The Kenneth Myer Lecture presented by Sir Gustav Nossal, on 30 August at the Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne.
Madam Chair, distinguished leaders of the National and Victorian Library movement, distinguished members of the extended Myer family, Ladies and Gentlemen:
What a tremendous honour in the year 2000 to give the Kenneth Myer Lecture. I first met Ken 35 years ago. He was already then a major figure on the Australian scene-tall, very handsome, athletic, confident. He was not only an outstanding retailer-and we do tend to forget that little bit-he was busy already then on a large range of important community activities. Two of these were to draw us closer over the years.
The first was medical research. Ken was a Founder and long-serving President of the Howard Florey Institute, just across the road from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. He led a distinguished Board and he was privately very generous to that marvellous medical research institute. On the old adage that two sheep dogs are better than one, Professor Derek Denton, the Director of the Florey, and I frequently lobbied Canberra together. I'm tempted to relate to you one occasion in 1974-medical researchers get used to crises-when we really faced quite a major crisis. The oil shock, the consequent hyperinflation that took place, and some would say a perhaps less than totally stellar economic management period in Australia's history, in 1974 produced this period of enormous inflation.
This posed a very real threat to our Institutes because, of course, the grants that we were given by the Commonwealth were not inflation proof-they were not inflation indexed in any way. Bear in mind I'm talking 1974-the lion's share of those grants went to salaries and wages. So what were we going to do? Inflation romping ahead at 17 or 18 per cent per annum, grants going up maybe maximum by 3 per cent. Would we have to sack 15 per cent of our staff every year? So we thought this was one occasion where we should pull all the stops out and appeal to the Prime Minister, namely Gough Whitlam. Ken Myer and Derek Denton had a very clever idea: 'Why not use the most distinguished Australian in the country?' who also happened to be on the Florey Board, namely, Nugget Coombs. So it was given to Nugget to work out a very quiet, subtle, private dinner-Ken Myer and his counterpart at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Sir Colin Syme (the Chairman of BHP), Whitlam and Coombs, Denton and me. A heady experience for a still youngish Director!
Now, ostensibly, the evening arranged in Nugget Coombs' flat, in University House at the Australian National University, was to discuss the role of medical research in Australia. I was very interested in how Ken and Nugget between them more or less orchestrated the event. Key aspects of medical research were dealt with quite expeditiously when the great man walked in, as the great man only had the 6 pm to 8 pm gap as the House was sitting. Briefly, Professor Denton and I extolled the marvellous virtues of medical research and the huge importance of all of this to Australia's future. Having listened, with just the slightest hint of impatience, Mr Whitlam made a few remarks and then turned to Ken. The whole of the rest of the evening was devoted to world economic trends and what did Myer and Syme think of the state of the world and so forth-way over my head. But Ken Myer was an accomplished politician. We got the adjustment we were seeking and, indeed, we got some much-needed capital grants as well! Ken Myer's support of medical research continued for the rest of his life.
The second involvement was when, to my intense surprise, Ken invited me on to the National Library Council, which he chaired for many years and I served from 1973 to 1976. Remarkably early in the piece, Ken Myer identified the enormous role of computers and information technology in the world at large and in library science in particular. He saw what that role was destined to be and he promoted very strongly the use of computers, and of programs like Medline in the science branch of the National Library, which he very strongly supported. As a result, because of these outstanding efforts in the early 1970s, Australia was well positioned to take advantage of international databases and, indeed, all sorts of other trends using information technology to aid the spread of knowledge. I believe the excellent progress that Australia has made in this area really right at the cutting edge is due in no small measure to Ken Myer's foresight.
But Ken Myer's interests were very wide. His outstanding support of the arts has already been mentioned, including his chairmanship of the Arts Centre Trust and this very hall in which we're having this meeting. He was a generous and highly intelligent philanthropist, wisely guiding not only the Myer Foundation and the Sydney Myer Charitable Fund, but giving privately and frequently anonymously of his own generosity to a wide variety of causes. He identified early in the piece the huge importance of trade with Asia and especially Japan and he immersed himself quite deeply in Japanese culture. This understanding that he developed of Japanese life, the Japanese way of doing things, undoubtedly greatly helped the understanding of the Australian business community as to how to deal with this gifted but tough partner. I think that, in its own right, left a very substantial legacy.
A man with a long vision, a man whose tragic death in an aeroplane accident left Australia very much poorer, a curious and ambitious man, it is a pleasure to dedicate this lecture to his memory.
