TERNing on US-Australia scientific collaboration

Wearing my two main hats as Director of RIEL at Charles Darwin University and as chair of the advisory board of the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN), I recently met in Washington D.C.  with senior officials from NASA (Dr Diane Wickland and Woody Turner), the US Geological Survey (USGS – Dr Roger Sayre), the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON – Brian Wee) and the National Science Foundation (NSF – Dr Elizabeth Blood).

The US Department of Agriculture, celebrating 150 years

These meetings were a follow up to the Joint Commission Steering Committee Meeting (JCM) on Science and Technology held in February 2011 as a high-level delegation led by DIISRTE, instigated by Prime Minister Gillard and Secretary of State Clinton.  I had been unable to attend that JCM as it coincided with my family’s move to Darwin, so the TERN Board was represented by Dr  Peter Woodgate, CEO of the Spatial Information CRC.  The JCM had identified earth observation systems as a particular opportunity for US-Australian scientific collaboration, which puts TERN in an important position.

TERN is a continental network of facilities across Australia, which together generate, organise and make accessible a range of types of ecosystem data gathered at various spatial and temporal scales.  It has a very significant ecoinformatics investment aimed at making historic data easier to find and use, and also creating user-friendly systems for researchers, ecosystem managers and decision makers to locate, access and use the new data streams emerging from TERN facilities.  TERN also has two key facilities for analysing and synthesising the outputs of other facilities:  EMaST, the Ecosystem Modelling and Scaling facility;  and ACEAS, the Australian Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.

TERN is funded by the federal science department through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) and the Education Investment Fund (EIF).  It is managed and hosted by the University of Queensland, but the ecoinformatics investment is led by the University of Adelaide, and other facilities are coordinated by scientists from CSIRO, Macquarie University and the ANU.  The Director is Dr Tim Clancy, assisted by part-time (i.e. only partially funded by TERN)  Associate Science Directors Prof Stuart Phinn from UQ and Prof Andy Lowe from Adelaide.  The TERN architecture is outlined in the diagram below, and its governance framework including facility directors is described here.

There is no direct equivalent of TERN in the US.  However several TERN facilities have mirror US initiatives, which usually enjoy much larger budgets.  The US has a Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) plot network, and it is rolling out a major observational network in NEON, which has a total budget more than 20 times that of TERN.  For 15 years the NSF funded the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California Santa Barbara, which was to a large extent the model for TERN’s ACEAS facility.  The NSF has now awarded a major grant to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science to establish SESYNC, the Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center.  As its name suggests, SESYNC has a stronger emphasis on the social sciences and a more explicit connection to big environmental policy questions than did NCEAS.  In addition to these specific initiatives, of course the US also has national science institutions with enormous capability operating in the earth observation space, including NASA, NOAA and the US Geological Survey.

Senior US officials from all of these initiatives and institutions were very interested in the scope of TERN.  They were impressed by its ambition (especially given its modest budget) and the fact that we have managed to create a continental framework that assists us to take a more coordinated, strategic, ‘joined up’ approach across networks of on-ground monitoring and research plots, a flux tower network, a one-stop-shop for satellite data, coastal and soils facilities, and the aforementioned analysis and synthesis capabilities.

For example, I was at pains to point out to my US hosts that the NASA and USGS investment in and custodianship of the Landsat satellite and its data archive over the last 30 years has been of inestimable value in Australia for a wide range of purposes — and that through TERN we now have the analytical and informatics capability to extract even more value from this extraordinary archive.   Both in face to face meetings and in my talk at the Australian Embassy I emphasised the importance of Landsat for Australia and thanked the US for that investment, and for making Landsat data so widely and freely available.

This is a great example of the cultural shift we are trying to foster through TERN — a shift from researchers using their own infrastructure to gather their own data (often tightly held), to one in which infrastructure is collaboratively owned and managed, and its data outputs widely and freely shared across the research and wider community.  We need this to be complemented and supported by changes in academic reward systems to give credit to people who make their data available to others – for example by ensuring that datasets get a Digital Object Identifier just like publications, and consequently that when data is used in a publication, the owner of that data registers an academic citation equivalent to that of a journal paper.

