I am delighted that our new research institute now exists on the web. As you can see we are still developing the site, but I’m confident that it will grow rapidly. My role as the first Director of the Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods began in February 2011, and the weeks since then have been an enjoyable blur.
After the enormous challenge of packing up and cleaning up 2 acres and 12 years of accumulated stuff (and/or junk) at our bush block in Queanbeyan, and then the 4,000km drive to Darwin, dodging floods and enduring successive 46C days en route, it has been great settling into our new house in Darwin and beginning a new lifestyle and job. Yes, there has been a cyclone and almost 3 metres of rain, and Darwin real estate prices are eye-popping, but on the whole from a family perspective the move has been very rewarding.
As for RIEL, we are making solid progress. I’m delighted to be joining some outstanding scientists who have already made significant contributions to our knowledge about northern Australia through their research over many years. Through discussions with other parents at the kids’ school and sporting teams it is clear that Darwin is a transient town in many ways, and many workplaces have a relatively high level of staff turnover. But in environmental research — not just in CDU but also in other research groups in Darwin — many researchers have a long-term commitment to their work and to the extraordinary environment in which it takes place, and have been here a long time. It seems that the landscapes, seascapes, ecosystems, communities and people of the north get under your skin and can be very hard to leave. Environmental research is one area where continuity in one place can be a great advantage, as we try to get a better understanding of complex ecological processes over large areas and long timeframes.
RIEL has been formed primarily out of the former School for Environmental Research (SER) and the research-intensive parts of the School for Environmental and Life Sciences (SELS), and it also includes the equally new Centre for Renewable Energy. We are not starting with a clean sheet of paper, as CDU has already been recognised in the national Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) rankings for the quality of its environmental research, delivered through SER and SELS, and through initiatives such as the former ARC Key Centre for Tropical Wildlife Management, the Tropical Savannas CRC and more recently the Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge (TRaCK) collaboration.
So although RIEL is a new research institute, we have a history. A rich legacy of high quality science and highly relevant, collaborative research provides a solid platform to build on. We have already identified the key areas of focus for our research, and we have appointed Theme Leaders for each of them. Those themes build on our strengths and comparative advantages, and they also flag new areas where the need for new knowledge and insights in northern Australia over coming decades will be pressing. We will be refining the key research questions in each theme over coming weeks, and developing a longer-term research strategy that clarifies for ourselves, our partners and the outside world, where we want to focus our research efforts, where we want to build capacity, and where we will be directing our own resources.
Our research portfolio will not emerge from a blueprint however, but from the ideas and energies of our people. I have been having one-on-one meetings with all staff, firstly to get to know everyone and their capabilities, but more importantly to hear their aspirations for the new institute and to discuss ideas about how we can best capture the great opportunities it represents. I’ve been struck by the commonality of views about the good sense of the university in consolidating its environmental research efforts through one institute, and about the enormous potential for us to grow something very special. In meetings with our external partners and stakeholders in research, government, industry and community groups, I’ve encountered enormous goodwill towards CDU and again, plaudits for the establishment of RIEL and optimism about the potential for it to make a difference.
‘Making a RIEL difference’ — has a nice ring to it.
Keep coming back to this web site over coming months as we improve the way we present our work and make it more accessible, and as we seek to interact more directly with the people and groups who use or are interested in our research.
RIEL is uniquely placed to work across the intersections of natural resource-based livelihoods, biodiversity, climate, carbon, energy, water and food systems. As the locus of environmental research in the only university in the Northern Territory, we also have a unique responsibility to recruit and train researchers to develop expertise in these areas that is grounded in and passionate about the needs of northern Australia and its neighbouring countries.
The area of our business in most need of improvement in my opinion, is post-graduate training. It’s not that we are doing much terribly wrong or different to most other universities, just that we could be doing so much better. I am very keen that we learn from the best PhD and post-doctoral programs we can find anywhere, and we tailor the best of their ideas to the needs of CDU and northern Australia. Within a couple of years, I’m confident that RIEL will be one of the most attractive and rewarding places to do post-graduate research and training in the tropics, anywhere.
I’m looking forward very much to this journey, to sharing insights with you via this blog, and to feedback from our visitors and subscribers.