Senior Australian of the Year 2018

Dr Graham Farquhar, one of our most eminent and awarded scientists, has been named Senior Australian of the Year for his work researching food security and how the world will feed itself into the future.

The Tasmanian-born biophysicist’s work is considered extremely important as his research examines how we can prepare for the effects of climate change on crops, including developing strains of wheat which can survive with less water.

Currently working at the Australian National University of Canberra on an Emeritus basis, 70-year-old Farquhar admits he’s “slowing down a bit” but also says there are still “a lot more things to do.”

So, was he surprised to win Senior Australian of the Year? “It wasn’t something that had occurred to me. The Australia Day people actually do keep it a secret and I had no idea — they keep their confidentiality pretty well. It makes it more exciting.”

A great achievement so far

On his scientific achievements so far, Dr Farquhar says, “I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked hard, and I may have been clever in picking good colleagues and staff. I really do enjoy what I’m doing and I’ve enjoyed it for many years.”

“Plants are probably photosynthesising now more than they have for many years. There’s more carbon dioxide in the air and the ocean’s taking some of it up but plants are taking it up as well. They need less water to grow so we do have the greatest rate of photosynthesis for several hundred thousand years — or at the least — for one hundred thousand years,” he says of his work.

“With global warming, there’s a tendency to notice the heatwaves and the droughts. Here we have something that’s positive at this stage but it’s possible it could be negative later. There are issues that are very unclear. One that I’ve been researching is if water’s limiting — what plants will grow with greater water sufficiency?”

A string of awards

This isn’t the first recognition Dr Farquhar has received in recent years: He was awarded  the Prime Minister's Prize for Science in 2015, and last year became the first Australian to win a Kyoto Prize — the most prestigious international award for fields not traditionally honoured with a Nobel Prize.

When asked how he feels about winning these awards, Dr Farquhar laughs, “It could be according to the Matthew Principle: ‘Unto him that hath, shall be given!’”

“There are lots of deserving people who may not get the same recognition,” he adds. “Some of the awards tend to come later in the career rather than earlier, after you’ve notched up a bit of work. 

In his father’s footsteps

Dr Farquhar says he was definitely inspired by his father’s work. “My father was a district Agricultural Officer and he later moved to work at the CSIRO. I admired him as a kid — I’d say I wanted to be a scientist like my Dad. In our minds, he was a scientist.”

But what does the future hold? Dr Farquhar says, “Certainly my science will have to slow down a bit this year and there’s only 24 hours in a day. 

He’s very keen to finish writing biographical notes about his first mentor, Ralph Slatyer, who was Australia’s first Chief Scientist. He also wants to forge ahead with some new scientific projects including one on forest growth and plans to continue his current research into plant photosynthesis and climate change.

No slowing down

While it doesn’t sound as if there’s going to be an around-the-world cruise for Dr Farquhar where he can put up his feet and rest for a bit, he’s going to be doing the work he loves as he endeavours to solve some of the greatest challenges facing our generation.

As the National Australia Day Council Chair, Danielle Roche OAM, said as she congratulated all the Australian of the Year award recipients, "Michelle, Eddie, Graham, and Samantha are inspirational Australians whose contributions are making our wonderful nation a better place and making a real difference to the lives of others.”

"They are breaking down barriers, forging new futures, looking at old problems in different ways, and creating new pathways. They are a truly extraordinary group of people, and through their success, they remind us we all have something to contribute,” she added.

To learn more about this year’s winners, visit the Australian of the Year Awards.