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Excellence in research & innovation

The National Institutes Grant enables ANU to maintain and enhance distinctive concentrations of excellence in research and education, particularly in areas of national importance to Australia.

ANU Grand Challenges Scheme

The ANU Grand Challenges Scheme is a $50 million program investment in partnerships that conduct transformative research on global intractable problems, which should also attract external investment. The intent of the Scheme is to focus on addressing global challenges through collaboration between disciplines and with stakeholders, breaking through disciplinary boundaries to address major challenges confronting society.

After a competitive process, the selected 2019 Grand Challenge is Indigenous Health and Wellbeing. Ongoing programs in the ANU Grand Challenges Scheme are Our Health in Our Hands, announced November 2017, and Zero-Carbon Energy for the Asia-Pacific, announced in September 2018.

Our Health in Our Hands is furthering more precise diagnosis and personalised intervention for people affected by chronic disease, particularly diabetes and multiple sclerosis. The Our Health in Our Hands Research Committee harnesses the expertise of academics and clinicians from diverse backgrounds, and people living with Multiple Sclerosis and Type 1 Diabetes through health experience teams to ensure their experiences and preferences are embedded in the research.

Zero-Carbon Energy for the Asia-Pacific, launched in September 2019, recognises that Australia is a renewable energy powerhouse and resource-rich nation, whose immediate neighbours in the Indo-Pacific will account for two-thirds of the world’s energy demand growth in the coming decades. The initiative is using research and engagement to help transform the way Australia trades with the world by developing zero-carbon export industries, creating new paradigms in benefit sharing, and developing technologies, policies and approaches that can be applied in the Asia-Pacific and beyond.

Excellence in research & innovation – health & medicine

Progress in personalised medicine
A revolutionary approach to immune disorders has cut through the long and painful process of diagnosis and treatment for many patients. Patients with conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and Type 1 Diabetes can present with vastly different and vague symptoms. Once a diagnosis is made, the right treatment can be equally hard to find, if at all. Professor Carola Vinuesa and her team at the Centre for Personalised Immunology have taken a huge conceptual step in identifying the right treatment rather than following the trial and error therapies used until now. The team starts with a specific patient, rather than surrogate mice. They sequence the patient’s genome using Australia’s largest supercomputer, and look at the patient’s many mutations to see which one is causing the disease. They use Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) array technology to edit the DNA to generate a precise mouse model that replicates the patient’s specific mutations. Treatments can then be trialled on the real disease in the mouse. When an effective treatment is identified it can be applied to the specific matching patient, and to all patients with the same molecular markers. The centre is attracting cases from the 5–10 per cent of the world’s population with auto-immune diseases. Professor Vinuesa, co-Director of the Centre for Personalised Immunology, is the first female ANU academic to be recognised on the list of highly cited researchers awarded by the Web of Science.

Transforming communication in healthcare
Communication is the cornerstone of quality healthcare practice and patient safety. In its short life, the Institute for Communication in Healthcare has already found research and training success in tackling ineffective communication at and between all levels of the healthcare system. The institute translates cutting-edge communication research by healthcare professionals, linguists, communication experts, computer scientists, engineers and health policy experts, into best practice for safe and compassionate healthcare for health providers, clinicians, nurses, patients and their families. For example, the training course in communication at nursing handovers is already showing substantial impact. St Vincent’s Hospital reports a sharp decline in the rate of falls, which it attributes directly to the institute’s training. The institute is collaborating with research centres and hospitals across the globe to improve healthcare communication. It co-convened the 2nd International Symposium on Communication in Health Care with Nanyang Technological University in Singapore in February 2019 and has been the driving force behind the creation of an international consortium with Nanyang, Hong Kong, Lancaster and Harvard universities, and University College London.

Collaborating in end-of-life care
A nationally coordinated approach to end-of-life care in Australia is closer thanks to the collaborative approach of ANU Medical School. The school was a key partner in the ACT End of Life and Palliative Care Research Collaborative follow-up workshop in October 2019 along with ACT Health, and other universities and associations. The workshop identified synergies and a range of potential research projects. The school’s collaborative approach also includes consumers and providers of end-of-life care. One focus is on the doctors who have had end-of-life care conversations with patients and their families. Research is finding that by embracing the experience, doctors can reduce their own anxiety, and give more compassionate support to the family. Linguists from the ANU Institute for Communication in Healthcare are studying the structure of these conversations to give them a framework and inform authentic teaching modules. The modules can be shared locally and nationally, allowing many to benefit from end-of-life communications.

Excellence in research & innovation – environment & resources

Integrated research on disaster risk science
Recent Australian natural disasters confirm that the new Disaster Risk Science Institute, launched in November 2019, is needed more than ever. Its focus will be on reducing the physical, economic and human impacts of large-scale natural disasters in Australia and its neighbouring Asia-Pacific region. It is charged with building societal resilience and effective responses to natural disasters. The institute brings together science and social science in earthquake, tsunami, volcanic eruptions, cyclones and storms, fires, floods and droughts. The results of empirical research will be placed in the hands of policymakers, practitioners and disaster affected communities. Specialist in disaster risk, resilience, response and recovery, Professor Helen James, is the Interim Director of the institute.

Adaptation & mitigation of future climate impacts
The collaborative community of climate change researchers and teachers being built across ANU by the Climate Change Institute is creating new and innovative approaches to tackling critical climate change. The institute also generates strategies to improve the uptake of research across government and industry, advises on policy, and works to increase climate change understanding and awareness across a wider audience. The institute engages with audiences locally, nationally and internationally through briefings, representation on boards and committees, short courses, seminars and public events. Climate change is already affecting all parts of Australia and all nations in the region. It has been identified as the biggest global health threat for the twenty-first century. The need is increasingly pressing to move beyond incremental change to existing systems and develop transformational approaches. The institute draws together more than 300 researchers from fields including climate science, policy, economics, law and psychology to develop long-term, interdisciplinary approaches. A strong focus is interactions between climate change and health. Researchers from across the University are also leading research that will: investigate feasible, scalable technologies that will remove CO2 from the atmosphere over the coming decades; generate profitable new industries in the process such as developing new, recyclable materials that can lock up carbon as part of the circular economy; draw down carbon at a landscape level; and help build society’s capacity to adapt to the climate changes that have already been locked in.

A new way to develop drought resistant crops
A simple test could be a game changer for growing productive wheat crops during drought. Lead researchers, Dr Arun Yadav, Dr Adam Carroll and Professor Barry Pogson, say their work could be instrumental in maximising and ensuring the reliability of food production in the face of increasingly severe drought, and pressures on farming from climate change, population growth and land-use. The test measures the relative abundance of four amino acids in wheat plants to predict their ability to maintain yield under drought much more accurately than current methods. It can be done precisely in greenhouses all year round, at a fraction of the cost of traditional field-based methods. The next challenge is to scale up the technique beyond the varieties tested to date. The breakthrough is built on the long-term capability in applying new technologies to plant sciences enabled by National Institutes Grant, and is the work of ANU scientists from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology (including Deputy Director Barry Pogson, 2019 Eureka Prize winner) and CSIRO Agriculture and Food.

Climate change impacts on breeding habits
The Superb Fairy-wren is one of Australia’s most recognised and well-loved birds. In 1991, Professor Andrew Cockburn established a long-term study, now co-led by Professor Loeske Kruuk, in the National Botanic Gardens in Canberra. Each year they monitor the breeding and survival of every fairy-wren in the gardens, and a massive dataset documents the complete life history of many generations. This information is now used to study everything from the genetic basis of reproductive success and plumage colouration, to the environmental factors that affect survival. The project has been especially powerful because of the insights gained on how climate change affects bird populations. For example, the data shows that warmer days and milder nights in early spring are contributing to birds breeding earlier each year. Similarly, a link is becoming apparent between extreme high temperature events and the stopping of breeding activity, leading to a decline in population size. This wealth of data is allowing Australian researchers to determine whether the effects of climate change on wild animal populations reported in milder temperate zones in Europe and North America can be applied to Australia where the climate is naturally hotter and drier.

The conservation and management of Australia’s distinctive biodiversity succeeds only with deep knowledge gained through long-term environmental research and monitoring. National Institutes Grant investment supports that ongoing work, and allows the Fenner School of Environment and Society to work consistently for the public good that biodiversity provides. The school currently has 20 PhD scholars and seven postdoctoral researchers in biodiversity, and its eight professional officers are particularly important in community engagement. The school maintains, often with external partnerships, more than 100 long-term field sites and engages the broader community through volunteer participation, crowd‐funding programs, social media communications and press coverage. Five of the most significant programs continue to demonstrate ground-breaking science and impact: Victorian Central Highland Forests, a globally significant study with 35 years of data, which is helping the Victorian Government to reshape forest management policy; Jervis Bay Fire Study, which is re‐establishing populations of locally extinct species; Nanangroe Long Term Forest Fragmentation Study, which is examining how past land clearing for grazing and cropping interacts with new plantation landscapes, and the consequences for biodiversity conservation; Mulligans Flat–Goorooyaroo Woodlands, which is facilitating broad‐scale reintroduction of locally extinct mammals; and Eastern Tasmania bird survey (monitoring more than 1,300 sites), which is informing policy development for critically endangered bird species.

