Building a proud reputation in Antarctic science

Former Chief Scientist, Michael Stoddart, provides the second of three stories in this ‘Changing of the Guard’ series, reflecting on his time at the Australian Antarctic Division, as he moves on to new opportunities elsewhere.

I started at the Australian Antarctic Division in December 1998, after a previous Director told me they were looking for a new Chief Scientist.

Prior to the Antarctic Division my work was entirely within the university system, both in the UK and Australia. This included positions as Lecturer in Zoology at King’s College, London; Chair of Zoology at the University of Tasmania; foundation Chair of the Antarctic Animals Ethics Committee — during which time I conducted a short project on Macquarie Island; and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of New England in Armidale, NSW.

When I arrived at the Antarctic Division I wanted to develop the science program into one which was even better acclaimed and more visible internationally than the one I inherited. Whether I achieved this will be for history to judge, but by external assessments and the expressed views of Antarctic colleagues from overseas, Australia stands with a proud reputation in Antarctic science. Our research staff and our many collaborators around Australia and internationally are of the highest calibre and it is their work which receives the accolades.

Through successive science strategies the science program is now far more focused on what the government wants than was previously the case. This has resulted in a ‘program’ structure very different from the discipline-based structure I inherited.

I went to Antarctica six times, including with a group of school children on a tourist vessel travelling down the Peninsula and on a couple of overflights — one with Croydon Travel over New Year’s Eve, complete with a 747 jazz band. I spent a short summer at Davis in 2006 and I was fortunate to be on the first passenger flight in our very own A319 in February 2008. My first and lasting impression of Antarctica is its vastness and how small we humans are in the grand scheme of things.

One of my best experiences was being part of the team presenting Antarctic science to the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council in 2005. I asked the PM and his colleagues to pick up glasses into which we had put glacial ice and water, and breathe air which had not seen the light of day since the human species evolved. Following this, we got the go-ahead for the airlink.

I hope that the governance system for Antarctica will endure the pressures of the 21st century. It may be creaky, but it works. It would be an appalling tragedy if Antarctica were to be exploited further. Climate change is creating new challenges for how tourism and research are to be managed, as well as marine exploitation, and I’d like to see the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting continue to be responsive to what might turn out to be quite rapid change.

Australia’s program must continue to focus on what the government wants; addressing the competing demands of science without boundaries and government constraints. If we can do this, our program will continue to grow in stature, relevance and quality.

I have no intention of ‘retiring’ in the sense of ‘withdrawing into privacy or seclusion’. I will continue as coordinator of the Census of Antarctic Marine Life until its Grande Finale in 2010, and then in whatever new guise it adopts. I have recently been involved in developing a renewal bid for the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre and organising the second sub-Antarctic forum in Hobart, and I will be delivering a plenary at SCAR Biology in Sapporo in July 2009. I will also have more time for music, family, boat building (model and real), travel and I don’t know what all else!

Michael Stoddart

Former Chief Scientist, AAD