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Research School of Earth Sciences Annual Report 2001


The Research School of Earth Sciences (RSES) conducts research at the highest international level and takes a leadership role in defining new directions of research in geophysics and geochemistry – particularly those which have relevance to the needs and geologic setting of Australia. During 2001, Professor David Green stepped down after seven distinguished years as Director of RSES. David’s tenure as Director was notable for the move towards the study of the Earth’s environment, particularly with regard to establishing a geologic baseline for climate change. This initiative is now fully integrated into the School’s scientific culture and has substantially reshaped our view of what constitutes the study of the solid Earth. The first priority of my Directorship has been to position the School as strongly as possible to benefit from the changed operating environment resulting from the Institute ‘buy-in’ to the ARC grants scheme. The School has chosen to devolve budgetary control of most non-infrastructure support with the view that managing those funds as closely as practicable to the level of the individual investigator minimizes potential mismatches between research expenditures and grant income. The School’s first foray into contesting ARC funds was highly successful, with 40% of our applications receiving support. Our goal is to eventually derive approximately 20% of our total support from both ARC competitions and from Department of Education, Science and Technology (DEST) funds, distributed on the basis of our performance against key research and research training indicators. It is to our clear advantage that we take these steps to take maximum advantage of the opportunities that exist in the new funding environment. While the need to devolve budget authority within the School has been dictated to us by outside events, I anticipated these actions having the effect of further empowering individual investigators to not let the limitations of internal resources suppress their scientific ambitions. My role remains to provide overall academic leadership to the School and undertake strategic planning to maintain the School’s position among the world leaders in geophysics and geochemistry research. Federal grants schemes are intrinsically cautious: they are unlikely to support long term and high risk endeavours, including the development of experimental and analytical devices, in which RSES has a distinguished history. Neither will they support collection of data sets which are of fundamental importance to understanding the earth as a complex system. We have therefore chosen, in concert with budget devolution, to sequester a portion of block grant funding for planning purposes. The planning fund, which will eventually grow to $750,000 per year, will be used to seed new scientific initiatives; as matching funds for external grants; and to support original, on-going research efforts that are outside the funding priorities of federal grant schemes. It will be derived from savings largely realized by external support of technical and fixed term academic posts. Our first initiative is an effort with the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics to create a joint centre to study the fundamental nature of planetary systems. Consistent with my first priority as Director, I have chosen to focus this Annual Report to Council on the structural changes agreed within the School in 2001, for implementation in 2002 and succeeding years, to position it for success in the coming years. Those changes have been discussed in detail with all staff through Faculty, Faculty Board and local meetings of staff. I have been gratified by the increasing acceptance over time and, mostly, enthusiasm of staff towards a model focussed on growth and success. However, this focus of the report is not intended to diminish in any way the outstanding research achievements of the School in 2001. These and other aspects of School activity are highlighted below.

Key Statements

Enhancing our national and international roles

  • national (and international) provider of state-of-the-art instrumentation to universities, government agencies and industry (through direct collaboration and through PRISE)
  • continuation of key role in Australia’s activities in support of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) through expert advice and successful commissioning of new equipment at one of the world’s most sensitive seismic and infrasound monitoring facility at Tennant Creek, NT
Improving the educational experience of our students
  • enhanced opportunity for RSES students to gain valuable research or laboratory experience overseas through the generous endowment by former professor of the School, Mervyn Paterson, and his wife, Katalin, of a fellowship, to be awarded annually to an RSES student for this purpose
Enhancing our research performance
  • structural and budgetary change within the School, including the establishment of a substantial internal planning fund – see Overview
Enhancing our role in research training
  • recognising the inadequacy of Government-funded IPRS, establishment by the School of a fund, from external earnings, for tuition fee waiver scholarships for excellent international students
Continuing to develop our staff
  • continuing commitment to upgrade the skills of support staff through attendance at IT and other relevant courses and through formal technical and professional study
  • investment in developing the advanced technical skills required by the School through employment and support of trainee technical officers
Seeking appropriate partnerships and alliances, both academic and business
  • continued strong linkages with AGSO (now Geoscience Australia), involving a growing corps of GA staff working within the School
  • partner in two CRCs – Greenhouse Accounting, and Landscape Evolution and Mineral Exploration (LEME)
  • continuing close cooperation with ASI Ltd in the development of SHRIMP ion microprobes
Diversifying funding base
  • maintenance of a substantial external funding base resulting from the School’s CTBTO contracts, a range of instrumental and consulting services (to industry and Australian and international government agencies) and returns from instrument sales – with further diversification to come in 2002 as a result of ARC first cohort success

