A live panel discussion with former Eureka Prize winners, hosted by Robyn Williams.
In this live recording hosted by The Science Show's Robyn Williams, Dr Michael Bowen, Dr Richard Major, Professor Angela Moles and Sonya Pemberton share their Eureka Prize-winning work and discuss the big issues facing Australian science.
This lively panel discussion covers a diverse range of topics including psycho-pharmacology, rapid evolution in introduced plant species, making compelling and challenging science documentaries, science in the era of Trump and the importance of building curiosity in the world from a young age.
Our panellists for the evening were:
- Dr. Michael Bowen, School of Psychology, University of Sydney
- Dr. Richard Major, Senior Research Scientist, Australian Museum Research Institute
- Professor Angela Moles, Big Ecology Lab, UNSW Australia and;
- Journalist and producer Sonya Pemberton, Genepool Productions
The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes reward excellence in the fields of research, innovation, leadership, science communication and school science.
The 2017 Eureka Prize finalists will be announced at the end of July and winners at the end of August.
0:00 – 13:50 Introduction from Kim McKay AO, Executive Director and CEO, Australian Museum
13:50 – 50:10 Panel discussion hosted by Robyn Williams
50:10 – 55:00 Close from Kim McKay AO, Executive Director and CEO, Australian Museum
Kim McKay: So I'd like to start of course tonight by recognising the traditional owners of the land we're gathered on, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to Elders past and present and for those of you who are frequent visitors to the museum, you'll know that I always say that it's particularly important here at the Australian Museum that we do the Acknowledgment to Country, because we are the custodian of one of the most significant First People's collections in the nation. And around half of it is housed here on site, and the other half is now up at Castle Hill, at our new jointly shared storage facilities that we share with the Powerhouse Museum and Sydney Living Museums.
Now, we've got quite a night in store for you here. We've got an incredible panel, all previous Eureka Award winners, which is just great, followed by a viewing for those of you who wish to stay after—and I'm sure you will because there's more food and drink upstairs—of our beautiful Scott Sisters exhibition. And I would highly recommend that to you if you haven't seen it already. Of course the Scott sisters, Harriet and Helena, were around in the 1860s and '70s, '80s doing just magnificent work. They were science illustrators extraordinaire. In fact there are quotes, as you will see in the gallery, that say that their work is as close to perfect as an artist could ever get.
And in fact some of our entomologists still refer to their drawings today for their scientific accuracy. Those two women of course worked here at the Australian Museum. Along with their father, AW Scott, they tried to catalogue every moth and butterfly in the nation, which was sort of a life's work.
But they also illustrated many other species in Australia. For Gerard Krefft, a former director here, they illustrated his book The Snakes of Australia. Really all of our major species were drawn by them, and they were breathtaking. We think they're the first paid women artists in the nation. And they were very embarrassed about the fact they got paid here. In fact they wrote to the director, Krefft, and said, 'Please don't tell Papa that we're having to take money for this work, but it keeps the wolf from the door.'
Both women were scientific experts in their own right and they wanted to study science at Sydney University. And their friends were all going to Sydney University, their male friends that they'd gone to school with. And of course they weren't allowed to go, because women weren't allowed to go to university at that time. And in fact you'll see another quote up there where Harriet reflects, 'I wish I was named Harry Scott, not Harriet Scott.'
Anyway, I recommend it highly to you, it's a stunningly beautiful exhibition. The museum is very proud to own the Scott sisters collection, so they are all the originals that you'll see on the wall, but if you want to buy a print you can do that through the Fairfax store. In fact the money that we raise from the sale of the prints through the Fairfax store is going to fund a scholarship we've created for science illustration with the University of Newcastle. And of course the Scott sisters were based up at Ash Island a lot of the time, which was in the Hunter River mouth, and so it's very appropriate that it's funding that scholarship there.
Now, this of course is our 190th anniversary, which is just amazing, and many of our scientists who are here tonight have just returned from our 190th anniversary expedition to Lord Howe Island.
Twenty-two of our scientists went up there at different periods, and in fact we worked with a team to scale Ball's Pyramid, and with Melbourne Zoo looked for the Phasmid. So it's been quite an extraordinary time. I'll come back to our 190th in a moment.
Mary O'Kane the Chief Scientist was here. She had to run off, she's got a conference call to do tonight, but she asked me to extend her very best wishes. Mary, the Chief Scientist and Engineer, is a huge supporter of this institution, as she is all of the scientific institutions across the country, so she does a great job. I also would like to acknowledge my colleagues from the Science and Cultural Institution, Cam Kerr's here from Taronga Zoo, thank you—where did you go, I saw you—ah, there you are. What an amazing job Cam does at that institution.
Of course Brett Summerell's here representing the Royal Botanic Gardens, who just celebrated their 200th anniversary. And the wonderful Jacqui Strecker representing the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, who we collaborate with extensively. So thank you to all of you. And of course I'd also like to acknowledge all of the Trustees who are here tonight from the Museum Foundation, or the Australian Museum Trust itself, and Lizard Island.
Our colleagues, partners and supporters from the universities and many people from different universities. Of course I'd like to acknowledge our own staff in the audience tonight—particularly Rebecca Johnson, who of course runs the Australian Museum Research Institute. But especially to Cara Bevington and Kate Smith, who are organising the Eurekas this year, and doing a brilliant job of it as well. So welcome to you both and thank you for organising this tonight too.
