Director's message for The Snowgum newsletter, issue 3, 2017

All efforts to solve problems in applied biology are dependent ultimately upon the basic principles of pure biology

History buffs may appreciate this. The Research School of Biology (RSB) was established in 2009 with a merger of the Research School of Biological Sciences, the Divisions of Botany and Zoology (BoZo), and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BaMBi). So why are we celebrating 50 years of biology at the ANU this year? Origin stories are often complex: botany, zoology and biochemistry were taught as part of a Canberra University College curriculum since the late 1950s, and these subjects later became some of the disciplinary foci of the Faculties within The Australian National University. Research in biochemistry predated teaching, and was conducted principally in the John Curtin School of Medical Research.  In 1965, however, a proposal was submitted to the Australian Universities Commission to establish a separate Research School that focussed on the fundamentals of biological science – what we would now call “basic” science to distinguish it from the more “applied” sciences. This proposal was duly approved and the Research School of Biological Sciences was established at the ANU in 1967. 

It has been interesting reading about the history of the School and its constituent parts.  As part of our celebrations this year, we are having an exhibition of objects that highlight some of the research that has gone on over the last half-century. You will have a chance to view these, once the Robertson Building is refurbished.  And speaking of the Robertson Building refurbishment, I have in front of me a speech by Professor David Catcheside, one of the Foundation Professors of the School, kindly given to me by Emeritus Professor John Gibson, a Director of RSBS. I was amused to read the following:

“Today we are honoured by the Governor General who graciously consented to open the building constructed on those foundations. It is not yet a working building for it has not proved possible for the estimated completion dates, first March of this year, then successively May, June, August and October, to be achieved.”  

We have been assured that unlike Robertson Building version 1, this update to the building will be completed on time, and I am confident that this will be so!  When it is completed, you will receive an invitation to the opening, so please make sure our emails make it into your inbox.

I want to end with another quote from Professor Catcheside’s speech, in which he describes the purpose for which the newly-formed Research School of Biological Sciences was established:

“In its submission to the [Australian Universities Commission] for the 1967-1969 triennium, the Universities had said: ‘Fundamental research in biology is essential to Australia, which has so large a stake in agriculture as well as a highly developed system of medicine.  All efforts to solve problems in applied biology are dependent ultimately upon the basic principles of pure biology. … The practitioners of applied research need to be sustained by good fundamental knowledge and well educated in modern biological science.  Indeed, there is a broad need for more widespread education in the principles of biology, partly for its cultural value and partly as a means of awakening people to the need for a biologically scientific approach to the problems of the world.’”

This statement about fundamental science is particularly apt, given the constant exhortation that we should be translating and applying our research.  There is a danger that a skewed perception of science will emerge, a perception that the only good science is applied science. Our 50 year anniversary of the founding of the Research School of Biological Sciences should remind us that knowledge is uplifting and wondrous in its own right.  

Updated:  20 September 2019/Responsible Officer:  Director RSB/Page Contact:  Webmaster RSB