Category Archives: Interviews

ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas program: Reith Lecture Series – Scientific Citizens

Part One: Scientific Citizens. In the first of this year’s Reith Lectures, Lord Martin Rees explores the challenges facing science in the 21st century.

We are increasingly turning to government and the media to explain the risks we face. But in the wake of public confusion over issues like climate change, the swine ‘flu vaccine and, more recently, Iceland’s volcanic ash cloud, Martin Rees calls on scientists to come forward and play a greater role in helping us understand the science that affects us all.

…Today, science has transformed our lives. Our horizons have hugely expanded; no new continents remain to be discovered. Our Earth no longer offers an open frontier, but seems constricted and crowded – a ‘pale blue dot’ in the immense cosmos.

My theme in these lectures is that the Royal Society’s old values should endure. Today’s scientists, like their forbears, probe nature and nature’s laws by observation and experiment. But they should also engage broadly with society and with public affairs.

Indeed, their engagement is needed now more than ever. Science isn’t just for scientists. All should have a voice in ensuring that it’s applied optimally – and to the benefit of both the developing and developed world. We must confront widely-held anxieties that genetics, brain science and artificial intelligence may ‘run away’ too fast. As citizens, we all need a feel for how much confidence can be placed in science’s claims. And these are themes I’ll explore in all four lectures.

And, as I’ll discuss, this is a crucial century. The Earth has existed for 45 million centuries. But this is the first when one species, ours, can determine – for good or ill – the future of the entire biosphere…

Full transcript



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Filed under Australian landscape's 'character', Bringing the project to life, Interviews, People and the environment, Putting it in context, Relevant articles

Running with the rat catchers

On July 1 the University of Sydney’s Desert Ecology Research Group and Bush Heritage Australia held a community information evening in Bedourie to explain what it is they have been doing out the in the Simpson Desert for 20 years. 

Community and council members, as well as managers and owners of the stations bordering Bush Heritage’s Cravens Peak and Ethabuka properties, were in attendance. 

ABC rural reported, Amy Phillips, from Longreach, was at the event.

Click here to listen to the ‘Country Hour’ radio piece from 2 July.


The Simpson Desert is home to 15 small mammals, more than 150 bird species, six types of frogs and more than 54 reptile species, making in one of the most prosperous reptile communities of any arid zone in the world.

But it’s not all plain sailing with introduced predators; foxes and cats really make their mark on the environment.

In the far western Queensland town of Bedourie scientists have taken a break from their work which looks into the predators’ impacts.

The group from the University of Sydney includes volunteers who along with the scientists have been coming out for around 21 years.

Professor Chris Dickman says there are 15 people braving the cool desert air and are part of a team they like to call the rat catchers.

He says there are some awesome little critters way out west.

“Well I think some of the favourites for me personally are the Mulgara, a small carnivorous marsupial with real attitude.”

“It’s smaller relative, a thing called a hairy-footed Dunart – it’s really kind of a Hobbit-looking marsupial with huge hairy hind feet.”

Professor Dickman talks about a predator crunch where the native mammal populations are coming down and the foxes and cats are increasing.

“From our work over the last 20 years we’ve seen three species disappear from the sand dunes, not to say they’re extinct, they do occur elsewhere in Australia.”

He sounds a warning that the hopping mouse might be next to be pushed out of this habitat.

“All it takes is a very long period of very low numbers and they’re gone.”

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Seawalls’ Dr MARK BROWNE on ABC’s Catalyst

On June 24, Dr Mark Browne, ecologist working on the Iconic Landscape’s seawalls case study, was on ABC’s Catalyst.

Man-made sea walls are a familiar, and increasingly essential feature on the urbanised coast, but they come at a cost to marine creatures and intertidal habitats. Surfing scientist Ruben Meerman meets Dr Mark Browne, a scientist who has come up with a simple yet effective solution to the problem.

You can view the piece here.


Ruben Meerman
The picture perfect spot, but building parks and homes right on the water comes at a price, sea walls are necessary to protect our property, but spare a thought for the marine life evicted from their natural homes.

Dr Mark Browne
Places like Australia, Asia, America and Europe, more than 50 per cent of the actual shoreline’s actually been replaced by these artificial sea walls.

Dr Mark Browne has been studying the impact of humans on marine animals and their habitats for the last 10 years.

