Skip Navigation | ANU Home | Search ANU | Directories
The Australian National University
Research School of Earth Sciences
Printer Friendly Version of this Document



The Research School of Earth Sciences (RSES) is one of the top ten, university-based geoscience programs in the world and certainly the nation’s premier centre for basic research in the physics, chemistry, material properties and environmental conditions of the Earth. Our role is to conduct research at the highest international level and take a leadership role in defining new research directions in geophysics and geochemistry – particularly those that have relevance to the geologic setting and needs of Australia.

In 2002, we devolved budgetary control of most non-infrastructure support to four divisions, each led by an Area Coordinator, that span the research themes within the School – Earth Physics, Earth Chemistry, Earth Materials and Earth Environment. This system proved effective, in particular permitting a high degree of local coordination in planning the substitution of block grant support with external funding.

Indeed, in the first year in which the entire School was eligible to contest ARC funds we were extraordinarily successful. Nearly 60% of our Discovery and LIEF grants were funded, realizing a total of $5.7M. For 2003 alone, the $2.0M raised represents a 400% return on our levy.

We joined with the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics in 2002 to propose creation of a joint institute to study the fundamental nature of planetary systems. Such an initiative recognizes the great strengths of both units and the potential for fundamental discovery in the fields of planetary and extra-solar planetary science. Seed funding was allocated to the recurrent 2003 bases of both Schools to recruit the first two positions in what is envisioned to be a centre of five to six faculty.

In 2002, the Australian National Seismic Imaging Resource (ANSIR) consolidated at RSES. This Major National Research Facility is the country’s premier facility for sub-surface imaging, a field explicitly recognized as a national research priority. These and other aspects of School activity are highlighted below.

Key Statements

Enhancing our national and international roles

·       RSES has the nations premier concentration of basic research facilities in experimental and observational geophysics, providing our community, government agencies, and industry with access to nationally and internationally unique capabilities vital to the welfare of Australian geoscience research.

·       RSES is home to the Australian National Seismic Imaging Resource (ANSIR), the country’s principal facility for sub-surface imaging.

·       Completion of IPC-funded Environment appointments provides ANU with internationally unsurpassed facilities for Quaternary dating (e.g., establishing timescales of climate change).

Improving the educational experience of our students

·       The Vice Chancellor has indicated his support for our proposal to move the Department of Geology to a new facility adjacent RSES. The close proximity of the Geology staff will broaden our graduate training environment while permitting our faculty greater participation in undergraduate teaching and mentoring.

Enhancing our research performance

·       Devolution of budgetary control closer to individual investigators.

·       Establishment of a Planetary Sciences Institute in conjunction with RSAA.

·       Integration of the new Director’s research component within existing School and University programs.

Enhancing our role in research training

·       ‘Physics of the Earth’ MSc and honours program implemented to commence enrolments in 2003.

·       Participation in unsuccessful DEST/EU proposal for 15 institution, Europe-Australia cotutelle MSc.

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.

·       Sponsorship of a Centre for Public Awareness in Science workshop attended by 12 RSES personnel, including academic staff, students, laboratory technicians, and the Director.

·       Investment in developing the advanced technical skills required by the School through employment and support of trainee technical officers and apprentices.

Seeking appropriate partnerships and alliances, both academic and business

·       Continued strong linkages with Geoscience Australia, involving a growing corps of GA staff working within the School.

·       Partnership with CSIRO to jointly fund RSES faculty positions in the field of ore genesis.

·       Continuing close cooperation with ASI Ltd in the development of SHRIMP ion microprobes and other experimental apparatus.

Diversifying funding base

·       Investigation of international opportunities (e.g., Earthscope); location of ANSIR at RSES; an aggressive response to ARC entry; CoE bid with RSAA.

·       Partner in three CRCs — Greenhouse Accounting, Landscape Evolution and Mineral Exploration (LEME), and Antarctica.

·       In 2002, RSES became a major shareholder in a new company, Ringwood Superabrasives Pty Ltd, which manufactures and develops applications for super-abrasive materials.

