Nobel Prize Summit speaker Peter Doherty was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1996 for his research on cell mediated immune defence. Although known for his work in viral immunity Doherty began his career training to be a veterinarian and retains his interest in agriculture and environment.
We spoke with him about the challenges our planet faces – and the lessons the pandemic has taught us about facing them.
The theme of the Nobel Prize Summit is ‘Our Planet, Our Future’. From your perspective what do you see as the biggest threats to our future on the planet?
Peter Doherty: The threats to the future of humanity on the planet are very complex. We’ve just had a short, sharp threat from COVID-19. It’s a threat that will pass with vaccines and with the natural course of infection. The much greater threat is of course that from anthropogenic climate change where the planet, due to accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, is inexorably warming. This is cumulative. There is no easy way to reverse it and we should be taking steps now to do everything possible we can do to stop putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. There are many things driving this – population increase, a drive for better lifestyles and better ways of life. But we have to change. There are possibilities for change, but they are difficult and require behavioural change, not just technological solutions.
How can we take steps forward to address these threats that we face?
Human beings are extremely inventive and we can change, and we know that, but we need political will. We need a good level of understanding on the part of our populations, and we need to start acting now. We need to stop or back off as quickly as possible from burning fossil fuels. We have to move aggressively in that direction. We also have to look very aggressively at possible technological solutions. We may have to resort to try to take these gases out of the atmosphere.
Part of the problem is that vested interests in many countries have been driving resistance to change. The phenomenon of greenwash associated with the oil industry is extremely well known now. So we have to be aware of this. We don’t particularly trust many of our global institutions I fear. This is somewhere where we need true leadership but where exactly that comes from is not so clear.
Right now we’re seeing science playing an important role in helping the world to respond to COVID-19. What lessons do you think we can draw from this pandemic for the future?
It’s been very interesting. COVID-19 is a vast experiment. In fact, we’ve never done this experiment before. From the pandemic we’ve learned a number of things, and from different countries we’ve learned different things since many countries have done different experiments. Island states like Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan have been able to shut their borders and effectively keep most of it out. But then we’ve also seen what happened in the United States.
We’ve seen the consequences of extremely bad leadership. We’ve seen the consequences of polarised political and ideological issues. As we see this with COVID-19, we realise that these are going to be major problems as we try to do something about climate change. People will resist the taking away of their liberty to drive gas guzzling vehicles and so forth. We have major problems and the human condition is such that one at times wonders whether we can do this.
Science communication is something that you’re very much involved in. Do you think there have been lessons learnt around this during the pandemic?
Someone like me, who’s a scientist, lives their life with a respect for evidence and a willingness to overturn our views when the evidence changes – that’s basically characteristic of the scientist. Politicians find that very frustrating. We’re telling them one thing, and then the data changes and we’re telling them something slightly different. They simply can’t get this as an idea. It’s a great difficulty.
The problem is that much of the time, the people who speak like me, they’re communicating at most with 20% of the population. We try to get the language right but people much prefer being told what they want to hear than a difficult message they don’t want to hear. It’s only when we actually get a crisis as we have with COVID-19 that you start to get a great number of people listening.
Do you think there’s a way that scientists can better communicate these ideas?
I think the democratisation of information exchange is really significant. I have a lot of hope. I think the generations coming up now are much less likely to be sexist in their attitudes for instance than the generation I grew up in. They are much less likely to discriminate against various sets of people. I always talk to my younger colleagues and when I’m talking to students, I say what’s really important for you is to become an ambassadors for an evidence-based view and for science. You don’t need to present it as such, but if you’ve got good material, you can put in YouTube videos, you can make a rock song, or a computer game to get these ideas across. The ideas we need to get across are of relative risk and probability. That’s particularly true for COVID-19. The public communication space is very difficult but I think the more we can spread that out, the more we can get young people using those various interconnections the better.
Read more about the Nobel Prize Summit, which took place on 26-28 April 2021.