The UOW-led Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage to uncover more about our continent’s rich human history, and its ancient climate, landscape and biodiversity. 

The University of Wollongong will lead researchers from around the world on a seven-year, $45.7 million research quest to investigate the history of Australia’s unique biodiversity and Indigenous heritage, while inspiring Australian children to engage with science.

Announced on 8 September by the Minister for Education and Training, Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage will bring together 20 institutions and museums worldwide to unlock the history of Australia, Papua New Guinea and eastern Indonesia from 130,000 years ago until the time of European arrival.

The first of its kind in the world, the Centre will encourage budding young scientists through a unique outreach program at schools and museums and will focus on nurturing the careers of Indigenous and female researchers.

Centre Director, Distinguished Professor Richard (Bert) Roberts, an ARC Laureate Fellow and the Director of UOW’s Centre for Archaeological Science, said Australia’s environmental history and Indigenous heritage are fundamental to understanding the story of human dispersals, adaptions to changing environments and interactions with the past landscapes and ecosystems.

“Australia boasts an array of fauna and flora that exists nowhere else on Earth,” said Professor Roberts.

“It has some of the world’s most ancient landscapes and deeply weathered and depleted soils, and is home to Indigenous peoples whose genetic and cultural history extends back tens of millennia. 

“But we still do not have answers to some of the most fundamental questions about this continent or its inhabitants, such as when people arrived in Australia, their routes of colonisation and subsequent dispersal, the timing and extent of major changes in climate and fire regimes, or how landscapes, plants and animals responded to the altered conditions.”

The Centre, which will open in 2017, will be funded by a $33.75 million grant from the ARC, $1 million from the NSW Government, and $11 million from participating universities, museums, and organisations. The funds will support around 40 new research positions and more than 50 new research students.

The Centre represents a unique integration of multidisciplinary expertise, bringing together researchers from science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines – including Earth and climate sciences, ecology and genetics – with scholars from humanities, arts and social sciences, such as archaeology, and Indigenous and museum studies.

Professor Roberts said new insights from archaeology, palaeoanthropology, genetics, ecology, Earth sciences and climate science will transform our knowledge of past environments and human activities in Australia and the neighbouring regions to our north, which were joined to Australia by a land bridge for most of the last 130,000 years.

“By filling these vast gulfs in our knowledge, we will be better able to predict the responses to future environmental changes and the knock-on effects for biodiversity and Indigenous heritage, and so protect our precious national assets. To adapt successfully to future challenges, we must dramatically improve our understanding of Australia’s past,” Professor Roberts said.

Announcing nine national Centres of Excellence, Senator Birmingham said the $283.5 million in funding represented an investment in Australia’s future.

“Previous Centres of Excellence have been the birthplaces of research that has changed lives. They are incubators for the advancements that we don’t even know we need yet.

“These projects have ambitious, bold aims and we can’t fully predict the different useful discoveries these Centres may stumble upon during their research,” Senator Birmingham said.

The ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage has a comprehensive program of education, outreach and science communication events planned for schools, museums, science festivals and a range of digital media, to bring the extraordinary environmental and human history of Australia to the public.

UOW Professor Amanda Lawson, a Deputy Director of the new Centre, said it would bring educational materials about the research into Australian schools.

“We aim to inspire all Australians young and old, including in the regional communities where the research will be conducted, in the processes and excitement of scientific discovery,” she said.

“To adapt successfully to future challenges, we must dramatically improve our understanding of Australia’s past.”

UOW Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation), Professor Judy Raper, hailed the announcement of the Centre as important recognition for UOW as an international leader in the natural and historical sciences.

“The increasing threats to Australia’s cultural heritage, landscapes and biodiversity are matters of pressing national concern,” Professor Raper said. “We are delighted to be leading research so critical to Australia’s national identity.”

UOW has established itself as a global research leader in Earth and human history, with three of the Centre’s key researchers – geochronologists Professor Roberts and Professor Zenobia Jacobs and geomorphologist Dr Tim Cohen – based in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. UOW researchers played a key role in the discovery and dating of a new species of tiny human, Homo floresiensis – affectionately dubbed the ‘hobbit’ – on the Indonesian island of Flores.

The ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage will be the second such ARC Centre led by UOW. For the past 11 years, UOW Distinguished Professor Gordon Wallace has led the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science in developing a new generation of bionic ears, artificial muscles, nerve repairs and the bio-batteries and bio-fuels that drive them.

UOW will also partner in the new ARC Centre of Excellence in Future Low-Energy Electronic Technologies. Professor Xiaolin Wang from UOW’s Institute for Superconducting & Electronic Materials (ISEM) will collaborate on the Monash-led project.  

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