We recently hosted a meeting of the DVCRs and the directors of research offices of the seven universities in the Innovative Research Universities (IRU) network. The IRU comprises younger, research-intensive universities (CDU, JCU, Griffith, Murdoch, Newcastle, Latrobe and Flinders). The most recent IRU forum was held at Charles Darwin University in early June. After a day of discussions of academic policy and the research landscape, followed by a networking dinner in downtown Darwin, the host Professor Sharon Bell of CDU felt that any Darwin meeting is incomplete without an opportunity to spend some time in the extraordinary landscapes of the Top End.
Magpie Geese - image copyright Tom Rayner
So before dawn, a group of 17 Deputy Vice-Chancellors, Pro Vice-Chancellors, academics, administrative staff and an honours student (myself) set out along the Stuart and Arnhem highways to the floodplains of the Adelaide and Mary River systems. Our first destination was Fogg Dam, a relic of one of many failed attempts to establish broadscale intensive agriculture in the north, but now much loved by local and migratory bird life. As the sun came up over the floodplain we enjoyed our breakfast with hundreds of birds, including magpie geese, egrets, jabirus, ducks, finches, kites and many more species.
Among the introductions, Dr. Rod Kennett gave a brief talk on the North Australia Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance and one of its projects I-Tracker, a program (based on Cyber Tracker software) used across northern Australia which enables Indigenous rangers to track biodiversity and environmental characteristics using a hand-held device.
Once we had identified all the bird species and were content from breakfast we re-joined the Arnhem Highway. Our host for the day, Prof. Andrew Campbell entertained us on the road with information on Gamba Grass, an invasive weed with African origins that is threatening savanna woodlands in northern Australia due to its high fuel load and consequently much more damaging fire regimes. Top End environmental knowledge was valuable to the guests as their backgrounds ranged from health to molecular biology to fish biology.
Saltwater crocodile - image copyright Tom Rayner
Our next stop was Corroboree Billabong for a cruise through the wetlands. Among the 33 bird species we saw, we also spotted many saltwater and freshwater crocodiles basking along the banks. Our cruise host Scott guided us through the waterways pointing out invasive weeds and entertaining us with past stories of human-croc interactions from the area. Then back onto the bus to Wildman Wilderness Lodge in Mary River National Park where we were treated to lunch looking over grasslands and termite mounds.
The purpose of the research forum was to share knowledge and wisdom between the universities involved and to treat our colleagues to a taste of the Top End. The bus ride back was full of conversation on the many threats to ecosystems in Australia, including the vulnerable tropical savannas of the north. The value of the research forum was clear as I listened to my academic seniors share ideas and hypotheses.
The last stop for the day was at Charles Darwin National Park for talks on current research in the Top End and the management of Darwin Harbour. Dr. Mila Bristow spoke about her research on carbon budgets in deforestation and afforestation in savanna woodlands and how the findings will contribute to some exciting developments in the emerging carbon economies of northern Australia. Bill Stuchbury, Chair of the Darwin Harbour Advisory Committee, spoke about the current challenges in managing the Harbour with multiple stakeholders involved, steeply increasing development pressures and the need for independent research into environmental impacts and how best to minimise and manage them.
Tour participants - image copyright Tom Rayner
The last speaker of the day was Prof. Karen Gibb, whose team, the Environmental Analytical Chemistry Unit, has played a large role in research into the microbiological health of Darwin Harbour. Prof. Gibb emphasised the role of building relationships with stakeholders involved in Harbour management, including the Traditional Owners, the Larrakia people.
The raison d'être of the IRU is networking and collaboration. Field trips like this can help build partnerships and allow the sharing of research approaches and findings in a fascinating setting, with suits and ties left far behind.
As for the collective noun for DVCRs, we'll leave that to your imagination...
More images from this trip can be found here.