Like Australia, the US is placing a high priority on developing a better understanding of the stocks and fluxes of carbon across the continent and how that relates to land cover, land use, moisture regimes and thus the hydrological cycle and in turn climate.  They have developed new airborne sensing systems through NEON that fill a critical gap between ground-based observations and satellite data.  It would be of great value for Australia, and for the accuracy of global models as they apply to Australia, if these new sensing systems could be calibrated for Australian conditions.  People from NEON, USGS, NASA and the NSF all agreed that this would be highly desirable.

After 3 days in Washington DC I spent a day and a half at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) at Annapolis and at their Horn Point labs on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay.  This visit is largely covered in another blog.  It included a breakfast meeting in Annapolis with Dr Margaret Palmer, the newly appointed Director of SESYNC.  Margaret and I discussed the challenges associated with getting genuine integration across the social and environmental sciences, and between science and policy — i.e. the mission of SESYNC.  We agreed that there is considerable scope for joint work between SESYNC and ACEAS, and I identified some of the key Australian researchers working at this interface who could usefully be involved.

Margaret was very interested to hear about the ACEAS workshop running in Darwin next week, led by Professor Robert Costanza of Portland State University in Oregon, one of the world’s leading environmental economists.  That workshop (also supported by the United Nations University)  is seeking to quantify and value the environmental services being delivered by Indigenous people on their own country in northern Australia, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Indonesia — with a view to the emerging carbon market in particular.  It is a great example of applying a combination of ‘hard’ science, social science and economics to explore big public policy questions that SESYNC was established to tackle.  Incidentally, Bob Costanza spent many years at the University of Maryland and did some of his early pioneering work in ecological economics looking at the management of Chesapeake Bay.

Prof Bill Dennison, head of the Integration and Application Network (IAN) at UMCES, gave me a guided tour of the sparkling new SESYNC facilities in Annapolis, and introduced me to SESYNC staff and people from Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the state environment agency.  I gave a TED-style presentation to SESYNC and Natural Resources staff on the broad integration challenge across climate, water, energy and food, and the risks that other values such as biodiversity, landscape amenity and social cohesion will be squeezed by these ‘converging insecurities’.  This was an abbreviated version of the Australian Embassy talk, with a greater emphasis on integration and science communication issues.  Again, it was clear that people could quickly see parallels between our two countries and great value in working together.

From my meetings in both Washington and Annapolis, it seems that the Americans perceive that in Australia we tend to do a better job at the integration challenge — especially when it comes to involving a wide range of stakeholders in working through big issues with a mix of ‘bottom up’ and ‘top down’ processes.

This may be a case of “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”, but I think there probably is an element of truth here.  Possibly one unintended consequence of our much more modest science and research budgets is that there is a much stronger incentive for individual agencies to collaborate with others, and there is less tolerance of perceived duplication.  Moreover in recent years the Australian Government has invested strongly in collaborative research.  The most obvious example is the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS), but the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) program has over 20 years made collaboration across agencies and sectors a high priority, the Australian Research Council (ARC) has funded collaborative Centres of Excellence, the Department of Environment, Water, Sustainability and Communities has funded collaborative research hubs under its National Environmental Research Program (NERP) — including of course our own TRaCK and the North Australia Biodiversity Hub — the Department of Climate Change has fostered cross-sectoral networks under its National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF), and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has strongly promoted collaboration among its rural R&D Corporations.

US perceptions about our relative readiness to tackle the integration challenge also may be in part a legacy of awareness about landcare and also our catchment management framework, which do provide world-leading mechanisms for assisting communities at local and regional levels to get together with government, science and industry, to plan, to work out priorities and to allocate resources.  However it has been striking for me how we have run down our investments in these critical planks of social infrastructure, and how we have not used them strategically in, for example, the development of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, the Clean Energy Future package (particularly the Carbon Farming Initiative and the Biodiversity Fund) or the Energy White Paper process.

In my view we have slipped in this critical area at a time when it is needed urgently, but we may still have an edge on the US.

Reflecting on my meetings with senior science leaders in Washington D.C. and Maryland, it is clear that there is much to be gained for both countries in seeking to align our scientific infrastructure, in our case around earth and ecosystem observation systems, ecoinformatics and environmental analysis and synthesis activities.  The US has immense capability in these areas, but they are impressed by what we have been able to establish through TERN with much more modest resources.  We are seen as having excellent scientists and complementary geography that makes our data of interest globally.   There is a great warmth and openness among our American scientific colleagues towards collaboration with Australia.

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