Dr Mark Browne
Replacing natural shorelines with these artificial sea walls has huge ecological impacts. You’re replacing the natural area which is about 10 to 100 metres long with a sea wall, which is basically vertical. It’s very featureless, and because of its vertical surface, it actually restricts the amount of area that’s available, and critical habitats such as these sort of rock pools here, which have specialist fauna in them, aren’t actually present on the sea walls. Therefore there are huge impacts associated with the seawalls themselves. We’re looking in these types of habitats and were finding important species of snails, anthropods, limpets.

Ruben Meerman
They’re packed, there’s so many little creatures here and is that a starfish?

Dr Mark Browne
It is.

Dr Mark Browne
We want to try and conserve this species and have them living on the sea walls themselves.

Ruben Meerman
These sea walls will always be here and more will be built so how can we make them more marine friendly? The answer is flower pots but not the garden variety these are built to mimic natural rock pools.

Dr Mark Browne
The aim of our project is really to add an important microhabitat that is not normally found on a sea wall, I think we can use flowerpots.

Ruben Meerman
Here they are, and what’s holding them on?

Dr Mark Browne
The flower pots are held onto the wall using a galvanised metal bracket, which is then held on with four bolts

Ruben Meerman
Simple… and they’re two different heights, is there a reason for that?

Dr Mark Browne
They are two different heights so that we can get organisms that normally grow on the bottom of the wall that don’t normally grow on the top of the wall growing there.

Ruben Meerman
Right, so you’re extending the range in a way.

Dr Mark Browne
We are, we’re trying to make these walls more habitable and get more organisms on them. When the tide retreats, water’s left inside the pots that then forms a rock pool, the organisms then like to live in that rock pool and therefore during the emergent time when, when the tide’s out, we have a nice home for the organisms, for plants and animals to live in. In six months they actually improved the levels of biodiversity on the sea walls by up to five times.

Ruben Meerman
And what have we got in here?

Dr Mark Browne
So we’ve got unique species of red, green and brown algae, we’ve got very species of snails, limpets, anthropods, crabs and starfish. These are things that we don’t normally find on sea walls but we’re finding in these pots.

Mark’s happy with the results so far and if you’d like to help out our marine neighbours take on board Mark’s advice…

Dr Mark Browne
There are two approaches to improving biodiversity, one is to, when you’re actually building new sea walls, to have artificial rock pools built in, but if you’ve got existing sea walls, we’re saying to people that you are able to do something practical about biodiversity by just attaching these flowerpots onto existing walls.

Ruben Meerman
It might take a little while for these creatures to adapt to their new penthouse apartments by the sea but it’s home.

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Filed under Australian landscape's 'character', Interviews, People and the environment, Sydney Harbour (seawalls), Visuals

Ecology of the Simpson Desert on The Science Show

Two ABC National referrals in two days. Here is another interesting piece, from February this year, that focuses directly on the University of Sydney’s Desert Ecology Research Group’s research in the Simpson desert – one of the Iconic Landscape Study’s case study environments. 

In this piece of audio you will hear from the University of Sydney’s Chris Dickman, Glenda Wardle and Bobby Tamayo as well as about Karon Snowdon’s experience on a Simpson Desert research trip.

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Filed under Arid dry-zone (Simpson Desert), Bringing the project to life, Interviews, Putting it in context, Relevant articles

A National Parks chat

While in Broken Hill earlier this year, as I passed through to Fowlers Gap another 110 kilometres north on the Silver City Highway, I had a chance to speak with Brett Norman, Senior Ranger for the Far West Region (BN) and Ann Marie Smith (AMS) of the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change.

Rangelands landscape. The road to Rowena Sheep and Cattle Station

This is a snippet from our conversation.

What is the community’s knowledge on what’s happening in the rangelands in relation to National Parks like?

BN: Direct neighbours see what’s happening. It’s the one property removed or further afield that can cause a bit of Chinese whispers. Direct neighbours are aware we’re doing good stuff. There are people away who always blame National Parks.

What about knowledge on scientific research?

Fowlers Gap is the odd one out in the group of 20 properties. They are a research station surrounded by cattle and sheep stations. We’re doing goat research too. You can have the best results in the world saying kangaroos only eat half as much as sheep but if your reports are abstracted with scientific stuff then no ones going to read it.

It’s good that Fowler’s also runs stock because you need an ability to talk over the fence to the neighbours. This way, Fowlers Gap can provide information that’s useful to adjoining neighbours. They are on the same level. It’s harder for National Parks. They say we’re so different.

Do you note any tension in the local area around land use issues?

We don’t have the big tensions they have in far western QLD in relation to land clearing because the country is generally clear anyway. There’s a classic confrontation between environment and caring for farming. But in the arid zones large tracks of land are generally clear anyway.