Taking a cue from that ambition, I'll dare something ambitious tonight. That's to try and summarise three areas, which concern me, and there are, as you'll see, linkages between them Aboriginal reconciliation, developing country health and Australian progress in biotechnology.
Ladies and gentlemen, where are we on reconciliation? At Corroboree 2000 on the 27th May the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation presented two documents to the Australian people. An Australian Declaration Towards Reconciliation-this was an aspirational summary outlining a better way for Indigenous and non-Indigenous to live together in this country. Secondly, a longer document, a Roadmap for Reconciliation outlining four national strategies. These are first, to sustain the reconciliation process beyond the life of this Council, which has a sunset clause and ceases to exist on the 31st December; secondly, to define Indigenous rights; thirdly, to overcome Indigenous disadvantage; and, fourthly, to promote economic independence.
The media, as I suppose is its norm and its right, has focused on areas of difference. But the fact is that the broad thrust of that document has been accepted by Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments and overwhelmingly by local government as well. The handprints of all the leaders of this nation were affixed to a reconciliation banner at the historic ceremony in the Opera House. Ray Martin, an excellent member of our Council, frequently reminds us, with his vast experience in the media, that there has been no gathering in the history of this nation where so many leaders were united in a single purpose-that of Aboriginal reconciliation. The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Leader of the Democrats, every State Premier, both Chief Ministers, and the great majority of Aboriginal leaders (with a couple of interesting principled abstentions) were there. It was an historic occasion.
So the broad thrust of where the Council has been going for nine years is now national consensus, but there were three significant areas of difference, three areas in the Council's Declaration Towards Reconciliation which the Commonwealth Government did not accept. The first was the apology from the Commonwealth Government for the Stolen Generation, where the government has said that it does not believe that present day Australians should be saddled with cross-generational guilt. The Council does not believe that an apology need imply guilt, though perhaps it would imply shame. Even here in this area of respectful disagreement, we note that both Houses of Parliament have passed motions of profound sorrow and regret for the injustices of the past, stating, indeed, that these are a blot on the escutcheon of the nation. This issue will not be resolved in the near future.
The next point of contention was the support of the Council for the principle of self-determination and linked to that, the respect and recognition that we expressed for customary laws, beliefs and traditions. For these two areas we are working hard to spell out what indeed is meant by these words 'self-determination' and respect and recognition of 'customary laws'. Self-determination, ladies and gentlemen, does not mean Apartheid. It does not mean a separate state within a state. Indeed, it is quite clear from our social research that Aboriginal people want to be a part, a significant part, of one nation, one Australia.
What, indeed, they are seeking to articulate in pleading for self-determination is a very straightforward thing. The indigenous people are sick of being told how to live, what to do, what services are to be provided (and how) by, as they term them, 'whitefellas'. They want to make their own decisions. Where a partnership is required, they want to be equal partners in the decision making process as it affects Aboriginal communities. This is hardly a radical proposal. It is, in fact, what we as members of the mainstream culture absolutely take for granted, that we want to be consulted and involved in the decisions that involve our communities.
The recognition of customary laws, beliefs and traditions is perhaps a somewhat more difficult area. The Reverend Djiniyini Gondarra, eminent head of the Methodist Church in East Arnhem Land, and a prominent member of our Council and also a very significant lawman to the Aboriginal people at the Top End, expressed it to the Council in this way. He explained to us that for 50 000 years behaviour in Aboriginal tribes was governed by ancient laws, customs and traditions. These governed patterns of daily living, interactions between people, interactions between families, interactions between one clan and the adjacent clan. These ancient laws were administered by respected elders of the tribe. He said, 'This can't be just washed away'. Many of these traditions are closely tied to the spirituality of Aboriginal people and their sense of self. You can't say that after 50 000 years of a continuous series of laws that allowed these people to live in harmony with the land, to live an ecologically sustainable existence, to also live an existence which, as far as our anthropologists and historians tell us, was noble in terms of the interpersonal relationships, can be washed away because another culture takes over the land. We're working hard as a Council now to elaborate on this and to make it clearer what the words actually mean.
