Robyn Williams: Flowers. We're very good at them, it seems. Here's Dr Tim Entwisle, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. Tim, welcome back, and congratulations.
Tim Entwisle: Thank you very much.
Robyn Williams: What did you win in the gardens?
Tim Entwisle: In the gardens, the gardens of London, we were at Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, we put on an Australian garden with Jim Fogarty designing it, the Royal Botanical Gardens pulling it together, and we won not only a gold medal but best-in-show. It's a great thing to happen, it's the first time Australians have had a garden at this show, the first time we've won obviously then, and last year Australians won at Chelsea, so this is a great achievement for the gardens.
Robyn Williams: Fantastic. What did you display?
Tim Entwisle: Well, we had a lot of Australian plants and we had a lovely design based on an Aboriginal story about the Rainbow Serpent. But what was quite exciting was talking to Brits and other visitors to the show about Australian plants, about some of the stories. In fact even the science, we were talking about emu bush being promoted as a fodder planet for sheep and reducing methane production, that was one of the stories that we could tell about the plants in the garden.
Robyn Williams: How does it reduce methane production?
Tim Entwisle: The sheep themselves produce less gas out of both ends but if their diet is about 80% made up of emu bush, so they test this out amongst fodder grasses and emu bush, and it's because of the content of the plant, the metabolism that goes on inside their gut, and in the end the methane produced, they measure this, it's significantly lower and it's going to be recommended, I gather, as a crop for feeding sheep.
Robyn Williams: What did the judges say about your presentation?
Tim Entwisle: They loved everything about it, and in fact afterwards we got a bit of feedback that we were also fun and informative as well as very pretty. So they loved the design, they liked the fact that we had Australian plants in a very relaxed setting too. A lot of the other gardens there, lovely, beautiful English gardens, very formal, very structured. Ours was a little bit relaxed, they said.
Robyn Williams: Relaxed. I remember seeing in the Jerusalem Botanic Gardens there's a display of Australian plants, which again, was formidably impressive and also relaxed, it was good to see. Have you seen that one?
Tim Entwisle: I haven't.
Robyn Williams: Leon Fink has helped it, he's very keen on botanical things. While you were in Britain did you hear anything about what's going on in Kew Gardens where they are offloading any number of scientists and other staff?
Tim Entwisle: I did, I visited Kew Gardens, I went there a couple of times, and I spoke to the director, Richard Deverell, and a few of the staff there, including one of our ex-Australians, Richard Barley who's there. I don't support the big cuts they are having at Kew, I think it's a marvellous place that's doing great things, so I'd prefer they not cut it at all. They are targeting science.
What's interesting about Kew and what I found when I worked there for two years is it's kind of a loose collective of individuals and teams of scientists who do absolutely extraordinary things. So fine to restructure, they've got a whole new team coming in to manage Kew, so it's a good time to do it, a very old organisation. What one would hope is that when they come through all this, however it ends up, that they can still keep that…whatever it is, that little something that Kew has, that charm it has that gets these people doing great things.
Robyn Williams: Yes, well, there's a lot of upheaval going on in botanic gardens, not least in Australia, as well as museums, because some politicians and some bureaucrats wonder why is science being done at museums at all or gardens at all, why isn't it just done at universities.
Tim Entwisle: Well, I do hear that from time to time. I mean, it’s interesting that at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne where we have just gone through a bit of a process of thinking about what we do, why we're here, that happens when you get new directors, and I've been there nearly 18 months, and we are there, we figure, to explain to people as often and as well as we can that life is sustained and enriched by plants. Now, that's a worthy goal, but that's not just about showing how pretty they are, that's about telling people the stories behind plants, it's about doing research to discover and classify them, it's about getting that information out to people. So what gardens and museums do particularly well I think is have scientists who discover the knowledge and then scientists who can also tell people about that with a passion that you would know all scientists have.
Robyn Williams: Yes, indeed they do. And they also quite often understand the relevance of what particular species can be doing out there in ways that you haven't actually considered. You know, fostering birds, insects, other plants…the web is huge.
Tim Entwisle: One of the interesting things we do in Melbourne for example is we have an urban ecology unit, it's called the Australian Research Centre for Urban Ecology and they do a lot of animal work, they do a huge amount of animal work. In fact they find those connections with the bigger world, they're looking at climate change, they're looking at change over even longer periods, and everything is intertwined. And having all those scientists working together makes for better product.
Robyn Williams: Have you had a chance in those 18 months to have a look at algae?
Tim Entwisle: I have a little. I've been honoured in the last few months by having an alga named after me, which was quite exciting, and that almost spurred me to devote my life almost back to algae. I thought, gee, this is so exciting, I perhaps should be doing more of this. I find time to collect a little, I find time to write papers with a colleague in the US and a couple of other colleagues. Far, far slower than I used to do. The problem I find as a scientist is that while I love algae, I love doing algal research, I also like the communications side, so I'm writing and finding other ways to talk about science. It keeps breaking in.
