Robyn - 2010 Graduate Program

Robyn

Background

Home State: Victoria
University: Charles Sturt University
The University of Melbourne
Qualifications: Doctor of Philosophy (Vegetation Ecology)
Bachelor of Science/Bachelor of Forest Science (Honours)

I grew up in Melbourne, the eldest child of a science teacher and a microbiologist, who were also mad-keen bushwalkers, campers and amateur naturalists. As a result, I've grown up with a keen interest in science and a burning desire to work to improve environmental outcomes, particularly in relation to biodiversity protection.

After finishing uni the first time, I worked for a while as a research assistant in forestry and later in flora protection for the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, which I enjoyed very much, but I felt capable of more.

I met my PhD supervisor, Ian Lunt, through mutual contacts at Department of Sustability and Environment, and spent my PhD years living in Albury-Wodonga. My thesis examined the effects of forest management on changes in stand structure over 60 years in the Pilliga State Forests, near Coonabarabran in NSW.

Between finishing my PhD and joining the Department, I spent a year working in local government on sustainability issues including energy efficiency, carbon emissions and the role of market-based instruments to assess the asset value of biodiversity and native plantings.

I joined the Department rather than continue in research because I saw it as a place I could work more directly to improve environmental outcomes. The graduate program was attractive for the range of skills it has allowed me to develop, particularly project management, and for the incredible network it has enabled me to start building.

Placements

First Placement: Ecological Communities Section, Approvals and Wildlife Division

Ecological Communities Section are responsible for coordinating the nomination, assessment and listing process for threatened ecological communities. Listing provides legislative protection under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act for ecological communities that have been substantially cleared and/or degraded since European settlement. It also helps to raise the profile of that ecological community in the public's mind, and can help landholders to access funding through programs such as Caring for our Country.

I was fortunate to play a role in most areas of the section's annual business during this placement. I helped assess and prioritise nominations for new threatened ecological communities in accordance with the EPBC Act and Regulations for the Threatened Species Scientific Committee (the expert panel that advises the Minister). I wrote a report on the reasons for the decline of key wetland plants in support of an assessment that is currently in progress (the River Murray-Darling to Sea Ecological Community). This involved interviewing expert stakeholders and reviewing available literature. A highlight of this placement was having a version of this report published in the journal Australian Plant Conservation. I also drafted a Policy Statement, or "glossy brochure", for the recently-listed Grey Box Grassy Woodlands community. This is a key stakeholder communication tool that is used to describe the community in lay terms to help the public recognise the community, and provides advice on the responsibilities and opportunities available to landholders if the community is present on their land.

This placement was a great for learning about the Department and the Public Service generally, and was an exciting, interesting and relevant role where I felt my environmental science skills were valued and well-utilised.

Second Placement: Water Holdings and Shepherding Section (WHS), Water Governance Division

Water Holdings and Shepherding Section are part of the Environmental Water Branch, the people who support the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (the CEWH) in managing and using the Commonwealth's water entitlements to water key environmental assets like wetlands and rivers. Watering the Murray Darling Basin, what's not to like? WHS Section play an enabling role within the Branch - they help get the water from where the Commonwealth has bought it to where the water is needed by trading water entitlements and allocations, negotiating contracts and memoranda of understanding with States and water management agencies and help interpret legislation such as the Water Act.

Interpreting legislation with a view to providing ongoing operational guidance for the Branch was a key aspect of my role in this section. I drafted discussion papers on delegation arrangements for the CEWH and on the circumstances in which the CEWH can or can't trade the Commonwealth's water entitlements and allocations. Working with other parts of the Department was also a key feature. I worked with another section in the branch to investigate the environmental value and legislative impediments of buying licences in one subcatchment, and helped to formulate the Branch's advice to Water Efficiency Division on State Priority Projects (where irrigation infrastructure upgrades produce water savings, a proportion of which become part of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holdings). I collated answers to media and ministerial queries and even contributed to a whole-of-government response to a key independent report.

This placement was deliberately chosen to take me 'out of my comfort zone'. Diving into the deep end of an area I knew relatively little about, I learnt an incredible amount about the nuts-and-bolts of business of government and about how the Commonwealth manages its environmental water.

Third Placement: Scientific Research and Information Section, Information Management Division

The Scientific Research and Information Section commission and administer biodiversity research worth around $20 million per year. They also play a key knowledge-broking role, liaising with various areas of the Department to find out what biodiversity research questions need to be investigated to inform policy.

My role in this section covered both knowledge brokering and research strategy, with some exposure to budgeting and financial management of existing research funding. A key knowledge-brokering responsibility was running a series of four well-received workshops in Environmental Economics, with presentations by key academics and thinkers in the field. Attending the workshop as facilitator and speaking to the broad range of staff members who attended from across the department gave me a real insight into the value of such events for connecting researchers with policy makers.

While I was there, SRIS section was managing the transition between one research program, the Commonwealth Environmental Research Facilities (CERF) and the National Environmental Research Program (NERP). The other key part of my role was to contribute to the Department's biodiversity research strategy by collating and summarising information on the research needs of one key biodiversity-related area of the Department (Land and Coasts Division) and connecting this with the research proposed by the institutions that form part of the NERP.

Two of the key benefits of this placement were the opportunity to develop skills in strategic thinking, and building networks with talented and switched-on people from all across the Department. Both are key skills that will assist me in any job I do from now on.

Final Placement: Recovery Planning Section, Approvals and Wildlife Division

My final placement (my permanent job) after the graduate year is in Recovery Planning Section, Approvals and Wildlife Division. Our section coordinates the preparation of Recovery Plans for threatened species and ecological communities. My role is in the Ecological Communities subteam - so not a million miles from my first placement.

Previously, the Australian Government has tended to commission State Government staff or other scientific experts to write our recovery plans. This was logical because most of the implementation of plans is done by State Governments, Natural Resource Management agencies and private landholders at the state level. However, Ecological Communities in particular often present tricky cross-jurisdictional issues which the Australian Government may be in a better position to manage, so we are now beginning to take a much more active role in the writing and/or coordination of these plans.

Nevertheless, as General Eisenhower once said, "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything". The best plans don't do any good at all if they just sit on the shelf. The essence of our success will be in how well the planning process engages the stakeholders - the people who will implement it, facilitate it or have their daily lives affected by it.

As a result, my new role draws on my technical background in ecology, my contact network among ecologists and my developing skills in stakeholder engagement as our subteam attempts to coordinate the writing of several Recovery Plans and an overall 'manual' for how the process should be run. It's new, it's strategic and it's very exciting!

'the best thing about working for us ... is the environment'