Four National Strategies
What about the four national strategies? There's broad agreement on sustaining the reconciliation process. That will be done, inter alia, by a foundation to be termed Reconciliation Australia, which takes over from the Council, which, however, will not be a replica of the Council, will not be an attempt to frustrate the sunset clause in the legislation. It's time for a fresh beginning. Importantly, the foundation will not be an arm of government. The Council has three politicians from the three major party blocks on it. It has the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of ATSIC, and it has a full-time salaried Chairperson, Evelyn Scott, and the Council is serviced by bureaucrats from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Though independent it is therefore somewhat tied into political/bureaucratic processes.
We conceive of the foundation as being arm's length to government, though hopefully in its initial fledgling period, it could be kick-started financially by government. We believe the foundation should be apolitical, and should be largely supported by philanthropy and corporate sponsorship. Negotiations are currently continuing with all the stakeholders and particularly the Commonwealth Government, the Commonwealth Opposition and the Democrats on the details. There are obviously fairly delicate things to be worked out because no government could be expected to sign a blank cheque until they knew roughly what the cheque was going to be used for.
But we foresee Reconciliation Australia, the foundation, as working largely in the area of grassroots reconciliation; to combat racism on the ground, to continue the communications exercise, to produce educational materials, to continue to sustain the many study groups which there are around the country, to work with local government in their various attempts. We do not see Reconciliation Australia as either a lobby or advocacy group, or as a political group. We believe ATSIC is the correct body to represent the political side of Aboriginal affairs and, therefore, we do not wish the kind of engaged continuous political debate that perforce has taken place between the Council and the Commonwealth Government over recent months.
Now, there's broad agreement also on the great importance of strategies for greater economic independence of Aboriginal peoples. We must retain the social welfare net, of course, but we must also bring greater employment opportunities to Indigenous people. That in turn will promote a greater sense of self-worth. The Council's plans in this regard will be spelt out in greater detail in the longer version of our strategy. They appear to have the enthusiastic endorsement of the government and of other stakeholders as well.
Furthermore, there's broad agreement on the strategy for overcoming disadvantage. What's particularly pleased me here is that we have been urging that, as we proceed to advance in areas like health, education, housing and infrastructure generally, employment opportunities and so forth, there be benchmarkable agreed goals put down in writing. As a matter of fact, this is happening in health. We now have excellent statistics about Aboriginal health and we believe it is important that we obtain similar statistics (such as year 10 retention rates, year 12 retention rates and number engaged in higher education) for the educational sector. Then we must hold federal, state and territory governments' hands to the fire in terms of achieving these benchmarks. I consider it as quite a breakthrough that the Commonwealth Government has agreed that benchmarking is a good idea. We will be arguing that matter further through the COAG process, the Council of Australian Governments. This will be one of the three or four top agenda items for the next COAG meeting, which will probably be held in November.
Finally, that leaves substantial areas of disagreement in the strategy that we've put forward promoting the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights. We're working hard on this. It's indeed one of the main tasks of the next three months, to define rights more clearly. We're persuaded frequently that it is really the enjoyment of rights which is missing. Not that Aboriginal people haven't got equal rights, but frequently that their life circumstances do not permit them to enjoy those rights. We also believe that respect for the status and unique identities of the first peoples of Australia is what's really required. This desire for recognition and respect and understanding is really not very controversial or confrontational. But we do understand that when rights need to be codified, the exact words and the meanings of those words need to be prepared very carefully. With suitable professional advice we're doing that work right now.
So much for governments and reconciliation, but what about the grassroots? How has the people's movement progressed over the last 10 years? If you look at it from a 10-year perspective, the progress has been heartening. Let me turn not to May the 27th, but to Sunday, May the 28th. The Council worked hard to organise the People's Walk for Reconciliation across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. We had hopes and fears. Again I'll quote Ray Martin, who said to me several times, 'Gus, you must stop talking about hundreds of thousands of people walking across the bridge. We have no idea of how many people will walk. Please just say tens of thousands'. Fortunately, I did not take his advice. When we saw the overwhelming response of the Sydney population plus many who had driven, bused, trained or flew in for the event; when we noted that over a quarter of a million people indeed walked; when we had to extend the bridge closure for more than an hour; when we saw the trains stacked up in front of North Sydney station halfway across the bridge because they just simply could not unload the number of people fast enough; when we saw ferries jam-packed with people coming from Darling Harbour; and, above all, when we gave the lie to the proposition that reconciliation belongs only to Aboriginal people and the Chardonnay set (the types of people sitting in this audience, you know, the more professional, intellectual classes). When we could give the lie to that through seeing the broad cross-section of people who walked, in a walk that was overwhelmingly peaceful and friendly, we were very heartened. We were even more heartened that without financial support from the Council, actually without anything more than just a touch of moral support from the Council, there spontaneously followed similar walks in Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart, again with surprising turnouts, and in some of the smaller towns. I would put it to you that the people are voting with their feet what they think about reconciliation. The spirit is in very good shape.
