The leaders of Federation University's new research centre say bringing together expert research and local knowledge will tackle challenges ranging from the transition away from coal-fired power generation in the Latrobe Valley to helping regional communities recover from bushfire and drought.
The Future Regions Research Centre, co-located at the Ballarat and Gippsland campuses, was launched this week. It will work with local industry, government, regional and Indigenous communities to develop new knowledge and innovative solutions to the challenges of human societies and their impacts on natural and man-made environments.
Environmental scientist and expert in mine stability and closure, Professor Thomas Baumgartl, will lead the Gippsland centre. Restoration ecologist and natural disaster recovery expert Professor Singarayer Florentine and cultural heritage and history expert Professor Keir Reeves will lead the Ballarat centre.
Professor Baumgartl said a significant component of the centre's work would be to support mine rehabilitation in the Latrobe Valley. These will extend beyond the environmental legacy of coal-fired power generation. Collaborations with industry and academia on the topic of mine closure and rehabilitation on a national level are fostered through the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Transformations in Mining Economies (TiME).
"A big challenge for the region is how to connect mine closures with options for residents because the economy needs to be restructured, and there need to be opportunities for people to maintain their livelihoods," Professor Baumgartl said.
"Environmental problems and environmental solutions are linked to people, and this is where the strong desire to incorporate social and historical aspects into the centre has come from."
Professor Baumgartl, who also has a background in soil science, said there would also be a significant agricultural component including challenges caused by fire and drought at the centre, with Federation already having strong links to the sector, and would look to build more collaborations in regional Victoria.
Professor Reeves said the centre would allow Federation to play a leading role in regionally focused research and address some of the key problems confronting regional Australia.
"This requires a number of different disciplines and the way the centre is structured enables us to use humanities, social sciences and STEM approaches, and this is the way forward given the complexity of what we're looking at," Professor Reeves said.
"With post-mining restoration, for instance, you need to understand the human side as much as the science. Understanding the mining boom of the 19th century in the 21st century through central Victoria – that's a scientific story, an ecological story and a historical one as well.
"We need to be regionally focused, and that doesn't just mean the bush, it might be peri-urban Melbourne, it certainly means the Latrobe Valley, the Goldfields, and it certainly means Western Victoria. The centre has been created to drive that engagement.
"We really look forward to partnering up with our stakeholder organisations, government organisations, the private sector, cultural institutions, Indigenous communities – we're very committed to that, and moves are already afoot to do the work with key stakeholder institutions throughout the state."
Professor Florentine said bringing together expertise from across Federation would create a research centre with unique capability and the capacity to deliver high-quality research, drawing on already strong industry links to make a big impact across regional Australia.
"This includes the relationships we already have with government, CRCs, a range of industries from water corporations to mining and agricultural bodies. We have the strength and the capacity to meet any holes in this space, and we have the capability to deliver high-quality research," Professor Florentine said.
"Where we are located is to our advantage. We're in Gippsland and Ballarat, but we all have links across Australia. We are integrated with various national research initiatives, including the Soil CRC and the Food Agility CRC. That involvement and those links to the regions really closely align with our objectives." Professor Singarayer Florentine
Professor Florentine also highlighted Federation's Nanya research station – the 40-000-hectare biodiversity treasure in far western New South Wales that includes a system of natural salt lakes, old-growth Mallee trees and a variety of intact ecosystems.
Federation has owned the station since 2004 and its biological diversity has made it home to many rare species, some not seen beyond the station's boundaries. Federation University environmental staff have had a long involvement with conservation agencies in NSW going back to 1988.
"The beauty of Nanya is that we will be adding and strengthening our already established research work there by expanding our Indigenous studies there – it's a fantastic opportunity."