An Inside Look at Australian Science From a Top Geoscientist


Phil McFadden is the chief scientist of Geoscience Australia (GA), a position he has held since 1999. This makes him a top-level scientific government advisor who represents GA in scientific forums and counsels nonscientific government organizations.

In 1981, McFadden left Rhodesia, UR, and physics for a senior research fellowship at the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University. In 1983 he joined GA, then known as the Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology, and Geophysics. McFadden has over 90 publications (many invited) in journals such as Science, Nature, the Journal of Geophysical Research, and Geophysical Journal International, and he co-authoredand . He was awarded the Jubilee (Gold) Medal of the Geological Society of South Africa in 1977 and was later elected as a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union and the Australian Academy of Science.

When I interviewed McFadden via telephone, I began by asking him about GA’s responsibilities and its role in helping Australia develop its natural wealth. Later, we discussed the general state of Australian science and potential opportunities for foreign scientists.

Unlocking Earth’s Secrets

McFadden said that in its geological survey role, GA provides data and information about Australia’s resources to attract international commercial interests. Established in 1946 and headquartered in Canberra, the capital of Australia, GA is a government agency in the Commonwealth Department of Industry, Tourism, and Resources. It supplies impartial scientific advice as well as data, maps, records, reports, and atlases for the public. McFadden summarized GA’s mission as acquiring, consolidating, and analyzing geological data to provide the information needed to better manage resources so that Australia can make the best use of them. “We do our work in such a way that we’re understanding how planet Earth works,” he commented, “and that gives us better information to be able to make use of the [Earth’s] resources.”

Elucidating the planet’s resources requires a proper commitment to the organization’s resources, McFadden explained. “Understanding how the continent works, being able to find the information, being able to figure out how mineral and oil deposits are formed, being able to understand risk-aspects of earthquakes … generally requires a pretty committed staff who’ve got a good history of what’s going on.”

As the nation’s largest government-sponsored geological research organization, GA employs a broad range of people to cover their extensive responsibilities. Much of the staff consists of research scientists, who are predominantly “geologists of one form or another,” but there are also mathematicians, physicists, chemists, geochemists, geophysicists, as well as a few engineers and economists. These scientists are supported by outstanding technical staff, information management specialists, and administrative staff. He said a majority of GA’s research involves surveying, geological work, geographic information systems, satellite information, and satellite processing. Their work is invaluable to the Australian government, mining and petroleum companies, environmental agencies, telecommunications firms, and emergency services to name a few.

GA maps the land masses below the ocean’s surface through basic geological work and seismic and bathymetric analysis (measuring water depth at various places in a body of water) to better define and legally extend Australia’s continental shelf for a submission to the United Nations under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. GA also stores rock cores retrieved from commercial projects in a repository that is open to outside researchers. The value of the repository is its ability to reveal information about inaccessible areas and to provide material for investigations. Evidence blaming mass extinctions during the Permian period on a large asteroid or a comet was found in rock cores there. McFadden endorsed such exploration by outside researchers, “We’ve got a wonderful repository, but we don’t have enough staff to go over these things in detail.”

Challenges and Opportunities in Australia

McFadden spoke enthusiastically about the unique challenges and opportunities available to earth scientists in Australia: “The opportunities in this place for doing work in geology are absolutely phenomenal.” Western Australia, he continued, contains some of the oldest rocks in the world and Australia itself is the world’s flattest continent and its second driest, after Antarctica. According to McFadden and other experts, Australia separated from Antarctica 30 million years ago, creating plate margins (the combination of the two are known as the spreading margin) in Australia and Antarctica. “We’re the only country in the world that’s got seismic data on both sides of a spreading margin!” McFadden exclaimed.

Although GA provides the data and the facilities, they do not fund nor coordinate outside research. GA–and most Australian scientific government entities and the general scientific community–functions much like their American counterparts, said McFadden. While it is a pluralistic system with various support options, the government is the primary funding body for Australian science. As individuals and universities compete for grant money, funding is funneled through bodies similar to the National Science Foundation (which he compared to the Australian Research Council) and the National Institutes of Health (which he compared to the National Health Research and Medical Council. He notes, however, things are beginning to change.

The government is pushing for more science with more commercial appeal, according to McFadden. “More and more now, researchers are beginning to work off soft money. Again a mirror of what happened in the U.S.” McFadden praised Australia’s chief scientist, Robin Batterham, for putting science at the forefront of the national agenda. “The government in this country recognizes the value of a knowledge economy, recognizes it’s necessary to be a knowledge economy, and recognizes the role science plays in that. Backing Australia’s Ability and Backing Australia’s Ability 2 have been very good programs with a fair amount of money flowing into science. Obviously as a scientist, one would like to see more. … But I think that the structure of the way money is flowing into science at the moment is pretty good.” For its part, GA receives their mandate and entire budget–$100 million this year–from the federal government.

Punching Well Above Their Weight Class

McFadden believes that Australia’s universities will benefit from the government’s improved focus on science. This scientific focus, he believes, is a potentially effective way to combat some of the problems Australian universities have had historically, such as inadequate financing and difficulty recruiting quality science students, which have weakened Australia’s university system during the last decade.

Another problem, said McFadden, is that Australia’s funding structure encourages university students to stay in their current labs to do their PhDs. He believes it’s important for students to leave the nest. While staying put hardwires specialization, it discourages the broad subject knowledge necessary for scientists nowadays.

Despite its problems, he believes that the Australian educational system can compete with almost any in the world, thanks to the demanding English-style educational system, the government’s recent changes under Batterham’s leadership, and a strong national character, which enables Australians to “punch well above their weight in international terms.”

Success Through Collaboration

McFadden believes that scientists get better through exposure. And what better way to expose someone to new experiences than through collaboration? Practicing what he preaches, McFadden collaborates with Ron Merrill at the University of Washington, Seattle, and he touts some of Australia’s formal collaboration efforts like Australia’s Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs), which bring together partners with different backgrounds (e.g., commercial, research, university) to achieve a similar scientific goal.

GA itself is involved with several of these CRCs, as well as universities and Australia’s international development agency, AusAID. “There’s a whole range of those kinds of initiatives and opportunities that exist in this country, designed to get different types of people coming together and to get multidisciplinary problems … attacked in a very sensible way. I think we have enormous opportunities here in Australia.”

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet. He may be reached at .

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