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?
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.