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Terry Hughes is a pro­fes­sor of ma­rine bi­ol­ogy based at the Cen­tre of Ex­cel­lence for Co­ral Reef Stud­ies in Townsville, Aus­tralia. In Novem­ber, Pro­fes­sor Hughes was awarded this year’s John Mad­dox Prize, which hon­ours those who stand up for science in the face of hos­til­ity. It recog­nised the work he has done on how cli­mate change af­fects co­ral reefs de­spite fac­ing po­lit­i­cal smears, ag­gres­sion from the Aus­tralian tourist in­dus­try and at­tempts to dis­credit his re­search

Where and when were you born?

Dublin, 1956.

How has this shaped you?

I left Ire­land when I was 22, but I value my Ir­ish roots and re­turn to visit ev­ery other year or so. My pri­mary de­gree, in zo­ol­ogy from Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin, was a great foun­da­tion for the next steps in my ca­reer in the US and Aus­tralia.

What kind of un­der­grad­u­ate were you?

I was pretty se­ri­ous. On the other hand, I was asked once by a tourist if I knew the 10 best pubs in Dublin. I was able to di­rect him to all of them.

What’s your most mem­o­rable mo­ment at univer­sity?

The best part of be­ing an un­der­grad was the ma­rine bi­ol­ogy field trips – of­ten to re­mote, beau­ti­ful places on the Ir­ish coast – and [spend­ing] a sum­mer at Dis­cov­ery Bay Ma­rine Lab in Ja­maica. It was my first ex­pe­ri­ence of a co­ral reef. I was smit­ten at first sight.

How did it feel to win the John Mad­dox Prize?

I’m very hon­oured. While many peo­ple sup­port sci­en­tists speak­ing out on is­sues of pub­lic con­cern, some of us reg­u­larly face hos­til­ity, es­pe­cially in the cli­mate change space, where vested in­ter­ests con­tinue to sup­port fos­sil fu­els de­spite the threat that they pose to global sus­tain­abil­ity. The prize is em­pow­er­ing, [and] I hope it en­cour­ages other sci­en­tists to be more vo­cal in pub­lic de­bates.

Why is it im­por­tant to you to get your find­ings to the pub­lic?

Peo­ple need to know that cli­mate change is real, not some­thing that might hap­pen in the fu­ture, be­cause it is af­fect­ing all of us al­ready. My col­leagues and I re­cently mea­sured the enor­mous dam­age of un­prece­dented cli­mate ex­tremes on the Great Bar­rier Reef. Our find­ings in­flu­enced the po­lit­i­cal de­bate in Aus­tralia and else­where, re­in­forc­ing the need for ur­gent ac­tion on re­duc­ing green­house gas emis­sions.

How do you deal with at­tempts to quash or dis­credit your re­search?

I just ig­nore them. You delete abu­sive emails, block ag­gres­sive re­spon­ders on so­cial me­dia and try to fight ig­no­rance with facts.

What gives you strength in the face of ad­ver­sity?

The sup­port of my col­leagues and the ur­gency of need­ing to speak out. Now is not the time to be silent on the grave threat of cli­mate change to vul­ner­a­ble ecosys­tems and the peo­ple who de­pend on them.

What ad­vice would you give other re­searchers who face sim­i­lar smears?

It’s es­pe­cially hard on younger re­searchers to face up to pow­er­ful vested in­ter­ests like Aus­tralia’s coal in­dus­try. I would like to see a more force­ful di­a­logue from our science bod­ies and so­ci­eties, who have the au­thor­ity of their large mem­ber­ships. Speak­ing up isn’t just the re­spon­si­bil­ity of in­di­vid­u­als.

Have you had a defin­ing mo­ment in your re­search ca­reer?

Lead­ing a suc­cess­ful bid for an Aus­tralian Re­search Coun­cil Cen­tre of Ex­cel­lence in 2006, and again in 2014 [the cen­tre failed to se­cure fund­ing this year]. It al­lowed me to build the largest co­ral reef re­search cen­tre in the world. More re­cently, the tragic global-scale bleach­ing of corals in 2015 to 2017. I will never for­get [see­ing from a he­li­copter] hun­dreds of reefs at the height of the bleach­ing in 2016, when one in three corals died along the length of the Great Bar­rier Reef.

What are the best and worst things about your job?

The best things are the great

peo­ple I work with, the sus­tained sup­port we have re­ceived from the ARC, and in­ter­na­tional in­ter­est in our re­search. The worst thing is the con­tested pol­i­tics of cli­mate change and the [re­sult­ing] lack of ac­tion to curb the de­cline of the Great Bar­rier Reef.

If you were science min­is­ter for a day, what pol­icy would you in­tro­duce?

The first step would be to ap­point a science min­is­ter: we don’t ac­tu­ally have one. I would boost fund­ing for early ca­reer re­searchers and re­duce the level of po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence in re­search fund­ing.

I ig­nore those who try to dis­credit my work. You delete abu­sive emails, block ag­gres­sive re­spon­ders on so­cial me­dia and try to fight ig­no­rance with facts

If you weren’t work­ing in higher ed­u­ca­tion, what do you think you’d be do­ing?

I en­joy re­search too much to leave the sec­tor. My job is chal­leng­ing and re­ward­ing, and I hope I have helped to in­form peo­ple about the need to tackle cli­mate change. It would be harder to be out- spo­ken in Aus­tralia out­side the univer­sity sec­tor.

What sad­dens you?

The ap­a­thy and lack of re­sponse to the down­ward tra­jec­tory of the world’s co­ral reefs. The Great Bar­rier Reef has now bleached se­verely four times be­cause of global warm­ing: in 1998, 2002, 2016 and 2017. The last two events killed close to one in ev­ery two corals. Yet our state and com­mon­wealth gov­ern­ments still pro­mote the devel­op­ment of fos­sil fu­els. The reef has be­come a su­per­high­way for the ex­port of coal and fracked gas. It’s a dis­grace.

What would you like to be re­mem­bered for?

Be­ing a good hus­band and par­ent, for the science I’ve done, for sup­port­ing the next gen­er­a­tion of re­searchers, and for try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate our cli­mate change re­search to any­one who’ll lis­ten.

Anna McKie

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