01/07/2013 03:40 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2013

Research Down Under

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to Australia where I was a featured speaker in a series of workshops sponsored by the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment, or CRC CARE.

CRC CARE is Australia's leading science-based partnership in assessing, preventing and remediating contamination of soil, water and air. Its research program focuses on the challenges of best-practice policy, better measurement, minimizing uncertainty in risk assessment and cleaning up environmental contamination.

I presented talks at four workshops scattered across Australia -- in Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, and Sydney -- which were attended by an eclectic audience consisting of academicians, students, government employees, policy makers, farmers and industry personnel. I was invited to provide an overview of the grand global challenges we face in water, climate, soil and food production. I am a soil scientist by training, but throughout my career, it has been obvious that these four areas are inextricably linked in a nexus that is vital to sustaining life on Earth.

In the context of global food security, as the population of the world rises from 6.8 billion in 2010 to the 9 billion projected for 2050, we will face a 70 percent increase in demand for food. At the same time, the amount of land available for producing food will decrease. At our current rate of expansion, by 2050 we will need to double our food production with only half the currently available land.

Protecting healthy soil and water resources and reclaiming abused and contaminated resources are essential to ensuring that millions of people alive today, as well as millions yet unborn, will have enough to eat throughout this century. This is not a far-off problem.

One thing that impressed me greatly on my whirlwind tour of Australia was the degree to which academia, government and industry are cooperating to pursue solutions to environmental and other problems. There are 85 Cooperative Research Centres spread throughout Australian universities, focusing on a wide variety of topics. These are research and technology development centers, similar in some ways to Science and Technology Centers, or STCs, supported here in the U.S. by our National Science Foundation.

However, one of the impressive features of Australian CRCs is the significant amount of industry support and collaboration they receive. This tripartite funding from university, government and industry sources both enhances meaningful partnerships and provides significant resources over a multi-year period.

University-based scientists, postdoctoral researchers and graduate students in Australia are enthusiastically working together with their counterparts in industry on technological solutions that are more likely to be adopted because they will be developed into new products and services. Students benefit greatly in such an environment by participating in industry training programs, making them industry-ready if they choose a career in the private sector. While not all research at a CRC is suitable for commercialization, creating a culture of cooperation between academia and industry makes it far more likely that leading-edge technologies will break through to the marketplace.