Doing the hard things in environmental science

Published 2 February 2017 by Jon Womersley FEIANZ CEnvP

We often say that good practice environmental management is grounded in good science.  The recent Australia Day recognitions gave point to the fact that science plays a very important and often esteemed role in our society.  But good science is under threat because it does not always fit neatly into the economists view of a productive world, nor, in the case of environmental science, does it leave the status quo unchallenged.  It is vitally important that we teach good science at all levels, to build the foundations for a world that is educated in the ecological footprint of the ever expanding human population, and with knowledge that allows us to live sustainably on a planet where ecosystem services are fragile and finite.

Eminent scientist Prof Michelle Simmons, Scientia Professor of Physics and Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology, at the University of New South Wales gave an Australia Day address that speaks to the role of science and education in our communities.  You can access her address here →

Here are some key points in what she had to say:

"Great teachers with high expectations challenge their students to be the best they can be. However equally important are the curricula that they teach.  …..

…..  If we want young people to be the best they can be (at anything) we must set the bar high and tell them we expect them to jump over it. My strong belief is that we need to be teaching all students – girls and boys – to have high expectations of themselves.

In Australia, when praising ourselves, even on occasions like this one, we tend to emphasise the beauty of our natural environment, our great lifestyle, and the easy-going nature of our people.  The lucky country.  I think this is a mistake, because it doesn't acknowledge the hard work that people have done to be successful and it encourages us to shy away from difficult challenges.

Of course, ours is a country of great spirit and enormous promise – something that outsiders don’t always appreciate.  With our inherent scepticism towards dogma and our openness and collaborative spirit, Australians are natural discoverers.  We are also problem-solvers who like to get things done.  But is this enough?

I am grateful for that Australian spirit to give things ago, and our enduring sense of possibility.  In this, we have so much to be thankful for – and, more importantly, so much to look forward to.  But there is room for improvement as well.  In our innovation policies, in our education system, and in the ambitions of our scientists and discoverers, I want Australians above all to be known as people who do the hard things."

There are many hard things in the realm of environmental science and environmental management.  We must meet the challenge of documenting and understanding the ecosystem services that sustain life on the planet.  We must meet the challenge of documenting, understanding and mitigating the impact that human activities have on those ecosystem services.  We must learn to adapt our society to the perturbations that we create in these important ecosystem services and their diminishing capacity to service the needs of the expanding human population.

Fostering change and adaptation are the ‘hard things’ are key roles for environmental professionals, and are encouraged through the EIANZ Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct.  Encourage other environmental professionals to join the EIANZ and foster good science as the foundation for good practice environmental management.