Canberra biophysicist Graham Farquhar the 2018 Senior Australian of the Year
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Canberra biophysicist Graham Farquhar the 2018 Senior Australian of the Year

Dr Graham Farquhar has been named Senior Australian of the Year in recognition of his work in protecting food security in the world's changing climate.

Dr Farquhar's work at the Australian National University centres around photosynthesis - the process by which plants convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into oxygen.

Australian National University scientist Graham Farquhar has been named the Senior Australian of the Year.

Australian National University scientist Graham Farquhar has been named the Senior Australian of the Year.

Photo: Mick Tsikas

In accepting the award, Dr Farquhar focused on creativity and encouraged others to struggle to become better.

"To me, the most important things in life are to struggle to improve, to struggle to be honest and to struggle to re-evaluate one's prejudices," he said.

Australian National University scientist Graham Farquhar was the first Australian to win a Kyoto Prize. He has been named the Senior Australian of the Year.

Australian National University scientist Graham Farquhar was the first Australian to win a Kyoto Prize. He has been named the Senior Australian of the Year.

Photo: Stuart Hay
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He also acknowledged how fortunate Australian seniors are, and how much they have to contribute to society.

"My generation of seniors is probably the luckiest one ever, we can, on average, live longer and more healthily and thereby contribute more," he said.

"We can be creative, we can struggle for honesty and we can deal with failures. We are all lucky because of our ability to embrace creativity and hence progress as a nation."

Growing up with a farming background in Tasmania, he applied his passion for science and mathematics to the agricultural sector, creating mathematical models of how plants work.

Dr Farquhar used his speech to talk about the risks and rewards of chasing lofty goals.

"Honesty also means acknowledging mistakes and that is an inevitable risk of embracing creativity. Failure is not necessarily final. Only by accepting, correcting and building on mistakes can we eventually experience the satisfaction of doing something or seeing something that has never been done or seen before."

After the ceremony Dr Farquhar revealed that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had shared his Whatsapp number with him, but he stopped short of demanding more funding for science.

"Science like other aspects of science, technology, engineering and maths - it does need some certainty about funding, with periods that are long enough so that people can take on projects that are meaningful in terms of experiencing variations in weather and climate."

In 2017 Dr Farquhar became the first Australian to win the Kyoto prize, an equivalent to the Nobel Prize, for his work in plant biophysics and photosynthesis. Dr Farquhar's work involves understanding and mitigating the effects of climate change on crops, including developing strains of wheat that can grow with less water.

He has previously won the Prime Minister's Prize for Science in 2015.

Sally Whyte is a reporter for The Canberra Times covering the public service.