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Dr Keith Walker (email)
The University of Adelaide
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Friday, 5 May 2000
The River Murray may be suffering from decades of neglect and abuse, but it is not without its champions. Some of them were fighting for Australia's largest river long before that fight became a fashionable or a political cause.
On Friday 5th May, in a ceremony that is an annual highlight of National Science Week, Dr Walker received the 'Unsung Hero of South Australian Science' award, offered each year by the Australian Science Communicators SA.
It is the fifth year that the award has been presented, each time to a scientist who has made outstanding contributions to scientific research but has been insufficiently recognised for their effort. Some have even had to deal with hostility to their discoveries or the recommendations that flow from them, and all have valued the importance of communicating science to a general audience.
Robert Perrin, the regional co-ordinator of Australian Science Communicators SA, said that Dr Walker had been chosen from a very strong field of candidates.
'We are proud to be able to honour a South Australian scientist in this way,' said Mr Perrin. 'This year the choice was not easy, such is the quality of this state's science effort, but Dr Walker's commitment to the philosophy that science should be communicated simply, but not simplistically, won him the day.'
Dr Walker has published extensively, and he was the inaugural winner of Adelaide University's Stephen Cole Prize for Teaching. He has been an active participant in field days and community projects, including some at Bookmark Biosphere Reserve, and holds many advisory posts to wetland and environment bodies.
Dr Walker said that he was delighted to receive the award. "As a scientist, I have often thought that I may be too lacking in focus to make a real impact, ' said Dr Walker. "On the other hand,' he said, 'there are rewards in giving free rein to your fascination with the natural world. I hope that the award is a reassurance for those who think likewise. We do need people who cross boundaries.'
Dr Walker joined Adelaide University in 1975 He began research on freshwater mussels found in still and flowing water along the Murray, and noticed that their distributions had been changed by flow regulation. This became a theme for later work that embraced other invertebrates, fish, waterbirds, floodplain vegetation, and aquatic plants. Recent work has suggested that the scale of extinction of snails in the lower Murray signals profound ecological changes.
"Regulation has stabilised the pulse of a river that evolved through erratic droughts and floods,' said Dr Walker. "In the more stable modern river, many native species find themselves in a hostile environment. The ecological changes are becoming more apparent, and the pace is quickening. It is attracting attention on an unprecedented scale, ' he said.
Dr Walker is a zoologist by training, but his wide perspectives have led him to work with professional from a variety of disciplines. "Ecology,' says Dr Walker, 'is a discipline shaped by interactions of this kind.' He is especially proud of developing contacts with colleagues in engineering.
Dr Walker's findings were not always popular, clarifying as they did the real and potential conflicts between flow regulation in the Murray and the needs of its ecosystem, that depends so much on variability. As a result of the work done by pioneering researchers such as Dr Walker, there is now a far better understanding of how the Murray has changed in the past 50-100 years. That, in turn, has led to recent resolves to repair some of the damage and manage the river sustainably.
"The solutions to many of the Murray's problems are often obvious," said Dr Walker, but they are politically or economically unacceptable in thre short term. Our political leaders have failed us; rather it is they who need leadership. They need to look beyond the next election, and to be accountable on that basis," he said, "while, as academics, perhaps the best service that we can provide to the community is to foster a reconciliation between ecology and economics.'
Photo of Prof Keith Walker at /pr/media/photos/2000/