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Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research

Opening Speech to Centre Staff

by Derek Anderson

Wednesday 27 October 1993

It's an enormous pleasure for me to have this opportunity to talk with you about the Centre, its work and its niche in the future of this country. There is no doubt in my mind that we have a pretty special enterprise here, and no doubt at all that if we make the Centre work as well as it should, you will all be identified with a development which is simultaneously exciting and maybe even a model of its kind.

But if you will bear with me I want to back-up for just a moment.

I grew up in a country which is pretty diverse botanically for its size. Britain shares much the same kind of habitat diversity as New Zealand, save that it lacks mountains of any reasonable altitude. More importantly from my point of view, its plant diversity is pretty much manageable - most Honours students in botany in my day were expected to `know their plants' which meant having a passing familiarity with not many more than a couple of thousand species.

Without in any sense regarding myself as a taxonomist I contributed to the production of a County Flora by writing so-called ecological notes on a couple of hundred species. Most counties had a flora of one kind or another, and given the number of professional and lay botanists in the country, we had by the beginning of the 1960s a very good idea of the distribution, square kilometre by square kilometre, of the entire flora.

Indeed it was the fact that the countryside reflected so many man-made landscapes, and the fact that most blades of grass had been turned by at least three professional botanists before me, that attracted me to Australia.

When I sailed out to this country in 1965 I came out assuming that the continent was pretty much pristine in terms of man's impact on it, and while I had a vague idea of the considerable endemism in the flora and knew about the dominance in the landscape of Eucalyptus and Acacia, my overwhelming sense as a young ecologist was that I was coming out to a country where there was a vast amount of ecological and botanical work to be done.

With these great expectations lurking in my bosom I remember sailing about a mile off-shore as we rounded the south-east tip of the continent, standing at the rail and looking at the coastline through binoculars, and experiencing a great sense of disappointment. Compared with my northern hemisphere experience the forested hillsides looked enormously monotonal and structurally monotonous. I remember arriving in Sydney and thinking I must get west into the real Australian bush as quickly as possible, to see something of real Australian vegetation and real botanical diversity. I remember seeing my first piece of chenopod shrubland on the Hay road west of Wagga and thinking that at last, this was the real McCoy!

Well of course I was so wrong on all counts. It took a while for my Eurocentric eye to get attuned to the magical diversity around me in a piece of coastal forest. And of course we began to realise that Aboriginal and later European man had indeed had considerable impact on the Australian landscape and its plant and animal biota.

Gradually I began to appreciate what my grandchildren might well now call the awesome megadiversity of the biota of this country. Indeed because of its very substantial level of endemism, Australia ranks in the first dozen of megadiverse countries in the world.

The hillside on which we stand carries more than two and a half times the number of ant species found in the entire British countryside.

The State of Victoria boasts about two and a half times the number of orchid species found in Britain.

In numerical terms, 90% of the whole species size of the British flora could be represented in this country by Eucalyptus and Acacia alone.

The significance of the scope and scale of our biological diversity, whether we look at it in terms of the population variance to be found in Eucalyptus camaldulensis throughout the continent, the endemism and species richness of the genus Eucalyptus, the over-representation of primitive families of plants in this country, or the significant relicts of Gondwanan rainforests still to be found in north-east Queensland, offers both a challenge and a huge responsibility.

As scientists and biologists, we have of course a particular challenge in interpreting the multidimensional scales of biotic diversity in Australia. That includes a responsibility also to catalogue and codify that diversity, for there is much still be to discovered and conventionally described - in scientific terms we probably don't know better than 70% of the more than 40,000 species in the Australian flora and what we know of our non-vascular flora is probably better not discussed in polite company or in public.

As I am acutely aware from my experience with the Australian Biological Resources Study, we have much still to do, and with constrained trained human and other infrastructural resources.

Given the Biodiversity Convention which was signed by more than 150 countries in June last year in Rio, and which I understand has now been ratified by the minimal 30 countries that are required to give it global force, our own Draft National Strategy for Biodiversity (which has been in a re-drafting stage and will go back to ANZECC in the next couple of months or so) begins to take on its own significance.

Given all of this activity, we could scarcely wish for a more opportune time to see the establishment of the Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research.

