entry into the ranks of the world’s top 100 research universities over the past few decades.
WAMSI: So much of what you’ve achieved has been aimed at strengthening WA’s science capability. Why do you think that’s important?
Prof Robson: Well, our future as a smart country is always going to involve using our brains. From my viewpoint here in WA we currently have two major industries – resources extraction and agriculture – and the reason both of these are competitive is that we’ve put quite a lot of effort into research and development. Western Australia’s always been clever, and we’ve always got to be developing the next innovative, clever things. The only way we can deliver clever things is by having research capability at home, as well as good links to the national and international community. We’ve got to be doing research that is as good as or better than anything else in the world so that we maintain a competitive edge here.
In terms of marine science, we’ve got an enormous coastline, enormous reserves of offshore oil and gas, important fisheries, and virtually all of us live near the coast so we’re all concerned about what goes on in the sea. I think it’s just essential that Western Australia has a strong marine science capability. Also, the Indian Ocean is very important globally and here in WA we have arguably the best-existing Indian Ocean-based capability for marine science.
WAMSI: That’s interesting given that our Governing Board of Joint Venture partners has actually put forward that big-picture view, that marine research done here should not only benefit WA but also be deployed elsewhere.
Prof Robson: Marine science work done in Western Australia is directly relevant to other Indian Ocean countries. You’ve always got to be thinking in terms of export of services – if we have figured out how to do something well in our own environment, it could be of commercial benefit to Western Australia to help apply that knowledge elsewhere. I think it would be a good aspirational/academic goal for the WAMSI JV partners to jointly strive towards making a marine science hub across the Indian Ocean. At the very least, imagine what the local and tangible benefits of actually trying to achieve something like that would be.
WAMSI: Wow, do you think that’s realistic, and what would some of the challenges be?
Prof Robson: I think it is an absolutely realistic goal. One of the biggest challenges – and not just in marine science – is that individuals and organisations often see the advancement of their organisation as being more important than contributing to a collaborative research solution. We need more people and organisations to look beyond their own advancement and think about the greater good.
WAMSI: On that note, as one of the original architects of WAMSI (along with a range of other people), can you explain why you favoured the joint venture approach?
Prof Robson: At that time marine research activity in Western Australia was in camps – the Department of Fisheries did one set of things, AIMS did something, CSIRO did something, the universities beavered away, but even within each university marine science wasn’t well organised. There was no way to get a coherent overall picture of what was going on.
So as a first try to just coordinate everything that was happening we had SRFME [2001-2006], which was really just a state government-granted body. The hope was that the skills from a range of people in a range of organisations could be pooled to solve common problems, with everyone getting appropriate credit. But in my opinion if you look at SRFME and even its descendant, WAMSI, they haven’t been completely effective. There is still scope for more inter-agency collaboration. We can do better.
WAMSI: We are certainly trying. One last question – there’s a lot of news at the moment in Australia about future investment in science being in doubt. What do you say to young people who might be discouraged from a scientific career?
Prof Robson: Science is a great career. Whether it’s marine science or agricultural science or whichever science you choose, you get to travel the world, do stimulating things, meet good people, solve real-world problems. Right at the moment we are in difficult times – governments and industry are cutting back on investment in science – but I believe the long-term future is bright. Everything we do depends on science and we’ve always got to keep looking at smarter ways of doing things.
WAMSI: Thanks very much for your time, Prof Robson.
Postdoctoral research scientist Dr Jennifer Strickland-Munro of Murdoch University helping re-locate a large crocodile with Nyul Nyul rangers at Beagle Bay landing, West Kimberley, after a participatory mapping exercise (Photo courtesy of Mark Rothery)
Spatial planning in any natural resource context is complicated and requires a lot of different kinds of information, and in the case of marine parks, experience has shown that information about local people’s needs and values is essential for effective planning and management. Understanding how people use the area (particularly in relation to tourism, recreational and commercial fishing) is also a key factor in effective planning. The more information the planners can access, the greater the likelihood that the plan will be successful.
