Final reflections from a retiring scientist of the Water Grid's Science Program

20 September 2023

Have you ever wondered what inspires someone to take up a role in science, or even a science career with the public service?

Before she retired, we sat down with our now former Branch Head of the Science Program, Dr Carol Grossman, to answer these questions and many more.

Carol’s career has spanned different continents and scientific fields, and she played a leading role in developing the National Water Grid’s Science Program.

Carol spoke with us about the challenges Australia faces when it comes to securing water for the future, her vision for the program going forward and how to attract more people to the field of water science.

  1. Why did you choose to become a water scientist?

I didn’t! I became a biochemist and lecturer in biochemistry and molecular biology, then stepped sideways into the Australian Public Service in 2007. In the public service, I found a niche in roles that linked science with policy, eventually landing in water.

  1. Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science?

I grew up in a family that valued science and analytical/logical thinking, so it seemed natural to go to university and study scientific subjects. I was also fortunate to get a part-time job in a laboratory when I was an undergraduate student.

As a geeky teen with no dress sense, I’d struggled with fitting into the American high school scene, but a biochemistry laboratory was the perfect fit – I’d found my people! That sense of fitting in and being in an environment that valued my curiosity and analytical strengths really drove me to continue in science.

  1. What is your scientific background?

I studied biochemistry and came to Australia from the US in the early 1990s for a 3-year postdoctoral role at CSIRO. Obviously, I didn’t go back! Biochemistry requires long hours at the laboratory bench. It was a good way to learn discipline and develop an eye for getting the details right.

After the postdoc I opted to move from bench research to a teaching role at the Canberra Institute of Technology.  I really enjoyed working with students, and it was a great opportunity to hone my communication skills. What people don’t realise is that teaching also pushes you to identify the most important points, so you can make sure the ‘take-home’ messages don’t get lost in a pile of detail – in essence making sure the students don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Both of those roles built useful skills for the public service. I’ve always been able to dive into detail as needed and identify the key points to go forward with. In the public service I’ve also learned to see the much bigger picture. To use a science analogy, it’s like having a microscope and a telescope in your toolkit.

  1. What are some best things about working as a scientist in the public service?

I have found the public service to be such a rewarding place to work– I’ve been here 16 years and had the most amazing experiences and opportunities to contribute. I’ve stayed because I’ve been able to do such interesting work with great people and use my skills working towards outcomes that really make a difference.

It turns out there’s an important role in the public service for people who can bridge the gap between science and policy. If you’re one of those people, or could develop into one, you can have an amazing career. You get to work with top-tier scientists, but you have a different and often broader perspective on how their work fits in. This means you can explain the policy requirements and help guide the research and communication so that the scientists’ work has much greater impact.

  1. Can you speak a little about the major challenges facing Australia when it comes to water and securing water (climate change, drought, floods etc)?

In my opinion, Australia faces 2 major climate change adaptation challenges. One is around managing natural disasters – bushfires, floods, heatwaves, cyclones. The second is maintaining water security. People think water availability is linked to rainfall, but that’s only part of the story. When it’s hotter, more water evaporates from rivers, storages and soils. The drier ground takes up more moisture, so less of the rain that falls makes its way into rivers and dams. Forests that have burnt and are rapidly growing as they recover take up still more water. Add in competing uses from population growth and new industries, and the threat to water security increases further.

  1. How do we overcome those challenges and why is the work done in the science program at DCCEEW so important?

The answers lie in good water planning and using the available tools to mitigate risk and maintain water security. Science helps us understand the water supply and investigate and test risk mitigation options. We need to know how water will be affected by climate change in the future, in order to avoid over-allocations and support recovery of water from already over-allocated systems. To mitigate risk we can consider alternative, climate resilient water sources and technologies, and have plans in place to manage longer, hotter droughts.

Planning for climate resilience needs to be location specific. Along the coast, seawater desalination is relatively expensive but provides an alternative supply when surface water is insufficient. In places with the right hydrogeology and source water, technologies like managed aquifer recharge can provide a drought reserve. In other places, groundwater is underutilised, and further work could help identify where it can be used as an alternative supply.