Budget Performance

The School’s operating grant in 2002 of $8.67 million was supplemented by transfers from other areas in the University, student fee income and other external income totalling $1.44 million. This result included the transfer of $254,000 of Long Service Leave funds back to the School. The School’s net cash operating position was $934,142, with a cash surplus of $202,945 for the year adding to the cash carry forward from 2001.

The School regards this as a prudent surplus, given the twin challenges of unfunded salary increases resulting from a new round of enterprise bargaining and decreased recurrent funding in 2004. Approximately 73% of the School’s recurrent expenditure budget was taken up by salaries. This result was unchanged from 2001 despite the full effect of the 4.5% salary increase of September 2001 and incremental creep - reflecting in large measure the effectiveness of the School’s policy of substitution of 30% of recurrently funded technical salaries by external funding.

Total income to the School in 2002 from sources external to the University was $4.08 million. 38% of the School’s total expenditure for the year was funded from external sources - including 59% of all expenditure for both equipment and travel and fieldwork, and 40% of students’ expenses.

Gender Equity Performance

The School’s gender profile did not change significantly in 2002. At the end of the year, 22 (29%) of general staff were women. Of the 11 School staff at ANUO9 or above, two were women. The small number of female academics continues to be of concern. Five (11%) of 46 academic staff were women, of which only one held a standard appointment. Despite internationally increased participation at the undergraduate and graduate levels over the past ten years, we have yet to see a corresponding increase in female applicants.

Significant Achievements in Research and Teaching

Data from the Institute of Scientific Information (ISI) place ANU geosciences in the top 10 universities worldwide in total number of citations. Of the 22 fields covered by ISI, geosciences at ANU is the highest ranked university program in the nation.

ISI recently introduced Highly Cited Researchers, a designation that identifies scientists in the top 0.5% of cited researchers worldwide. Of the 11 Australian geoscientists cited, seven are from RSES. Indeed, RSES alone represents 15% of Australian Highly Cited Researchers across all 20 science disciplines.

Some highlights from each of the thematic areas were:

Earth Environment

·       A 400‑year coral record from the Great Barrier Reef indicates that sea surface temperature and salinity were higher in the 1700’s than today. An abrupt freshening after 1870 occurred simultaneously throughout the SW Pacific, coinciding with cooling tropical temperatures. Thus the global Little Ice Age may have been driven, in part, by greater poleward transport of water vapour from the tropical Pacific.

·       We have obtained clear evidence that sediment fluxes into the Great Barrier Reef increased five to tenfold after 1870 – following the beginning of European settlement. This supports new government initiatives to reduce sediment and nutrient loads to the GBR, both of which can have deleterious effects on coral reefs.

Earth Chemistry

·       We commissioned a multi-collector for SHRIMP II that increases effective sensitivity by a factor of five. First applications were improving Pb isotope analysis precision for small samples, and rapid age characterization of detrital zircons, the oldest known terrestrial minerals. A five second analysis is now sufficient to screen for >4 Ga zircons, potentially allowing 1000 zircons to be characterized in one day.

·       We showed that 70% of the modern continental crust had formed by three billion years ago (the Earth is 4.5 billion years old). This is the first quantitative estimate of the amount of continental crust that was present on the early Earth and should resolve a 35 year controversy regarding the rate of formation of the continents.

Earth Materials

·       We explored of the role of aqueous fluids on fault strength and permeability, showing that the faults underwent dramatic strength recovery due to hydrothermal cementation and compaction of fault gouge.  This provides a potentially effective mechanism for the build-up of fluid pressure in crustal fault zones.

·       Studies of the influence of partial melting on seismic wave properties suggest that the reduced speed of shear waves and increased attenuation are due to grain-boundary sliding facilitated by a mixture of elastic distortion of mineral grains and grain boundary diffusion.  These new insights will improve our understanding of the thermal structure of the Earth’s upper mantle with implications for plate tectonics.

Earth Physics

·       Numerical simulations indicate that the tectonic evolution of south-eastern Australia can be linked to continuous subduction along a single subduction zone. This result contrasts with previous models which assume that multiple, separate subduction zones were active between 450-350 million years ago and has implications for the deep crustal structure of SE Australia.