I now want to alert you to December the 3rd. Mark it in your diaries. For once, this old Sydneysider will actually approve of the traditional Sydney to Melbourne rivalry. That walk will start right here in front of the National Gallery of Victoria and also from Flinders Street Station and will progress on to the MCG, there to be entertained by a truly wonderful concert. Well, we've got to make it bigger than Sydney, haven't we? It's one of the finales of the Council's work. I do urge you to mark that date in your diaries. Talk to all your friends about it, your kids, your grandkids, the schools in your district, the faith groups in your district and so forth. It should be a monumental occasion. So I think that the people's movement has progressed pretty well.
But there is a darker side to reconciliation. There are remnants of entrenched racism. Our social research has made this quite clear. The chief work of the foundation will be to combat this through community education and outreach programs and to highlight the many achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to combat the stereotypical views which can so easily be held by people when, in point of fact, there is 98 per cent of us and 2 per cent of them, if you want to put it in that colourful language, and when so many of us have never actually met an Aboriginal person or had them in our homes. It is so easy to come away with stereotypical views and this can only be combated by education and communication.
Serious Problems Within Indigenous Communities
Now I want to turn for a moment to the entrenched problems present in many Indigenous communities. Here we have to reach out for new and bold solutions. However, to a very significant degree these will have to come from Indigenous peoples and their leaders themselves. I refer to substance abuse and the family and sexual violence that frequently results. Also to the boredom and aimlessness arising from lack of meaningful employment opportunities in many communities, and on the excessive dependence on welfare that Noel Pearson has spoken about so intelligently in recent months. The Chair of the Council, Dr Evelyn Scott, has recently referred to the positive role which suitably empowered Aboriginal women could play in this regard. A program where senior Indigenous women leaders could act as mentors to younger women within communities, explaining their rights, promoting their greater independence, encouraging them to discipline those youths who have embarked on the wrong track could represent practical reconciliation of great effectiveness. Understanding of the root causes of dysfunctionality, namely, dispossession, marginalisation, alienation and despair, is not enough. Compassion is not enough. Silent acceptance by the Aboriginal people of these frequently buried facts is not helpful. This area needs creative thought and bold initiatives.
I turn now to the issue of Aboriginal health. The facts here are by now well known: an 18 to 20 year difference in life expectancy, age adjusted mortality rates three to six times higher than those of non-Indigenous Australians; common diseases such as diabetes and chronic renal disease at 10 times higher incidence. But now I wish to advert to several initiatives taken over the last five years which show great promise and will in time help to reverse the statistics. There are good news stories. They deserve equal time to the bad news stories, though they will not get it in the media.
Progress in Aboriginal Health Number one, Minister Wooldridge and his emphasis on primary health care. Within the last budget, there was a $100 million increase over four years for the Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health, in partnership with the States and Territories and with significant aspects of community control of the programs. It is so important to involve the community, not to thrust things down the community's neck, involvement in the strategy, in the decision making, in the planning. There are also remote community initiatives whereby new health services have been founded for 38 communities that previously had no health service at all, not even a nurse or an Aboriginal health worker. So there was a long way to go and the statistics were bad and the statistics are bad, but it takes time for these programs to impact on the bottom line. So I think that there's a very definite upward trend with this committed Minister Wooldridge working very hard, both financially and in the planning terms, putting the emphasis on primary health care.
Now I'd like to tell you about the strong women, strong babies, strong culture initiative in the Northern Territory. This is a most heart-warming story. John Mathews was the long serving Director of the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin. Having been trained by The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute he had learnt that people are by far his greatest asset. He spotted that one of the cleaners seemed to be a very intelligent lady. This woman was called Lorna Fejo. He encouraged her to get some more education. She, in fact, went through a TAFE course and she founded this strong women, strong babies, strong culture initiative.
