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Address by the Governor-General on the occasion of the Annual Dinner of the Royal Society of New South Wales.



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SPEECH

ADDRESS BY HIS EXCELLENCY MAJOR GENERAL MICHAEL JEFFERY AC CVO MC

GOVERNOR-GENERAL OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF AUSTRALIA

ON THE OCCASION OF

ANNUAL DINNER OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF NEW SOUTH WALES FORUM RESTAURANT, DARLINGTON CENTRE, UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY

11 MARCH 2005

Mrs Karina Kelly, President, The Royal Society of New South Wales, and Professor Peter Williams Distinguished scientists, including award winners Ladies and gentlemen

Marlena and I are delighted to be here this evening as guests of The Royal Society of New South Wales, one of the great Australian learned institutions founded in the 19th century.

I look forward to presenting awards to three distinguished scientists.

For generations, The Royal Society has helped popularise science and the social sciences and given them an imprimatur within the wider Australian community.

Indeed, in many ways, most of our population now takes for granted that so much is possible and achievable; that solutions can be found to overcome the many formidable challenges we continue to face as a nation and indeed, as a globe.

What are just some of these challenges? As I see it:

� Population;

� Water resources;

� Global warming;

� Clean energy;

� Salinity;

� HIV/AIDS, and

� Obesity - Diabetes

I would like to say a few words about each of these matters.

Ladies and gentlemen.

Nearly half the world’s population still has to make do on less than $2 per day. Approximately 1.2 billion people - of whom 500 million are in South Asia and 300 million in Africa - struggle on less than $1 a day. People living in Africa south of the Sahara are almost as poor today as they were twenty years ago.

The United Nations 2004 revision of its population projections, notes that while the population at the global level continues to increase, that of the more developed regions as a whole is hardly changing, and virtually all population growth is occurring in the less developed regions. Especially rapid population growth characterises the world’s fifty least developed countries.

By July this year, the world is expected to have 6.5 billion inhabitants, 380 million more than in 2000 or a gain of 76 million annually.

Between 2005 and 2050, the population is projected to at least triple in Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Timor-Leste, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger and Uganda.

During 2005 to 2050, eight countries are expected to account for half of the world’s projected population increase: namely, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Uganda, the USA, Ethiopia and China.

As the world population continues to grow geometrically, great pressure is being placed on arable land, water, energy, and biological resources to provide an adequate supply of food, whilst maintaining the integrity of our ecosystem.

According to the World Bank and the United Nations, between one and two billion humans are malnourished, indicating a combination of insufficient food, low incomes, and interestingly, inadequate storage, refrigeration and transport distribution arrangements. This is the largest number of hungry humans ever recorded in history.

Further, the one billion people living in developed countries earn 60 per cent of the world’s income, while the 3.5 billion people in low-income countries earn less than 20 per cent. Understandably, these imbalances help contribute to world and regional instability. So what are the implications for science?

How can Australian science, linked where possible with overseas scientific bodies, help better feed the world’s starving? Agricultural biotechnology, including arid area famring technologies, improved seed lines, superior water management, fertiliser development, machinery innovation, and information technology are just a handful of the essential tools for improving food yield and quality.

And in a nation such as India, where about 20 to 30 per cent of its agricultural food production rots before reaching even its local market destinations, more effort must be made to improve refrigeration and transport systems.

Ladies and gentlemen.

Here in Australia, the statisticians project that the number of Australians aged 65 and over is expected to increase rapidly, from around 2.5 million three years ago to 6.2 million in 2042. In 2002 there were more than five people of working age to support every person aged over 65. By 2042, there will only be 2.5 people.

Apart from the challenges of providing appropriate care and services in an ageing society, these evolving circumstances raise many other questions. Will current approaches to ‘through life’ education and training provide all Australians with the opportunity to reach their potential?

How are the social sciences adapting to our rapidly changing world - how are they measuring and interpreting (for the longer-term) early childhood intervention and mid and later-life training opportunities to enable people to remain productive?

Ladies and gentlemen. We all know how much

water quantity and geographic availability is a significant concern for Australia.

There may be scope in the future to broaden the national water agenda to consider northern Australian water resources that may be under-utilised, although I understand that the potential is yet not fully assessed. Climate change predictions that rainfall in South Western Australia may reduce by up to a further 20% are of concern.

On an optimistic note, as reported today, tests on a vast underground aquifer, earmarked to help solve Western Australia’s water crisis, have found it holds 800,000 billion litres of water - almost twice as much as previously thought.

Should greater focus be applied to national development of water resources in the north and west where 50 per cent of our surface water is located? How might this be linked with population, security, energy and regional development issues? What might this mean for environmental and social agendas for Australia’s future?

Of concern also is the rapid march of salinity; particularly in Western Australia where it is increasing at the rate of one football ground per hour.

In a global sense, whilst the world’s population has tripled in the last century, the use of scarce water resources has grown sixfold.

Today’s world water crisis is defined by insufficient access to safe drinking water for over one billion people, and inadequate sanitation for half the world’s population.

What is the potential of biological controls to keep water supplies clean? And in agriculture, can new drought-resistant plants make water use far more efficient? I understand that some countries are now treating waste water so that it can be used - and drunk - several times over.

One of the most perplexing questions in the 21st century is the issue of global warming. Regardless of differing views about the much-quoted Kyoto agreement, the fact remains that large developing nations such as China and India have a huge continuing and expanding demand for energy.

It has been estimated that by 2025, China, already the world's second biggest emitter of CO2, is expected to emit more carbon dioxide than the current combined total of the United States, Japan and Canada. Sobering figures indeed.

