Following the Water


Second only to Antarctica as the world's driest continent, sun-baked Australia sees its share of severe droughts. It even gets its share of floods. So it's no surprise that natural disaster and water resource management are research priorities for the country's leading science entity.

An insider's perspective

Sebastian Lamontagne, a Canadian biogeochemist at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization ( CSIRO), is working to preserve the Murray River Basin, the nation's largest and most economically important watershed. Lamontagne's 5 years of experience at CSIRO's division of land and water in the southeastern city of Adelaide have provided him with an insider's perspective on the challenges and rewards of doing science in Australia. Furthermore, Lamontagne has watched from up close as the agency has started to focus on applied sciences and scientific issues of national concern, such as mitigating the effects of droughts.

"It's a huge country, with few people and very severe environmental problems," says Lamontagne. "These day-to-day environmental challenges compel Australians into fields of applied sciences."

A research arm of the federal government, CSIRO employs more than 6500 people in 23 divisions, with disciplines ranging from astronomy to geometry. It is tasked with conducting innovative science while focusing on the critical problems the country faces.

Recently the agency underwent a major reorganization that included the creation of six flagship programs, which have become its research core. "We [CSIRO] were a mile wide and an inch thick," Lamontagne points out. "We had wide range of expertise, but it was pushed to an excess that was starting to be diluted."

The flagship programs target topics important for the Australian economy and environment and provide rallying points for scientists seeking research funding. Lamontagne believes that CSIRO, by conducting research with commercial potential, can make sustainable contributions to the nation's economic and social growth.

Four of the six theme-based initiatives centre on developing new technologies, for the food, health, energy, or metals industries. The other two focus on improving management of ocean and freshwater resources. "By being so large, we can tackle problems on the national level, we have all the expertise under one roof," says Lamontagne.

Because of its environmental and economic impacts, the health of Murray River and its surrounding floodplains has become one of CSIRO's most urgent projects. The Murray River basin covers one-fifth of Australia, and the river supports more than AU$ 10 billion worth of agricultural production. Mostly humanmade canals diverted from the river irrigate agriculture in the region. Fanning out from the basin, these canals supply water to more than 1.5 million hectares of farms, and to cities like Adelaide. But in the past 2 years, with the dry conditions brought by El Niño, so much of the Murray's water has been extracted for irrigation that the river has not been able to make it to the ocean and, even worse, salinity levels have risen substantially.

Researchers have said that drinking and irrigation water will be unusably salty in the medium to long term in the Adelaide region. "If nothing is done, the river will become too saline to be used for drinking water in the next 50 years," warns Lamontagne.

With most of the water extraction occurring in upstream states, those at the end of the line in South Australia have to bare the brunt of all the removal of water by the upper states. Adelaide is hit particularly hard, since it is 80% dependant on Murray River water.

Lamontagne notes that this issue has caused great political tension between the various Australian states. He offers up a Canadian comparison. "Just think that if Ontario decided to remove half the water from the St. Lawrence River; you can imagine that the people downstream in Quebec would not be too happy. Now picture if someone were to tell you that soon you won't be able to drink from the St. Lawrence, but that it wouldn't matter because it won't get to Montreal anyway," describes Lamontagne. "That's why the science is so applied here; there are significant environmental issues that require immediate action and this is the kind of science Aussie dollars are supporting."

With this more applied--and political--work, Lamontagne believes that CSIRO scientists need to have good communication skills in dealing with colleagues, politicians, and especially public media. "The image of the scientist peering into a microscope wearing a dusty lab coat is not what Australians want to see. They want people who are articulate and are willing to communicate effectively," notes Lamontagne. "If your dream is to be buried under your microscope, then there's no room for you here."

While many adventure seekers come simply to enjoy the awesome scenery, scientists from across the world are also drawn to Australia's shores for the scientific and career opportunities they offer. Like Canada, Australia has suffered its own drain of young scientific brains; many of them end up in the United States where the salaries tend to be higher. But this vacuum has been filled quickly by bright, young, talented scientists from all over the world. This influx has kept Aussie science healthy and helped move it towards the forefront.

Advantage being Canadian

Lamontagne himself landed his research scientist job accidentally when he applied to an Internet job posting while doing his postdoc at the Université de Montreal. He believes that the Canadian university system offered him a distinct advantage. In Canada most graduate students progress from master's degree to PhD programs and can get skills in several different fields, while in Australia most go straight to a PhD from a bachelor's degree because of the high cost of postgrad education.

For those looking to work at CSIRO, Lamontagne has the following advice: The organization is run like a corporation, with a top-down structure. "For somebody who's university trained, it's a little bit of a shock that you have relatively strict outlines as to what you can do and how to focus your efforts," explains Lamontagne. He advises Australian job seekers to watch international journals--print and online--and to surf the Web sites of the many Australian science foundations and agencies such as the Australian Research Council and the Australian Academy of Science.

Lamontagne also recommends that Canadians contact the office of immigration in Canberra. "They are always looking for skilled immigrants and they target areas where they need very specific skills, and if you fit within their requirements it makes it very easy to immigrate."

For Lamontagne, his work in Australia has been an experience of a lifetime. Apart from the work, Lamontagne, a sports fanatic, has been learning cricket, rugby, and even surfing. He even manages to squeeze in a game of ice hockey every couple of weeks with a few North American expatriates.

His only regret is the distance from friends and family at home. What else? "Well the snow, of course!"

Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at

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