  1.  What are your biggest achievements working in the National Water Grid Authority?

I’ve loved being part of the Water Grid’s Science Program and helping it build such a useful body of knowledge. Some of my strengths are around linking science into policy, and seeing connections between different things I’ve heard about or been involved in. The roles I’ve had in the Grid isn’t visible in the results– I’ve just helped other people connect the dots – but I can watch quietly and know I’ve helped get better outcomes.

  1. What are some of the projects you are particularly proud of?

For the projects brought forward by the states and territories in 2021, I’ve been able to see them move from concepts through development and delivery. It’s really giving the jurisdictions the data and information they need to make sound management decisions. In the future we’ll start seeing this play out with new infrastructure proposals – they will have that sound science behind them.

I’m also proud of how we’ve been progressing emerging technologies like managed aquifer recharge, or how we have been increasing knowledge and research into greater use of brackish groundwater resources. These technologies will play an important role in adapting to climate change. Our science projects will shift the adoption curve so we can realise the benefits sooner – we know more droughts are coming and we need to be prepared.

In my last months in the NWGA, I’ve been so grateful for the opportunity to work towards better water for First Nations remote communities. We’ve got some great science projects lining up to support this. I’m so pleased that the team was able to get everything in place and co-host the amazingly successful ‘working together for better water in the bush’ forum in Alice Springs in late June.

It was such a productive and moving event and really emphasised the concept of putting community at the heart of everything we do. It makes me a little sad that I won’t be there for the follow-up, but we’ve got a great committed team to make sure we continue to deliver.

Eight forum attendees holding a coolamon, carrying vessel, presented to Carol and her colleagues at the ‘working together for better water in the bush’ forum.

Dr Carol Grossman attending the ‘working together for better water in the bush’ forum in June this year.
  1. What are some of the great things about working as a scientist in the public service ?

Early in my public service career I worked on a project aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from savanna fire management in western Arnhem Land. As part of this I got to be part of a fire management exercise in western Arnhem Land, which was a huge career highlight.

The project looked at the impacts on emissions from reinstating traditional First Nations fire management patterns based on early dry season mosaic burns. I was able to point the scientists to the contradictory international guidance on emissions reporting from savanna burning. This meant they understood the research and data that was needed to change the guidance to better reflect the on-ground realities in northern Australia. The data they generated now underpins the savanna fire management methodologies in the Emissions Reduction Fund and Traditional Custodians can receive funding for reducing emissions through traditional fire management practices that help maintain healthy Country.

  1. Can you tell us about any funny or unusual stories or situations you have found yourself in while working as a water scientist?

I spent a few years managing the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards (WELS) scheme. It’s a great program and I loved being part of it, although it was quite different from what I’d done previously. It was 80% industry funded, and the industry invited me to speak about Australian regulatory requirements at the Shanghai Kitchen and Bathroom Show. Can I say that some of the Japanese and German tapware is amazing? The action on the mixer taps was so smooth – who would have thought? Not to mention the toilet technology and the smart bidets.

  1. Can you think of any new, emerging or exciting scientific methods, technologies, advancements that will inform and support securing Australia’s water future?

It’s often about incremental change  – building on what we already know and implementing technologies in different ways and for different purposes. I don’t think we’ll find a silver bullet that will take away all the challenges and uncertainties. I do think that groundwater has a greater role to play, and whilst we know a lot about the location of aquifers, the harder (and more valuable) part is understanding how the aquifers recharge, how water moves through aquifers, and how the water quality changes in different locations and conditions. Knowing more about our groundwater resources and developing the technologies to increase our sustainable use of groundwater and aquifers will be very important.

  1. How do we attract more scientists and specialists to the world of hydrology?

One thing I love about young people is that they are often quite idealistic. So many young folks want to help the environment, so they study environmental science. They don’t realise that studying hydrology will give them a great avenue to work on environmental issues with a skill that is in high demand. Water and hydrology could also be highlighted more in science education – it should have a firm place in the Australian school curriculum, with enticing practical activities and exhibits at places like Questacon. The network of water utilities could help here too. With most of the population as a customer they’ve got amazing reach.

  1. Where do you see the Science Program a few years down the track?

Now that the National Water Grid Investment Framework includes a priority on water for regional and remote communities, there is a whole new area of opportunity for the Science Program to contribute. In the next year or 2, I expect to see a suite of new projects addressing key issues, concerns, and opportunities in this space.

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