Where’s our next Ian Frazer?
Last week, I had the great pleasure to co-launch the ‘Parliamentary Friends of Science’ group at the annual ‘Science meets Parliament’ dinner. This was preceded by a masterclass on the stars and universe conducted on the roof of Parliament House by 2011 Nobel Laureat Professor Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University.
To be given a guided tour of the heavens by a Nobel Laureate in astronomy was truly a defining moment in my education.
I was an enthusiastic student of science at school and university. At heart, I will always feel that I am a student of science. I grew up in the afterglow of the Apollo moon landings.
As the legacy of these extraordinary missions projected across the seventies, they gave us the sense that the possibilities of human endeavour were limitless. They gave us a sense that the discoveries of science were bounded only by our imaginations. And they inspired a new era of curiosity about the universe beyond our planet, curiosity about worlds many light-years beyond our reach.
Curiosity is as innate to the human condition as breathing.
Australia has a proud history of scientific achievement. This history encompasses Lawrence and William Bragg’s work on x-ray crystallography, Howard Florey and his life-saving research on penicillin, Macfarlane Burnett’s achievements in the field of immunology, Dr Elizabeth Blackburn and her ground-breaking work on telomeres, Professor Ian Frazer’s cancer vaccine – and Professor Brian Schmidt’s remarkable observations about our universe.
As proud as that history is fewer Australian children are now studying science at school. That is a concern, because without their pursuit of academic studies in science, we may not see the next generation of Elizabeth Blackburns and Brian Schmidts making the great discoveries of tomorrow.
And so we need remarkable achievements in order to ignite the flame of curiosity and keep it burning in the next generation. Because we need scientists.
Professor Schmidt and his High-Z Supernova Search Team were awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering that the expansion of our universe is accelerating. This has implications about the nature of dark energy which appears to be responsible for this acceleration and which comprises about three quarters of our universe. We are yet to fully understand these implications. The mysteries associated with this discovery tell us that, for all we now know about the universe, there is much more that we do not know.
Professor Schmidt’s research goes to the very origins of our existence and raises questions that are truly wondrous. And that is surely the key to encouraging more people to study science.
It is these kinds of questions which will inspire our kids to be curious about science, to be inspired and full of wonder at the mysteries of our universe. And through this pursuit of knowledge, they will become the scientists who will solve the great contemporary challenges of humankind: from food security to the eradication of diseases, to climate change and developing commercial models for renewable energy.
All of these serious policy challenges highlight the significance of science to our nation – and our nation’s Parliament.
Science underpins so much of the work that our Parliament does. As Parliamentarians, we aspire to make good policy on the basis of rigorous science in areas like health, resources, conservation, and even economic policy.
Yet just as science informs the work of our Parliament, so too the work of the Parliament underpins science, whether through supporting the operations of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) or the funding of research at universities and other institutes.
The Parliamentary Friends of Science aims to build closer links between Australian scientists and Parliamentarians. It is about giving members of Parliament access to the very best scientific research in relevant areas of policy. Equally, it is about bringing the important work of our scientific community to the attention of Parliamentarians.
It is a collaboration that we need to have. And so, along with the Member for McPherson, Karen Andrews, my co-convenor of the Parliamentary Friends of Science, I am very pleased and proud to be part of this endeavour.
I encourage scientists, students and politicians alike to join in.
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