Celebrating Nobel Laureate Professor Blackburn

16 February

Senator the Hon Kim Carr

It is an honour to join in congratulating Professor Elizabeth Blackburn on her tremendous achievements, which were crowned last year by the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

I’m reluctant to call this the culmination of Professor Blackburn’s career, because we don’t know what further great work lies ahead of her.

The Nobel Prize is a fitting reward for years of creative endeavour by Professor Blackburn and her colleagues, and a boon for science in this country.

Professor Blackburn’s success and her status as the first Australian-born woman to receive a Nobel Prize have already lifted the profile of scientific research. I couldn’t help noticing at the airport last night that Professor Blackburn has even come to the attention of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

It was a tremendous relief when the contestant identified her correctly as the winner of the Nobel Prize, and not the Booker. The truth is that we want all Australians to know what Professor Blackburn has accomplished, and what those accomplishments mean.

The Prime Minister has spoken this morning about how we might inspire the next generation of scientists. It is equally important that we inspire the present generation of lay citizens.

It is their trust and support the scientific community needs if it wants to go on enjoying the freedom to explore – and go on attracting public investment. There is already a great deal of goodwill for science.

The most recent Swinburne National Technology and Society Monitor (December 2009) reports that Australians generally:

• agree quite strongly that science and technology are improving our quality of life

• and agree – albeit with slightly less conviction – that science and technology can solve most problems faced by human beings.

Our aim should be to increase this goodwill, not undermine it.

The Government has demonstrated its support with a 25 per cent increase in science and innovation spending this year. This is the biggest increase on record, and it takes our total commitment for 2009-10 to $8.6 billion.

Unfortunately, science has had quite a bit of mud flung at it lately. Its aims and procedures have been called into question. This is a matter of great concern to me, as I’m sure it is to you. It is essential that we don’t let the mud stick. This is the time for all true friends of science step up and defend its values and achievements.

It is the business of science to be sceptical, to reject secrecy, and to question authority. Scientists are living, breathing human beings just like the rest of us, but their work must be impersonal and disinterested. Every claim they make must be testable against the empirical evidence, and they must be ready to change their minds if that’s what the evidence demands.

Of course, scientists may legitimately draw different conclusions from the same evidence, but when they do, they should acknowledge the disagreement. This doesn’t mean we descend into relativism. It doesn’t mean one hypothesis is as good as another. It doesn’t mean we have to entertain the possibility that the earth might really be flat.

The accretion of evidence – every piece of it tested and retested – does eventually lead us to propositions with which all reasonable people can agree – that plants and animals evolve by natural selection, for example, or that the universe is expanding. There are truths in science, but they are always grounded in observation.

These are principles that all friends of science must be ready to explain and defend, especially now, when we count on our scientists for so much – new levels of prosperity, new forms of energy, new cures for disease.

Those who think they can score points by subverting the community’s confidence in science should think about the damage they are doing. When you denigrate science, you destroy hope.

Happily our purpose today is to celebrate science, and to acknowledge the hope Professor Elizabeth Blackburn has given us that we might one day conquer the diseases of ageing.

In naming this boardroom in Professor Blackburn’s honour we don’t just recognise her individual achievements; we also affirm the transformative power of great science.

Source: Office of Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science & Research

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