You can make a difference: Nobel Laureate’s advice to graduates

Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty says all graduates can make a difference. Shutterstock

Peter Doherty delivered the following speech at a graduation ceremony at Charles Sturt University this week.

The first thing to say to new graduates is: congratulations! Special congratulations to the academic stars who aced all the exams and finished at the top of the list. And congratulations to those who partied a lot, had a great time and still managed to make it through. Both groups will have learned valuable, though perhaps different, skills. Congratulations also to the families, parents and significant others who supported you through these years. Sometimes you could no doubt be trying, but all is forgiven! It’s time to celebrate!

Most of the graduation addresses I’ve given have been in the USA, where this occasion is known as “Commencement”. There’s a ceremony like this, and the band plays Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, which most Australians of my generation know as the most jingoistic of all English songs, “Land of hope and glory”. Once, I was totally upstaged when two of us gave “Commencement” talks one after the other. I spoke first then the black American singer/poet Maya Angelou stood up and, instead of talking, sang. It was fantastic!

Commencement is a good word though, because that’s what graduation is, a beginning. You’ve hopefully learned some skills and you are leaving the undergraduate world with a valued certificate that has taken a deal of effort to achieve. That is an ending, but it’s not the end in any sense. What counts now is how you use what you’ve learned. Where do you go from here? Some will have learned very practical skills that can be applied immediately.

Others might be moving to postgraduate courses in medicine or other aspects of the caring professions. Those paths can be very straightforward and give a life of great satisfaction. Others will be thinking of many different options and some will gravitate to areas where they had never contemplated working. I graduated in veterinary science and had no thought of being involved in basic biomedical research, but that’s where I ended up.

Thinking of the USA and Australia, the challenges and opportunities can be both similar and different. With 300 million plus people in the USA, there is obviously much more diversity of (and opportunity in) business activity. The USA also has a much greater proportion of its population living in inland cities and small towns. Some of their top institutions, like Cornell and many of the big state university campuses, are in country towns. That’s partly a consequence of the landscape, but it is also obvious that Australia would do well to decentralize, a development that could be greatly enhanced by ultrafast internet availability and developments like high speed, inter city rail.

We have a great and unique country: 23 million people in a land mass that is the same size as the continental United States. How we use that resource will obviously influence our future as a nation, and that’s where some of you will undoubtedly find your career paths. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Australia’s future must be progressively decoupled from fossil fuel exports. That creates big challenges, but it should also suggest opportunities, particularly in the agriculture, energy and tourism sectors. Some of you will be well qualified to take those on.

Are we making the best possible use of our land and water resources? Are they being exploited in a sustainable way? Here there must be opportunities for innovative thinking, inventiveness and dedicated effort. And don’t give up on the political process! I’m sure all of you are registered to vote, but it is the case that many young Australians have not taken that step. Anyone who thinks that his or her vote does not count need only look at the policy differences between the present and immediately past federal governments. Being able to vote in a democratic election is a precious right that must be preserved. And, if you don’t like the way the political parties are currently operating, get involved and change that equation.

Partly because of the nature of the media and the incredible diversity of content (from great information to dangerous nonsense) that’s available via Google, there is a general concern that the era of the Enlightenment that has so driven human progress over the past 350 plus years may be coming to an end. Is there a general “retreat from reason”? Of course, none of us operate solely by reason and we would be intolerable if we did. But facile myth and lies crafted by professionals to serve the interests of those who can never have enough wealth and power can, if we are to continue to prosper, be no substitute for a dedication to evidence based reality. That is the tradition universities exemplify: we lose faith with ourselves and with the culture of western civilization if we fail to embrace that truth.

A university education provides particular skills depending on your subject area. What it should also convey in every faculty is a commitment to skepticism and evidence-based reality. The first question on hearing some controversial claim or viewpoint should always be: what’s the evidence?“ Then, "how good is the evidence?” And finally, “has the evidence been interpreted correctly?” Apply that filter to what we hear and see and we will continue to enjoy life in a vibrant, and inclusive democracy. Whether you’re on a school committee, a local council or have input on a larger scale, applying the skepticism/evidence rule and taking the time to convince those around you is likely to lead to more substantial and more sustainable outcomes.

One final point I’d like to make is that there’s a place for each and every one of us when it comes to preserving the uniqueness and (at times) harsh beauty of the country we call home. Some few of you may be able to serve that goal as farmers, pastoralists, environmental scientists, field zoologists, botanists and so forth, but that type of opportunity won’t be available to most. That doesn’t mean, though, that you can’t play a part in agitating to preserve good agricultural land and water resources, in protecting native flora and fauna and in the continuation of appealing landscapes.

Perhaps your choice might be to work via local politics, or to become involved in the activity we’ve come to call “citizen science”. Examples are spending a bit of time counting birds for researchers associated with organisations like Birdlife Australia, watching for (and reporting on) illegal dumping or river degradation, or picking your own target in nature to monitor and record via organisations like Earth Watch. The natural world that sustains us has never been in more need of our help and, whether we act as professionals or part-timers, there are plenty of ways to become involved. Be an actor, not a spectator!