·       We successfully completed a major seismological campaign providing high density coverage across northern Tasmania for tomographic imaging of the underlying mantle system. Field work continued in Antarctica which should lead to a vastly improved understanding of East Antarctica.

Student Numbers

At the end of 2002 the School had 26 postgraduate students enrolled (24 PhD and two MPhil). 20 were in the Earth Sciences Graduate Program and six in the Quaternary and Regolith Studies Program. The most popular broad areas of study were Earth Environment (eleven students) and Earth Physics (seven students). The popularity of environmentally focused studies is steadily increasing, particularly amongst Australian students.

During 2002, nine students commenced postgraduate study (compared with six in 2001) and four students submitted their theses.

I note that examination of our records indicates that 80% of our graduates from 1971-2002 remain engaged in full-time research in the geosciences.

Major Prizes, Honours and Awards


·       Professor M. McCulloch was made a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union for major contributions to understanding the origin and evolution of the Earth’s continental crust and mantle and environmental science and climate change.

·       Professors Compston, Green, Harrison, McCulloch, McDougall and Drs Campbell and Williams were identified as Highly Cited Researchers by the Institute of Scientific Information. This designation is restricted to scientists in the top 0.5% of cited researchers worldwide.

·       Dr A.E. Kiss was awarded the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society Federation PhD Prize.


·       Ms E. Hendy was awarded the RSES Robert Hill Memorial Prize in recognition of her interdisciplinary research and effective communication in the Earth Sciences.

·       Ms H. McGregor was awarded the Australasian Quaternary Association Travel Prize to attend the NCCR Swiss International Climate Summer School, Grindelwald, Switzerland, September 2002.

·       Ms E. Potter and Ms P. Treble were joint recipients of the Mervyn and Katalin Paterson Fellowship in 2002.

·       Ms J. Trotter was awarded a Paleontological Society Grant-in-Aid Award, granted by the Paleontological Society and a certificate for Outstanding Research Proposal for being one of the top two ranked applicants in an international field of 50.

·       Mr J.P. Bernal - awarded the CONACyT (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia) Prize by the Mexican Council for Science and Technology.

New Grants

This section reports grants awarded in 2002. ARC grants are reported in their year of commencement.

Australian Research Council grants (commencing in 2002)

Discovery grants

Dr S. McLaren; Argon thermochronometers and the effects of recrystallization (APD Fellowship).

2002: $84,962              2003: $80,337            2004: $69,947

Professor I. Jackson; Seismic wavespeeds and attenuation in upper-mantle rocks: a laboratory study of the effect of partial melting.

2002: $53,000              2003: $67,000            2004: $64,000

Professor M. McCulloch, Dr J.M. Lough; The coral record of environmental impacts in the great barrier reef: quantification of anthropogenic fluxes.

2002: $95,000              2003: $112,000           2004: $88,000

Professor M. McCulloch, Dr P.J. Hearty, Professor A. N. Halliday; Sea levels, sea surface temperatures and El Nino variability during warm interglaciations.

2002: $100,000            2003: $80,000            2004: $56,000

Professor M. Sambridge, Professor B. Kennett; Data Adaptive Geophysical Inversion.

2002: $60,000              2003: $83,000            2004: $65,000

Linkage grants

Professor S. Cox; Development and Application of Stress Transfer Modelling for Area Selection in Mesothermal Gold Systems.

2002: $65,000              2003: $65,000

Dr P. Tregoning, Associate Professor R. Coleman, Professor K. Lambeck, Dr H. McQueen; GPS receivers and support equipment for geophysical observatories in Antarctica.

2002: $190,000

Other Grants commencing in 2002

Drs A.J. Berry, J. Mavrogenes and Mr A. Hack - grant from the Access to Major Research Facilities Program to study synthetic fluid inclusions at GSECARS, Advanced Photon Source, Argonne National Laboratory, USA.

Dr A.J. Berry in collaboration with Dr H. StC. O'Neill - grant from the Australian Synchrotron Research Program to continue their work on oxidation states in silicate glasses and melts at the Australian National Beamline Facility, Tsukuba, Japan.