The big thing out here is kangaroos. Studies are important and useful. If you ask landowners what their major issue with government or scientists is, it’s controlling kangaroo numbers.

So scientific research is relevant to land holders… Where is it falling short?

 We tend to do research on our patch and it all tends to be the fury animals or some bizarre plant and at the end of the day there’s no connection made between that and agriculture. It’s making those connections that’s important. Whether it’s something showing that the rats they catch in the Simpson Desert play a part in the seeding of a particular grass a landowner can see value in or something like that…

There is a perception that to call a town meeting and say ‘let’s talk about national parks’ you’re setting yourself up on a target to be everyone’s problem. Everyone will have his or her issues. We are reluctance to put ourselves too much out there. I guess it’s working away at getting information across.

If you can get people in and have a chat about stuff, that’s good. It’s always best over a cup on tea, the newspaper and biscuits.

Once you get into a formal setting of making a meeting you leave yourself wide open.

AMS: I think attitudes are changing towards National Parks and scientific research. As the older graziers are moving and passing their properties on, the newer generation are open to new ideas and what national parks is all about. I know when I joined Parks a long time ago; Sturt national park was brand new. Every cocky and creation wanted our guts for garters. They were not interested in anything we were trying to do. According to them we just pinched all their grazing land. But now attitudes are changing and people are more open minded about what’s actually taking place and happening. As Brett said, if it’s a formal chat you get shot down in flames but if its an informal chat people are happy to talk about all manner of stuff.

Also there’s a lot of this country that’s been in drought for over ten years. People are just so focused on surviving. They want to get rid of any kangaroos, any competition. They’re interested in making what little money they can out of what sheep and cattle they have left. It’s really quite depressing for a lot of them. They’re not interested in research. It’s way down the list.

Broken Hill community engagement with ‘the land’?

BN: I think Broken Hill’s big enough to have a fair percentage of town who are town people and don’t have much of an idea about landscape.

AMS: There’s a fair amount of observation. People like to go to National Parks. I’m just wondering if there is a city country separation.

Even though it’s a mining town the grazing community is very strong. There are a lot of people ho have a wife, son that the land can’t support so they come to town to work. 

Certainly, that’s what’s changed in the last 10 to 20 years. Mining is more transient. 20 years ago there were 6,000 people working at the mine. That was a huge percentage. The landowners and connection with the bush is stronger now.

What do you love about this area?

BN: I certainly like the open spaces. My wife works for school of the air. I probably get more information across about National Parks at her functions with landowners and parents with kids at school of the air. I’ve been here for five years and I still like it a lot. I don’t have to go very far and I’m out of town. You get the remoteness and the outback and the big skies and you’re not far away from family.

AMS: You only have to step out the door to get a dose of red dirt.

See this, this is my jar of red dirt from Tibooburra. When I can’t get home that’s my jar of red dirt from Tibooburra.  This is different red dirt. This is grainier where as the dirt you get here is dusty silt. This is proper good sand. Very nice. You just wet it and it smells like the bush.

The red earth and the smells you get when it rains. The smells of gidgee everywhere… It’s just the smell of the country and its all fresh and it sparkles.

It’s a rare occurrence. Whenever it does rain I let my kids outside to run around in it. It doesn’t happen all that often. It’s important to run around in the mud. You get a feel for the different sort of textures when it’s wet. It’s the wide-open spaces, it’s the big skies, it’s the stars in the night. It’s just the bush. It’s a good spot.

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Bedourie voices



Road to Bedourie from Windorah


2010 marks the 20 year anniversary of the University of Sydney’s Desert Ecology Research group’s first visit to the Simpson Desert. On every trip, Bedourie, the administrative centre of the Diamantina Shire in far Western Queensland, acts as the ‘gateway’ to and from the red dunes, big blue skies and research sites. 

When the locals see the University Hiluxes roll into Bedourie at least three times a year they know the ‘rat catchers’ are back. But when it comes to what the students, volunteers and professors (who pass through town with binoculars around their shoulders and swags piled on the roof racks) actually do out there, most locals are not entirely sure.

This July, the Desert Ecology Research Group, in conjunction with Iconic Landscapes, will be holding a community consultation evening in Bedourie with the intention to shed

Digging out the Hilux at the top of a dune


 some light on what the ‘rat catchers’ occupy themselves with for all those weeks spent on the other side of the dunes! It will be a chance for the scientists, locals and Bush Heritage representatives to bridge communication gaps create a dialogue around existing issues.  

