NATIONAL Science Week has been terrific again this year. The week was launched in Western Australia this year at Scitech by the Hon John Day MLA, WA’s Minister for Science and Innovation and the federal Minister for Science, the Hon Senator Chris Evans on Friday August 10. In keeping with the imperative to ensure Science Week was as regionally inclusive as possible, I spent the day in Albany at the Great Southern Great Science symposium. In its fourth year, the symposium which is organised by the UWA’s Centre for Natural Resource Management and the Great Southern Science Council, has always provided a forum for an eclectic mixture of topics related to, or researched in, the region and was widely acknowledged as the best ever.
Biodiversity was to the fore when we heard of 150 species of millipede new to science with WA Museum’s Dr Mark Harvey aiding the recovery planning by the Department of Environment and Conservation. Likewise, the audience warmed to Dr David Edmonds, a veterinary surgeon who has helped stranded Rockhopper penguins recover their health before release. The birds are native to two small island groups, Tristan da Cunha and Amsterdam and Ile St Paul in the southern Indian Ocean. We learned that while all nine species of penguin are listed as threatened, the Rockhoppers, of Happy Feet fame are endangered, as a staggering two million of these birds have disappeared since 1950 (many used as squid bait).
Dr Svetlana Micic (Department of Agriculture and Food WA) had a good news message for farmers as protectors of native bushland: native insects that helped to keep down pests on crops were found to prevail on native vegetation, harmful insects thrived on introduced weeds. Dr Wal Anderson continued the agricultural theme speaking on methods to maximise wheat production. Is it best to use more fertiliser? His answer was no: it is more cost-effective recommendation to plant more wheat per hectare.
I am Chair of the Board of the Primary Industry Centre for Science Education (PICSE), and a supporter of science education. I was therefore delighted that Riley Patterson and Isabella Baum, students from Denmark Senior High School, presented excellent PICSE science projects: diet and egg production in free range chickens and the effects of inorganic nitrogen on broad bean nodules.
We heard also of research with relevance to national policy setting. Professor Peter Davies (University of WA) emphasised the importance of the presence of unregulated water in the flood plains of northern Australia where, as an example, the Barramundi catch is linked to water flows but with a three year lag. Moreover, migratory fish are deeply affected by changing flows and fish diversity is likely to be reduced if water is removed, particularly during times of increasing warming. Dr Jane Fromont (WA Museum) reported her surveys of the biodiversity and the habitats of invertebrates of the ocean shelf and canyons along WA from Ningaloo to Albany. This work provided data that the federal government had available when setting proclaimed fishing zones in South West WA. Jane discovered an amazing 2000 plus species with 86 per cent of the biomass being a “forest” of sponges.
In contrast, on the northwest portion of our coast, sponges’ biomass is very low and it is possible that the use of trawlers has contributed to sponge scarcity.
Medical research was also well represented by Dr. Kristen Auret who spoke of her survey into the issues in rural areas surrounding the four most common cancers, breast, lung, prostate and colorectal; the pace with which people move through the pre-diagnostic and post diagnostic phases and the influences that come to bear in initially reporting symptoms. The symposium was rounded out by an inspiring presentation on environmental health from the South Coast Natural Resource Management on their success in getting the community involved in preventing the spread of Phytophera Dieback. The key, they argued, was engaging a social scientist who helped them to devise a message that avoided a sense of overwhelming disaster and which formulated positive, easy to follow plans: a good message indeed for National Science Week.