Science in Charlie Teo’s Australia Day address


In his Australia Day address, noted brain surgeon Charlie Teo said he was ashamed to admit to an American friend, who had received a US$50 million grant in the US to study brain cancer, that he works with just AU$150,000 over three years from the Australian government.

Teo says we need another AIS – one for sport, one for science.

And he contrasts Australia’s mentorship of cricket legend Steve Waugh with our support for bright young scientists.

Here’s an extract of the sciencey bits of Teo’s Australia Day address.

A full transcript is in the Daily Telegraph –

Charlie Teo says:

I am at an enviable stage of my professional life. With my international reputation I am fortunate enough to be invited to lecture, operate, direct courses and spend time in foreign neurosurgical programs as visiting professor.

I see it as an opportunity to keep abreast of current trends in clinical medicine and basic science research and in so doing, ensure that Australian patients with neurosurgical conditions are getting the very best the world has to offer.

An unexpected consequence is that it exposes me firsthand to the enormous disparity in scientific funding between Australia and the USA, Japan, Germany, Sweden and many of the other OECD countries.

My good friend and colleague, Prof. Mitch Berger was recently awarded a SPORE grant of $50 million a year for 5 years to be spent on brain cancer research only. He was so impressed with the volume and quality of work I was doing in Sydney, he sent his chief resident to spend 6 months learning my minimally invasive techniques.

When he asked how much funding I received from my government, I was ashamed to say only $150,000 over three years.

He was totally shocked. The USA and California specifically has shown tremendous foresight in their approach to scientific research.

A recent meeting I attended in California on stem cell research was the perfect illustration of this disparate approach to scientific excellence.

I was impressed that the Australian scientists at the meeting could hold their own when it came to innovative ideas and universal knowledge of stem cell therapeutics.

I was equally disappointed to hear that our funding of stem cell research, although not as dismal as brain cancer research, was poor.

One of the greatest gifts given to humanity by a few socially responsible corporations and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, maybe not on the same level as “I’ll be back”, was a $3 billion grant for stem cell research.

Australia has a perfect opportunity to ensure our children and their children will see a bright future.

The wealth generated by the current mining boom should be seen as an opportunity to build the foundations of the next boom, the mind boom.

We have the scientists. We have some of the most inquisitive minds in the world. We clearly have the resources.

All we need is the insight and foresight to put our resources to good use. Of course this has long term benefits in sustaining and growing our economy.

As they say, you don’t need to be a brain surgeon to know these things.

Since returning to Australia I have had the privilege of collaborating with some of the best scientific minds in the world.

Dr Kerrie McDonald, who heads the brain cancer wing of the Lowy Cancer Institute, Professor Phil Hogg at the University of New South Wales, and many others, lead the world in their innovation and curiosity.

They do so at times at the expense of their personal lives, with few accolades or acknowledgments and poor funding and remuneration.

Many have left for greener pastures; many have been culled through lack of funding. These are the unsung heroes.

These are the minds that will take Australia from being the greatest place to live, to being, simultaneously, the greatest place to work.

We have a history of being able to identify talent, nurture it and reward it.

We have done it so well in the sporting arena, there is no reason we can’t do it in the scientific arena.

Steve Waugh is an iconic Australian.

At an early stage his skills were identified and nurtured.

He was rewarded by the Australian public as Australian of the Year and as an officer of the Order of Australia.

He has inspired generations of Australian children and has given back to the world, through his charities, in innumerable ways.

He is, on top of all of that, an incredibly humble man. He would be the first to acknowledge that he is no better an Australian than Kerrie McDonald or Phil Hogg.

If we take this winning template that we use for talented sportsmen, and translate it to our talented scientists, Australians will benefit immeasurably now and in the future.

One day we might have two AIS, one for sport and one for science.

Indeed, with diminishing resources and a technological revolution, it may not simply be good for our country, it may be necessary for our country.

And medicine is only one field in which Australians may lead the world.

Recently I have had the good fortune of being involved with Voiceless, an organisation that is campaigning to have animals treated with respect and compassion.

Inspired by the passion of the Sherman family, Voiceless is working to ensure that animal protection is the next great social justice movement.

A few years ago, Barry Kelly, another Australian icon, one of the first RAAF fighter pilots ever to be invited to train at the Top Gun academy, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour.

Facing deadly forays was part of his daily routine but, with 3 beautiful young children and an unknown enemy, he was about to face his deadliest encounter.

Supported by his wife Jill, he rejected the grim prognosis given to him by his doctors and asked if I could remove the tumour.

Courageously, he chose the path less trod, had the tumour removed and is alive and tumour free today.

In true Aussie spirit, not one to take and not give back, he has made the largest personal donation to the Cure for Life Foundation and continues to support brain cancer research passionately.

But I am most indebted to Barry for asking me to join him in walking the Kokoda track. I

Initially I saw it as an exercise in male-bonding and a physical challenge. But having walked the track with Charlie Lynn who explains the military history and significance of the track, I honestly believe it is a necessary part of being Australian.

Kokoda serves as a cogent reminder of our responsibility to fellow Australians and fellow human beings.

Our forefathers sacrificed their lives for our current way of life. Young boys lied about their age to fight for this country.

The track is full of stories that illustrate the sacrifice, courage, endurance and mateship that contributed to the success of the campaign and the freedoms that we enjoy today.

Australia is a great country. Although my professional career might have been smoother in the USA, my roots are here, the people with whom I relate best are here and my future is here.

Generations of Aussies before gave us the foundations onto which we may construct an even greater nation.

One that is both culturally and socially sensitive and tolerant, one that acknowledges a responsibility to our own people as well as our near and distant neighbours who are less fortunate than us and one that identifies, nurtures and rewards scientific, economic, technological and environmental curiosity and innovation.

We have the potential to reverse the preconception that one needs to go elsewhere for the best medical care.

I have had the privilege of teaching neurosurgeons from all over the world, including the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and Johns Hopkins University, Stanford University and UCSF in America.

Patients fly in from every continent to get the most minimally invasive neurosurgical procedures and I am able to disseminate that knowledge to surgeons from developing countries.

I hope that I may serve as an example of what Australians may achieve with the support of fellow Australians.

I reassure you that if we give our scientists the same support, emotionally and financially, Australia and the world will reap the benefits.