Budget Performance

The School’s operating grant in 2001 of $8,644,000 was supplemented by transfers from other areas in the University, student fee income and other external income of $724,585. The resulting recurrent budget, coupled with savings from 2000, produced a cash surplus which is committed to ongoing fixed-term academic appointments, major equipment purchases and building modifications to house the OSL laboratories to be transferred from RSPAS in 2002. Approximately 73% of the School’s recurrent expenditure budget was taken up by salaries. It is clear that the reduction in our operating grant beginning in 2002 when the IAS enters into the ARC competitive funding arena, has the potential to absorb most of the School’s discretionary budget. Total income to the School in 2001 from sources external to the University was just over $3,300,000 – a small increase from the previous year. Some 32% of the School’s expenditure from all areas (R, Q, S and E) was funded from external sources – concentrated on scholars, fieldwork/travel and equipment. Funding for students is being given priority. The School was pleased to receive matching funds of $200,000 from the Endowment for Excellence for the Jaeger Scholarship fund. The School has also topped-up the Hales Honours and the Ringwood Scholarship funds. In order to provide some flexibility in recruitment of overseas scholars, funds have been set aside to provide up to two Tuition Fee waiver scholarships a year.

Gender Equity Performance

The School’s gender profile did not change significantly in 2001. At the end of the year, 21 (30%) of general staff were women. Of the 10 School staff at ANUO9 or above, two were women. The small number of women academics continues to be of concern. Five (11%) of 47 academic staff were women, of which only one held a standard appointment. Women are not applying for academic positions in the School and it is apparent that School staff will need to be more pro-active in 2002 in encouraging applications from women.

Significant Achievements in Research and Teaching

In March 2001, the quality and impact of the School’s research was highlighted by two of the School’s staff, Professor David Green and Professor Malcolm McCulloch, being designated ISI Citation Laureates. The Laureates were awarded to the 33 Australian scientists having the largest number of high impact papers over the period 1981-1998. Media interest in the School’s chronology work, in particular, was again high. Dr Nigel Spooner and his dating work featured in a National Geographic article on chronology, and on German radio and television documentaries. Some highlights from each of the thematic areas were: Earth Physics

  • better understanding of the effect of the Indo-Asian collision on the Cainozoic evolution of Australia by successfully modelling the puzzling nature of intracratonic deformation of the Australian continent

  • better understanding climate variation by development of ways to study the effect of wind variability on instabilities in ocean currents

  • development of a new approach to surface wave tomography which permits data from a wide variety of sources to be incorporated resulting in more refined estimates of the Earth’s internal structure

Earth Chemistry

  • showing for the first time that the sulfide ores of Broken Hill — the largest known lead-zinc deposit on the planet — must have been partially molten during peak formation. Implications of this discovery could transform our understanding of how giant ore deposits form and lead to refinements in the tools we use to discover them

Earth Materials

  • better understanding the properties of sulfur in silicate melts by examining very oxidizing conditions, under which the sulfur dissolves as sulfate not sulfide. Implications of this work include understanding sulfur degassing from magmas during major volcanic eruptions, a known cause of global climate modification

  • discovering that the partial melting expected beneath mid-ocean ridges results not only in very low seismic velocities, but produces an unusual frequency dependence that could fingerprint molten parts of the overturning upper mantle and thus help us better understand the nature of the Earth’s deep interior

Earth Environment

  • shedding new light on Australian megafaunal extinction – the remains of a giant kangaroo at Lake Mungo were dated at no more than 35,000 years old, whereas nearby aboriginal hearths are at least 41,000 years old. An apparent implication of this result is that, contrary to current thought, at least one species of giant marsupial survived long after the arrival of humans on this continent

  • discovery that brief climatic excursions occurred periodically throughout the last 8000 years, suggesting greater global climate instability following the end of the last ice age than previously appreciated

Student Numbers

At the end of 2001 the School had 21 postgraduate students enrolled (20 PhD and one MPhil). 18 were in the Earth Sciences Graduate Program and three in the Quaternary and Regolith Studies Program. The most popular broad areas of study were Earth Physics (seven students) and Earth Environment (six students). The popularity of environmentally-focused studies is steadily increasing, particularly amongst Australian students. During 2001, six students commenced postgraduate study (compared with four in 2000) and nine students submitted their theses.

Major Prizes, Honours and Awards


  • Professor Ross Griffiths – Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and Fellow of the American Geophysical Union.

  • Professor Kurt Lambeck – Prix International Georges Lemaître 2001, awarded by Louvain University, Belgium, for research in astrophysics and geophysics; and 2001 Tage Erlander prize, awarded by the Swedish Research Council to carry out research into the glacial history, sea-level change and crustal rebound in Sweden. The second stage of this Erlander Professorship is to be taken up in 2002

  • Professor Malcolm McCulloch and Professor David Green – ISI Citation Laureate Awards for authoring multiple high-impact papers from the period 1981-1998

  • Dr Ian Campbell – Centre of Excellence Fellowship from the Japanese Government to work in Japan for up to twelve months

  • Professor Rainer Grün – visiting fellow, St Catherine’s College, Oxford, during his overseas study leave.