I want to give apologies from Catherine Livingstone, the president of the Australian Museum Trust. Catherine, as many of you know, was recently announced as the new chancellor of UTS, and tonight is her welcome dinner at UTS.
So I had to send her an apology saying I couldn't be at that, and she sent me one saying she couldn't be here. But we're very thrilled that Catherine has taken over that mantle at UTS, she'll be adding a lot.
I've also just noticed in the audience lots of other—I was going to say old friends, but dear friends. Peter Steinberg is here tonight, who of course is the director of the Sydney Institute of Marine Science, which is an organisation that I hold in great esteem and have been part of for a long time. Anyway, there are so many of you, I could go through every row and name you all, but I'm not going to do that. You didn't pay me enough to do that.
Oh, I know who I do need to welcome, Professor Zhang, the executive director of Data Science at UTS, who's been instrumental in developing our new Prize for Excellence in Data Science at the Eurekas. Where's Professor Zhang—there you are, thank you sir. Good to see you. So you'll get in trouble for not being at Catherine's welcome.
I want to acknowledge our judges in the audience, because actually all of you, whether you were prizewinners in the past, and they're the people with little silver stars on their name badges tonight, so whether you're prizewinners there or judges, welcome along. Long before I joined the museum I was a Eureka prizes judge, and it was such a great honour to do that. It took a lot of time, effort and energy, but they're always the best things, and I learned a lot through the process, so it really is a great thing to do. So thank you.
And we've got more than 20 Eureka prizewinners and finalists in the room tonight, which is just great. So what a great group. Thank you. I particularly want, before I introduce Robyn Williams and our panel to take over, just go back to the fact that we've just turned 190. So I mentioned our Lizard Island expedition, later this year after our Science Festival we'll be launching what I think is one of the most exciting initiatives in our history ,a national citizen science project related to frogs.
Is Jodi still in the audience? Oh, right up the back there, Dr Jodi Rowley, who's our frog expert, herpetologist extraordinaire is here. We've been working with IBM and developed this amazing technology through an app that kids and families I think will respond to very well. So keep an eye out for that. It's called Frog ID. I'm not going to tell you more than that at the moment, but it's pretty exciting.
Also our big project is the Long Gallery restoration. It's a $9 million project to restore Australia's first museum gallery, and we'll be showcasing the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum in the Westpac Long Gallery this year and into the future. And it really is something special, so I look forward to welcoming you all back then as well.
This institution of course has had an extraordinary history and it will continue strongly into the future. This morning I was saying…I woke up at 6 o'clock this morning, the alarm went off at about five to six, and I was listening to ABC 702 and the first thing I hear this morning is Dr Richard Major, our ornithologist and a Eureka prize recipient himself, talking on the radio about the white-fronted chats, and how this particular little chat is going extinct. I'm sure he'll mention that later and his incredible work there.
And then I thought, Oh, God, I can't escape from the place. You know, Richard's on the radio first thing. And I reached over and got my glasses on and got my phone and thought I'd look at the Heraldwebsite, and the lead story was about the poor man in Victoria who was bitten by the white-tailed spider and has had his legs amputated and may soon have to have his arms amputated as well. I'm reading this tragic story, feeling quite ill, and by the fifth paragraph it says, 'According to the Australian Museum…' And I thought I can't escape, okay, I'm putting it down. Can't even take a relaxing moment or two before I come here.
Now, this has happened of course because of a lot of hard work from many, many people.
Particularly one person I want to mention who's played such a role in the media generally, promoting science, and that's Dr Robyn Williams, who created the Eureka prizes. A former president here, who we're going to hear from tonight, who's going to be the master of ceremonies and the interviewer on our esteemed panel.
Robyn, it is just always so great to see you here and see you participate in things, but to be so dedicated. We were very fortunate to welcome Sir David Attenborough here earlier this year, and I don't think I'd be far wrong to say, really, you're my version of that in Australia. So thank you so much.
We're also going to hear of course from our panellists: Dr Michael Bowen, our own Richard Major, Professor Angela Moles and Sonya Pemberton, all Eureka prizewinners, as they have this wonderful discussion. Now, if you want to reflect on it or you know someone who's missed tonight, we are recording it for a podcast which we'll pop up very soon. We have a wonderful series of podcasts on Amplify. You can tune in to the museum if you like listening to me, and a number of our scientists. We have a really…I think over 30 or 40 different podcasts up there now.
So as I said, Robyn's played such a role in this institution over the years. He received the Australian Museum Research Institute's lifetime achievement award recently. His accolades go on forever, so I'm not going to mention them, except of course he's also a Eureka prizewinner. Please welcome Dr Robyn Williams.
Robyn Williams: Thank you. Happy 190th Kim. And happy third. I was sitting in the Qantas lounge in Los Angeles, as one does, and a very nice steward person came up to me and said, 'Urgent phone call for you from Australia.' And it was Kim.
She said, 'I have some news.' And when she told me what it was—the Australian Museum, coming up, an appointment—I leapt in the air, and I've got about 20 Qantas startled people who can vouch for that, thinking that at last one of my great loves, this museum, the A-team, make no mistake, they are the A-team, is being led in a way that's going to be innovative and wonderful.
And so when I flew to Sydney, got off the plane, went to work for a bit, and then went to Kim's office, and there was champagne. Always remember champagne. And I said three things. I said, 'Frogs', I said, 'Birds,' and 'Citizen science.' And you were listening. Interesting thing, but someone actually in management who listens, and the results have been there, quite wonderfully.
