Of all OECD countries, Australia has the largest proportion of its land in the tropics. We don’t necessarily think of ourselves as a tropical country, but the northern third of this ancient continent has tropical environments of exquisite beauty, subtle diversity, and rich cultural and natural heritage. Northern Australia and nearby regions are endowed with valuable natural resources and are the focus of increasing development pressure. In contrast with southern Australia, the landscapes, coastlines and seascapes of the north are substantially intact, which is why they are so attractive to tourists, so valued by scientists and conservationists, and present considerable opportunities for economic development. The population of northern Australia is the youngest and most dynamic in the country, with a complex mix of modern and traditional economies. Some Indigenous communities continue to practice the oldest land management traditions in the world, and their living culture is itself a priceless element of our national identity.
In such a context, there is a pressing need for knowledge: (i) to develop a much better understanding of the ecological functions and processes of unique ecosystems — terrestrial, aquatic and marine — that cannot be found anywhere else, or not in their natural state; (ii) to inform decisions about how best to manage natural resources, in government, in industry and in the community; (iii) to underpin innovation, in developing new more sustainable technologies and approaches where the status quo is simply not good enough; and (iv) to help society to learn as we go along, so that, in the words of the late Peter Cullen “at least we should be making new mistakes.”
Consequently there is an urgent need for world-class science focused on these big issues: world class in the quality of its scholarship; and in the way it engages with its intended end-users and beneficiaries so that research outputs are relevant and useful. There is a related need to train and develop new researchers, and to provide exciting opportunities to attract talented early- and mid-career researchers to the north to work on these issues of national and global importance.