Without any fanfare from the Government or from media, Hugh Possingham, Professor of mathematics and conservation science at the University of Queensland, was appointed Queensland Chief Scientist in September 2020.
I know something of Professor Possingham’s work and was surprised to find that little had been written about his appointment and his new role. I began to wonder if, in fact, Queenslanders know we have a Chief Scientist, especially one as highly credentialed as Hugh Possingham.
For this story, I asked Environment Minister Meaghan Scanlon MP for a statement on the appointment of the Chief Scientist. I wanted to know how his selection links with the Government’s own ambitions.
Minister Scanlon said the position of Queensland Chief Scientist sits within the Department of Environment and Science’s Science and Technology business unit but has a much wider responsibility to advise the Queensland Government on all scientific matters.
She said Professor Possingham’s appointment and the location of the position within the Department, is fortuitous, “… as the Department has a key objective to conserve Queensland’s extraordinary biodiversity to benefit individuals, businesses and the state’s economy.”
“Professor Possingham, who started in this position in September 2020, has a long and distinguished career developing tools for solving nature conservation problems such as where to place protected areas and identifying most efficient actions for saving threatened species,” Ms Scanlon said.
“In particular, Professor Possingham’s expertise in mathematics and ecology brings a special set of skills to help achieve one of the Queensland Government’s main environmental goals – maintaining biodiversity and preventing biodiversity loss.”
The Minister also said the Department’s new responsibility for Queensland youth initiatives is a perfect fit for the Queensland Chief Scientist’s passion for inspiring young Queenslanders to consider a career in science.
Conversation with the Chief Scientist
I also decided to approach the Office of the Queensland Chief Scientist for an interview to find out more about his role and hopes for the office. We met in his 31st floor office on Brisbane’s George Street which provides a view of the river and the high flying bird. He is quietly spoken, warm, and very generous with his time. He also told me he cannot smile for photographs, and that proved to be true.
Professor Possingham is a mathematical ecologist, and on LinkedIn he lists his goal: to “save as much biodiversity as possible.”
I wanted to know what it means for a scientist with such an ambition to work ‘inside the tent’ with Government, rather than trying to influence public policy from the outside; I also wanted to learn about his hopes for the Office, and how he intends to shape his legacy.
“It can’t be political – it’s too important”.
Professor Possingham doesn’t think his new role changes his approach to science, nor to how he communicates it to government.
“I have always been interested in advising Government, whatever colour that Government is. If any government thinks you’re aligned to a particular political point of view that restricts your influence.”
“I don’t think most politicians see me as a public servant. But I am a public servant. I’ve signed up to all the rules of being a public servant, and I’ve read them carefully, and I think I can have more frank and fearless conversations with ministers and politicians, and maybe with public servants, if I don’t talk to journalists critically about the Government.”
And while he does not think he should advocate for particular issues, he does think the more he can gain the trust of the Government, the more his advice will be sought and listened to.
“I think my role as the Chief Scientist is to get the best advice from the right scientists at the right time.”
Professor Possingham is not averse to political action however, and in 2004 he was involved in drafting the Brigalow Declaration designed to persuade the Federal and Queensland Governments to take urgent action to slow tree-clearing in parts of Queensland.[i]
The group successfully secured the support of then Premier, Peter Beattie, but after a change of Government, the policies were reversed relatively quickly.
At a World Science Festival forum “Science vs Politics” held in March, Professor Possingham said he learned from that experience that scientists should spend more time talking to the opposition.
“I am not a lobbyist. Scientists do not have the time to prosecute a debate with all sides of politics.”
The importance of science to our economy
In addition to advising Government on strategic issues, the Office of the Queensland Chief Scientist has a role in advocating for women in STEM, fostering and supporting citizen science, and promoting Queensland science.
One of the functions of his Office, Professor Possingham said, is to remind the Queensland Government and the people of Queensland about the prosperity generated from science and education.
“Possibly most people don’t realise the number of World-Class scientists we have in Queensland, and I think that’s a problem.”
“Australians wonder whether we could, in fact, have world-class scientists here. But in my own area of conservation science Australia has four of the ten most-cited conservation scientists in the world. Where else do we have four people in the top ten in an area?” [ii]
Science and education are significant income earning activities in the State, he said, and over the last 10 or 20 years, Australia has also managed to recruit a lot of good scientists from around the world.
“There are enormous opportunities for investing more in science. It’s a tricky time to ask people to invest, but I think other states like Victoria have increased their science investment despite the pandemic. They see science as a way of driving the economy out of a disaster.”