This employs strong women workers, so-called, volunteers within communities who do very simple things. They encourage pregnant women to actually go to their antenatal clinic visits rather to skip them. They encourage good compliance with any medication that's prescribed. They, above all, encourage very good nutrition during those months when the baby is growing in the woman's womb. For all of these they encourage good family support so that people understand how precious a pregnancy and a pregnant woman is. As a result, the proportion of low birthweight babies in the three centres in which this proposal was first trialed has halved. It's spread from the initial three to most communities in the Northern Territory and there is a similar movement in Western Australia. This has been a real winner.
I refer next to the Apunipima Health Council in Far North Queensland, which had initiated well persons' health checks. This is essentially a comprehensive screening program looking for early diagnosis of diseases such as diabetes, heart and liver diseases and sexually transmitted diseases. Of course, you all know that early diagnosis is one of the prerequisites of effective treatment and prevention of complications in these serious areas.
I refer next to the Ganampa Health Council's work in Pitjantjatjara lands. This is very close to my heart because they have raised the immunisation rates of infants born into the community from 60 per cent 10 years ago to 85 per cent now. Very close to the 88 per cent which I'm very pleased to tell you is the current immunisation rate of our own mainstream kiddies in Australia.
I could go on with examples. Much is being done. It will take time to impact on the main statistics which, of course, are appallingly bad. But I would not like you to think that either the Council or State and Territory Governments or the communities themselves are sitting idly by on their hands. They are taking a lot of initiatives which when integrated will gradually improve the situation.
Third World Health This introduction of some of the very practical problems in Aboriginal health makes me turn naturally to the wider question of health in developing countries and developing peoples generally, the subject of world health. Here, of course, the need is huge and the range of possible things that one might do to advance health is well nigh infinite. So I'm going to talk about immunisation. Why? Because in 1993 a hard-headed group of economists working for the World Bank said that immunisation programs were the most cost-effective form of health intervention. I got a big laugh at a meeting the other day which was getting a bit like this one, a bit too serious, people looking a bit glum and so forth, when I said, 'Well, if you've only got a certain amount of money to spend, what are you going to spend it on? Anti-smoking campaigns, condoms or vaccines?'. I said, 'What do you reckon gets the most bang for the buck?'. The pun was intended. It improved the atmosphere, and I hope it's woken some of you up. But the fact of the matter is that vaccines are very cost effective because they prevent disease, and prevention is not only better than cure, it's also much cheaper.
So I want to introduce to you GAVI, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, which was launched on the 31st of January of this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos and will be the subject of some discussion at the Asia Pacific Economic Forum started on the 11th September in Melbourne. This is an example of a public sector, private sector partnership of considerable dimensions. The public sector partners are chiefly the UN agencies, World Health Organisation, UNICEF, and the World Bank and the private sector partner is currently chiefly the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, spurred on by a magnificent gift of nearly $2000 million Australian dollars from Bill and Melinda Gates. I have the quite awesome responsibility of being the Chairman of the Strategic Advisory Council of the Bill and Melinda Gates children's vaccine program.
This GAVI has set itself four tasks. The first is to increase the global coverage of the six common childhood vaccines, older vaccines such as diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, polio and measles. Because there are some countries in which this coverage, which we would like to see at least 80 per cent, preferably higher, is only at the 30 or 40 per cent level. So regalvanising that routine and, if you want, old-fashioned program of immunisation is the first aim. The second aim is to eradicate poliomyelitis. You will know that smallpox has been eradicated through the use of vaccines. We are well on track to eradicate poliomyelitis. The initial date that was set in 1990 was year 2000. To our best estimate, at the end of the year 2000, 190 countries will have totally eliminated poliomyelitis transmission. Twenty countries will not have but we are on track for eradication by 2002 and certification of that eradication by 2005.
The countries which are giving us the most pause are conflict countries, five countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa that are at war or in civil war, and high reservoir countries such as Pakistan and Nigeria where the density of population is such that transmission is very easy and where eradication is made more difficult by the sheer concentration of the virus in the population. We're confident that that job will be done. It will require your continuing support and it is currently actually the largest public health program in history. Three to four hundred million US dollars per year is going into the initiative, and I can't express to you my admiration for Rotary International which has been the sturdiest of sturdy partners in this big adventure.