On the other hand, Lord Browne, Group Chief Executive of BP, in his article Beyond Kyoto, published by the Council on Foreign Affairs contends that “nobody knows how rapidly emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will rise in the future. This depends on the pace of global economic growth and on the impact of technology on the ways society generates and deploys useful energy. Equally, it is impossible to determine precisely how the climate will respond as greenhouse gases accumulate to ever-higher concentrations in the atmosphere. Nor is it known how the world’s carbon cycle will respond.”

It seems highly probable that emissions from developing or transitional countries, such as China, will continue to rise as economic activity and incomes grow. The scale of the challenge is enormous but then again, so is the capacity to find solutions through technological innovation.

Some of the ‘keys’ to clean energy development may include:

• artificial photosynthesis - a process that mimics or enhances the conversion of sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and stored chemical energy to make fuel and fertilisers;

• hydrogen fusion - the coming together of four hydrogen nuclei to make a helium nucleus - a fusion cycle that releases energy that can be captured;

• clean coal technology - turning coal into gas and ‘cleaning’ it before burning, to provide energy, and thereby reducing the production of carbon dioxide; and

• nuclear - a large-scale, affordable energy source which does not produce emissions when generating electricity.

But finally, as Lord Browne notes, “certainty and perfection have never figured prominently in the story of human progress.”

Ladies and gentlemen.

I am sure we all recall the images of fear in the 1980s AIDS television awareness campaign. Striking stuff, and in hindsight, probably a reasonable reaction to what we then knew about HIV/AIDS.

In 2005, it would appear that the sheer magnitude of the problem seems to have overshadowed the pathology of the disease. Consider Sub-Saharan Africa where an estimated 25.4 million people are living with HIV and approximately 3.1 million new infections occurred in 2004.

In the past year the epidemic has claimed the lives of an estimated 2.3 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa. Around 2 million children under 15 are living with HIV and more than twelve million children have been orphaned by AIDS.

In the absence of massively expanded prevention, treatment and care efforts, the AIDS death toll on the continent is expected to continue rising before peaking around the end of the decade.

Such critical circumstances are not confined to Africa. In the Asia Pacific region, an estimated 8.2 million people have HIV/AIDS, and unless checked, the region could become a major epicentre of the virus.

One could not but be moved by the words of a field worker stationed in Papua New Guinea, and read by our Foreign Affairs Minister at a conference earlier this week.

The statement highlighted the ‘cultural shame’ - and the ignorance - for a family whose daughter had died from AIDS; of taking the body under cover of darkness to be buried in an unmarked bush grave, without the traditional ceremony of burial; of parents carrying their private secret, pretending to villagers that their daughter was alive; who had simply moved away.

The social and economic consequences of HIV/AIDS are already being felt widely, not only in health, but also in education, industry, agriculture, transport, human resources and the economy in general.

The Australian Government has, this week, announced a new $3 million funding round - to increase opportunities for Australian community organisations and professional associations with specialist expertise in HIV/AIDS to research and work with like-minded counterparts in the region.

Ladies and gentlemen.

There is an issue in Australia that continues to be of concern to me - the increasing number of overweight and obese children.

It’s estimated that more than 20 per cent of Australians aged 18 or under - that’s about 1.5 million kids - are overweight or obese. This condition is common, but the condition varies from individual to individual.

At one end of the spectrum, a healthy weight can be attained by cutting down on certain foods, taking smaller portions, and embarking on a regimen of regular exercise. A change in diet and exercise are the proper interventions because they work.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is another population of overweight people who do not respond as well to these interventions. We all know of someone who tries diligently to lose weight but who experiences limited success or loses weight only to gain it back over time.

What is different about these people compared to those who either stay thin or lose weight readily and keep it off with relatively minor lifestyle changes? In a scientific sense, does one’s genetic map influence the likelihood of obesity?

An increasing number of obese children are contracting Type 2 diabetes - something virtually unknown just ten years ago.

Quite apart from the increased risk of them immediately contracting Type 2, obese children are more likely to become obese adults - leaving themselves vulnerable to the wide range of health problems that go with it.

The pressure on our health system - including the cost to taxpayers - resulting from rising rates of

diabetes is, of course, another compelling factor.

Curing and eliminating diabetes in Australia is obviously a huge task, and it will require a strategic and multi-pronged approach, by a broad alliance of people, including medical scientists, over many years.

Ladies and gentlemen. It could be easy to become a little pessimistic in the light of issues I have spoken of this evening and to other contemporary challenges not mentioned.

But I am optimistic about the future, and it is within this context that I am highly supportive of The Royal Society of New South Wales.

Your organisation has the capacity and networks to continue motivating scientific endeavour in health technology, agricultural and environmental sustainability, and to contribute publicly to national and regional debate on social and economic issues, including population.

But there is more. I am especially interested in mentoring programs for promising science students; in the power of suitable mentors to transform lives, stimulating individuals to a lifetime of participation in science.

As I mentioned at the reception in Sydney last December for the Royal Societies in Australia, I see great value in your organisation being involved; in encouraging both practising and retired scientists to mentor; men and women who can foster a love of scientific research and learning in young minds - well chosen scientists who can open doors that will never close.

Madam President, I commend your Society’s collegiate approach in seeking to advance the objectives of science in the Australian community, and to elevate the knowledge and appeal of scientific research and discovery. You continue to do this through the publishing of results of scientific investigations, liaising with other scientific bodies, and recognising scientific achievement (as we will do shortly).

I will continue to take a keen interest in your progress and to play my part in the development of Australia as a nation of excellence.

Thank you.