Alex McBratney wins 'Nobel prize' for soil science

8 August 2013

Professor Alex McBratney has been recognised for his work in the sustainable management of soil in agriculture and the ecosystem.
Professor Alex McBratney has been recognised for his work in the sustainable management of soil in agriculture and the ecosystem.

The highest honour in the discipline of soil science, widely regarded as its 'Nobel prize', has been awarded to Professor Alex McBratney, from the University of Sydney's Faculty of Agriculture and Environment.

The prestigious Dokuchaev award, given by the International Union of Soil Sciences at four year intervals, recognises Professor McBratney's outstanding research achievements. It is named after a late 19th century Russian scientist who did the seminal work in recognising soil in its own right as part of the natural ecosystem.

"I am thrilled and humbled by the award," said Professor McBratney. "The vast majority of the work on which this award was based has been done here at the University of Sydney where I have worked for the past 24 years. I have always found the University to provide a firm foundation from which to develop new ideas and to project them to the world."

Professor McBratney has further developed the work of Dokuchaev and his successors to do research on the description and understanding of the evolution of soil and its properties and processes.

This has led to the development of new methods for the capturing and dissemination of soil information, leading to its sustainable management in agriculture and the ecosystem.

These methods have been eagerly adopted by research groups and practitioners worldwide and been applied to precision agriculture and digital soil assessment.

Professor McBratney leads one of the strongest university-based research groups on soil resource assessment in the world.

The group's techniques are now the basis for an international global digital soil map, GlobalSoilMap, funded by the Gates Foundation, as well as for collaborative work with state and federal agencies in Australia. The map will play a key part in providing information for policy and management decisions on food production, hunger eradication, climate change and environmental degradation.

"We have been fortunate that others have appreciated the scientific approaches we have developed here. Several of the questions we have worked on arose from difficulties I encountered in explaining concepts to undergraduates - largely because the concepts were poorly thought out and had to be recast," said Professor McBratney.

"So I believe very strongly in the nexus between teaching and research - and in teaching-inspired research. I am grateful to the University's staff and students for their support during all my years here - so many good, talented and helpful people. It's a big family and one which I am proud to belong to, and to which I intend to contribute vigorously for the next decade or so."

The award consists of an engraved medal, a certificate, an honorarium, and financial support to attend the presentation in early June 2014 at the 20th World Congress of Soil Science in Korea.

Professor McBratney is currently Pro-Dean of the Faculty, Professor of Soil Science and head of the Department of Environmental Sciences. He has published some 210 refereed scientific papers, holds Discovery and Linkage grants from the Australian Research Council and several commodity-based rural research and development corporations, the federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, and the United States Department of Agriculture. He collaborates strongly with the CSIRO Sustainable Agriculture Flagship.

He is the chief editor of leading soil science journal Geoderma and serves on the federal government committee to develop a new soil research development and extension strategy for Australia. Professor McBratney is also currently fleshing out a multidisciplinary concept of global soil stewardship in collaboration with colleagues from the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment and the US Studies Centre.

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