Investment in our science future
Not surprisingly, given his background, Professor Possingham thinks it is important to any economy for people to be good at basic applied maths. He sees this as key to our science future.
“Applied maths is what underpins economics, the transport sector, the business sector, manufacturing, research.”
“You can use these tools in running hospitals, the allocation of beds, for example, or the rollout of the COVID vaccine. That’s called operations research because it comes from the military. The military spend a lot of money trying to work out how to get food to soldiers and get guns and ammunition to locations. The purpose was somewhat more sinister, but it’s the same deal. How do we get things done most reliably for the minimum cost?”
“That sort of skill base is something we are short on. And I think many of the most advanced economies with a high science sector, such as Finland, the Scandinavian countries, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, have many people in this space. A lot of prosperity is generated by people who can think about the problem, what the objectives are, what actions can be taken, and how you pick the best actions to deliver the outcomes. And it could be applied to anything.”
Women in STEM
Professor Possingham is also a strong advocate for women in STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
In February, during Queensland Women’s Week, he penned a tribute to his mother: My genius mother, Barbara Possingham. Barbara Possingham was the first woman to complete a PhD in physics at the University of Adelaide.
“Her influence on me was immeasurable in many ways,” he writes.
“I am still amazed that people doubt the potential, capabilities or intelligence of women in science and engineering. I have been lucky enough to work with, and learn from, many very smart women scientists. More than half of my 80 PhD students have been women, and their contribution to conservation science has been enormous. Like my mother, these women have also been inspiring, and I thank them for their persistence, innovation and insights to research.”
“Achieving gender equity in STEM will require a team effort from all of us. Together we can have the important conversations in the workplace, encourage young women, and take positive steps to remove the barriers to gender equality. Bit by bit this will build inclusivity in science which will reward all of us.”
Why are we failing?
I asked Professor Possingham, if we so good at conservation science in Australia, why are we so poor at conserving our biodiversity.
The problem is not lack of good science, Professor Possingham said, it’s the struggle to manage a continent with a relatively small population and economy.
“The quality of information that governments have access to is very high. They have very high-quality people in government departments who understand the problem. The problem for Australia is that we’re managing a continent with an economy of 26 million people. The United States and Europe are the only two parts of the world where biodiversity loss has started to stabilise. Their economies are 20 to 50 times larger than the Australian economy, and we have more biodiversity. And we also have this island effect, which means, even though we’re a continent, we’re also an island, and invasive species can get out of control.”
“You can look at national parks. For example, in South Australia, where I used to be 20 years ago, the public park system includes 20% of the State. That’s twice the size of Belgium. And that’s being managed by around 100 Park Rangers. So how do you manage an area twice the size of Belgium with 100 rangers? That’s the problem.”
“And of course, just because we are good at environmental science doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing to invest in. We invest in research that can get the biggest return on investment.”
Progress is slow, but there have been gains
I wanted to know, given the rapid loss of biodiversity in Australia and the enormity of the problem, how he keeps from spiraling into despair.
Professor Possingham said that he wrote his first letter about conservation when he was 17, 42 years ago.
“So, you might say that’s a long time to fight a battle that you appear to be losing. But I am optimistic. I don’t think it’s too late. And I’m not as much a doomsayer as some people are.”
“I think, you know, the green movement can get itself into trouble by saying everything’s falling to pieces. You get that spiral of despair that puts people off being part of a movement that is demonstrably doing so badly.”
“You don’t want to ignore the losses. But we should be happy about the wins and gains.”
He says, for example, that we are having success rebuilding natural habitat, but progress can be slow.
“It may take 50 to 100 years to get back an old-growth forest. Queensland stopped logging native forests in some parts of the State 20 years ago. That is the start of a process of rebuilding the natural infrastructure of the State. So, I’m sort of optimistic about that, in the sense that we’re making better decisions.”
“The problem is this time lag of extinction. We’re not going to see the benefits for a very long time. So, the time lags in conservation are challenging. It’s not like in business where if you start messing up, you start losing money, and if you start doing good things, you start making money. You can do that in two or three years after you’ve made the good and bad decisions in the game. In conservation, the good decisions don’t realise rewards for decades.”
Another of Professor Possingham’s passions is citizen science: something he considers his Office has a vital role in fostering and supporting.
He said there is enormous scope for people to become involved in citizen science often through their own hobbies of bush-walking and photography, particularly in natural history – for example, recording birds, butterflies and fish.
“Amateur birdwatchers are just as good at identifying birds as experts.”
