Address by Conor Newman, Chair of the Heritage Council at the launch for Biodiversity Day, May 22nd in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin
Thank you Minister for those kind and encouraging words, and for the on-going support of your department for the National Biodiversity Data Centre. I too would like to congratulate Liam Downey and Liam Lysaght who I know have worked well as a team, with a shared vision, to bring the Centre to this important stage.
I have been to the Centre twice and the work is truly fascinating, not least because it is bringing to life, and to a global audience, records so studiously compiled by antiquarians and collectors long since dead. Their legacy lives on and means that the Centre can already bring an historical depth to its records of biodiversity on this island.
Historical depth is important because it reveals trends, trends that we need to be aware of. Researchers can now access this data to better inform all of us. They will access it through the web interface that Liam has demonstrated. This would not be possible without the input of Compass Informatics and its director Gearoid O Riain who are running this aspect of the Centre for the first 5 years.
Of course the business of the Centre is not confined to the resurrection of old records ―they are just a gift from the past― instead the Centre is poised to become the national repository for all the data generated from on-going research, for there are many blank pages yet to be filled in the encyclopaedia of Irish flora and fauna. We are grateful to those collectors who have already demonstrated their confidence in the Centre by sharing their data and their knowledge and we hope that this continues.
The shared vision and drive of the Management Team, from the conception of the Centre to imagining and realising its future is commendable and we are grateful to all those who continue to share their expertise so freely, including, Minister, staff from your own department. The existence of this Centre is a case study in good, and extremely cost-effective public service.
The Centre has found a home at the Waterford Institute of Technology. To its director Professor Kieran Byrne, we say thank you. I know that you are an enthusiastic supporter of the Centre and I hope that your students make good use of it.
Nature is so often the innocent by-stander of human ambition, caught in the cross-fire of excess and greed. For all that it is a faithful and objective witness to how well we are looking after our world. I don’t need to tell a gathering such as this that many of our habitats don’t reflect well on us at all. We have to up our game. Addressing a conference on Green Infrastructure in November last year I drew an analogy that bears repeating; that of the canaries that were brought into the mines to warn miners of poisonous gases. If we don’t heed the warnings signs of severed ecological chains we will end up poisoning ourselves.
Stewardship of nature begins with knowledge and understanding and this Centre will make a huge contribution to how we manage our habitats into the future. An important component of national infrastructure, the Biodiversity Data Centre will contribute to social, environmental and economic well-being.
Investment in this Centre contributes directly to the creation and maintenance of jobs and the realisation of investment in third and fourth level education. While biodiversity is accessible to all of us, its study is highly specialised and many of the field practitioners hold postgraduate and PhD degrees. Financial meltdown notwithstanding, I don’t think anyone would welcome a return the days of the ‘brain drain’ when Ireland trained-for-export our finest young minds. We need to draw down this expertise now. Our future depends on it.
The Heritage Council, for its part however, also has responsibility for cultural heritage and I would make a plea that the model that has been created here for biodiversity be extended to cultural heritage, and in particular archaeological heritage.
An enormous amount of archaeological data was generated during the boom years, which saw an exponential increase in the amount of archaeological excavations. This storehouse of fieldnotes, objects, stratigraphic records, drawings, photographs, radiocarbon and dendro dates, palaeoenvironmental and palaeozoological archives is vast and has overwhelmed existing resources. Archaeological companies are letting staff go on an on-going basis and the chain of evidence is under threat. There is urgent need, while the trail is still fresh, to create an accessible digital archive that will serve us all into the future.
Just as surely as knowledge is the key to managing our biological heritage, so also is knowledge the key to managing our cultural heritage. The cornerstone of any national archaive, digital or otherwise, is standardisation because this allows interconnections. We need a national standard so that all these archives can be integrated and the potential knowledge they contain harvested. The public deserves to benefit from all the new information we have about our archaeological past and investment in this would represent a truly public service.