When it came to the Eureka prizes we had a conjunction, various prizes that had been ticking over, and ones that we needed to have, and so we put them together, called them the Eureka Prize, and brilliant people like Hal Cogger, the deputy director of the Australian Museum, one of the greatest herpetologists (lizards and snakes) persons in the world. If you mention his name in certain quarters, people just buckle at the knees. He is really one of the great people in that kind of research. And also Roger Muller, who's come back tonight. Where are you, Roger? Hey, thank you for doing so much for the first…at least a decade, wasn't it, or more? How many? Eleven years. You made it happen.
So the Eureka prizes have a history. Now, our first speaker, first Eureka prizewinner is Richard (don't say John) Major. Would you come and sit over here, please, and grab a microphone.
And just to declare an interest, you work with about 4 million of my very close friends. In other words you're an ornithologist. Wonderful…if you look at some of the books written about the birds of Australia, the first songsters, you know? Who went round the world. David Attenborough, the afore-mentioned, once complained to me that, 'All your birds squawk.' I said, 'Have you heard of the lyre bird?' Of course he's very fond of the birds of paradise in Papua New Guinea. But in fact they do sing wonderfully, don't they, and exported music to the rest of the world.
What birds are you working on apart from the chat? Chat to us about the chat.
Richard Major: Well, I'm an ecologist here at the museum, and so I'm looking at various factors that determine the distribution of under-threat birds. And so I work in urban environments largely, or human-disturbed environments. And so part of the time I'm studying threatened species like my beloved chat. I also work on species that are becoming super-abundant, species like the Indian myna and the noisy myna, which themselves are becoming disturbances for a lot of native birds.
Robyn Williams: The noisy's the worst, isn’t it?
Richard Major: The noisy? Yes, I think the noisy is worse than the Indian myna. And in fact I think the noisy myna is so bad that one of my big research projects at the moment is a key threatening process. It's a native bird but it's a key threatening process for other native birds. And we're doing this removal experiment to determine whether we can bring back small birds to woodland remnants by removing noisy mynas. And when I say 'remove' I guess that's a bit of a euphemism in that it involves a 12-gauge shotgun. And we've now 'removed' an awful lot of noisy mynas.
And I think actually that's my most interesting thing of the last year, that having removed, well 3,500, actually, we've found that after a year we have now more noisy mynas than we did before we started. The interesting thing is we actually have some more small birds as well, and that's, well…
Robyn Williams: That's very good, but why has it become a problem in recent times, because the noisy myna's been around for a bit, hasn't it, they're native.
Richard Major: Yes it is, but they're a top Australian bird that has learned to live with people. We've modified the environment and the environments that we like is also something they like. The same with the Indian myna.
Robyn Williams: Now, you obviously read the journal Nature, as I do, and this morning I was reading—okay, you've heard the story—but reading the editorial in the journal Natureabout the kea, you know, our friend from New Zealand which wanders round, doesn't fly very much, just walks around and looks at you with disdain. And they had been talking about, in the article, the fact that if you play the song of the kea, or the noise of the kea that means 'let's have fun, let's play', other keas then start playing as if emotion is being transferred through music. Isn't that interesting?
Richard Major: Yes, that's the first case in a bird. I'm waiting for the sequel paper, which is a sort of a Monty Burns 'heh, heh, heh…' before they rip the kidney fat out of a sheep, which they also do. But yeah, they are a remarkable bird.
Robyn Williams: We must now introduce our second Eureka winner, Sonya, come and join us. Five Eureka prizes. To the Ian Thorpe of science television…
Sonya Pemberton: I have the feet.
Robyn Williams: You have the feet. And to declare an interest, of course you're a great friend and we work together. What's it like making movies now about science?
Sonya Pemberton: It's great. I love it.
I'm very lucky to do what I do. Because we're globally focussed in terms of our funding it's a boom area if you're good, and if you go niche it's like everything in this world now, if you can go multiplatform but be niche in your targeting it can work. There is a huge appetite for science out there, as you can see on multiplatform stuff like YouTube and the various Facebook sites and YouTube channels and things that have just gone gangbusters…
Robyn Williams: You haven't mentioned the ABC yet.
Sonya Pemberton: No. I used to be the head of Specialist Factual at the ABC, and I used to run the Science Department at the ABC, so we know each other from that as well. Yeah, I think it's a really good time to be in science television, in the sense that it's needed more than ever. I'm platform agnostic, so the fact that it's TV or if it's digital it doesn't worry me.
Robyn Williams: You don't care where it's shown.
Sonya Pemberton: I care where it's shown because there are prestigious distribution outlets and there are not so prestigious distribution outlets, and so we partner up with PBS, with the Smithsonian. I've done work with National Geographic and Discovery, but that was in the past. These days it's more the public broadcasters, ABC, SBS, BBC, Channel 4 occasionally.
Robyn Williams: PBS, the one that Trump wants to cut.
Sonya Pemberton: Yes. Although I believe it's only .01% of the budget that actually comes from the government so it doesn't sound like it would be that catastrophic.
Robyn Williams: So I should postpone suicide.
Sonya Pemberton: I think so. And also I don't know that they'll actually do it. I think it's a lot of talk at the moment. I hope that's right, anyway.
Robyn Williams: Five Eureka prizes. What's the secret?