If we just dwell for a moment on what the Centre is charged to do, its objectives are to:

  • develop and manage scientific collections of plants from the Australian and related floras;

  • provide a national focus and play a coordinating role for national botanical data management;

  • create a centre of excellence in plant systematics, horticulture and conservation biology;

  • commercialise intellectual property that emerges from the research undertaken by the Centre;

and, not least
  • ensure that the two partner groups with their rich discipline mix will, through their synergy, add enormous value to researching, understanding and interpreting our plant biodiversity.

Now this is both nationally and internationally a very important, exciting and demanding challenge to meet.

We have in the first instance the period running up to the end of the century to win our spurs as a Centre of Excellence.

Whether we are blessed by the fact or not, I am not sure, but the fact is we are one Centre that is born not so much with a silver spoon but certainly with a set of performance indicators in our crib.

We are charged to make the most of our joint venture - and I guess as biologists and botanists we should have a pretty insightful view of the long-term evolutionary value of successful synergism. We are expected to produce high quality scientific and technological research, and in a decade which has quality very high on its agenda in most spheres of human endeavour, I think we should take that expectation in our stride.

We are expected to undertake our data collection and curatorial duties at a high level, and as professionals in the field I am sure we would expect no less of ourselves.

And of course no set of performance indicators would be complete if we were not also expected to make all these achievements within defined budgets!

Actually, while I make this last comment with tongue firmly in cheek, there is another rendering of that comment which perhaps makes better sense for us.

At the end of the day, all budgets are really political in their nature. They have no particular financial standing, despite the views expressed by government treasuries and institutional accountants and divisional budget controllers.

Budgets are essentially the instruments through which we allocate resources to match and make possible our planned aspirations. They are about facilitating directions and priorities and outcomes. We should think of budgets as our friends and allies, and then our financial reporting obligations become not tedious chores so much as the fruitful recognition of aspirations and plans, and targets and objectives that have been achieved. If you think of financial statements in these terms, they become loving and tender documents of a quite different kind ...

Now while you may not believe my assertion you will I am sure accept that Ros Kelly has described Australia as the only developed country with megadiversity status.

By their nature, joint venturers share considered risks for potentially considerable gain.

When we as individuals maintain our parental connections in setting up our own joint ventures with another party, our allegiances and loyalties usually shift to some degree: we take on new responsibilities, new challenges, and not infrequently new aspirations. Very often these changing circumstances provide great opportunities for self-renewal, and opportunities to recognise that as individuals we have unique experiences and qualities and contributions to bring to the new partnership.

Very few of us in the past have had an opportunity of this kind to bring as dowries our mature scientific backgrounds to exciting new partnerships of the kind this Centre offers.

To be unified in setting out to comprehend, to interpret, to explicate, to protect and indeed to capitalise on this country's unique biological diversity is a very special challenge, and one I very much hope all of you will grasp with both hands and with great vigour and directed enthusiasm.

I hope I have said enough to indicate my own view that this Centre has a tremendous future, and I wish each one of you great success and personal fulfilment as you set about creating that future.

But just to emphasise the importance of this grand partnership, I want to leave you with a short story to reflect on.

The story concerns a holiday Henry Ford once took when he felt in need of a break and a change of scene.

He took himself off to Ireland and stayed incognito in a small village in County Clare. He put himself up in a small pub and came down before dinner for a drink at the bar.

Getting into conversation with some of the locals, he discovers they are trying to raise funds to build a new hospital. Impressed with the hospitality he is receiving, he agrees to donate five thousand pounds to the collection. The next day, the local paper runs a banner headline `Visiting American gives fifty thousand pounds to the hospital fund'. Ford remonstrates with the innkeeper that he offered five, not fifty, thousand pounds. The innkeeper offers to go and see the paper's editor immediately, to seek a retraction the next day. `No' says Ford, `we will correct the impression when the hospital is opened. I will have the plaque made for you'.

On the due day, the opening was completed and the plaque was unveiled at the side of the main entrance. It read `This hospital was built with the help of Henry Ford. He came into the village as a stranger, and the village took him in'.

If there is a point I wish to make with this story it is the wish that the Centre will amplify through this new partnership, by an order of magnitude, our understanding of our biologically diverse heritage.

If you will permit it, I will set that for you as a corporate challenge, and will be happy to come back in 1999 to hear that you have more than merely surpassed that rather mediocre performance indicator!

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Updated 15 November, 1999 by Andrew Lyne
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