PhD Candidate Belinda Wilson places cameras in front of Quoll dens in Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve, Canberra.

Antarctica-driven sea-level rise
The critical role of Antarctica in driving rapid sea-level rise has been revealed by a global study led from ANU. An examination of historical and new data from the last interglacial (the period of warmer global temperatures 125,000–118,000 years ago) revealed the sequence of events leading to sea levels 10 metres above current levels. Early Antarctic ice loss was caused by Southern Ocean warming at the onset of the interglacial. Meltwater emanating from Antarctica caused changes in global ocean circulation that resulted in northern polar warming and associated Greenland ice loss. Sea levels rose up to three metres per century due to natural climate instabilities that are far smaller and slower than current human-caused rates of warming. These rapid and large sea-level changes happened on timescales that would have profound effects on today’s coastal and urban infrastructure. Current greenhouse gas-driven climate change is producing rapid atmospheric and oceanic warming in both polar regions that is greater and faster developing than the last interglacial; and with simultaneous ice-loss in Antarctica and Greenland.

Launch of Mercury Australia network
Research in Australasia on the historical and contemporary uses and impacts of mercury has been consolidated into a new network, Mercury Australia. Mercury Australia’s co-convenors are Dr Larissa Schneider of ANU (recent winner of the ANU Vice-Chancellor’s award for Impact and Engagement) and Dr Darren Sinclair, University of Canberra. In total, 20 researchers from eight universities in complementary disciplines, in particular chemists, environmental scientists and social scientists, are contributing research to Mercury Australia across a range of disciplines. These include regulation and governance of mercury emissions; tracking historical mercury contamination in lake sediments; sources, chemical evolution, and transport pathways of atmospheric mercury; and mercury bio-accumulation in freshwater ecosystems. The network also brings critical mass to present research findings as practical policy advice for governments, and to engage with industry and the public. It is translating its research results into publicly accessible information on its website. Mercury Australia also has the goal of helping Australia ratify the United Nations Minamata Convention on Mercury. The 128 countries that have ratified the convention, which came into force in 2017, include China, the United States and the countries in the European Union. Australia has signed the convention but is yet to ratify it. The network will be able to provide data and information needed to meet Australia’s obligations under the convention.

Resolving a long-time challenge to global carbon markets
The rules for international carbon markets are still being developed around the 2015 Paris Agreement on efforts to combat climate change. For Paris to succeed, each country was allowed to determine its own ambitions and approach, but that makes accounting for carbon credits more complex. One point of contention is avoiding counting the same emission reduction more than once to achieve climate mitigation targets. The double counting can come from carbon credit trading, by countries and airlines. In 2019, ANU Professor Frank Jotzo and colleagues from a range of other countries published new work in Science that highlights why resolving double counting is critical. They suggested key ingredients for a robust outcome, irrespective of countries’ mechanisms and targets, are a single set of international accounting rules, robust emissions accounting, and economy-wide targets in each country. Rules that guarantee environmental integrity and avoid double counting can ensure that carbon markets will work, and global ambition can be more readily raised. The issue remains central in the international climate change negotiations after the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP 25 in Madrid, in December 2019.

Excellence in research & innovation – society & culture

Australia & the world

Australian Studies Institute
The Australian Studies Institute was established to be a primary driver of the ‘Australia and the World’ program for global engagement at ANU. Part of the University’s foundational mission was to study the great challenges facing the globe from an Australian perspective, with the Institute supporting this by connecting a global network of Australian study centres, institutes, associations and researchers. It continues to develop ways to facilitate global engagement, through social media, podcasts and e-bulletins promoting Australian research, conferences and workshops. The Institute has identified and contacted more than 500 centres, institutes, networks and programs around Australia and across the globe, and almost 1,500 other individual researchers. In 2019, the Institute hosted two distinguished visiting fellows from the United States as part of the Vice-Chancellor’s Australia and the World Visiting Fellow program, and hosted 10 dinners, bringing together almost 450 visiting fellows and ANU community members. The flagship First Eight Prime Minister’s lecture focusing on Andrew Fisher was delivered to a capacity crowd at Australia House, London, and initiated a new partnership between the Institute and the Britain-Australia Society for the remaining lectures in the project. Other notable events were the Australia and the World Annual Lecture featuring the Treasurer of Australia, the Hon Josh Frydenberg MP, and the Inspiring Women Reflect series hosted by the Hon Ros Kelly AO.