Sonya Pemberton: Well, I've got to say, three of them I've won as part of a group, so filmmaking, like many things, is teamwork, it's not solo play. So yeah, I've won them as part of a team of people that have made five very separate projects. And I'm really proud of those.
And Roger, seeing you is just lovely, because the first one I'll never forget, and it changed my career. And so really I wouldn't understate how influential…
Robyn Williams: How did it change it?
Sonya Pemberton: Because at that stage I was keen to make science films, but really I was known as a documentary director and writer, and people wanted me to make films about lots of other subjects. And I kept saying, 'I want to do science.' And I wasn't taken that seriously, I suppose. And it wasn't seen as something that was really warranted to specialise in in terms of making long-form, million-dollar-an-hour films. The films are very, very expensive to make. So to get people to give me that much money, to get some of these prizes just meant they paid attention. And they didn't know about them, necessarily, around the world, but they sound good, and the more you get the better it sounds. So I'm extremely grateful for all of them, and I'd like more please.
Robyn Williams: Six, seven, eight, nine…
Sonya Pemberton: But really, quite seriously, the first time just was an affirmation that I was doing something right, because for me, I consider myself a science communicator first and a filmmaker second, and that's very important. I come from a medical family, I originally started by did not complete a medical degree. And I worked for CSIRO for a number of years. And I love science desperately and I care about it.
Right now I'm working with Yale on a big project to do with how we understand science—cultural cognition of science. I'm working with an amazing guy called Professor Dan Kahan. We're making a film called The Echo Chamberabout how science is communicated and what we're doing right and what we're doing wrong, and using empirical methods to test that. And that's my long-term next two-year project along with we're making a big show called Vitamaniaand that's around the world looking at the science and history of vitamins. And not necessarily just debunking them but really looking at where they come from. There's an amazing history. And looking at the biochemistry. Because I see my role as a translator of these complex things that people kind of take for granted.
And more than anything I'm obsessed with at the moment is how to overcome bias in terms of science communication. My own and other people's.
And by overcome I mean overcome in order to have a conversation, not to just necessarily change their minds—that's advertising. But I am really interested in how I find a way to communicate to people about science that they might not agree with or care about. Therefore we made Jabbed, the vaccines film, and there are two vaccines films now, one with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and one here with SBS. And then we made the uranium series. I've made stories about climate change and, as I said, now we're looking into cultural cognition of how we make up our minds about things. So I like the polarising subjects, I like the contentious subjects, I like the difficult subjects. So bring it on.
Robyn Williams: Bring it on. And let's bring our next guest on, who's Michael Bowen. Come and sit next to us over here. And to declare an interest of course he's part of the family. Now, I want to ask you a question to do with physiology. When I go in to the ABC early, I feel this tremendous rise of cortisol. And when the managers turn up four hours later, it really peaks. And when I leave the building, I get in the afternoon an incredible rush of oxytocin. What's going on?
Michael Bowen: Well, firstly, everyone's cortisol is high in the morning. But I think there might be a little bit of a stress response there, particularly with the recent unfortunate funding cuts to the ABC contributing to that no doubt.
Now, the oxytocin part, that's really interesting, and that's a wonderful neuropeptide that has been a real focus in my career. So I'm a psychopharmacologist and a behavioural neuroscientist, so I spend my days figuring out the complex neurobiology that underlies behaviours and how we can use that information to try and develop better treatments for behavioural disorders, particularly drug treatments.
And one thing I've really been interested in is this idea that we can target the brain's oxytocin system to try and treat substance use disorders. Now, the brain's oxytocin system, it's sometimes called the love hormone or the cuddle chemical because of the crucial role it plays in social behaviours, in promoting social interactions, motivating us towards social behaviour, increasing the salience of the social world. And it promotes things like the bond between an infant and its parents, the bond we form with our best friend, dogs, even seems to involve the oxytocin system.
Now, we made this observation that one of the most common things you see in substance use disorders is this profound withdrawal from the social world in really heavy drug and alcohol users. They turn their back on their families, on their friends. They stop interacting with the people that are important in their lives, and become solely focussed on obtaining and consuming the substance they're addicted to.
So we had this idea that maybe if we can target their brain's oxytocin system, perhaps we can reawaken the social brain, and in so doing help to turn people's focus back on to the positive social interactions in their lives.
Robyn Williams: Is that what keas are doing, the parrots we talked about?
Michael Bowen: Well, they certainly seem to do that for you, Robyn.
Robyn Williams: Go on.
Michael Bowen: So we've done a lot of work, and a number of groups around the world have been doing parallel work looking in animal models of addiction. And what's been really striking is that increasing oxytocin levels in the brain seems to have these profound effects on not just consumption of one drug, but on just about any addictive substance that we test. And it's not just reducing consumption of heroin or nicotine or cocaine or alcohol, but it's also helping to prevent relapse to those substances, which is really the final frontier in addiction medicine.
Robyn Williams: Isn't that exciting. Now, I want to know whether you, when young, were you a little nerd, did you know all your maths, did you have the best possible passes at the age of eight, nine, ten, eleven—or different from that?
Michael Bowen: No comment.
Robyn Williams: I heard a rumour that your flourishing achievements have come at a spurt after the age of 15.
Michael Bowen: Yes. I guess puberty did wonders for me.
Robyn Williams: A very nice answer. But you also won prizes for…well, a Eureka for being one of the young early researchers, and similarly the most promising…I think it was the state award. What really turned you on to have that kind of confidence just to get on with your work and to make that sort of difference?
