Professor Tim Flannery
If one were to ask a selection of non-antipodeans to name previous recipients of the Australian of the Year award, they would probably suggest figures such as Hollywood A-listers, sportspeople and politicians. However, it came as no surprise to Australia’s scientific research community when, in 2007, the pioneering field biologist Professor Tim Flannery became the 51st
recipient of this prestigious honour.
I always had a sense of adventure and living in Australia made me realise pretty early on that there were a lot of things that we hadn’t discovered. When I was young, there were new species of kangaroo being identified right there in my own country.
Professor Tim Flannery
The scientist’s credentials are certainly impressive. During an illustrious career, Professor Flannery, who is now Chief Commissioner at the Australian Climate Commission, has uncovered dinosaur fossils, discovered new mammalian species, and has had a Monkey-faced bat – Pteralopex flanneryi
– named in his honour. In a feature interview with ScienceOmega.com
, Professor Flannery explained more about what it takes to become one of the world’s leading scientific adventurers…What inspired you to become a field biologist?
Well, I always had a sense of adventure and living in Australia made me realise pretty early on that there were a lot of things that we hadn’t discovered. When I was young, there were new species of kangaroo being identified right there in my own country. The island of New Guinea – where I did my field work – was also wide open for exploration and adventure. I found four species of tree-kangaroo in New Guinea so it was great fun being there at that time, doing that pioneering work.Of all of the species that you have discovered, which is your favourite?
I think that the Dingiso – or Dendrolagus mbaiso
– was my favourite as it’s a black-and-white tree-kangaroo. It looks like a little panda bear and it’s only found in the higher, western mountains of New Guinea by the glaciers. That was a major discovery and it was only made in 1995.You have been described by Sir David Attenborough as one of the world’s great explorers. How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel very humble. I could joke and say that it makes me feel uncertain about Sir David’s judgement, but I won’t because his intention was to say a wonderful thing. I guess that I did do my share of exploration in areas that weren’t properly mapped, and in the days before GPS, we discovered 40 new species of mammals New Guinea. That was quite good.Where is the most interesting place that you have visited?
I think that this would have to be the high mountains in the western part of New Guinea, up in the alpine scrubs. At this location, we identified our tree-kangaroo – the largest mammal from that region – and we found a giant woolly rat and other species up there as well.What has been your biggest challenge to date?
I think that my work in the area of climate change, and trying to effectively communicate our evidence to the Australian public, has been very difficult. Climate change is pretty challenging stuff. Do you think that it makes a big difference when people in the public eye – such as yourself – are seen working to combat the problem of climate change? Does this make people sit up and think about the issue?
Yes – I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think that it was going to make a difference. I think that it is important. As scientists, we are paid to think about and research these things. If we
don’t do this then who will?
Of which of your achievements are you most proud?
Professor Flannery was named Australian of the Year in 2007
Being named Australian of the Year in 2007 was pretty special. That was a major achievement for me.Are there any ambitions that you have yet to achieve?
There are but I couldn’t name them immediately. We have achieved some good things in terms of Australian climate change legislation, although these aren’t entirely due to me of course. I think that I would like to contribute more to environmental conservation – particularly in Australia.In terms of climate change, what would you like to see happen during the next five years?
I’d like to see the nations of the world really step up their efforts in order to avoid the dangerous consequences of climate change. We all need to do a lot more.What are your plans for the future?
I will keep working in the climate change space, but I think that, as I have helped achieve some fairly significant shifts, I’d like to move into environmental conservation more broadly. So much needs to be done to protect biodiversity in Australia.