Marg Friedel, Charles Darwin University, Alice Springs. Email: email@example.com
CSIRO’s Central Australian Laboratory and its earlier incarnations supported arid zone research for over 64 years until its closure in 2018. I joined the lab in 1974 as a researcher and stayed after retirement until 2019 as an honorary fellow and the last resident scientist. Many of the earlier scientists and other staff were still active when I first arrived and I was privileged to hear their stories and visit their field sites. Amongst others, Ray Perry, Bob Winkworth, Bob Millington and Des Nelson became my friends and mentors and I was keen to see their contributions honoured.
Bob Winkworth, first resident scientist, collecting monthly air samples for the International Geophysical Year 1957-58. (Photo John S. Turner)
Ray Perry, early 1970s, a driving force behind the development of rangelands research in Australia. (Photo CSIRO)
So began a history-writing project that drew in colleagues Steve Morton, Gary Bastin, Jocelyn Davies and Mark Stafford Smith. Along the way I detoured to work on a data set gathered by John S. Turner between 1958 and 1960, after Des Nelson told me that John was still active and interested. That work, on ‘Phyllode fall and nutrient content in a mulga (Acacia aneura F.Muell. ex Benth.) community in central Australia in response to rainfall’, by Turner, Friedel and Neumann, appeared in The Rangeland Journal in 2021.
The history, written in two parts, has been published in Historical Records of Australian Science, along with extensive supplementary material that includes a list of all known staff members and a comprehensive list of publications in many categories (plus summary statistics), the latter compiled by Gary Bastin. Des Nelson and his remarkable diaries were a wonderful source of information for both papers: ‘A history of CSIRO’S Central Australian Laboratory 1, 1953–80: pastoral land research’ and ‘A history of CSIRO’s Central Australian Laboratory 2, 1980–2018: interdisciplinary land research’. Below is summary of the papers.
When CSIRO’s Arid Zone Unit was established in Alice Springs in 1953, the social and political imperative was to develop Australia’s north and, more specifically, to make the vast interior more productive for pastoral and agronomic purposes. The research which followed, as summarised in the first paper, showed the unreality of that goal and the need to nurture the land that cattle preferred to graze. Not until the 1970s were other values for land, such as Aboriginal and conservation uses, considered to be subjects for research, stimulated by social and political change in the wider Australian community.
Undoubtedly the changing nature of research at CSIRO’s Central Australian Laboratory (CAL) over many decades reflected major shifts in societal expectations, the availability of new knowledge and enabling technologies and the particular skills of its staff. The second paper follows the expansion of research from a pastoral focus into, initially, conservation and later into socio-ecological systems and Aboriginal livelihoods. Despite the relevance of the research to participating rangeland communities, the power of remote centralised decision-making led to the slow demise of the laboratory.
The termination of CAL was uncannily foreshadowed by the concept of the ‘desert system’ (see Part 2). Human society in arid Australia is shaped by uncertain climate, scarce and patchy natural resources, resulting in limited livelihoods, sparse capital and often inappropriate governance. These act to keep populations sparse, which reinforces remoteness. The system functions well when understood and accommodated, but the governance of such a system can be mismatched with that of larger jurisdictions that control resources, have different expectations of outcomes, and lack a nuanced understanding of local complexity. When national organisations such as CSIRO focus on short-term economic efficiency, withdrawal of investment from sparsely populated regions to the coastal centres of economic and social influence seems inevitable. The scientific effort at CAL was ultimately ended by these systemic challenges. Nevertheless, there is much to celebrate in its contributions to knowledge of Australian and global deserts.
While the closure of CAL was disappointing, I continue to be grateful for the opportunities I had to grow my understanding of rangelands over many years, and to build connections with a constellation of rangeland stars whose friendship I still cherish. Those stars include technical and administrative staff, whose support was fundamental to the lab’s success (see Part 2 Supplementary Material 2), rangeland practitioners everywhere and colleagues from many organisations.
The papers are available at https://www.publish.csiro.au/HR/pdf/HR22006 and https://www.publish.csiro.au/HR/pdf/HR22007. They are open access and the supplementary material can be accessed in both cases via a link at the end of the main text.
Research staff in April 1975. L-R Max Ross, Bill Low, Marg Friedel, Bob Millington, Bob Winkworth, Peter Pavlov, Colin Lendon. (Photo CSIRO)