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Climate challenge brings former Chief Scientist to Southern Cross University


Sharlene King
19 November 2019

Peter Coombes, the new Chair of Engineering at Southern Cross University, was last night awarded the 2019 President's Prize from Engineers Australia. It's the latest of many significant achievements in the career of this water resources engineering expert.

Associate Professor Peter Coombes can claim many significant achievements in his life.

One of the early co-authors of the Prime Minister's Science Engineering and Innovation Council’s assessment of Australia’s water future, he also served as Chief Scientist for the Office of Living Victoria, advising the Victorian government on water reform policy.

For the past two decades, he has been Managing Director of Urban Water Cycle Solutions, an independent applied science and policy think tank. And along the way he’s been awarded more than $3 million in research funding, the GN Alexander Medal for contributions to the science of hydrology and water resources, and this week the President’s Medal for services to engineering by Engineers Australia.

Now the challenges posed by climate change have brought the Associate Professor of Water Resources Engineering to Southern Cross University in Lismore.

“As Chief Scientist, I wrote many new policies about how to adapt to challenges in the future, but I was also met with a lot of resistance,” he says.

“This is particularly upsetting when I look at the current fire and drought events affecting our nation.

“I’ve moved here to make a difference. We considered positions at a number of top Australian universities, but I believe you can make an impact from a small base. Small is just as beautiful.

“It’s not about status; it’s simply about helping others and making a meaningful impact in the world.”

Associate Professor Coombes joins Southern Cross University as the Chair of Engineering in the School of Environment, Science and Engineering.

He says he has been “blown away” by the advanced research and quality of teaching being undertaken at Southern Cross and it’s his mission to tell the world.

“What’s being done here is quite unique, so it’s relevant that the world knows about it,” he says.

“For example, the coastal systems engineering research is relevant to most countries around the world, and is profoundly relevant to nations impacted by climate change.”

One misconception he plans to set straight is that engineering and science are separate disciplines.

“People think engineering is just about building, but it’s about fixing things and solving problems,” he says.

“In my world, scientists need to work alongside the engineers if we want to solve the world’s problems.

“This is one of the reasons I’m particularly excited about Southern Cross University’s new Engineering degree structures, so that we can link scientists with engineers.”

Associate Professor Coombes is hitting the ground running with a number of Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage grant applications in the pipeline.

Peter Coombes’ career highlights:

• Chief Scientist, Office of Living Victoria (2013 - 2014) with responsibility to provide science and policy advice to support the Living Victoria water reforms.
• Designed and developed more than 120 sustainable developments in Australia and internationally
• Member of the Prime Minister’s Science Engineering and Innovation Council working group on water resources.
• Author of more than 150 research publications, including book chapters, journal articles, keynote papers and conference publications, and supervision of five completed PhD research programs
• Delivery of many research and consulting projects across science, engineering and economic issues relating to water resources, including integrated water cycle
management, source control, catchment management, ecological sustainability, water demand, water balance modelling, water resource economics and biochemistry
• Awarded more than $3 million in competitive and industry research funding
• Systems Framework research and development acknowledged by Engineers Australia as one of the most significant contributions to water resources and
hydrology in 2014-15. Awarded Engineers Australia's 2018 GN Alexander Medal for the best paper in hydrology and/or water resources published in an Engineers Australia publication
• Editor and co-author of Australian Rainfall and Runoff Urban: a guide to flood estimation for Geoscience Australia and published by Engineers Australia. The editorial team was awarded Engineers Australia 2019 President's Medal for services to engineering.
• Establishment of one of the first stormwater management divisions within a local government authority.
• Developed and refined first principles methods for combining hydrology, hydraulics, topography, weather and demographics in analysis of flooding, stormwater runoff,
wastewater discharges, water use and environmental impacts in a systems framework.