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School of Computer and Security Science; Engineering; Exercise and Health Sciences and Natural Sciences - Occasional Speaker

Sunday, 20 January 2013, 3.00pm

Emeritus Professor Tony Watson


The Chancellor, the Honourable Dr Hendy Cowan, the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Kerry Cox, distinguished guests, colleagues, parents and friends of the graduates and  importantly the graduates of ECU who I congratulate on your success which brings you here today.

Firstly I want to say how honoured I am today to be awarded the status of Emeritus Professor at Edith Cowan University and to also be awarded an Honorary Doctorate. I have enjoyed my 37 year career at ECU and have witnessed considerable transformation of ECU and its predecessor institutions as well as major changes to higher education worldwide during this period. I believe the outcome has been very positive on a global scale.

You have been given the opportunity of education in a good Australian University and today we celebrate your success. Education should be a transformational activity whether it is for the individual, the family, your community or even the country as a whole. Our future will depend upon some major transformations and it is some of you here today who will provide that leadership.

Today I will outline a couple of examples of how global education has transformed our lives and leave you with the challenges for the future changes required to maintain liveable societies on planet earth.

Let me take you back to January 1918 when the first signs of the world's worst pandemic were recorded. It was later called the "Spanish Flu" - largely incorrectly because the most virulent strain was first  detected in France, the USA  and Sierra Leone and was only  later detected in Spain. Spain at that time had no world war I censorship as other countries did so the details of the deadly influenza were published in newspapers via the Spanish press eventually providing world wide awareness of the pandemic issue.

What was the impact of this influenza? This pandemic has been described as "the greatest medical holocaust in history" and is thought to have killed more people than the Black Death or Great Plague as it was known. It is claimed that the Spanish flu killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS has killed in 24 years and more deaths in a year than the Black Death killed in a century.

The effect was devastating with a global impact and a mortality rate with an estimated 10% to 20% of those who were infected dying. With about a third of the world population infected, this fatality ratio means somewhere between 3% to 6% of the entire global population died. This Influenza may have killed as many as 25 million people in its first 25 weeks. Older estimates say it killed 40–50 million people, while current estimates say 50–100 million people died worldwide from the Spanish Flu.

Remember in 1918 there was no aircraft travel for the masses so how did the pandemic reach India, Japan, Indonesia, Ghana, Tahiti – everywhere on the globe in fact. Entire villages died in Alaska, and 20% of the Samoan population died in 2 months. New Zealand reported a death toll of 0.75% of the population and Australia had 12,000 deaths (Australia's population at the time was 4.67 million - making it only 0.003% so we did well by comparison).

Now let's forward to the year 2000's for some better news in similar circumstances and see how education has transformed the outcomes of the next likely pandemics. You will remember Bird Flu (Avian flu, H5N1 virus) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) as pandemic candidates. Bird flu was detected in Asia in 2003, Europe 2005 and the Middle East in 2006 with human fatalities reported in Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Laos, Nigeria, Pakistan, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam (note the global spread like Spanish Flu) for a total of 359 deaths according to the WHO in August 2012.  SARS was detected as an outbreak in Hong Kong in 2003 eventually infecting 8273 people in 37 countries with a recorded 775 deaths.

Compare the 2 cases with say 50 million people dying from Spanish flu and well under 2000 deaths for the other 2 pandemics combined. You should be asking why the disparity? Especially as air travel has the potential to carry infection around the globe in a couple of days. The answer of course lies in transformational global education in the intervening 80 years where:

  1. The advances in immunology, medical science and genetics have contributed to understanding how the pandemic viruses work and mutate then the development of a treatment regime is undertaken in many countries simultaneously;
  2. Public health awareness campaigns are usually immediate with authorities taking action to mitigate the spread of the disease;
  3. Politicians have learned that a free press will assist in public awareness and secrecy cannot and should not be pursued;
  4. And an educated population understanding the need for hygene under these circumstances.

In short our global thinking has been transformed by education because we understand that a pandemic knows no boundaries and we must all act to minimise the spread and growth of disease. Another example would be that globally we are very close to eradicating polio and we appear to have successfully beaten smallpox.

These are health examples but there are so many other examples where an education outcome has transformed the world. The year I was born the first computer came into existence with a few years later IBM making the famous prediction that world demand for mainframe computers could be as high as 7. In my lifetime we have reached a position where a computer is in fact an essental consumer item and many of you have more than one. The world has been transformed by this device especially when connected to the Internet allowing users global access to information, entertainment and assistance when required. News is instantaneous and it is hard for Governments or corporations to hide bad behaviour from the public. Just having access to information can change behaviour.

When I was young a popular comic book character, Dick Tracey, had a 2 way radio on his wrist and this was considered impossible but today pretty well everyone has a mobile phone or two or three. In fact there are more mobile phones and SIM card devices in Australia than there are people by a significant amount. The millions of extra mobile devices are used to control security cameras, Coca-Cola vending machines, weather stations, emergency systems and production plant monitoring devices and other so called robot devices. Again this technology and the education associated with it have been transformational on our life style and our expectations of what we can do and how we choose to live. The impact is global as travelling in India I was aware that very poor families living on the street still had and used a mobile phone. Add in access to GPS systems and we have another dimension for improving our knowledge of our environment and applications open to us. In fact students at ECU recently won an ICT prize for developing an application which allows a lost person to be tracked via their mobile phone and rescued.

Here at ECU you have been fortunate to be part of a University with leading edge research in many fields with the potential to further transform our environment for the better. Let us imagine you are in a room with windows and it is hot because the sun is shining in. Imagine the standard glass in the window is replaced with a new glass which lets light in and reduces the heat passing through considerably. Further this glass captures the heat and turns it into electricity which can be used for light or a fan if necessary. Is this years away from reality? NO this technology is here now! There is a research laboratory at your University in building 23 at ECU Joondalup where just such a piece of glass is being field tested in the Electron Science Research Institute by Professor Kamal Alameh and his post graduate students. This research has the potential to transform how we generate electricity and cool our buildings in our hot climate.

As graduates of ECU you will leave today with your greater knowledge and understanding in your various fields and I hope you take up the challenge to use your skills to further transform the world to be a better place. You have so many opportunities and there is so much to be done on environmental issues, power generation, development of the next generation of integrated ICT, limitless health development, support for mental illness or diabetes, feeding the world’s population, keeping our marine environments sustainable, and the list of opportunities is extensive. I challenge you as graduates of a wonderful university to see what you can do to make a positive transformation to those around you and to our country as a whole.

I leave you with this thought from Ralph Waldo Emerson essayist from the mid 1800'sDo not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. To the graduates Congratulations and may your life be full of positive experiences.

Thank you.

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