Michael Bowen: I think for me, I've always been very passion-driven, and whenever I've set my mind to something and found something that I'm passionate about, I can't really focus on anything else. And when I started getting interested in the brain's oxytocin system during my undergraduate days at university, it just really struck me, and I'd always been interested in psychopharmacology more broadly, and I was quite alarmed by the withdrawal of a lot of pharmaceutical companies from the central nervous system space, and it was something that I was very interested in. I think these are some of the most prevalent and debilitating disorders. So we came up with this idea and have pretty much been running with it ever since.
Robyn Williams: Congratulations. Angela, come and join us, Angela Moles. You can't turn Angela the name into something male, can you…no. Just to declare an interest…Angelo; I suppose you can. But you, just to declare an interest, you represent it seems to me something that really has been extraordinary in my career noticing huge changes in science, and that is the rise of brilliant women.
It's been extraordinary in the last few years. Now, I know Emma Johnston, who is the new head of Science and Technology Australia, has bemoaned the fact that at the top there are too many vacancies in terms of women and such like. But it seems to me at the young level there's been a revolution. Do you agree?
Angela Moles: I agree in part. I think the brilliant women have been there all along, and sometimes they've had to get other people to take credit for their work. I also believe that things are improving a bit, but boy, watching my five-year-old daughter, I think the stereotyping we're putting on them by the time they're tiny is abhorrent, and we've got so far to go, so yeah.
Robyn Williams: I first met you I think at the Prime Minister's Prizes for Science, when you got one, the Fenner.
Angela Moles: I did.
Robyn Williams: Tell us what it was for. Ecology.
Angela Moles: It was for ecology.
Robyn Williams: Plants or birds?
Angela Moles: Plants. But yeah, I'll study anything.
Robyn Williams: I'll ask you about the birds later. What about the plants?
Angela Moles: Okay, that prize was for quantifying global patterns in how plants interact with the animals that eat them. So I travelled around for two years solid, went to 75 different ecosystems around the world and measured how much the plants were getting eaten by animals and how well defended they were. And everybody had always assumed that in the tropics this herbivory was more intense. And it's not the case. Plants get eaten a lot everywhere. And they're really quite poisonous everywhere too, so anyone who tells you that something's healthy because it's natural should be taken with a real grain of salt.
Robyn Williams: What about the colours of creatures in the tropics and plants in the tropics?
Angela Moles: Yes, I really like studying things about global patterns in how plants and animals live, and I had a student a couple of years ago who did a study basically spanning all of the birds and butterflies and a whole bunch of the flowers up and down the east coast of Australia. And she tested the idea that everything is more colourful in the tropics.
And we've got this big legend that the tropics are full of these beautiful, colourful organisms. But the thing is, in the tropics you're going to see that big, blue morpho butterfly and you're going to miss the other 400 little brown species, because they don't stand out much. What Rhiannon found was that actually plants, birds and butterflies are all more colourful further away from the equator.
Robyn Williams: Now, Paul Ehrlich, who's a friend of this museum and comes here to look at butterflies and moths and things like that and goes looking for birds in the Northern Territory and such like, he says that this is one of the world centres, if not theworld centre, for ecology. And Charlie Birch at Sydney helped pioneer it. Would you agree?
Angela Moles: Yeah, absolutely. And there's no question that the tropics have remarkable ecosystems with huge numbers of species. But I think one of the things that we have to do, now that we've got so much data and so much ability to travel to different parts of the world and get these big picture ideas going, we have to test some of these ideas that have been handed down by our old legends, because it turns out…we had another panellist who mentioned liking to shake things up, and I like doing that too, because when you test those venerable old ideas, it turns out a whole bunch of them aren't right.
Robyn Williams: Oh. Tell us about birds, then, and maybe Richard could agree or disagree. Your study of birds.
Angela Moles: I haven't done very many studies on birds. Mostly I study plants. So the work I wanted to talk about tonight (and I have a little slide that I'd like to show you all…)
Robyn Williams: Ooh, slides, yes please.
Angela Moles: …is about rapid evolution in introduced species. So we've talked about how terrible introduced species can be. But what we've been doing in my lab lately is something about the evolutionary pressures that act on these introduced species. Because they come from ecosystems far and wide across the world. And you may have noticed it's a little different here to, say, in England, where a lot of our plants came from.
So I've always thought you should imagine just how shocking it is for a little seed that grew on a plant in London to find itself germinating in, say, Dubbo, where the conditions are really different. And of course there's all sorts of reasons for these species to be under selective pressure to change. And I had a student, Joanna Buswell, who looked at this, and she found 70% of our introduced plants have changed since arriving here about 100 years ago.
Now, another student, who's sitting in the middle here, Claire Brandenburger, and she's been studying this species here, which is a beach daisy called Arctotheca populifolia. It was introduced to Australia in about the 1930s. We did some genetics and found out exactly which beach in South Africa the Australian populations came from.
Claire's been growing them in the glasshouse next to each other. Proper randomised experiment, and look how different they are. You'd only know they were the same species because they've got the same juvenile leaves. They've got these little spoon-shaped juvenile leaves. And the Australian form of it keeps those spoon-shaped leaves into adulthood, whereas the South African form gets those weird lobes and things. Their growth form's different. Claire is also an immigrant from South Africa so she likes talking about the South African ones as being an upright species, while the Australians are all creepy. And of course we get back at her at this by saying well it's actually not the Australians that are creepy, it's the South Africans who have come to Australia—which she has not yet answered back, so sorry Claire.
Anyway, it's not only the leaves, it's also the physiology. They photosynthesise at different rates, their water use efficiency is different; everything we've measured, basically, is different. And the coolest thing is they don't flower at the same time anymore. So even when you grow them next to each other in the glasshouse they can't interbreed. And we're working through making hybrids at the moment. We think they've changed so much it's now a new reproductively isolated species that only occurs in Australia. So, just to be controversial, should we actually try and eradicate this introduced species or should we protect it, because it's now a unique native Australian that doesn't belong anywhere else in the world.
Robyn Williams: Richard, answer that.
Richard Major: Ah, look, I'd give it a go. We have to play God all over the place now.
Michael Bowen: He's a bird killer.
Robyn Williams: You'd keep them, would you, Angela?
Angela Moles: I would, actually. I think you don't have to know much palaeontology to go back in time and go, ecosystems change through time, and the ethos of conversation of 'let's put it back to 1788' is a little bit crazy in light of all of the other changes that are going on.
Richard Major: I'd like you to sort of genetically engineer an 'off' button, though, just in case.
Angela Moles: That would be kind of cool.
Robyn Williams: Yes, one of the most startling things if you go to the Mediterranean is to see in lovely little pots these small bushes called lantana. And here of course they're razor wire, about twice as high as you are, going for hundreds of metres. Frightening. How that change happened in such a short time. Remarkable, isn't it?
Angela Moles: It is. But there's lots of reasons for these introduced species to be changing.
Robyn Williams: Yeah. But why does lantana change, do you think?
Angela Moles: Oh dear, I don't know. I think a lot of the introduced species though, it's like Richard was saying with the birds, they're being successful in this urban environment. So a lot of them are coming in and they grew up with, they evolved with people in, say, European or North American situations. They come in here, and they invade the urban areas, the pastures, the ecosystems that weren't here before Europeans were.
Robyn Williams: All of you of course work with international colleagues, and here comes the Trump question, prompted by my hosts. I would never dream of asking such a provocative thing. How is it going to affect you, do you think, what's happening in America? First, why not Michael.
Michael Bowen: I think when science in the United States is weakened, global science is weakened. That's a reality. There's so much amazing work that goes on there. So much of the total global funding in science comes from the US government.
I certainly have a number of collaborators in the United States. I'm sure all of us do now or have at some point. And it's pretty scary when you have the buzz-phrases of the moment being 'post-truth' and 'alternative facts'. Those aren't really phrases that click well with a scientist. So I think it's pretty concerning. And particularly when they're perhaps setting a precedent for other governments around the world to muzzle scientists, where you have politicians who are filtering information that are coming out of major scientific institutions in the United States, and you have top scientists at the head of major agencies in the US saying that they're holding back and cancelling conferences because they're worried about repercussions. That's pretty scary stuff and I certainly hope that we don't follow suit here in Australia.
Robyn Williams: Sonya, you were saying before that you liked to have a full and frank exchange of views, whatever the circumstance. Have you had such with American colleagues?
Sonya Pemberton: Oh yes.
Robyn Williams: What do they say?
Sonya Pemberton: I stay with my family in Boston and they all voted for Trump, and it's very complicated, yes. My beloved aunt and her whole entire clan. And they are actual Irish illegal immigrants and she's married to a Muslim. So I'm totally confused by this…
Robyn Williams: You're kidding!
Sonya Pemberton: No. And I was there six months before the election and then one week before the election and my aunt's birthday was the day of the election, and she posted on Facebook, 'Couldn't have had a better birthday present.' So on a personal level I have to learn to—and I didn't succeed very well in that instance—to control my own knee-jerk reactions and biases. But what I've spent the last five years looking at, and it came out of the vaccines film, the first one, Jabbed.Because with Jabbed, because I come from a medical family and I've been brought up in the scientific world, I think vaccination is largely extremely successful and very, very good with a few notable exceptions.
But in the process of making that film I had to really immerse myself, and I spent four years immersing myself in the anti-vaccine world. And at one point I remember crying on my desk and just giving up, because I'd been talking to a father in America who was convinced his daughter had died because of the HPV vaccine. And she'd got depressed after the first one, got more depressed after the second one, and then after the third one she had committed suicide, at the age of 14, 15. And no matter what I could say, there was no way of ever having this man think otherwise; the vaccine was to blame for his daughter's depression.
And that was a moment of just epiphany for me, where I just went, this is not about my opinion versus your opinion and your facts versus my facts. You truly believe this, and you have your own suite of reasoning behind this, and you're not a stupid person. And this is what brought me to Dan Kahan's work in cultural cognition. And he has been studying how we think we think and how we actually think, and using empirical methods to test this.
And it really comes down to it's not stupid people, and what I had to stop doing was—I'm using Jabbedas akind of metaphor for the whole Trump thing in some ways—but what I had to get really clear on was I can't treat people who choose not to vaccinate their children, who are scared of vaccinating their children, as stupid people. I have to talk to them as people who have a different set of information, and they interpret that in a different way.
And so how can I communicate information effectively that is based in science but in a way that doesn't confront their beliefs. And what I've been training myself to do over that film and then the uranium films was another example of that; don't press people's trigger points. Avoid trigger points. The media classically wants to beat up the trigger points. And we want to make it a debate between opposing camps.
But when we do that we immediately fall into the trap of not being able to hear each other, because the team that we belong to is more important than the facts we're discussing.
And so what Dan Kahan's work is helping me understand—and I'm trying to turn this into a film and trust me it's really hard—is to say when we can confront our own biases, let alone their biases, but confront our own biases and start to see things from their point of view, only then is there some point of possibility of conversation. And then how you exchange information from that point on is extremely difficult but it can be done.
And what Dan is doing is he's testing this empirically. He's running scenario A, B, C in terms of, say, in Florida and climate change, and showing how changing terminology, refusing to engage in the 'us and them' dialect, refusing to be polarised, refusing to put the team cap on: I'm a lefty, greenie elitist is what my aunt calls me.
My aunt actually says, 'You're the lefty greenie elitist in the family, Sonya.' And I go, 'Well you're the right-wing Irish thug.' And we're both half-joking. But you know it's like 'lefty greenie elitist' is a badge and if you're amongst people who feel the same way, that's fine, but the minute you're in the other camp it's really hard.
Richard Major: Do you think we need both? I know this is sacrilegious to say, but I used to be a little bit infuriated by David Attenborough in that he didn't stress some of the bad environmental things that were happening. And what he was doing, though, was not pressing people's trigger points, but giving people understanding and making them value. And I thought that was really important. But then on the other hand, I also think that the Climate Council here and Tim Flannery and those people are pressing people's trigger points, and I think we need both.
Sonya Pemberton: I was going to say it really is pick your battle. Know what it is you want to achieve. I want to achieve communication between two opposing groups, supposedly opposing groups.
So what I have to do is find ways in which we can connect. If my intention was to give the facts and only the facts and that's my job, well that's a different role. My job is a communications specialist, so I have to find ways to communicate. But you're absolutely right. You need different kinds of arguments for different kinds of circumstances.
Robyn Williams: Angela?
Angela Moles: Yeah, I think it's a really hard one. I think it's not just the States where we've got a problem with scientific credibility. And I think what Sonya's talking about is an absolutely excellent approach. I also think we probably need to take a leaf from the church and get people while they're younger a little better like we do scientists in schools, and we focus on the high school kids or whatever…
Robyn Williams: Primary school.
Angela Moles: Primary school, absolutely. Preschool.
Sonya Pemberton: Can I just say, one of the clear things that's come out of Dan's work is trigger curiosity and the rest will follow.
Angela Moles: And there is no better curious person than a four-year-old child.
Sonya Pemberton: Exactly.
Angela Moles: Get them then, and make it core and explain to people how it works and how we communicate things and the uncertainties and things, and get people to understand it. And try and do this across the population. Because trying to talk to a politician now, they're like, 'Well yes, but what do I get from your science?'
Robyn Williams: One more question to you on that. One thing that surprised me, I was asking…I didn't want to interview lots of people who were denying in whatever and have them, as is my experience, say the same thing that they said last time and the time before that and the time before that, they're almost shameless in trotting out the stuff. But I wanted them to answer the question about degree of risk. Because when you ask about risk it's a different question. It's about you and your family and your neighbourhood, and it's not about absolutes, all or nothing—for climate, against climate; for jabs, against jabs—it's saying how do we assess what's appropriate? And the fascinating thing is so many of them who are the deniers, don't budge.
Sonya Pemberton: But the second you call them deniers, you close the door.
Robyn Williams: We never do.
Sonya Pemberton: I know, but when we think like that we close the door, and that's what I've learned. If you want to keep that door open, we have to resist the urge to put the cap on the other side. Just like we don't want the cap put on our heads.
The work at Yale is showing that science curiosity crosses the political divide. We know intelligence crosses the political divide, even if we like to think otherwise. You can't make these categorical statements about people's interpretation of science and say it's left-wing and right-wing. When you actually look at the data it doesn't work that way. So that's interesting, and we should be paying attention. And what is working is when you refuse to speak from your platform and actually speak to the facts, the evidence, the curiosity, what's actually in front of us, as best as you can. It's not going to work instantly. I've been there so many times. But I can now have conversations with people who don't vaccinate their children and I don't get emotionally involved. I get really engaged, but I don't make it mean something. I can have conversations about the nuclear world or climate change and it doesn't make me rear up like a monster and want to go, you know, 'Don't you know the facts?' I don't do that anymore. And because of that there is a conversation that happens, and I guess that's the thing I'm trying to learn more of.
Robyn Williams: Well, I think you can hear, see, why these guys won Eureka prizes. Lots of them. How many other people in the audience won the Eureka prize, could you put your hands up? Oh, look! So many. Excellent, that's good. How would you like, going back to our guests here for a final say, us to celebrate via Eurekas and suchlike, to kind of move along some of the things that we've been doing.
Okay, they're prizes which celebrate achievement but should we simply continue in the same way, or should we change it? Should we do something original or different?
Sonya Pemberton: I think we are missing part of the audience, and that is the younger audience and the cross-media, multiplatform audience don't engage with these prizes. And I do think that's a problem. Obviously I'm speaking from my point of view as a communicator, but I think communicating science is more important, not less important. And so I am always in awe of being amongst real scientists—'actual living scientists' is the best hash-tag ever. And I just watched that for two days and was beside myself with joy watching that bubble across the planet. I kept waking my husband, going, 'It's hit Sweden! It's hit Sweden!' But you know if we could tap into that, that incredible…you know, all over the world schools were putting those pictures up. I went to give a talk at the John Monash School of Science a couple of days later. They had all the board, they'd printed out 'actual living scientists', and put all these pictures of Australian scientists that had just been tweeting…and there were these pictures of all these people saying, 'I'm a scientist.' I think we're missing some of that. The Sleek Geeks does that really younger age group and that's fantastic.
