More than just having a good idea

Science programs have been integral to the Australian Antarctic program throughout its long history: we are in Antarctica and the subantarctic to do science. We do this within the structure provided by the Australian Government's goals of maintaining the Antarctic Treaty System and enhancing Australia's influence within it, protecting the Antarctic environment, understanding the role of Antarctica in the global climate system, and undertaking work of practical, economic and national significance.

Each area of Australian Antarctic research – Antarctic marine living resources, atmospheric and space research, astronomy, biology, geosciences, glaciology, human biology and medicine, human impacts, and oceanography – has a strategic plan with clearly defined milestones toward achieving the Government goals. All proponents of an Antarctic research project must show how their objectives contribute to achieving strategic milestones and give evidence of the project's scientific merit, institutional support, and investigator's capacity to undertake the work. The proposals are first reviewed by international specialists in the field concerned. They are then assessed by the Antarctic Research Assessment Committee, composed of eminent scientists not directly involved in Antarctic work, the Antarctic program leaders and the AAD Chief Scientist, and chaired by an independent scientist.

Approved programs involving fieldwork are then tested against environmental standards.

  • All activities conducted south of 60°S require an environmental impact assessment and must comply with Australian legislation, notably the Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) Act (ATEP) and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC). Under ATEP any flora and fauna collecting or disturbance of animals may only be done under a permit. Any research on seals south of 60°S also requires a permit.
  • Entry into and activities in places designated as specially-protected or specially-managed areas require a permit under ATEP.
  • A permit is needed for all harvesting and research on any marine organisms, even including bacteria and other microbes, in the area covered by the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which takes in the Southern Ocean south of the Polar Front – including Heard Island but not Macquarie Island which is north of the Front.
  • A permit is required to enter and undertake any scientific activity within the Territory of Heard and McDonald Islands, which includes the 12 nautical mile territorial sea.
  • Macquarie Island, part of the State of Tasmania, is a State Reserve under the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Act, requiring a Tasmanian permit for entry, undertaking research, collecting samples and other activities on the Island.
  • Projects involving work on fish, birds or mammals must satisfy national guidelines for ethical experimentation on animals. All such projects must be approved by the Antarctic Animal Ethics Committee, an independent group appointed by the Minister for the Environment and Heritage. Following the Australian Code of Practice for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes, the group comprises a person with substantial recent experience in animal experimentation, a veterinarian, a person with experience in animal welfare, an independent member of the wider community, the Chief Scientist, and a Tasmanian Government representative. The Tasmanian Government has recently required that Macquarie Island wildlife research proposals be subjected to public comment as part of the State's approval process.

All research undertaken in Antarctica is of high quality and done for a purpose, but it must also be rigorously tested against environmental and ethical standards, as befits all human activities in such a special part of the planet.

Harvey Marchant
Biology Program Leader,
Australian Antarctic Division