When I was in Bedourie last December I had the opportunity to speak to some great local characters and this is brief snippet of what Gary, a carpenter had to say…

Are Bedourie locals interested in what’s happening in the desert, research wise?

We’re always curious when we first go out there to find out what they’re looking at and what they’re doing but after five minutes of talking to each of them it gets a bit much.

They [the researchers] traipse around the desert looking at animals. I can understand making reserves that these animals can all survive in but to stand there and watch them is beyond me.

Everybody’s been out there studying all those things for a long time. There must have been 1000s of people going through there. Surely they can work out what’s going on by now.

Bedourie town centre


 The thing I like most about being here [in Bedourie] is the people. It’s about community. It’s not about what’s running around on the ground. It’s a whole different way of life. You know everybody and everybody knows you. When people wave from their cars you know who they are.

Do you recognise a conflict of interests between graziers and organisations like Bush Heritage who have two properties in the area?

Most of the graziers these days are very concerned about their cattle numbers. They are very aware of the treatment to their land. You can’t overgraze or do all that sort of stuff. Here we’re a drought prone area and we rely on good land to survive. They’re very conscious of the amount of animals they’ve got on their land. They want to conserve the land without destroying it. They know what you can and can’t do.

You have to remember that without cattle, we wouldn’t have a town.

There would be no reason for us to be here without cattle. We’ve only got about 12 properties but if you talk about the people that ar

Gary (in the dark blue t-shirt in the middle) at the Simpson Desert Oasis pub


e connected to those properties… Properties need to roads, graders to maintain them, council, store to buy supplies and builders – like me. Without the industry, none of these services would be required.

Without grazing we’ve got nothing. What else are we going to do? We can’t manufacture. All we can do is graze. What are we going to do, make the whole lot National Park and all become rangers?!

A Desert Ecology Research Group volunteer at work in the desert

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Agricultural research – the growth of industry ‘knowledge sharing’

A recent article in The Land underlines the growing importance of private consultants and farmer groups in positions abandoned by the traditional extension or ‘educative’ roles of government agriculture departments. These groups are now taking on the responsibility of communicating important scientific based information to farmers. 

Chairman of the Birchip Cropping Group (BCG) in northern Victoria, Ian McClelland, says, “the benefits are the researchers get recognition and feedback on the key issues, the consultants have a laboratory in the field, industry sees their products being demonstrated and farmers get interaction between these people.”

Click here to read the March 18 article.

This issue also flashes back to a conversation I had with Nicole Payne, Assistant Director and North West Manager of NSW’s Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water’s Kangaroo Management Program. 

You have found the communication of scientific knowledge to be lacking. Why is this so?

Scientists are very good at going along to conferences and workshops frequented by the scientific community. They all talk together and all understand each other and that’s very nice but those are not he people making policy decisions with respect to natural resource management and they’re also not the people who own and run the properties and who need to better manage those properties, whether it’s cropping, livestock production or natural resource management. So there’s this big yawning gap about what the scientists know, and talk to each other about, and what filters down to the level of the people who are making on ground decisions and actually getting things done that effect environmental management. 

I think part of the reason for that has been the way funding arrangements are made. It forces scientists to publish in peer reviewed scientific journals which is not accessible to managers and people who really need to know what has been discovered.

So we’re missing an ‘information bridge’?

Yes, I think the government has also made a mistake from moving away from extension services in Departments like the Department of Agriculture and even our own because extension people bridged the gap a bit. They had sufficient scientific knowledge to understand the journals and track down research that was being done and then to translate it into something that could be usable for workshops where the more progressive and innovative landholders can come along and learn about what’s happening in the research world and how that might be applicable on their own farms. For many years now the government has moved away from those services because they’re very expensive. They used to be on a user pay basis, which makes them less accessible. Extension staffs are expensive to run.

They’re kind of like schoolteachers. Go out to help verbalise. The only ones that still remain are district agronomers. That may be because the intensive cropping industry is such high value. I don’t know who funds those positions anymore. The point of them was to let people on the ground know what research had found and how that might be applied in their own circumstances. 15 years ago I worked for the Department of Agriculture and there were livestock officers and they did some group work at workshops but once upon a time they literally went out to individual land holders properties to talk to them about the production systems they were employing and how the research might help them get better value of produce a better product. All of that’s gone now. The staff don’t have the resources to visit individual landholders. The best that is still achieved, where it’s still achieved at all, is group workshops. 

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Filed under Arid dry-zone (Simpson Desert), Interviews, People and the environment, Rangelands (Fowlers Gap), Relevant articles