The Bill And Melinda Gates Children's Vaccine Program
The third is where Bill Gates comes in. That's the introduction of newer vaccines into the poorer countries. Vaccines such as those for meningitis, pneumonia, diarrhoeal diseases and hepatitis. These vaccines are the results of recent research, expensive research. They are of necessity quite a bit more expensive. One of the things that was giving us tremendous pause within the World Health Organisation is how will the 120 million children born into the developing world each year ever be able to afford these vaccines. Well, the Gates money certainly will help. It is targeted to the 70 poorest countries of the world, those countries with a GDP per head of less than $1000 US. In the brief period since the January 31st launch, 35 countries are already on board, despite rather stringent entry criteria. The Gates money alone will not do the whole job. We must ensure that it is intelligently leveraged. I'll tell you another little heartwarming story. On the 13th of June I found myself in Oslo, Norway, expressing a certain amount of irritation that the meeting which I'd anticipated would be back to back with a regular WHO meeting in Geneva had been moved to Oslo. My irritation vanished the next morning when in walked the young, tall, new Prime Minister of Norway, who pulled out of his pocket a pledge for $1 billion Norwegian crowns. That's 200 million Australian dollars. Two hundred million dollars from a country with a population of 4.3 million. That's what a public sector, private sector partnership can do. You imagine if that largesse had been Australian. It would be 800 million Australian dollars. Or imagine if it'd been the United States, in which case it would've been seven or eight billion. Norway and the Nordic countries in general are quite remarkable in terms of their understanding of overseas development aid, and I wish that Australia could take a leaf out of Norway's book. Our proportion of GDP that we spend in foreign aid is going down year by year.
But it doesn't stop with Norway. As soon as Norway sat down Sweden got up and said, 'Well, we also will be contributing greatly to this program, but we can't tell you how much till the budget comes down in September.' We'll wait and see. Then the Netherlands got up and the Netherlands said, 'We would like to make a large donation' but guess what (palpitations in Nossal's heart) 'We want to spend the money on research and development for new and improved vaccines.' Bill Clinton has responded to the call and has asked the Congress to appropriate 100 million dollars US per year for this program. The G8 has responded by talking about a very large fund indeed for global health, chiefly for the continent of Africa and chiefly, I must confess, for the conquest of HIV/AIDS. But a sum of 20 billion over a number of years is being talked about. What remains to be determined is how much of this is new money and also will it eventuate. Because, of course, the G8 is a debating club and it can't commit the individual governments.
But, you know, it's an amazing thing. Money does speak and Bill Gates started something. We've been trying maybe for a dozen years to achieve all of these things through UNICEF, the World Bank and so forth, and just getting a little bit down the track. Now the program has expanded enormously through this private, very visible philanthropic act.
The last thing is the promotion of research, that's the fourth aim of GAVI, for those vaccines which we don't yet have, prominently including HIV/AIDS, malaria and a better vaccine for tuberculosis, because BCG works well in infants but does not work for adult pulmonary tuberculosis. A long road ahead no reason to be anything other than optimistic, but a long road before these become a reality.
Australia And Research In Biotechnology
As Australia has been so prominent in this research, particularly towards a malaria vaccine and an HIV vaccine, this leads naturally to my final and brief topic, Australia's role in biotechnology in this new era of the human genome project. There is no doubt of our excellence in basic or fundamental medical research. Australians have four Nobel prizes in medicine. They've won any number of other great awards such as Lasker Awards of the US, the Paul Ehrlich Prize of Germany, the Royal Society Medals in the United Kingdom.
Until recently Australians were not skilful in the commercialisation of this research, but this is changing. There are some remarkable success stories to draw to your attention. Think of Biota and its drug Relenza, the first really effective anti-influenza medication in the world. Relenza has two qualities. First of all, it's quite remarkably non-toxic and, secondly, because it's so non-toxic it can be used prophylactically, and I believe will have its greatest role during any epidemic of influenza.
Think also of Cochlear Limited, the manufacturer of the so-called bionic ear, Australian invented, a constantly improving invention, a great commercial success, having 80 per cent of the world market for these aids for the profoundly deaf, a humanitarian adventure of great order, but also a big financial success. They are predicting a 20 per cent per annum growth rate into the indefinite future. Very recently think of Res-Med spun-out from the University of Sydney. It has an excellent treatment for the prevention of sleep apnoea, a serious complication of extreme obesity and also of heart disease.
Think of the work of Don Metcalf's group at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute on the so-called CSFs, wonderful aids to cancer chemotherapy and to bone marrow transplantation, particularly G-CSF which has been found to have a remarkable capacity of stimulating white cells which combat infection. Unfortunately, most of the commercial benefits of G-CSF have leaked offshore but sales are consistently above US dollars one billion per year, an entirely Australian invention. Think also of any number of hopeful start-ups in areas of heart and arterial diseases, cancer, Alzheimer's disease and more. For these start up companies there is now improved availability of venture capital, another area, I might say, that Ken Myer was very interested in.
