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A new name and a new direction for our scientific research

By: Michael Hugill, Category: Science, Date: 18 Aug 2014

A wonderful speech by Professor Merlin Crossley capped off the official launch of the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI) last week.

Based here at William St in Sydney, NSW, our AMRI team is made up of 70 scientists and more than 100 associates. Our collection of more than 18 million objects and our scientific facilities (such as the Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics and Lizard Island Research Station) underpin the team's research.

“Discovering new species, determining where they come from and how they are genetically related is a strength of the Australian Museum Research Institute. This expertise, which is unique to the Museum, positions us to address significant issues such as environmental health, biodiversity loss, climate change and biosecurity,” said our Director and CEO, Kim McKay AO.

AMRI was officially launched by the NSW Minister for the Arts Troy Grant. “Through its work," he said, "the Research Institute is inspiring a generation of new scientists dedicated to the conservation of our natural environment.”

Ms McKay and Minister Grant were two of several speakers that morning, which began with a Welcome to Country by Millie Ingram and was illustrated by 'tales from the field', including this unusual one by AMRI coordinator Jodi Rowley.

"In 2009, in the lowland forests of Vietnam," said Jodi, "I came across a huge green flying frog with enormous webbed hands and feet , which it uses to parachute down from the forest canopy. It turned out to be undescribed, so I decided to name it after my mother."

"Now, some people might take offense at having a frog named after them, but my mum was quite overjoyed with 'her frog' - even after National Geographic declared it had 'flappy forearms'. Unfortunately though, Southeast Asia has the highest relative rate of deforestation of any tropical region and as a result, Helen’s Flying Frog is likely to be the region's most threatened frog."

Jodi's story, both funny and sad, highlights the importance of AMRI's focus on understanding what constitutes and influences effective biodiversity conservation.

For a more detailed overview of the role AMRI is playing in a changing world, we have transcribed here the speech given by Professor Merlin Crossley, Australian Museum Trustee and Dean of Science, University of New South Wales, who has overseen the development of the Museum’s science strategy: 

Minister, distinguished guests, it is a privilege to be here. The Australian Museum is a critical part of our culture. It is here to help us to understand and to manage our changing the world.

The world is changing and there is probably only one force more powerful in driving change than evolution (evolution is something the Museum studies) – the one thing that’s stronger is cultural evolution. Man’s ability to learn and our power to harness the knowledge to make our world better.

The great cultural institutions in our great city reflect the evolution of knowledge transfer. The Opera House reflects the first oral traditions where knowledge was passed through songs and stories, the Art Gallery contains pictorial and sculptured representations, the great National Library, houses books which were the next phase in knowledge, the Powerhouse, now the Museum of Applied Science and Art catalogues our technological achievements, but our museum, the Australian Museum houses, collections of our biota, our geology and indigenous collections from Australia and the Pacific Islands.

Ours are all living collections and not everyone realizes it but the Australian Museum is unique among cultural institutions (with the exception of the Botanic Gardens) in that it is not just a showcase and an educating school, it is also a living and thriving research institution.

Historically, the main game may have been to collect and categorize, but the Museum has evolved. Back in the 1800s when Gerrard Kreft, our favourite curator, ran the Museum, he could not have foreseen how important research would be to the modern museum.

He could not have known how internationally important the collections would be and how a new Director, our own Kim McKay, who has spent much of her life promoting science, would now be launching the next step of the cultural evolution in the Museum.

He could not have known that each biological sample could now be used to yield DNA and a digital treasure trove of knowledge, nor could he have known that new techniques in analytical chemistry would allow each stone axe or obsidian spear head to be tested and its origins defined.

If plane safety is threatened by bird species and you need to know which birds – who do you call? – Rebecca Johnson of the Australian Museum Wildlife Genomics Centre. If you want to design new biological enzymes for chemical catalysis, again you resort to the Museum. If lobster pots are being invaded by a new pest octopus, who do you call, the Museum staff, who will explain that our local octopus is now spreading down on the faster flowing, warmer east Australian current and how our fishermen tackle this competitor. If there is an outbreak of Crown of Thorn starfish our staff at the Lizard Island Research Station can help. If international trade agencies notice a new species of fruit fly, and threaten to close off exports, and you need to know whether there is a new pest or not, who do you call, pest busters … Shane McEvey. If you want to set aside a sustainable fishery and need to know where the fish breed, who do you call, Jeff Leis, one of the world’s foremost fish biologists. He has the knowledge.

And I should say that Jeff, who has recently retired but remains a Fellow, was the first person who pointed out to me that we should stop hiding the critical world research under a bushel and that it was time to integrate and build all our research in the Australian Museum Research Institute.

The Australian Museum Research Institute stays true to the original responsibility in the Museum Act, to focus on biology, geology and anthropology, and it has four main and very serious aims:

  1. To understand and ameliorate the impacts of climate change on biodiversity;
  2. To provide information relevant to the management of pest species;
  3. To provide information on conservation;
  4. To use new technologies, such as DNA sequencing, microscopy or analysis to solve key problems.

The Australian Museum Research Institute is here to:

  • Provide a focal point for the many researchers working in the museum;
  • To facilitate collaborations with other government research agencies, with universities, with the gardens, the zoos, and other museums, both here and internationally;
  • And to showcase the research and inspire our children and our leaders, including our politicians, by explaining the power of science to improve the world.

And already the Australian Museum Research Institution is punching above its weight. Pat Hutchings, another top marine biologist with the Museum has analysed the productivity of the Museum and it ranks alongside great museums of the world, such as the Natural History Museum in London, or the American Natural History Museum. I care about productivity metrics.

We care so much that we will celebrate success with a new Medal for Museum Research at the Eureka Prize event. The Australian Museum’s Eureka Prizes are already among Australia’s most prestigious scientific awards and it is right that we finally include Museum research.

I want to finish by thanking Kim for proactively launching this institute, I want to thank Brian Lassig and key staff, especially the leading senior researchers, Jeff Leis, Pat Hutchings, Robin Torrence, Lin Sutherland, representing Geosciences, and other key people such as Rebecca Johnson our DNA expert, and Dave Britton our insect media star, and Richard Major our bird expert.

I want to thank the distinguished members of the Science Strategy Panel, including the former Chief Scientist Jim Peacock, the representative of the State Government research agencies, Kate Wilson, the university representative Steve Simpson, head of the Charles Perkins Centre, the representative of Medical Research Institutes, John Mattick of the Garvan, the representative of CSIRO Joanne Daly, and our top science communicator Karina Kelly.

I also want to thank the Chair of our Trust, Catherine Livingston who is a business person who knows that Science is important for business, and I want to thank Mark Paterson, who knows the difference between fact and fancy and has been highly supportive of the new direction that our new Director Kim McKay is taking.

Finally, I wish to thank the Minister, Troy Grant, without whose support this great institution can not exist.

Politics is a tough game but leadership is about deciding priorities. This State Government is determined to put NSW first. It has had some bold policies, such as its recent commitment to sustainable energy production, I applaud this leadership and I also thank it for remembering and paying attention to institutions like the Museum that will make a long term difference. With your help we can grow this research institution and Science can make more of a difference yet and NSW can lead the way.

Australian Museum Research Institute