He thinks the scope of citizen scientists to contribute to science is enormous and largely untapped.
“There are a quarter of a million Queenslanders who are recreational fishers of some kind, and they could be involved in citizen science by tagging and weighing fish and recording the details on their smartphones.”
The data generated from these citizen records can go into databases used for decisions about size limits bag limits and stock assessments, Professor Possingham said.
The website for the Office of the Queensland Chief Scientist lists citizen science projects they’re supporting, and Professor Possingham suggested interested people also refer to the Australian Citizen Science Association.
Common-sense discussions about contentious issues
I asked Professor Possingham about a possible role for the Chief Scientist’s Office in supporting groups at a local level. For example, a group of interested experts and residents in West End, want to develop a plan to mitigate, or where possible, to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
“I think adaptation to climate change could be a great thing for a lot of Queensland communities to talk about. And I suppose, stepping even further back, I think one of my roles is to work out how communities or groups of interested parties can have common-sense discussions about contentious issues.”
“That can happen at the state level, local government level, all the way down to the local community level. And I think Queensland needs to spend more time thinking about how to have those discussions.”
Professor Possingham thinks that these discussions often fail because the issues are polarised too quickly by the media.
“And by the time you start having the discussion, people have already formed their camps and taken to their trenches: they’re standing at the ramparts, and then it’s very, very difficult. So, it would be preferable if communities came together to discuss these issues sooner rather than later, before they develop more fixed positions.”
“If I could have some sort of soft legacy, it would not be on a particular issue; it would be on the processes of communities coming together and discussing difficult issues.”
Professor Possingham thinks there are also opportunities for local engagement around threatened species.
“And this gets back to participatory democracies: for local governments and state governments to engage communities more in things like acting on threatened plants and threatened ecological communities, where you don’t need special permits. You just grow the plants: you can grow them in pots, you can plant them, you can weed them.”
Professor Possingham says that there have been thousands of people participating in Trees for Life in South Australia, for example.
“10,000 members in a city of one million people. It’s a huge organisation that has mobilised one or two per cent of the entire population to conservation, to hands on work. And I think they’re the kind of things that you can look forward to.”
“Occasionally, I yearn to just go back to South Australia and grow lots of trees.”
“Because if I go back to South Australia and grow thousands of trees, I know what I’ve done. It’s an appealing thing, just growing lots of trees, putting them in the ground and looking after them versus sitting on boards and committees. There are two ends of the spectrum. I wonder, you know, if sitting on those boards and committees actually gets things done. I do have those existential anxieties.”
MORE ABOUT PROFESSOR POSSINGHAM
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In 2000 he moved to the University of Queensland (UQ) as Chair of the Department of Mathematics and Biological Science. He has also been the Director of the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, as well as the Australian Government’s Threatened Species Recovery Hub.
From 2016 until June 2020, he was the Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservatory in the United States. He has co-authored more than 600 peer-reviewed papers. He is a founding member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, and was involved in drafting the “The Brigalow Declaration”, an open letter used by the then Queensland Premier Peter Beattie to stop land clearing in the State.
In her statement Meghan Scanlcon said an example of Professor Possingham’s conservation skills is his development of the Marxan suite of software tools, “… that he designed to help decision makers find good solutions to conservation planning problems. This software is now the most frequently used conservation planning software around the world and has been applied to hundreds of spatial conservation planning issues.”[iii]
The Minister also noted that Professor Possingham has also co-authored more than 650 peer-reviewed papers, with more than 30 in the world’s top two scientific journals Science and Nature.
Professor Possingham is an avid birder and is on the board of directors of BirdLife Australia. He is also an advocate for citizen science. These interests play out within his local communities where he is President of the Friends of Oxley Creek Common and Patron of the Friends of Sherwood Arboretum.
His role as Chief Scientist requires 60 per cent of his time, and he continues his role with the University of Queensland and in the many other areas to which he contributes.
[i] Professor Possingham also famously resigned from his role advising the Baird Government in NSW, in 2016 because it had failed to heed his advice on land clearing. https://www.smh.com.au/environment/scientist-hugh-possingham-quits-over-baird-governments-landclearing-plan-20161103-gsgx9r.html
[ii] Apart from Professor Possingham himself, these scientists include Bill Lawrence from James Cook University, Richard Hobbs at the University of Western Australia, and recently retired David Lindenmayer from the Australian National University.
[iii] Hugh Possingham. https://www.nespthreatenedspecies.edu.au/people/hugh-possingham
Cover image by Jan Bowman