Not everyone has heard of Geoscience Australia, but what they do has value to every Australian citizen. As Australia’s pre-eminent public-sector geoscience organisation, it is the government’s trusted advisor on the geology and geography of the country. With its long history and reputation for excellence, CEO Dr James Johnson thinks the time has come for more people to understand the importance of geoscience in their lives, and the important work Geoscience Australia continues to do to address real-world challenges such as securing Australia’s water resources, providing fundamental geographic information, and increasing community resilience to natural hazards.
In the fast-paced and constantly changing world of science and technology, Geoscience Australia (GA) is an organisation that uses the latest data and tools to make sense of the Earth, applying their professional expertise in the geosciences to challenges that affect the everyday lives of people across Australia. CEO Dr James Johnson has a vision of ‘One GA’; an organisation that not only solves problems but does so collaboratively, professionally and progressively, striving for a diverse, innovative and inclusive organisational culture.
Research Features found out more from Dr Johnson about the changing role of the organisation, its strategic priorities and its goal to educate people on the biggest geoscience problems in modern Australia.
Hi Dr Johnson! Can you tell us about Geoscience Australia’s (GA) background and heritage?
GA dates back almost to Australia’s Federation in 1901, when land was set aside for the capital of Australia. This led to the establishment of the Australian Survey Office in 1910, which was GA’s first predecessor organisation. This organisation morphed into the Australian Surveying and Land Information Group (AUSLIG) in 1987 when it merged with the Division of National Mapping. Separately, the Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology and Geophysics (BMR) was formed in 1946 when the Australian government recognised a need to understand its inventory of minerals. BMR changed its name in 1992 to become the Australian Geological Survey Organisation (AGSO). Geoscience Australia came into being in 2001 when AUSLIG merged with AGSO.
Since that time, GA’s activities have expanded and today it has responsibility for meeting the geoscience requirements of the Australian government. This role takes the agency well beyond its historical focus on resource development to topics as diverse as natural hazards; environmental issues; groundwater research; marine and coastal research; carbon capture and storage; vegetation monitoring; and Earth observations from space. GA’s remit also extends beyond the Australian landmass to Australia’s vast marine jurisdiction.
What are the strategic priorities and core mission for GA?
GA applies science and technology to describe and understand the Earth for the benefit of Australia. The six priority areas are: building Australia’s resource wealth; ensuring that Australian communities are more resilient to natural hazards; securing Australia’s water resources; managing Australia’s marine jurisdictions; providing fundamental geographic information; and maintaining geoscience knowledge and capability.
What are GA’s most important challenges?
The Chief Scientist of Australia identified five of the most important societal challenges in 2014. They were: living in a changing environment; promoting population health and wellbeing; managing our food and water assets; securing Australia’s place in a changing world; and lifting productivity and economic growth.
GA has a role to play in all of these priorities, from satellite-derived Earth observations of the changing environment to understanding the quantity and quality of groundwater for food production, leading the development of international standards for scientific data transfer and collaboration, facilitating the growth of resources-based national wealth, and the establishment of national infrastructure for satellite positioning to support technologies that will boost the productivity of a range of Australian industries.
As CEO, what is your vision for GA?
Our work as an organisation and as a group of people is guided by my vision to be ‘One GA’ – striving for unity across diverse business units as we work together to achieve a common goal of providing value to Australia through the development and application of high-quality geoscience. This ‘One GA’ vision explicitly recognises the mutual responsibility all employees have to work collaboratively as we pursue excellence in our science and foster a positive, innovative, inclusive and diverse organisational culture. Under this vision we work together to be leaders in the development and application of deep geoscience knowledge that is data-driven, enables high-quality advice, is accessible to a range of users and stakeholders via cutting-edge delivery platforms, and stimulates innovation. What I have articulated is a transformative and aspirational vision. It keeps the best from the approaches upon which we have built a trusted reputation for delivering achievements, and embraces innovative ways of working.
It is clear from your website that communicating geoscience is important to GA. Can you tell us why this is and what GA is doing to support and further geoscience education?
