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Making a difference that matters – from a birdwatcher to becoming the Queensland Chief Scientist

Authors:
Naima Iram – Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University
Michael Butler – MacGregor State High School
Yong Chien Leow – MacGregor State High School

The current challenges we face in not just protecting but also restoring the environment require a multi-pronged approach for both finding solutions and advocating for change. Professor Hugh Possingham, a researcher at The University of Queensland and the Queensland Chief Scientist, knows this very well. Over his career, he has built up the skills and practical solutions he needs to become a world-renowned expert on developing mathematical tools for the protection and restoration of at-risk ecosystems and species.

His fascination with nature and passion for saving the environment started at a young age, as did his ability to develop skills that would allow him to advocate for the environment. Two of his sweetest memories from his high school years include participating in debates and birdwatching with his dad. This led him to study biology in high school, however zoology didn’t grab his interest so he decided to enrol in the Bachelor of Mathematics at the University of Adelaide.

Led by his love for both numbers and nature and supported by a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, he completed a PhD in ecological modelling at Oxford University in 1987. In the 1990s, while undertaking research on population variability at the Australian National University (ANU), he became aware that the Leadbeater’s Possum was becoming extinct due to massive deforestation in Victoria. Combining his passions for making a difference and debating, he worked with Dr David Lindenmayer from ANU to present data and models through press conferences on the impacts of land clearing and the urgency to stop deforestation in Australia.

In our own state of Queensland, about 500,000 hectares of land are deforested per year. Advocating against such loss has had an inevitable backlash from industry, but Prof. Possingham has never given up on his passion and ideas.

Professor Possingham said, “It is the public responsibility of all those privileged to work in the university sector to speak out on issues where they are experts.”

Persistent work, backed up with evidence-based research, paid off when Prof. Possingham co-developed the software program Marxan (https://marxansolutions.org) with one of his PhD students, Ian Bell, in 2000. Marxan is used for the identification, prioritisation, and protection of both on land and marine natural areas of global importance. We have finite resources to protect natural areas and Marxan allows people to best utilise these resources for their protection while providing co-benefits such as changing the livelihoods of communities through supporting the tourism industry.

Professor Hugh Possingham, Queensland Chief Scientist

Marxan is used in over 100 countries across five continents. An example success story of its use includes the development of a graded protected area off the coast of Sabah on the island of Borneo that allows locals to fish in certain zones while preventing overfishing in this vulnerable area. In collaboration with Microsoft, Prof. Possingham and his team recently launched a web-based version of Marxan which increases its utility.

Prof. Possingham’s work extends beyond his research to advocating for and lobbying the government for environmental change. In 2003, he co-authored “The Brigalow Declaration” which was used by the former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie to advocate for a reduction in native bushland deforestation. Since Prof. Possingham first started lobbying for the protection of the Great Barrier Reef, the protected area has increased from 5% to 33%. Prof. Possingham became a Chief Scientist at the global organisation The Nature Conservancy in 2016. With a global network of 400 scientists and 4000 staff, it has protected ~40 million hectares of natural areas and thousands of kilometres of rivers across the globe.

In 2020, Prof. Possingham became the Queensland Chief Scientist where his role involves providing scientific and innovation advice to the Queensland Government and communicating with various audiences to promote Queensland science and increase engagement with science.  His role also encompasses inspiring younger generations to become involved in science and play a role in the conservation and restoration of nature.

Overall, Prof. Possingham believes he has fulfilled his dreams while having impacts on the environment and global community. He spends 20% of his time in volunteering mainly with environmental organisations.

Prof. Possingham said, “Most of my life is dedicated to helping other people achieving their goals, including my students and the local community.”

Like many other scientists, Prof. Possingham sees low success in grant applications to support research, limited government and industry funding, and the competing interests of humans and nature as some of the main challenges for the scientific community. However, he finds his ‘delusional optimism’, use of affirmative action and collaboration with other scientists helps to overcome these challenges. Prof. Possingham’s journey reveals his passion for helping the world, and how a combination of advocacy backed up by research and innovative tools like Marxan are needed to drive change.

Judges’ Feedback

“I haven’t heard of Marxan and it was so interesting to find out how it is used and how valuable this tool is. I also loved the informative discussion around Hugh Possington’s career and passion. Overall a great piece and very interesting.”

“I thought this was a very nicely written feature article on Dr. Hugh Possingham. I liked the logical flow of the story. It was also nice to highlight the numerous challenges he faced throughout his career, but how his passion and ‘delusional optimism’ helped him to maintain his focus and success.