Dr J. Lindsay received a grant from the Department of Industry, Science and Resources Technology Diffusion Program for the project “Stable Isotopes as a Key to Understanding the Earth’s Biosphere - a Global Framework for Mineralisation”.

Professor I. McDougall was awarded a grant from the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering to facilitate fast neutron irradiations of geological samples in the HIFAR nuclear reactor, operated by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization, in relation to the isotopic dating of rocks by the 40Ar/39Ar method.

Ms H. McGregor received a Goldschmidt 2002 Organising Committee Grant to attend the Goldschmidt 2002 Geochemical Conference, Davos, Switzerland, August 2002.

Drs H. StC. O’Neill, S. Kesson and M. Gagan were successful with a major equipment proposal to purchase a new powder X-ray diffractometer.

Dr A. Reading – awarded an Australian Antarctic Science Grant by the Australian Antarctic Division for her project on “The deep structure of East Antarctica from broad-band seismic data”.

Dr S. Redfern was awarded a grant from the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science & Engineering to conduct high-T neutron powder diffraction experiments using the HIFAR nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights.

Dr P. Tregoning – awarded an Australian Antarctic Science Grant by the Australian Antarctic Division to continue the project “Crustal Rebound in the Lambert Glacier Area”.

Dr J.G. Wynn was awarded grants by the Cooperative Research Centre for Greenhouse Accounting for “Program B2(c) Continuation of Soil Organic Carbon Inventory Techniques” and “Program B2(c) Soil Organic Carbon Inventory Techniques, Applied to Soil Texture”.

Major Equipment Committee

Dr M. Gagan - Stable Isotope Microanalytical Facility for Palaeoclimate Systems and Global Change Research.

2002: $149,000

Professor B. Kennett - Broad-Band Seismic Recording Equipment for Antarctica Deployment.

2002: $312,000

National Institutes

Virtually all RSES Faculty and a number of graduate students and general staff are members of either the National Institute of Physical Sciences (NIPS) or the National Institute of the Environment (NIE), with several holding joint membership. During 2002 we participated in a number of Institution activities. Professor John Chappell presented a public lecture and a floor talk as part of the NIE’s Factor of Ten Exposition as well as a lecture in the NIE Lecture Series. He was also a NIE participant in NITA’s Landscape: Gold and Water exhibition. Ms Nerilie Abram gave a lecture as part of NIE’s Student Forum. Professor Ross Griffiths aided in developing the NIPS brochure and Director Harrison led the NIPS Working Group on Publicity and Lobbying.

Future Directions


The geosciences figured prominently in the National Research Priorities, released by Cabinet in November 2002. In particular, priority goals An Environmentally Sustainable Australia (transforming use of our land, water, mineral and energy resources; developing deep earth resources) and Frontier Technologies for Building and Transforming Australian Industries (geo-informatics; complex systems; advanced materials) are central to School activities. The same broad priorities were identified by ANU in its submission to the review.

Over the next five years, the School will evolve consistent with the structural adjustments put in place in 2002. We look to both our Planning Fund (see 2001 Report to Council) and success in ARC competitive grants to further align our research with School, university, and 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 broadly focused in areas of national importance.

During 2002 we undertook the initial stages of identifying and prioritizing initiatives to be supported by the Planning Fund. Five proposals were advanced (“Computational quantum mechanics in mineral physics”, “A multi-disciplinary center for modelling and data inference in the geosciences”, “Towards a microanalytical capability for stable isotopes”, “A search for millenial-scale climate instabilities in the southern hemisphere”, and “The future of satellite geodesy”) that will be further scrutinized by our Advisory Board in 2003.

Students and Teaching

We were granted University approval in 2002 for our Honours curriculum in Physics of the Earth. This program will allow physical science graduates to gain specialist knowledge in geophysics for which the School has unique national strengths.

The School will give priority to increasing student numbers, particularly domestic students. My target remains a progressive increase to a student load of around 40. This represents a real 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. Beginning this year, I am providing 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 recruitment activity by individual staff using personal contacts and networks is more effective than School or University-wide campaigns.

Mark Harrison


March 12, 2003