Feeling like a Backstage Groupie with Real World Changers

When I received an invitation to have breakfast with the winners of the 2014 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science at the Shine Dome in Canberra I thought to myself “Would it be worth it?” – 6 hours of driving for a 1.5 hour breakfast.

In hindsight this was a stupid question, but let me explain myself. As a small business owner time is incredibly precious and I diligently try to not waste it for the benefit of my clients and also for my work-life balance (a utopian dream).

I shook off my apprehension, booked my accommodation and travelled to Canberra.

On the morning I arrived somewhat apprehensive, and out of my league, in a room full of senior scientists with enviable reputations who had all done great things. Not knowing anyone personally, I made myself a cup of tea and started to talk with a lady, about my age, as to whether she knew anyone in the room. She said she was with her research director and didn’t know too many people either. I pointed out Ian Frazer who I admire immensely, so she dragged me over and introduced us to him. I’d seen him present at Ausbiotech years ago as 2006 Australian of the Year for his development of the HPV cervical cancer vaccine, when he’d told a warm up joke about being asked by immigration on his way into Australia if he had a criminal record and quick as a flash he’d retorted back, “No, is it a prerequisite?”. We discussed how he’d survived a year as Australian of the Year being invited to every event imaginable and that he had to decide for himself on where to draw the line. He’d decided shopping centre appearances were definitely it. We were impressed with how he survived the year of social engagements around the country with no administration support. Luckily for him his university had given him the year off to cope with the many engagements. He is a strong believer of how important it was for scientists to be able to communicate their science and the benefits of it to the general public. He also sympathised with scientists who go into science as their passion and who were not comfortable in the spotlight communicating their science.

Next stop, my new friend asked me if I’d like to meet a Nobel Prize winner and answering “of course” she introduced me to Prof Brian Schmidt an ARC Laureate and Distinguished Professor at the Australian National University’s Mount Stromlo Observatory. He was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for his contribution to ‘the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae’. Brian explained to me his research work, in terms that even I as a chemist could understand, and enquired as to what I did.

The winners of the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science were then all asked to come to the front of the room for a group photo and to say a few words. They were all short and sweet with their words, but the one thing they all spoke about, and very passionately, was the importance of the prizes for science teaching having as much importance as the science awards. They also stressed that we as scientists need to be encouraging science literacy of the community, communicating the achievements as scientists and fostering and encouraging curiosity in children.

I reflected back on the morning on my drive home from Canberra. Scientists enter science for a number of reasons, most commonly their love of science at school or their desire to help the world be a better place. These people that I met at the pinnacle of their careers make a difference, foster or spark scientific curiosity in the next generation, diagnose and cure disease, improve agriculture and industry productivity and protect the environment from pollution.

If we look around and see how the world has changed over the last 100 years – science based professions including scientists, engineers and ICT professionals are behind them. They are our innovators, they are our future and we need to grow them. As society becomes more technologically advanced we also need the level of scientific understanding in the community to increase so that we are able to debate and discuss controversial topics such as stem cell research, genetically modified foods, nuclear power, climate change and immunisation confidently with fact not fear.

My next question was “Why weren’t the Science Prize winners on the front pages of the newspapers around the country?”. Surely their achievements for this country were at least as important as any grand final sporting game.

The winners of the 2014 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science are:

  • Sam Berkovic and Ingrid Scheffer, the genetics of epilepsy: bringing hope to families, Prime Minister’s Prize for Science
  • Ryan Lister, regulating genes to treat illness, grow food, and understand the brain, Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year
  • Matthew Hill, Australian crystals set to take over industry, Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year
  • Geoff McNamara, a taste of real-world science to take to the real world, Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools
  • Brian Schiller, combining play, science and language, Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools