A circular economy is our only hope says Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty

Humans will follow many other species to extinction if scientists do not find the funding and the platform they need to change the path we are on, warns Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty.


At a showcase event presented by the AIC’s PAIR program and Universitas Hasanuddin (UNHAS) this week, Professor Doherty discussed his love of science, the nature of a coronavirus, and the importance of a circular economy for avoiding many more such pandemics:

“Switch the thinking in people’s heads to somehow say, well, what’s important to us is sustainability [and] community … a sustainable, circular economy, where things aren’t just extracted, but they’re reprocessed. That’s what needs to happen.”

The best part of being a scientist, Doherty believes, is being at the frontier of knowledge:

“[In] science, when you discover something new, you say something that nobody has ever said or known before…. There’s no greater excitement than finding something new and understanding something better.”

Immunologist Laureate Professor Peter Doherty AC in front the Doherty Institute, named after him in honour of his achievements in health sciences. (Image: Doherty Institute)

The immunologist and patron of The University of Melbourne’s Doherty Institute was joined over the course of a two-hour bi-lingual webinar by UNHAS Rector Prof. Dr Dwia Aries Tina Pulubuhu, Dean of UNHAS Graduate School Prof. Jamaluddin Jompa, former President of the Indonesian Academy of Sciences and of the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology Prof. Sangkot Marzuki, and UNHAS Dean of Medicine Prof. Dr Irawan Yusuf.

“What must we do to see Indonesia’s first Nobel Prize in science?” asked Prof. Jamal.

“You need a sophisticated research environment and a country that’s willing to dedicate resources in that direction,” responded Prof. Doherty, adding however that “science is global” so we can all benefit from the achievements of other nations.

This was after jokingly referring Prof. Jamal to his “facetiously titled” book, The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize (2005), which gained worldwide success largely, claims Prof. Doherty, due to its title.

Hundreds of Indonesian and Australian scientists tuned in to the event, titled “Reach for the Stars”, and many would have taken inspiration from not just the Nobel Laureate’s breakthrough discovery but his understated explanation of how he got there:

“We were very lucky. We made a very big discovery and then we made a number of good guesses on what it meant, and we got it right.”

Still, he added, to make that chance discovery “you have to know your stuff. You have to be working hard. You have to have your eyes and ears open for new things.”

Poster for the AIC-UNHAS webinar where the discussion took place. (Image: AIC)

After winning the Nobel Prize in 1996 (together with Swiss immunologist Rolf Zinkernagel) Prof. Doherty became a prominent public figure – “which is what the Nobel Prize does to you.”

From that point, he spent a lot of time talking to the general public about the importance of science, and particularly, these days, about the calamitous risks to our planet and our species of land clearing, hunger, and overpopulation. Imbalance in areas like those are the cause of not only climate change, he says, but infections like COVID-19.

“Trying to get politicians and policymakers and business people thinking in those terms is extremely difficult. We need to keep at it and we need to keep pushing and we need to keep the pressure up.”

The second half of the webinar, conducted in Bahasa Indonesia, continued this discussion of the importance of science, with a closer focus on Indonesia.

Prof. Marzuki and Prof. Dr Irawan discussed the history of science in Indonesia, particularly international collaboration through the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology, and asked what was needed for Indonesia to continue building a strong science community.

“By developing from the bottom,” said Marzuki, encouraging broad research and access to science study across the archipelago.

“Nobel recipients,” noted Prof Irawan, “are individuals not confined by mainstream views.” A bold approach is needed. “Do our social, political, and academic cultures support our scientists to think differently?” he asked.

The poster for the Bahasa Indonesia half of the webinar. (Image: AIC/UNHAS)

This special event was moderated by AIC’s Lead for Communications and Outreach Helen Brown and AIC Senior Fellow and UNHAS Senior Lecturer in Public Health Dr Sudirman Nasir.

Dr Sudirman opened with a recount of the inspiration Prof. Doherty had been to many young Indonesians that had studied under him at The University of Melbourne.

Dr Sudirman is a member of the Indonesian Young Academy of Scientists and the Indonesian Association of Australian Alumni. Both of these organisations supported the event, and among their members are current Doherty Institute researchers.

The AIC is proud to be at the forefront of continuing this tradition of science collaboration between Australia and Indonesia, in particular through PAIR program (the Partnership for Australia-Indonesia Research) for which Dr Sudirman is a lead researcher.

Photo by Hikarinoshita Hikari on Unsplash.

View or listen to the full webinar ‘Reach for the Stars’ here

Browse all AIC In Conversation webinars

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Digital Communications Manager
The Australia-Indonesia Centre

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