Robyn Williams: They used to, yeah.
Sonya Pemberton: But there's the middle ground of the, say, 20- to 35-year-olds who are out there doing really interesting stuff in terms of celebrating science. And I think maybe we could do better with them.
Robyn Williams: Richard?
Richard Major: Oh look I think it's important to reward scientists and I think the Eurekas do that well. I also think it's good…so much of science reward is around things like research funding and a lot of peer assessment and a lot of competition in that regard, and I actually think some of those metrics are quite destructive in science. I really don't think humans are as good as we think we are at sorting the top 15% from the top 40%, and yet when it comes to research funding people are dismissed on that basis.
So the Eurekas is another way, another set of judging panels, another set of criteria that can give people a gong. And that's a very important thing for people's careers. I know from my perspective it helped me a lot. It actually at a time when I was finding it difficult getting some research funding, to say I was a Eureka prizewinner helped me get research funding. So it's a different way of evaluating people and I think it serves a good function.
Robyn Williams: Indeed, I think there should be a Eureka prize for bird research. Michael.
Michael Bowen: I think what the Eureka prizes do such a wonderful job of is putting science on the map. That week around the Eureka prizes is wonderful. You turn on the radio and you're hearing about all this wonderful science that's going on around the country and the wonderful science communication. It's a time for that to thrive as well.
I'd like to see it—to pick up on what Angela was saying—used as perhaps a model to help to create the interest in science from a younger age. Use this as a model. Kids get so excited from a young age about winning a ribbon in a running race or at the swimming carnival. You want that same sort of enthusiasm, that same sort of drive, that same sort of passion about winning science awards. Because if they viewed that as an equally desirable accolade, then perhaps they'll get interested in it at a much younger age, and we'll all be the better for it.
Angela Moles: Yeah, I absolutely agree. I think the Eurekas are brilliant partly because of their positivity in a career that can otherwise be a whole lot of rejections in a row. And actually to come back to what you started with, Robyn, I think it's actually pretty important for women to win these prizes, too. Because, you know, imposter complex and things. So, for instance, my Eureka prize subdued my imposter complex for long enough for me to apply for a Prime Minister's prize.
Robyn Williams: Wonderful! And let there be more of it, so thanks so much. And Kim, do you want to invite people upstairs?
Kim McKay: I do. Thank you so much to our great panel tonight. Wow. Michael, do you do this by blood-testing, the oxytocin levels?
Michael Bowen: You can do a blood test. There's a bit of debate as to whether blood levels of oxytocin actually reflect the oxytocin levels in the brain. But it's a pretty hard molecule to actually measure.
Kim McKay: I can imagine. So what do you do?
Michael Bowen: We give them oxytocin. The challenge there is of course that it doesn't get into the brain very effectively. So we're trying to make synthetic oxytocin compounds and develop those now.
Robyn Williams: If it's really working it goes to your socks, look.
Kim McKay: I know, they're great socks. You were a nerd. So to Richard Major, who apart from being a Eureka prizewinner, also won our Australian Museum Research Institute medal when we first introduced it, he just does extraordinary work here, along with all of our scientists. There's so many in the room tonight. Frank Kohler's up there who of course we named one of his finds the Great Slug, semi-slug…(I know, you've convinced me) after Sir David Attenborough, Attenborougharion rubicundus.See, Isay it so well now, almost. Okay.
To Angela Moles, thank you so much, Angela. You have forged some great new paths there, I know. A couple of years ago at the University of New South Wales I got to chair a Women in Science day, where I think we had about 300 women talking about their science carers and how things could be done better in the future.
And it was so interesting and insightful in terms of laying bare the issues with how academia is run and inhibits women to achieve, but you've proven them wrong. Go girl.
And Sonya, I mean God almighty, it is really hard to make good documentaries. It takes amazing tenacity and insight. I worked at both Discovery and Nat Geo in the States, and have seen so many people come and go over time, and you hang in there and you're producing just fantastic quality work. And this is so interesting now, because it is one of the great challenges all of us who work in science have of how best to communicate that science, and knowing what those trigger points are for the public.
And the challenges for us at the museum—in museums in general or the Taronga Zoo I'm sure is the same, or the Royal Botanic Gardens—is really, really difficult in terms of engaging the public in these issues. And at the same time trying to keep our masters, our funding masters engaged in the fact that we are doing relevant science as well. And making them understand that. They don't often understand. So it's a really big challenge. I know the reps here from Office of Environment and Heritage tonight are very supportive for us in terms of their work, and of us, so thank you. But Sonya, thank you for keeping on doing what you're doing. We really appreciate it.
So please give a round of applause to Robyn and the panel, and with that I'd like to invite you to go to Level One.
You can either walk up the stairs or take the elevator to Level One of the museum, and right there at the top of the stairs, round to the left, is the Scott Sisters exhibition. So please come and join us, have a drink, talk to your friends, and enjoy the Eureka prizes kick-off. And I look forward to seeing most of you I guess at the end of August for the big night itself. You've got, oh, how many sleeps left, now? Five months, but entries close on 5th May, so not long to go. Please talk to our winners here tonight. They know how to win. That's important, too. Thank you all very much for coming.