The annual Eureka Prizes and why they are important

There was a time when I wasn’t convinced scientific prizes were a good idea. Science is a team process that takes years, with each advance building on the work of often forgotten past contributors. Beyond that do we need fancy prize nights? Shouldn’t there be at least one domain of human endeavour where substance is more important than style – can’t we just let our scientific results speak for themselves?

In theory yes, but in practice science relies on public and political support, and it is vitally important that the message gets out to influence policy, to inspire the next generation of scientists to keep working on the hard things (like maths), to ensure the stability of public and also private philanthropic and industry funding, and to make deeper connections between researchers in different disciplines and different types of institutions.

The annual Eureka Prize dinner, run by the Australian Museum, is remarkable in recognising the importance of having a first rate, perhaps even flashy and glamorous, event, that properly celebrates the importance of science (Disclosure – I’m on the Australian Museum Trust and love the Museum).

The ABC Radio National science broadcaster Robyn William established the Eureka Prizes 30 years ago. To some people’s horror the evening was dubbed the ‘Oscars of Science’. It is a red carpet, black tie and ball gown event that works hard to show that scientists are not always nerdy, introverted and awkward back room creatures, shy of the limelight.

Here’s a list of some good things about it:

  1. Finalists and their supporters, past winners, prize sponsors, prominent scientists and others who serve as judges, and people in leadership positions are invited. The hosts Adam Spencer and Tracey Holmes are always brilliantly witty. It’s fun and a great annual get together.
  2. It brings political leaders together with science and scientists. This year there were brief speeches from the Governor of NSW Margaret Beazley, two members of NSW Parliament, the Museum’s minister Don Harwin, and the Innovation Minister Matt Kean, the Federal Minister for Science, Industry and Technology Karen Andrews, and others such as the Chief Scientist Alan Finkel and the Chief Defence Scientist Tanya Monro presented prizes.
  3. It celebrates primary school and secondary school science via the University of Sydney Sleek Geeks Prize for a short video. The videos are always inspiring and are shown on the night and are available here (and immodestly I cannot avoid mentioning I helped set up this particular award format 15 years ago now).
  4. It helps get scientific achievements out to the public via media coverage. Each year media outlets, such as The Conversation, provide comprehensive coverage and the television news reporters tend to show one or two prizes, helped by videos commissioned by the Australian Museum. (I’ve borrowed The Conversation’s photo for this blog post).
  5. Scientists from across disciplines and institutions are brought together. A lot is said about interdisciplinary research but it’s also important to get researchers who work in universities, medical research institutions, government departments, the CSIRO, ANSTO, the Bureau of Meteorology, the Astronomical Observatories, and marine science, defence, hospital, and museum, zoo and botanical garden research centres all into the same room. It is rare to get everyone together.
  6. It helps the careers of successful individuals and teams, supporting them, enabling and even implicitly pressuring them to deliver more good stuff in the future. All the winners are good and officially celebrating their achievements almost certainly helps them to build up future research support for their important endeavours.
  7. It’s not just about ‘eureka’ moments and individual achievements. The awards take into account the priorities of sponsors who help fund the event and the prizes. The Australian Museum is careful in accepting sponsorship and having external sponsors has provided new perspectives. In addition to expected prizes for excellent science in areas like the environment, data science, infectious diseases, use of technology, and interdisciplinary work, there are also awards for mentorship, inclusion, leadership, science communication, journalism, and thanks to the Finkel Foundation, this year a new prize for long form science writing.

So what was my favourite moment?

I have to say I love it when Museum research is celebrated. The Australian Museum has primary responsibilities for maintaining collections, communicating to the public and also for doing cutting edge research. This year the FrogID project won the award for citizen science. This project involves an App that allows users to record frog calls and send them in for identification. In the first year of operation 66,000 calls were received, covering 175 of Australia’s 240 frog species. This included information on 28 threatened species. It also defined the expanding range of the invasive pest, the cane toad, and sadly the receding range of the large tree frog, that is still found in Sydney but no longer breeds here. So all we get to see are the old ageing frogs that may live for 30 years and represent the last of their communities here.

I also had the privilege to present the Australian Museum Research Institute medal that went to Mark McGrouther. He has curated the fish collection for more than 30 years and set up the Australasian Fishes citizen science project using the iNaturalist platform. The museum has the fourth largest fish collection in the world and the citizen science project includes 60,000 observations of 2000 species. As I said on the night, some of you ate the barramundi – but how do you know it was barramundi – Mark McGrouther was probably the best person in the room to make sure.

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