mssi logo

Speaking up

As Peter Doherty sees it, science is under siege. The rich and powerful are not listening to what scientists are saying – and the ramifications are serious.

Doherty (pictured on left), a biomedical scientist who won the Nobel Prize for his work on immunity to viruses, thinks scientists have an obligation to speak out publicly. Sustainability and climate change are big issues for him.

“What science is telling us about what we’ve been doing to the natural world is suddenly a big problem,” he says from his office at the University of Melbourne.  “Unless we change the way we do things, we’re in real trouble.”

Doherty has written books and articles on sustainability, and spoken in the media. He’s appeared in The Monthly, on Lateline, and spoken at the Festival of Ideas. He chairs the board of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Systems Science and advises the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute. In 2014 he signed an open letter to Prime Minister Tony Abbott calling for climate change to be put on the G20 agenda (it was). He’s fearless on Twitter, where @ProfPCDoherty has 5000 followers.

“The people in science need to speak out,” says Doherty, who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1996 (shared with Rolf M. Zinkernagel) and was Australian of the Year in 1997. “We all need to be communicating.”

Doherty’s next book, due in 2015, looks at knowledge and power. He thinks the two have come into conflict, and looks at why those with knowledge have been sidelined. He also raises doubts about capitalism.

“To some extent, the nature of our contemporary capitalist culture, with the focus only on growth, not on sustainability, is analogous to cancer … If all we value is consumption, I think we’re lost.”

“Unless we change the way we do things, we’re in real trouble.”

If this seems a long way from his publications on microbiology and immunology, Doherty, who works at the University’s new Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, says there’s a tradition of biomedical scientists like Sir Macfarlane Burnet and Frank Fenner taking a broader view. They’re trained to see humans as balanced ecosystems, which resonates with the idea of a sustainable society and planet. And Doherty says the practice of medicine is based in “duty of care”, a principle he thinks should be extended to the health and wellbeing of the atmosphere, oceans, rivers and soils that sustain all life.

He’s also across more recent trends. Doherty would like to run a production studio to make videos about scientific research, and tells his students to post their own versions to YouTube. “I’ve suggested they could become the Kim Kardashians of science.”

Doherty’s calls for politicians to listen to scientists may not always succeed, but he’s not stopping. “You have to try. What can you do but try?” he says.


Watch Peter Doherty speak on climate change at Melbourne’s Festival of Ideas.

Watch Doherty speak to ABC Lateline about cuts to science funding and the need for science literacy in the community.


Professor of Microbiology and Immunology


Nobel Laureate