Document: Research Report 2009-10

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This is the third annual report on research undertaken at the Australian Museum following the adoption of the Australian Museum's Science Research Strategy, 2007-2012. This Strategy sets out the priorities for research aligned with the Museum's vision, purpose, context, research strengths and capabilities taking into account both state and national priorities.

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Executive Summary

Fittingly, the Australian Museum’s researchers marked the International Year of Biodiversity with an outstanding record of winning competitive grants, with particular success in the areas of species documentation and impacts on biodiversity. In the last 12 months, Museum researchers were awarded grants totalling $1,106,262 (up from the previous year total of $807,760) with an average value of $32,537 (compared with the previous year average of $31,029). Grants successes for the last four years are shown in the graph below. The increase is an outstanding achievement given that staffing numbers have remained relatively stable.

We were successful in filling 5 vacant invertebrate systematist positions, increasing our capacity in entomology and  DNA barcoding, malacology, polychaete worms and crustaceans. Four of the 5 appointees commenced after this report was compiled. Unfortunately, we were unable to fill a fish research position and will need to explore alternative funding and recruiting approaches in the coming year.

A mid-term review of the Science Research Strategy was undertaken during the year. As a result of the review, Program 3 ‘Increasing our understanding of the genetic variation in key taxa (species) of the Australasian and Indo-Pacific biota’, was absorbed into other programs. The program title is still mentioned in this report to provide continuity, but the research relevant to it is incorporated in the reports of other programs.

The change was made to reflect the full integration of molecular approaches into our taxonomic and systematics projects. All of the Museum’s zoologists (including new appointees) now incorporate both morphological and molecular techniques in their research.

Some minor changes were also made to Program 5 in recognition of the need to study a broader range of human activities impacting on Australia’s biodiversity while not down-playing our concerns about climate change.

In last year’s summary I highlighted the relevance of our research to contemporary societal issues in three areas – species discovery and documentation; conservation and management; and cultural heritage and diversity. This year, the theme that stands out strongly for me is ‘connectivity’.

Connectivity is a feature of the way in which Museum research is conducted, the content of our research and the application of our research results.

Over the last year, Museum researchers participated in a host of collaborative projects with a broad range of scientists, managers, policy makers and indigenous communities. Research involved joint projects with 28 institutions and agencies, including 5 prestigious Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Projects. While most collaborations were based on complementary expertise from similar disciplines, a few drew together truly multi-disciplinary teams – for example archaeologists and geologists; and biologists, oceanographers and modellers. Incorporation of new technologies into research projects also increased our capacity to answer long-standing questions.

The ‘Bush Blitz’ project is one example of multi-institutional collaboration in which Museum researchers participated. Bush Blitz involved several intensive surveys of properties across Australia’s national reserve system. The survey methodology joins scientists from different institutions with volunteers, supported by government and business, to sample the biota of key conservation areas. The survey results help to fill gaps in our knowledge of biodiversity and provide a baseline for detecting future changes in the biota.

Collaborations with a number of Indigenous communities have been particularly important in contextualising our collections through incorporation of traditional knowledge and, inturn, using the collections to re-connect people to their heritage. Connectivity is being facilitated through increasing use of the internet to provide access to our cultural collections through such projects as the Virtual Museum of the Pacific, a project with the Wonnarua Aboriginal Corporation and an ARC-funded Linkage Project with the University of Sydney ‘Understanding Balinese Paintings: Collections, Narrative, Aesthetics and Society’. The Wonnarua project included research and preparation of an online gallery featuring the Morrison collection of materials from the Hunter Valley, NSW. Community representatives visited the Museum’s collection stores to assess the material and around 70 youth and 15 community members living in the Hunter Valley attended workshops.

In a biological context, connectivity is fundamental to understanding evolutionary and ecological processes, informing management strategies and assessing the implications of human impacts, including climate change. Many of the projects outlined in this report highlight the fundamental importance of accurately identifying species and knowing their distributions with a view to investigating the relationships among taxa, assessing their vulnerability to extinction and understanding the risks of invasive pests.

As an example, the Circum-Australian Amphipod Project, which has been providing distribution data to the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA) over the last four years, was completed. Involving identification of over 4,000 specimens from State museum collections and collection of new material from previously un-sampled locations, this project has made a major contribution to understanding the biodiversity and biogeography of Australian shallow-water fauna. The information generated has been used in the Australian Natural Heritage Assessment Tool initiative, a resource for conservation and management strategies.

The outputs of Museum projects connect our research to the wider scientific community through publications and conference attendance; to resource managers and policy makers through involvement in joint projects, advisory committee membership and submissions on draft strategies and policies. During the last year, Museum researchers produced 138 publications, presented research findings at more than 40 conferences and participated in 63 advisory and editorial committees (see graph below for publications and new species discovery information).

The year ahead will present substantial challenges. It is clear that to continue the high quality and quantity of research we will need to explore new sources of funding, new partnerships and new opportunities. In this context, the generous support of the Geddes Foundation in funding the Museum’s Visiting Fellowships and Postgraduate Award scheme is an extremely welcome fillip to our research capacity and our ability to support the next generations of museum researchers.

Dr Brian Lassig, Assistant Director
Research & Collections
30 August 2010

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