Proposal for an Australian National Biocentre

Canberra, like other urban centres, has a big range of public institutions. They include a National Gallery of Art, a Portrait Gallery, a National Library, a War Memorial, a National Museum of Australia, a Museum of Australian Democracy, the National Film and Sound Archives, the National Institute of Sport and a range of churches, mosques, temples, theatres, arts centres and concert halls. There are also some public institutions focusing on non-human forms of life, like the Nature Reserves, the National Botanic Gardens, the Arboretum and the National Zoo; and there are many vigorous NGOs concentrating on a wide range of environmental and human health issues.

Yet, strangely, there is no public institution focuses on the story of life on Earth life in its entirety – from bacteria and archaea to eucalypts, elephants and humans, and on the interrelationships between humankind and the rest of the living world. This is curious because we humans are living organisms, products of biological evolution, part of nature, and entirely dependent on the processes of life, within us and around us, for our existence and wellbeing.

So, it is proposed that an Australian National Biocentre (ANB) be established in Canberra. The core theme of the ANB will be the story of life and the human place in nature, and the meaning of this story for the wellbeing of humans and the rest of the living world.

The ANB will be a physical entity, with its own building(s) and parkland. In the short term, it could begin operations on a small scale in rented or loaned premises. The building(s) of the ANB will be human-friendly and eco-friendly.

The ANB will be for people who are interested in life on Earth and who care about the future.


The ANB will have two main sets of activities:

1/ Education

A team of scientists will bring together information from the natural sciences on the story of life on Earth and the human place in nature, and present it in exhibitions, courses and online, in a form that is understandable to non-scientists, highlighting aspects of special relevance to the wellbeing of humankind and the living systems around us.

This aspect of the Biocentre will be modelled to some extent on the Australian Museum in Sydney, with its exhibitions, lectures, courses, and publications, except that the overriding theme will be different. In the Australian Museum these activities focus on different kinds of animals and plants. In the Biocentre the theme will be story of life, including the very recent impacts of the human species (e.g. the origin of life, biological evolution, photosynthesis, energy flows, soil health, nutrient cycles, uman evolution, ecological phases of human history, the Anthropocene, energy use by humans, population trends).

2/ Dialogue

The ANB will encourage the exchange of ideas about the meaning of our understanding of life for individuals and families, and for society as a whole.

The staff of the Biocentre will orchestrate informed dialogue among leaders from different walks understanding of life on the way forward to a healthy and sustainable society of the future – a society that is truly in harmony with nature (link —– A Biosensitive Society). It will communicate the outcome of these deliberations online and directly to governments.

Other features

Local universities and research institutions will make an important contribution to the activities of the ANB, which will also be a hub for interaction between NGOs, government agencies, private sector and community groups concerned with the promotion of human health and ecological sustainability.

There will be an active social dimension to the ANB. Members of the public who are interested in the ANB and its philosophy will be able to join the Friends of the Biocentre, which will provide them with the opportunity to participate in programs of talks, activities and social events. There will be comfortable meeting rooms that are conducive to convivial social interaction. It will be a place for celebrating life on Earth.

The ANB could make a significant contribution to the transition to a healthy and sustainable society of the future. It might well become a prototype for similar institutions in cities around the world.


The above proposal is, in essence, an updated version of an earlier proposal. In 1965 a group of scientists in ACT proposed to the Federal Government that there should be a new kind of public institution in Canberra which they called a Biological Centre [2].

The proposal was based on the view that the prevailing culture at the time suffered from a serious deficiency. It had lost sight of the fact that we are living organisms, part of nature, products of biological evolution, and totally dependent of the processes of life within us and round us, for our health, wellbeing and very existence [3].

This reality was simply not reflected in the prevailing worldview and institutional structure of society, much to the disadvantage of humans themselves, and of the living systems on which they depend.

The group argued that there was a pressing need for a new kind of public institution to help counter this cultural void – a new kind of institution to stand alongside other public institutions like art galleries, museums, war memorials, botanic gardens, and cathedrals. They called this institution a Biological Centre. It was later referred to as a Biocentre.

The Biological Centre would be all about life – its history, how it all works, how we humans emerged through the processes of evolution, about our own biology and about how our species is now impacting on the rest of the living world. It would be a place for learning about it all – and for thinking and talking about its meaning for individuals and families and for society. There would be much more community involvement than in a conventional museum or zoo.

The proposal was strongly supported by some overseas scientists, including Julian Huxley, Konrad Lorenz and Nikko Tinbergen; and it was supported by every primary and secondary school in the ACT. We were invited to write an article describing the concept in the International Zoo Yearbook. This was published in 1969.

So, in May 1965 the proposal was formally put to the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies. It took the government seven years to make up its mind, and when it did so, it was positive. Canberra would have a Biological Centre.

However, just at that time, in 1972, a federal election was called, and a new government came into power, and one of the first things that the new Minister for the Environment, Moss Cass, did was to knock back the decision to establish the Biological Centre. So, there is no Biological Centre in the capital today. In later years, after his retirement from politics, Moss Cass regretted his decision, and indeed for a while he was chairman of a committee attempting to revive the project.

[1] The group of scientists behind this proposal included R. E. Barwick, E.C.F. Bird, S. V. Boyden (Convener), J. H. Calaby, R. Carrick, D. G . Catcheside, A. B. Costin, M. F. Day, A.H. Ennor, F. J. Fenner, O. H. Frankel, H. J. Frith, S. B. Furnass, E. H. Hipsley, I. M. Mackerras, W. L. Nicholas, M. Oliphant, L. Pryor, F. N. Ratcliffe, R. Slatyer, J. D. Smyth, D. F. Waterhouse, W. K. Whitten.

[2] I say ‘lost sight of’ because many hunter-gatherer and early farming cultures in the past have embraced a profound respect for the living world, based on appreciation that we humans are part of nature and completely dependent on other forms of life for our existence and wellbeing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s