  • Dr Ross Kerr – Fellow of the Australian Institute of Physics


  • Mr Wilfred Lus and Mr Kazonori Yoshizawa – Outstanding Student Paper awards at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, San Franscisco, December 2001


New Grants

This section reports grants other than ARC grants awarded in 2001. I will report those in 2002, their year of commencement.

  • Dr A.J. Berry – grant from the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering (AINSE) to undertake neutron diffraction experiments at ANSTO

  • Dr Andrew Berry and Dr John Mavrogenes – two grants from the Access to Major Research Facilities Fund to investigate the speciation of copper in fluid inclusions at the Advanced Photon Source, Argonne National Laboratory, USA

  • Dr Andrew Berry in collaboration with Dr Hugh O’Neill – two grants from the Australian Synchrotron Research Program to continue their work on oxidation states in silicate melts at the Australian National Beamline Facility, Tsukuba, Japan

  • Dr Joerg Hermann – 3 year fellowship as "Advanced Scientist" funded by the "Swiss National Science Foundation" at the Research School of Earth Sciences starting on December 1st 2001.

  • Professor Ian McDougall – grant from the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering to facilitate irradiation of geological samples in the HIFAR nuclear reactor, operated by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization, in relation to dating of rocks by the 40Ar-39Ar method.

  • Dr Malcolm Sambridge – one-year grant under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) Calibration program for a project on regionalized travel times

  • Dr Nigel Spooner – Associate Investigator on an NERC (UK) grant on "The human colonisation of Australia: Breaking the 40 ka BP radiocarbon barrier", with Principal Investigator, Dr C Turney, University of London.

  • Dr Paul Tregoning – Australian Antarctic Science Grant on "Crustal rebound in the Lambert Glacier area".

Future Directions


Over the next five years, the School will evolve consistent with the structural adjustment which has commenced in 2002. Areas of research which do not succeed in obtaining external funding and which do not meet the criteria for support through the Planning Fund will be phased out progressively. We look to both the Planning Fund and success in ARC competitive grants serving to align our research with national priorities. The former will be used to maintain support for those high risk, long term activities of national significance for which the block grant is properly used. Our goals for success in winning national competitive grants will ensure that our efforts are focused in areas of national importance.

As I have noted, our first planning initiative will be an effort with the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics to create a joint institute to understand the formation, evolution, diversity and fate of planetary systems in the Universe and their relationship to our own Solar System. Since the first planet outside our Solar System was discovered seven years ago, over 80 extrasolar planetary systems have been found, none of which resemble ours. As a result, the long-standing paradigm of solar system formation and evolution is under serious challenge and further discoveries may fundamentally alter our views on the habitability of the universe. Theoretical modelling of this new state of knowledge is in its infancy and represents a fertile area of future research that connects directly with the goals of RSES. Our initiative is very timely as our unique analytical resources (e.g., SHRIMP-RG) place us in a highly competitive position to investigate the first returned samples from the Sun (GENESIS mission) in 2005, primitive asteroids and comets (STARDUST mission) in 2006, and a differentiated planet (Mars sample return mission in about 2010).

At present, this nation does not have a major presence in this vital, cross disciplinary area of science. Our initiative will spotlight Australia’s scientific capabilities on a global stage and provide an attractive platform from which our brightest young minds can be recruited into the areas of science and technology. Investigations in this field will surely lead to spin-off benefits in the areas of instrument development and photonics and provide a natural mechanism for fledgling links into space science industry.

Students and Teaching

The School will give priority to increasing student numbers, particularly Australian students, who count as student load in DEST funding formulae. My target is a progressive increase to a student load of around 40. This represents a strong challenge, particularly given decreasing enrolments in physical sciences and the propensity of Australian universities to work against the ultimate best interests of both students and the universities themselves by encouraging their own students to pursue postgraduate study within their undergraduate department. I have noted the establishment by the School of a fund for tuition fee scholarships. Beginning 2003, I will provide an internal incentive for student enrolments by including a student load factor in the formula for internal allocation of funds. This is consistent with my belief that individual staff, using personal contacts and networks, are an important component of recruitment success.

The School will seek to introduce both Honours and coursework Masters programs in 2003 which will allow physical science graduates to gain specialist knowledge in geophysics for which it has unique national strengths. The School and Australia’s industries depending on geoscience need advanced graduates firmly grounded in the disciplines of physics, chemistry and mathematics. The program will give such graduates the opportunity to gain Honours and postgraduate geoscientific qualifications for employment or further postgraduate study.

Mark Harrison


March 2002