Honoured researchers urge colleagues to fight anti-science
Scientists need to fight against a growing anti-science sentiment worldwide by joining the debate, say two researchers acknowledged in today’s Australia Day Honours.
Professors Bruce McKellar and Sam Berkovic, both associated with the University of Melbourne, received the nation’s highest honour when they were appointed Companions in the General Division of the Order of Australia.
McKellar, a theoretical physicist, says the honour for his “eminent service to science, particularly the study of theoretical physics” came as a “surprise”.
However it highlights a remarkable journey from a NSW bush school playground to the hallways of Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider.
“One of the things that is very nice about me getting this award is the fact I went to a bush school with 50 students and one teacher,” he says.
That one teacher at Budgeregong Public School near Forbes in NSW also happened to be his father.
“In part it is to he that I owe my appreciation of mathematics and various forms of science,” he says.
Although officially retired, the 72-year-old will later this year become the first Australian and first southern hemisphere president of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics.
The prestigious position comes at a time when science – most notably climate and immunisation science – is under attack in western societies.
“The basic denial is the denial that science has done anything for us,” says McKellar.
“I think part of the problem is not that we are denying science but that we’ve become so used to it and the idea that it really is the basis of all our lifestyle.”
He cites the example of basic radio astronomy research to analyses radio signals from the universe that led to the development of mobile phones.
“We do need to talk more about [the benefits]. Unfortunately we have to convince people about the need for patience … and I think some of us [scientists] don’t help with that by continually claiming to have made a breakthrough.
McKellar emphasizes the incremental and collaborative nature of science, of which he is pleased to be a part of.
“That is one of the nice things about getting this award because I consider my own contributions to science – although they have been significant … have been of the small step variety.”
Epilepsy genetics honored
Being honored is nothing new to Professor Berkovic, director of the epilepsy program at Austin Health.
In 2005 the neurologist was appointed as a Member of the Order of Australia for his service to medicine.
Yet Berkovic is the first to admit his promotion to AC for his “eminent service to biomedical research in the field of epilepsy genetics as a leading academic and clinician” left him “a bit gob smacked”.
“I was very humbled by it,” he says adding he is pleased to see recognition for medical research and efforts to bridge clinical medicine and basic science.
However like McKellar he has concerns about a growing anti-science trend.
“It is a puzzling paradox,” Berkovic says.
“Despite the enormous advances and deepening understanding, the push to whacky alternative medicine is ever greater,” he says.
However Berkovic believes scientists must shoulder some of the responsibility: “I grew up in the mound of just doing my science and not trumpeting my stuff. I think I was wrong.
“We do need to be better salesmen.”
Berkovic, who discovered the first gene for epilepsy in 1995, says turning 60 saw him rethinking his priorities.
Receiving today’s honor, he says, gave him “internal validation” to continue researching.
It remains a disappointment to him that genetic discoveries have yet to make a real impact on medical treatment for disease and disorders.
He points to the 1986 discovery of the gene associated with muscular dystrophy.
“You would think if we had that you could fix muscular dystrophy, but sadly so far that has proved elusive.
“In science we don’t know how many layers of onion Mother Nature has put in the path of where we want to be.
“Using genetic information to modify brain disease is a really big challenge.
“I’d like to be part of cracking that in the next five to 10 years.”