Scientists are heroes, so let’s celebrate them:

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Professor Richard Dowell and Professor Graeme Clark with the world's first commercial multi-channel cochlear implant.

Professor Richard Dowell and Professor Graeme Clark with the world’s first commercial multi-channel cochlear implant.

AS we head into 2016, it’s time to redefine Australian exceptionalism and raise the prominence of our internationally acclaimed scientists to equal standing locally with our sports stars.

Lifesaving discoveries fighting cancer, the bionic ear allowing the profoundly deaf to hear and the elegant science behind CSL’s blood plasma help define Victoria as a world leader in medical research.

Centenary celebrations this year, honouring the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute where Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet won aNobel prize for revolutionising the understanding of our immune system and the 80th birthday of Prof Graeme Clark, inventor of the cochlear implant, or bionic ear, underscore the value of science from discovery to the commercialisation of results.

Government expenditure on science, research and innovation averages more than $9 billion annually. But less than 2 per cent is spent on commercialisation. While Australia ranks highly in academic research, it rates poorly in commercial returns, signifying why the Federal Government’s innovation policy must help Victoria translate discovery from benchtop to business.

Science is critical to new industries and jobs. During World War I, the Australian Government established the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories to ensure a reliable access to vaccines and other lifesaving biological products during times of threat. Next year CSL celebrates its centenary and evolution into a $45 billion global company exporting blood products from its manufacturing base in Broadmeadows. Yet CSL built a $500 million plant in Switzerland for three new products developed in Broadmeadows and warned a Senate inquiry last year: “Australia is a relatively unattractive location … to commercialise locally developed intellectual property into global markets.”

Premier Daniel Andrews wants Victoria to be a world leader in medical technology. The Melbourne Genomics Health Alliance, led by the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, won the second-highest amount ever, $25 million, from the National Health and Medical Research Council, then leveraged the grant through partnerships to more than $125 million.

Five months ago, I stood with the Premier and Health Minister Jill Hennessy in the rubble of the former casualty entrance to St Vincent’s Hospital when Daniel Andrews promised a $60 million contingency to build Australia’s first research and education centre for biomedical engineering.

The Premier appealed to Tony Abbott to match Victoria’s funding for the Aikenhead Centre for Medical Discovery. He didn’t. My plea to his replacement, Malcolm Turnbull, is to partner Victoria. Melbourne anchors Australia’s health innovation ecosystem. Back new medical technology and engineering in a project that will create more than 1000 jobs during development and an estimated 10,000 jobs after 15 years.

Our leading scientists are usually humble, but the results of their dedication change lives globally. Royal Parade is the gateway to our knowledge city, a “Boulevard of Big Dreams” and Innovation Walk, linking the CSIRO to Monash University, and should be expanded into a billion-dollar boulevard. Such locations could honour our scientists, inform tourists and inspire generations, just as we celebrate our sports stars with statues. The MCG Parade of Champions features statues circling the stadium: Bradman, Lillee, Matthews, to name only three. Bart Cummings and Roy Higgins grace Flemington, while Melbourne Park showcases busts of tennis champs including Rod Laver, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, Margaret Court and John Newcombe. Our scientists should be honoured in the same way — and there is no shortage of them.

Recently I bumped into Peter Doherty rushing into the institute bearing his name near Royal Parade, the everyman with a Nobel prize still striving to cure influenza. Changi prisoner of war John Cade discovered lithium was effective for manic depressive illness after trialling it on himself.

Priscilla Kincaid-Smith was the first female professor at the University of Melbourne and discovered a major cause of kidney failure in women.

Prof Ruth Bishop’s work at the Royal Children’s Hospital and University of Melbourne has helped an estimated 50 million children to be vaccinated against Rotavirus, a cause of diarrhoea that can be fatal.

Einstein Award winner Sir Gustav Nossal and IVF pioneer Prof Carl Wood should also be honoured among a long list of exceptional scientists.

Graeme Clark’s father was deaf. His invention of the bionic ear against the doubters and protesters has helped deaf people hear around the world and spawned an international enterprise. The bionic eye is on the way. Graeme Clark deserves a Nobel prize.

It’s time to give greater acknowledgment to the worth of our scientists. They have earned more than a sporting gesture.


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