Why Macquarie Point needs a science centre

Tasmanian voters can be forgiven for thinking that a Hobart sports stadium is the only issue that counts in Election 2024. From the start of the campaign, the stadium (it needs no further identifier) has been front and centre in public debate.

You could sense the relief in Jeremy Rockliff’s government in late 2022 when he named Macquarie Point as the stadium site. After a decade of hope and disappointment as ideas aplenty appeared in the public spotlight and then vanished, the centrepiece for this priceless nine hectares of real estate was finally decided.  

If we’re to believe the official “plan”, Macquarie Point will essentially comprise a stadium and a working port, with small bits of land set aside for “residential and public foreshore” and “Antarctic facilities” respectively. The latter is all that’s left of an earlier idea for a “science and Antarctic precinct”, bringing together Hobart’s various Antarctic and Southern Ocean functions in a single location.

Back then the science precinct idea didn’t appeal to me. I saw little merit in spending millions just to move the Australian Antarctic Division from its established Kingston base, or CSIRO and the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies from their current Princes Wharf and Castray Esplanade locations. 

But that was before I learned of a proposal by Glenys Jones, who trained as a natural scientist before a career in heritage evaluation and science policy, and marine scientist Keith Sainsbury, an IMAS associate professor and former CSIRO senior research scientist.

Jones and Sainsbury raised their idea for a “Science Centre for Sustainability” in these pages in September 2020. They elaborated on it in October last year, around the time premier Rockliff and former premier Paul Lennon were arguing over competing stadium proposals. 

Needless to say, any public airing of their idea was drowned out by all the stadium noise, but their proposal is far too valuable to allow a sports stadium – whatever its own merits – to elbow it out of the way. 

It’s no accident that Tasmania is already home to more scientists per capita than any other Australian state, and their work is overwhelmingly focused on the natural resources from which we inhabitants of this island – and of the rest of the nation and the world – draw all our sustenance. 

As Jones and Sainsbury point out, besides CSIRO’s marine, atmospheric, agricultural and ecological research, Tasmania hosts complementary University of Tasmania research hubs covering marine ecology, fire research, agricultural and forest science. 

We’re also home to the national headquarters for Antarctic science, policy and administration,  the National Environmental Science Program’s Marine Biodiversity Hub, and the international Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), as well as the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. 

A Tasmanian Science Centre for Sustainability would serve all these functions, but it would be far more besides. In the inspired vision of Jones and Sainsbury, it “would communicate, inspire and advance innovation and excellence in science for sustainability [and] actively support informed policy, planning and decision-making for our collective community and planetary wellbeing, now and for future generations.”

The centre would “communicate, inspire and advance innovation and excellence in science for sustainability,… engage and connect experts with policy and decision-makers and community stakeholders across multiple sectors.”

Such a centre “would establish an active link between what the science tells us and what we are trying to achieve,” delivering robust science to support a growing role for Tasmania “as a global leader and exemplar of sustainability.”

At the weekend Jeremy Rockliff himself put the case for science supporting sustainability, in an election promise to boost flathead stocks through relocation and captive breeding. He pledged to “work with the best of science within … IMAS to ensure that we can do both”. All without imposing any additional taxes or fees.

This is almost believable – until you factor in the government’s record of chronic disregard of any sort of objective science in managing resource activities affecting the natural environment – most tellingly the failure to regulate Tasmania’s clearly unsustainable salmon farming industry, but also in mining, forestry and water use. 

How we fund science while ensuring that it remains objective is a perennial problem. In aquaculture, forestry, mining and agriculture, in Tasmania as elsewhere, it’s too easy to use commercial-in-confidence contracts and other means to hide bias in research outcomes to favour those providing the money.

We need science to be – and to be seen to be – a public asset. Jones and Sainsbury offer an opportunity to give long-neglected environmental research the public spotlight it deserves. There can be no better use for Macquarie Point.

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