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The Year In Review: Report from the CEO

Dr Paul Hardisty Photograph of Dr Paul Hardisty

It is my pleasure to present this year’s annual report on behalf of Australia’s national tropical marine research agency.

This has been a year quite unlike any I can recall. As COVID-19 swept across the world, AIMS, like so many other organisations, has been forced to adapt. I am incredibly proud of the professionalism, courage and flexibility shown by our staff during the pandemic. It is a credit to every individual that we were able to transform the way we work almost overnight—in the office, in our laboratories, and in the field. This transition to home-based work was made possible by significant recent upgrades in our IT and enterprise management systems, having an organisation-wide approach to risk, and a relentless focus on safety. And while, at the time of writing, the virus remains at large, weathering this extraordinary period in the world’s history has given us confidence and pride in the strength of our people and our values.

This annual report marks the second year of the AIMS Strategy 2025, and of reporting on our progress towards the bold targets we have set for ourselves. The strategy is more important than ever as AIMS works to improve tropical marine health, protect coral reefs and other marine ecosystems from climate change, and support Australia’s economic recovery following COVID-19.

Delivering long-term impacts

One of the highlights of 2019-20 was the launch by the Minister for the Environment, The Hon Sussan Ley, of the research and development phase of the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP). This is the largest coordinated effort to help the Great Barrier Reef adapt and build resilience to climate change, with AIMS managing a consortium that includes CSIRO, the University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology, James Cook University, Southern Cross University and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

The decision to progress the research—the biggest single effort to protect coral reefs from climate change ever made—places Australia at the forefront of global reef science. We are trying to solve one of the most complex ecological problems on the planet, and we have the best science and a window of opportunity to find workable solutions.

Enhancing our capabilities

AIMS has undergone a major upgrade of its internal project management capability to improve the way we manage projects so that we can better deliver impact for the nation. We introduced a project management system (PMS) that is backed-up by a project management office (PMO), providing a state-of-the-art support platform that everyone in the organisation will benefit from. This system includes detailed resource allocation planning, and on-going tracking of actual time and resources expended on each project and task. It is the bridge between projects and strategy, and provides AIMS managers at all levels with detailed real-time information on all of our projects, and the overall performance of the organisation. It also allows our scientists the freedom to concentrate on the scientific aspects of their projects, and all of us to deliver more impact with greater efficiency.

Another highlight for the year was speaking about our collaboration with industry at AIMS’ Parliamentary Breakfast in Canberra. The packed room of parliamentarians and key department and science agency representatives heard about AIMS’ strong relationship with industry across northern Australia, and how marine science provides the research that helps build prosperity for the nation.

AIMS is also committed to meaningful partnerships with Traditional Owners. On the Keppel Islands near Rockhampton, we have teamed up with the Woppaburra Traditional Owners on a coral reef adaptation and restoration project, supported by industry, that combines traditional Indigenous knowledge with conventional science.

The relationship is based on trust, respect, and two-way knowledge sharing, with Traditional Owners invited to guide our research and participate in the study as it progresses. The research will harness the insights and observations of the Woppaburra people, that goes back thousands of years and has been passed down through the generations. And the partnership will enhance skills and create local employment pathways in coral aquaculture and reef science.

Performing at the highest level

Our focus on safety has served us well this year. As the COVID-19 virus continues to spread around the globe, our top priority remains the health, safety, and welfare of our staff. We placed a temporary pause on our field work but, due to innovation and the swift re-assessment of risk management procedures, we were able to restart safely some aspects of our field program. Throughout the entire period of the pandemic we have committed ourselves to keeping important scientific research functioning and to continuing to operate our key capabilities such as the National Sea Simulator.

To maintain the health and wellbeing of our people we took responsible, comprehensive measures to protect our people and operations, placing restrictions on workplace access and strict regimes for research vessels. These measures were also part of our broader effort to help slow the spread of the virus in the general community.

We remain committed to producing outstanding science and maintaining our position as one of the top three marine research institutions in the world. The importance of AIMS’ science to the protection of our marine estate was highlighted by the marine heatwave on the Great Barrier Reef earlier this year, the third major bleaching event in five years.

Alongside efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, and our work with RRAP, we are developing options for intervening on the Great Barrier Reef to help it cope better with climate change. This includes a focus on breeding heat-tolerant corals, to help them adapt, recover and survive warming ocean conditions.

We want to foster and build on the AIMS culture of respect, collaboration, and passion, to make sure our science continues to deliver the impact the nation expects and the world needs. In our Strategy we set ourselves the target of a “year on year improvement in culture survey results”. Our recent 2020 staff survey indicates a significant improvement over the previous year, with substantial jumps in seven of our nine desired leadership practices. This result has been achieved by a concerted effort to build leadership and cultural development within AIMS. I note that the feedback practice builds a healthy work culture and benefits all involved. It enables personal understanding and self-awareness, improves business results, and is based on respect for the people in AIMS.

Our funding, through either government appropriation or from industry, is the blood that pumps through AIMS veins, allowing us to continue delivering the highest quality marine science for the nation. COVID-19 creates challenges to our financial position. It has significantly affected our net external revenue forecasts with several of our projects and field trips cancelled or deferred. The current uncertainty has also reduced opportunities for new work to be identified and contracted.

Building on a strong legacy

In September, as part of a regular survey of our stakeholders across government, industry, philanthropy, research, and education, we undertook the Institute’s first measure of a Net Promoter Score. This is a competitive benchmark to help us track and maintain our relationship with our customers. We did very well and achieved a score of 53 as a trusted advisor among key stakeholders, rated as “great”. In the survey all sectors considered AIMS to be highly relevant to current Australian environmental challenges and priorities and AIMS science to be highly relevant to their organisation.

The health of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is a topical issue, and in the past contradictory perspectives have sometimes contributed to public confusion. In April, AIMS released the first annual summer reef snapshot produced with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and CSIRO. Drawing from existing reports, publications, and studies, it provides non-scientists with a concise, easy-to-understand, evidence-based assessment of the health of corals across the length and breadth of the Great Barrier Reef. This was the first time the three Commonwealth agencies involved in the reef have come together to provide a single source of rigorous information on how the GBR is faring.

Finally, we took a significant step towards the goal of reducing our own carbon emissions by 25 per cent with the installation of a $2.25 million solar system at our Townsville headquarters. The new system will generate an estimated 1000kw per hour, reducing the Institute’s carbon footprint by about 15 per cent.

Of course, none of these achievements would be possible without the passion and dedication of our staff, and I thank them for their hard work over the last 12 months. I look forward to an exciting and productive year ahead as we support the nation in its recovery from COVID-19.

Paul Hardisty