Robyn Williams: You're a teacher as well, and you're doing a radio series for Radio National, RN.
Tim Entwisle: I'm hopeful, Robyn. We've done a pilot, and I'm hoping that RN will see the great splendour of this show. It's about gardening but it's a much broader show, a thinking gardener's show. So we are trying to not just focus on answering questions, there's some great gardening shows around that do that, but this is a few of us sitting around talking about some of the issues, talking to philosophers, musicians, others who might have an interest in gardening. But we feel there is room for this show, and I'm hopeful that RN will too.
Robyn Williams: Give me some examples of what you're talking about.
Tim Entwisle: Well, look, in the first pilot we were discussing what is an Australian garden. The things you grow in there, are they Australian plants or are they plants from elsewhere? Should we only grow Australian plants? Is there an Australian design? We had a philosopher in that discussion, Damon Young, who contributed great input about what it is to be an Australian as well. We translated that into a garden. I also interviewed Ben Shewry, who is a fairly well-known restaurateur at Attica, perhaps the best restaurant in Australia, and he's got a produce garden at Ripponlea in Melbourne, I interviewed him in that garden, and he forages for plants. So that's kind of a real mixed bag.
Robyn Williams: So you're doing my job, so I can go and run the Botanic Gardens, which would be quite fun.
Tim Entwisle: You might do it for a little while and we'll see what comes out of that. It is such fun and I do love radio, I think it's still such a powerful medium that I really enjoy.
Robyn Williams: Going back to Kew, I think the director has some background in communication as well?
Tim Entwisle: Yes, he does, he worked with the BBC on children's programming. In fact while I was there I took the chance to have a quick chat to him for the potential show, but about his garden. And I was asking him what the similarities were between a botanic garden and the BBC or the differences. Very, very similar. Organisations full of passionate people, budgets quite often tight, and a variety of people, so broadcasters, journalists, all that kind of thing.
Robyn Williams: And scandal.
Tim Entwisle: And scandal. Well, I don't know, I don't think he quite said there was scandal at Kew, but he did find his experiences with the large interesting BBC helpful for running the Botanical Gardens.
Robyn Williams: I can imagine. Meanwhile back in Melbourne, tell me about the observatory, 150 years, what's the story there?
Tim Entwisle: Well, we had a great celebration just towards the end of last year when the observatory site turned 150, and that was the biggest thing there 150 years ago, was the great Melbourne telescope, big in all senses, and it was part of what somebody described to me…when Melbourne was the city of the world, the leading city of the world almost, and with the goldrush and things like that. And we were celebrating the fact that that's where science and observational science began in the city. They were using the stars for setting clocks and all kinds of things. But for me as the head of a botanic garden it was particularly interesting and a time to reflect on the Botanic Garden and the fact that science had been done there, meteorological science and astronomy, over 150 years and more, and whether we could bring some of that back in. So we've started to think about a science centre or some kind of place where you could debate and talk about scientific issues, particularly about that natural world from plants to planets, if you like, that whole context we were talking earlier about plants and animals, what's even broader than that.
Robyn Williams: The interconnections are quite wonderful. Before going to Kew where you were for about two years, you were at the Botanic Gardens in Sydney, which is having all sorts of plans. No scandals necessarily, but it must be interesting looking at Sydney from the vantage point of Melbourne for you.
Tim Entwisle: Yes, look, it's odd sitting back watching something go on in a place you've invested a lot of time and emotion in, and I love Sydney Botanic Gardens, there are three gardens there, and the plant bank there, a big seed bank opened only a couple of years ago and I was very involved in fundraising and getting that up, so it was lovely to see that…
Robyn Williams: Is that Mount Annan?
Tim Entwisle: Yes, that's at Mount Annan, and that's a seed bank for the whole of eastern Australia, so in a way we in Melbourne will be part of that as well. And the other plans they had for the Domain, and a whole mix of things. And I do love watching the politics and the discussion roll out over that because that was certainly something I noticed more in Sydney, is that you are very much in the centre of things…well, I kind of miss it actually, Robyn, which is interesting.
Robyn Williams: You were being so diplomatic. Nothing like that happening in Melbourne at the moment, the upheaval?
Tim Entwisle: No, Melbourne Botanic Gardens certainly is just going from strength to strength, and I think it's had lots of…like the Australian garden which opened out at Cranbourne two years ago is getting huge visitor numbers, so the numbers are going up about 20% each year, and we're getting a lot of positive feedback, there are new gardens in at Melbourne. And as I said, we're looking at this science centre, maybe a new herbarium, and I'd love to do some kind of sustainable glasshouse too I'm thinking about. So there's some nice ideas. I'm sure when I put these ideas out, as I am just doing to you now, Robyn, there'll be people with differing views, but I look forward to the debate and discussion.
Robyn Williams: The ever diplomatic Tim Entwiste, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, and yes, his RN series on gardens will go ahead this summer and should be a delight, as was their gold and best-in-show from Melbourne just now.