A primary focus for WAMSI’s $30 million Kimberley Marine Research Program is to provide the science needed to inform planning and management of the Western Australian government’s proposed marine parks and reserves at Eighty Mile Beach, Roebuck Bay, Camden Sound and North Kimberley. Prof Susan Moore of Murdoch University is working with colleagues Dr Jennifer Strickland-Munro, Dr Halina Kobryn and Dr David Palmer on a WAMSI research project investigating human values and aspirations for the coastal waters of the Kimberley region. And their results are already being used by officers in the WA Department of Parks and Wildlife as input to their marine parks planning processes.
“The vastness of the Kimberley and its small, dispersed population – 34,795 people in a region twice the size of Victoria – made our sampling design particularly challenging,” reflected Susan. “In the end we completed 167 participatory mapping interviews, involving a total of 232 people, across a very wide range of stakeholder groups. This is a large and diverse sample population compared to similar studies conducted overseas.”
Interviewees included Aboriginal Traditional Owners, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal residents, tourists and representatives from the tourism industry, commercial and recreational fishing, and aquaculture; federal, state and local government; mining, oil, gas and tidal energy interests; marine transport and aviation; and environmental non-government organisations.
“The aggregated mapped results show that while all of the Kimberley coast is valued, particular hotspots occur in Roebuck Bay; the western and northern coastal fringes, and the marine environments of Dampier Peninsula; the Buccaneer Archipelago; Horizontal Falls and Talbot Bay; and Montgomery Reef,” said Susan.
“The most widely-held values were the Kimberley’s biodiversity, its physical landscape, and its Aboriginal culture,” said Susan. “It was also clear that Aboriginal people’s values for the Kimberley coast and marine environments extend well beyond cultural values, and as such Aboriginal people must be included in decision-making associated with all the values of the Kimberley coast.”
As is the case for all WAMSI-managed projects, researchers are expected to actively communicate and engage with end-users, thereby increasing the likelihood of rapid knowledge transfer. As a result, the results from this research project are already in demand by government agencies.
Mark Sheridan from Parks and Wildlife’s Marine Policy and Planning Branch said that they had recently requested and received Susan’s values maps to be used as part of their spatial planning for a number of forthcoming Kimberley marine parks, particularly the proposed North Kimberley Marine Park. “It’s well-known that the greater local support marine parks have, the more successful they are,” said Mark.
“While of course we’ve run targeted key stakeholder engagement processes to find out critical areas of use across the Kimberley,” explained Mark, “this WAMSI project has really extended our reach by targeting the general community from a values perspective – it helps us to understand how people value the Kimberley, as well as how they use it.”
“The researchers have identified an extensive range of values which we probably wouldn’t have understood without this WAMSI research project,” said Mark.
“Thanks in part to these research results we can try to ensure the new marine parks appropriately protect and conserve areas highly-valued by the locals,” explained Mark. “This increases the likelihood of local support, and the likelihood of the Kimberley marine parks planning process being a successful one for the Department, traditional owners and the community in general.”
Susan agrees. “Most importantly, these documented values provide a starting point for ongoing dialogue about what is important to people in the Kimberley,” she said. “They provide an input to policy and planning, but ultimately, such values must be co-produced through meaningful discussions among all those interested in the future of the Kimberley.”
The importance of community and industry involvement in marine turtle conservation was highlighted at a national symposium held in Perth last month, with more than 130 Australian and international delegates in attendance.
Environment Minister Albert Jacob, who addressed the symposium, said Western Australia’s 13,500 km coastline was well known for its rich and abundant marine life, and conservation and effective management of these values was a key priority for the State Government.
“Some of the world’s most remarkable marine wildlife occurs in WA, with six of the world’s seven species of marine turtles inhabiting the State’s waters,” Mr Jacob said.
“Parks and Wildlife has a number of turtle conservation programs throughout the State that rely on and are supported by industry, Aboriginal people and the wider community.
“Its scientists, field staff and volunteers have engaged in marine turtle research for more than 30 years and included work such as the tagging and release of more than 28,000 adult female turtles and monitoring of their movements.”
Parks and Wildlife has a number of successful marine turtle monitoring programs throughout the State including at Dirk Hartog Island National Park in Shark Bay and Rosemary Island in the Dampier Archipelago, Eighty Mile Beach in the Kimberley and along the Ningaloo Coast.
“In addition, Parks and Wildlife marine scientists are engaging in new research projects on key turtle nesting beaches in the Kimberley, in collaboration with other scientists through WAMSI,” the Minister said.