Even though we have a long history of delivering national scale benefits for Australia’s economy, environment and society – benefits that help Australians in their everyday lives – large sections of society are not aware of our existence and impact. Alongside our positive impact is the sheer wonder and breadth of the geoscience that we pursue on a daily basis. These three factors – wonder, breadth and positive impact – provide opportunities to raise our profile with a broader range of Australian society.
One activity we host is an annual open day event that provides great opportunities for us to share our exciting and valuable work with the community and inspire next generation scientists. In recent years we have had more than 5000 visitors through the doors – young and old and everyone in between. The event also provides a great boost to our internal culture, as hundreds of us join together to present our visitors with a fantastic day out. We also run an education centre in our building that hosts visits from school students every day. We have in excess of 10,000 students through our doors each year.
Can you tell us about some of GA’s priority projects?
There are three that I want to share with you: Exploring for the Future, Digital Earth Australia and our National Positioning Infrastructure (NPI) capability. Exploring for the Future will deliver a resource prospectus for minerals, energy and groundwater aimed at attracting industry investment in resources exploration through the delivery of a suite of ‘pre-competitive’ geoscience information for targeted areas of Northern Australia and South Australia. Digital Earth Australia is a world-first analysis platform for satellite imagery and other Earth observations. It gives users a time-series view of changes to the landscape across the whole nation for the last 30 years, accurate down to 25 square metre parcels of land. An NPI capability will provide open access to reliable satellite positioning with centimetre accuracy across Australia, ensuring a modern fit-for-purpose and internationally compatible sovereign positioning capability. This will include modernised ground infrastructure; improved data analysis and verification; greater access to quality-assured Global Navigation Satellite System data; and government investment for the world-first trial of second-generation Satellite-Based Augmentation System technology.
What is GA’s relationship to the rest of the world? Are there collaborations or contributions from other countries?
GA has agreements to collaborate with our counterpart organisations in several countries, including India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, the United States, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines. GA also has ties to various international collaborations such as OneGeology, the Group on Earth Observations (GEOS) and a range of others.
From a personal perspective, are there any achievements/projects etc., that you are particularly proud of?
I am particularly proud that whenever an Australian uses Google Maps or another GPS-based system, they are relying on infrastructure that we maintain. I am also proud that our work spans the whole Australian jurisdiction; it is a privilege to work across the whole nation.
In addition, I am also proud of what has been a very deliberate approach to fostering an inclusive culture at GA. We have a long way to go, but we must continue to ensure that all of us feel we can belong, that we are valued for who we are, as well as our knowledge, skills and experience, with equal opportunities to participate, contribute and progress.
GA has several forms of data and a wide variety of digital and print publications – can you discuss the significance and value of these?
GA is committed to making our data and publications easy to discover, access and reuse. It is important that our science is transparent and freely available for interested parties to see the evidence on which advice is provided to the government. We do this by releasing our data and publications through our website and our library in Canberra. Our website has a Data and Publications section where the public can access interactive maps, web services for data delivery, online publications and online tools such as the Australian Flood Risk Information Portal. We are also working towards increasing the accessibility of our historic legacy items such as our collection of Antarctic Field Notebooks dating back from 1948. Partnering with Citizen Science volunteers we have created digital copies which have been transcribed and are available online. We are looking forward to seeing what new discoveries and publications arise from making this information available to the public.
What does the future hold for GA?
We will retain the best of the old habits and programmes that have garnered our positive reputation while embracing the new world of digital transformation. We aim to make our information more readily available to a broader cross-section of society so that non-experts with inquiring minds and entrepreneurship can add value in ways that we currently cannot conceive. I would like our range of products coupled with our outreach to make GA and the geosciences far more widely known and valued by the Australian people.
For more info, please visit www.ga.gov.au.
Cnr Jerrabomberra Ave and Hindmarsh Drive,
Symonston ACT 2609
- Geoscience Australia: Government advisor, scientific innovator, public educator