Launch of smartvote tool
Before the federal election in May 2019, a team from the ANU School of Politics and International Relations developed ‘smartvote Australia’. This innovative online tool let Australian voters compare their views with candidates and political parties in the lead up to the election. Candidates answered 35 questions posed by ANU researchers across a wide range of current policy issues. By answering the same questions, voters were matched to candidates and parties in a more sophisticated way. The tool, launched in partnership with Nine Entertainment, helped voters cut through the campaign rhetoric and make highly informed voting choices, based on the issues that mattered to them. It proved to be popular, with 540,000 ‘matchings’ or ‘recommendations’ given during the campaign.

John Mitchell Economics of Poverty Lab
The ANU Research School of Economics has officially launched the new John Mitchell Economics of Poverty Lab. Established using financial support from the National Institutes Grant and a generous donation from ANU Alumnus John Mitchell, the lab will use economic field experiments to understand human capital formation and inform evidence-based policy development around the globe. Applied economist Professor John List and Professor Mike Price lead the lab’s research teams, housed across ANU and at the University of Chicago. The professors are in discussions with key federal government bodies to understand pressing issues, design field experiments to explore the issues empirically and, ultimately, inform evidence-based policy responses to them. The lab is also nurturing and advancing the careers of some of the world’s most promising junior experimental economists. Dr Eva Vivalt is studying the welfare effects of minimum wage requirements, Dr Sutanuka Roy the effect of early-childhood intervention on human capital formation, and Dr Evan Calford decision-making under extreme uncertainty. The lab will also equip policymakers with the tools to analyse and interpret data themselves. The first of its short courses and conferences – where attendees receive guidance from international subject matter experts – are planned. The lab promises to revolutionise how policymakers think about evidence-based policy, both in Australia and abroad.

Socio-environmental dynamics in our region
The Asia-Pacific region is on the cusp of major cultural, environmental and political change exacerbated by frontier disputes, migrations, diverging standards of living, rapidly changing communication networks, cultural conflicts and climate change. None of these developments can be understood without a deep knowledge of the historical and cultural factors that underpin them. The Research Hub for Socio-Environmental Dynamics has the goal of transforming Australia’s understanding of the lifeways of people and populations in the region through the study of the dynamics of borders and connections. It brings together the scholarly excellence of the CHL, and other parts of the College of Asia and the Pacific, and College of Arts and Social Sciences. The focus is on Indigenous communities in Australia, and our nearest neighbours in the Pacific and Papua New Guinea, commensurate with the school’s long-held research focus in the region and working closely with Indigenous communities. Two projects were successfully run in 2019: KARRADJAKDURRMIRRI – we are all working together: building partnerships for shared research and teaching with Australian Indigenous communities; and the Innovation Flagship project – Indigenous People and the Regional Remix: a transdisciplinary humanities workshop.

World’s oldest human bone tattooing kit
The world’s oldest known tattooist’s kit – dated to 2,700 years old and with intricate, multi-toothed tattooing tools – is shedding further light on the long-running debate about where Polynesian style tattooing first developed. The kit was found complete in 1963 on Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island, but was feared destroyed during the 2003 Canberra bushfires. It has been rediscovered but without the ink pot. The tools themselves have changed very little since the time of the kit, with traditional tattooing equipment still used in the Pacific virtually identical to it. ANU researchers, who have minutely studied the kit, said the four tattooing tools are made from bone – two from a large seabird and two from large mammals, most likely humans. Tattooing is culturally very important in the Pacific. Were these tools introduced to the Pacific through migration, or were they developed in Polynesia and spread from there? This discovery pushes the date of Polynesian tattooing right back to the beginnings of Polynesian cultures. The oldest evidence for tattooed skin goes back more than 5,000 years, to the age of mummies in Egypt and the Italian iceman Otzi, but the tattooing tools used in these places are largely unknown.