In this era of the human genome project there will be many new targets for drug discovery, there will be many possibilities for earlier and more accurate diagnosis, particularly of cancer. There will be a future of genetic screening for disease susceptibility with all of the hazards and pitfalls which that involves, but also with very interesting perspectives for targeted prevention of disease. Australia is expert in all aspects of functional genome research. Governments are exhibiting an encouraging policy stance with regard to these developments. Although, I have to say we're waiting with very great interest the government's response to the Chief Scientist's report on the nation's science infrastructure and the response to the Innovation Taskforce Implementation Group, which Senator Minchin will shortly be handing down. I believe Australia can be a sturdy niche player in research-based pharmaceuticals and diagnostics.
And lest you think that we're only interested in pharmaceutical biotechnology, let me remind you that agricultural biotechnology is enormously important to this great exporter of food and fibre. CSIRO and the State Departments of Agriculture have an honourable position in this kind of research. The Department of Natural Resources and Environment in Victoria employs nearly 1000 scientists. I consider them to be Victoria's best-kept secret. They do wonderful work. It never gets the publicity that CSIRO does. They are improving in incremental terms our agricultural and food-based industries and their extension work to the farm door is outstanding.
Research Is An Investment
But our start in biotechnology is relatively late, in a very competitive field. We will need continued strong government encouragement. What worries me most is the higher educational sector. Universities are being asked to do more with less. Higher educational funding as a proportion of GDP and of Commonwealth outlays is falling progressively. Talk about a nation shooting itself in the foot. In the universities, particularly in some of the more basic sciences such as physics and chemistry, a sense of embattlement, frustration and low morale has become evident. Australian science and technology are critical to the lucky country's future. The tall poppies need to be nurtured and cherished, not cut down or forced overseas.
Too often in this country research and development are seen as a cost, not as a necessary investment. This same stance is also very true within Australian industry. I'm quite sure if Ken Myer were here today he would put in a plea louder and more articulate than mine for a proud, resilient, technologically aware knowledge nation, continuing its stellar performance in food, fibre, minerals and energy, while vastly boosting its efforts in high technology. Especially information and communications technologies, the sweep of which he foresaw, and biotechnology, which at the Florey Institute he nurtured and promoted so wisely and so generously. I salute his memory. I acknowledge the gifted and dedicated members of the wider Myer family here tonight and I thank you for your attention.
Sir Gustav Nossal
The Kenneth Myer Lecture
Kenneth Baillieu Myer was a good friend of the Library and Chairman of the National Library of Australia Council for eight years. As most of you know Ken and his wife Yasuko died tragically in an aircraft crash in 1992.
He was born in 1921 in the United States, the eldest son of the Australian based family of Sidney Myer, which had established the Myer department store in Melbourne.
Ken Myer’s philanthropic interests ranged across the performing arts, libraries and museums, visual arts, scientific and medical research, international relations and the environment. He served on many boards and committees in pursuit of these interests.
Ken Myer’s association with the National Library commenced in 1960 when he accepted membership of the Library’s Interim Council. Following passage of the National Library Act 1960 he became a member of the full Council and was Chairman from 1974 until 1982. His association with the Library was marked by his strong encouragement of the Library to adopt for the future, new technology and the opportunities that this offered.
His other great contributions to this Library, as to many other institutions and causes were his infectious enthusiasm and unstinting generosity.
In 1976 Kenneth Myer was created a companion of the order of Australia and, in 1989, the Australian Library and Information Association gave him its Redmond Barry Award, which goes to a lay person not employed in a Library who had rendered outstanding service to the promotion of a Library and to the practice of Librarianship.
In April 1990 the National Library launched a library support group called Friends of the National Library. Friends now have more than a thousand members from all over Australia and even some from overseas.
One of the most important activities established by the friends is this lecture series, named to honour Kenneth Myer. It was conceived as an opportunity for invited lecturers to make a significant statement on a broad subject of particular interest to them which may also relate to their background and career interests.
The Hon Gough Whitlam delivered the inaugural Kenneth Myer lecture in April 1990. Nugget Coombs, Elizabeth Reid, David McCaughey and John Mulvaney have presented other lectures.