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Shape of our future environment: a report from Ecosystem Science Council

The Ecosystem Science Council (ESC) emerged in 2014 as a peak body in Australia to implement Foundations for the future: a long-term plan for Australian ecosystem science. TERN played a key role in supporting the consultation process to write this plan, the first of its type for Australia and based on an idea initiated by the Ecological Society of Australia and helped on its way with the cooperation of the Australian Academy of Science. Here we provide some highlights from an interview with Council Chair, Professor Glenda Wardle of The University of Sydney, about the work of the Ecosystem Science Council over the past year.

Read Foundations for the future: a long-term plan for Australian ecosystem science here

“The future can be what we make it, but only if we plan and act accordingly,” says Glenda. Not surprisingly then, “big and bold” is how she best describes the following two major initiatives from Council in 2017.


An enduring ecosystem monitoring and prediction capability for Australia

In 2017 Council developed and launched a bold proposal for an enduring ecosystem monitoring and prediction capability for Australia. This went out to the Minister for the Environment and Energy, The Hon Josh Frydenberg MP, TERN, the Ecological Society of Australia, (ESA) and the Australian Academy of Science’s National Committee for Ecology, Evolution and Conservation.

“Our future depends on anticipation of environmental changes, and on a scientific understanding of the drivers of changes so we can plan accordingly to sustain healthy ecosystems,” says Glenda.

Taking direction from the ecosystem science community, as outlined in Foundations for the future, Council proposed a solution to the ongoing calls from government through the State of the Environment Report 2016, and others, to improve the collection, integration and delivery of ecosystem data and knowledge to enable reporting, and to plan effective policy and management actions.

The fundamental idea for an Ecological Monitoring and Management Agency was first proposed during a plenary talk by Glenda to the Australia-New Zealand Society for Ecological Economics (ANZSEE) conference held in Adelaide in January 2017.  This is also where the name ‘EMMA’ was coined by the audience, much to the amusement of ESC member Dr Emma Burns of the Australian National University.

“The vision is for an independent agency sitting within a relevant Commonwealth department–parallel to the Bureau of Meteorology, an agency that itself has an excellent record of reporting and forecasting climate data for Australia, which we would hope to emulate for ecosystems,” says Glenda.

As part of communicating the ideas widely, Council sponsored a symposium at EcoTas2017 called ‘Enabling Ecosystem Surveillance Monitoring across Australia – putting ecology to work’ where speakers included practitioners, scientists and government agency people finding common ground on how to enable this important work.

While many good programs come, and go, the environment sector requires an ecosystem monitoring capability that has long-term security of resources because of the importance of continuity for the collection of ecosystem and biodiversity data that are fit-for-purpose for reporting, planning and prediction.

Without the enduring capacity, Council believes Australia will not be able to report in a consistent manner on critical changes in our life-supporting ecosystems over the necessary time frame of decades to centuries. A pleasing development for Council, therefore, has been that an environmental prediction system is being scoped by the Department of Education and Training under the NCRIS program, in consultation with Council, through the Ecological Society of Australia’s 2017 Gold Medalist, Dr Steve Morton, and the CSIRO.

Importantly, if an investment is made in this ecosystem monitoring capability, it will enhance Australia’s global citizenship profile with international policies, such as the Sustainable Development Goals, Convention on Biological Diversity, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). “Our nation’s environmental credentials will grow through trustworthy monitoring of policy performance and an ability to adaptively manage our landscapes,” says Glenda.


The challenge of securing adequate investment for long-term research

The second and related initiative of ESC in 2017 has been to tackle the key direction of supporting long-term research, a topic that has been challenging on many fronts, including for TERN.

“Long-term research needs long-term funding,” says Professor Alan Andersen of Charles Darwin University. Alan and the Working Group he leads for Council, produced a brochure that develops the value proposition for supporting long-term research and highlights a number of case studies.

“Long-term research not only describes ecosystem change, but identifies the drivers of change,” says Dr Aaron Greenville of the University of Sydney and lead author of an upcoming paper that synthesises findings from across multiple biomes covered by the TERN network of long-term research network sites. Understanding these biome-specific trends in biodiversity response to altered environments provides the basis for forecasting ecosystem change and for guiding management actions.

Given the breadth of work to be done implementing the vision outlined in Foundations for the Future, the Council will continue to advocate for adequate support for long-term ecological research.


Ongoing council engagement

Council continues to engage with the Department of Environment and Energy, other peak organisations, including Future Earth Australia—which launched its Business Plan in 2017—, Planetary Health, and the Australian Panel of Experts on Environmental Law. The input of Council has also been sought in 2017 for the development of the Decadal Plan for Biosystematics and Taxonomy in Australasia and the Decadal Plan for Earth Sciences.

In other news, Council welcomed new members, Noel Preece and Bryony Horton, and farewelled and thanked Stuart Phinn, Alex Kutt, and Bek Christensen for their valuable contributions to the work of Council. Council also finalised its Memorandum of Understanding with the Ecological Society of Australia and completed a Business Plan.

Looking ahead to 2018, Council encourages the ecosystem community to complete a survey and contribute to Australia’s strategy for nature 2018–2030: Australia’s biodiversity conservation strategy and action inventory (draft). This is an important initiative from a working group of officials from Australian, state and territory governments, and the Australian Local Government Association. Submissions close on 16 March 2018.

In the upcoming year, ESC will be working on securing funding and progressing activities for the key directions in Foundations for the Future: ‘Inspiring a generation’, “Making the most of Data Resources’, and the overarching goal of ‘Delivering maximum impact’. Later this year there will be an opportunity to nominate for Council and participate in the election of new members.

  • You can read Foundations for the future: a long-term plan for Australian ecosystem science here





Published in TERN newsletter January 2018


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