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Dr Hugh Spencer Named 2002 Unsung Hero of Australian Science

Australian Science Communicators Media Release | 2 August 2002

Dr Hugh Spencer receives the 2002 Unsung Hero of Australian Science from Australian Science Communicators President Wilson da Silva
Dr Hugh Spencer receives the 2002 Unsung Hero of Australian Science from ASC President Wilson da Silva

DR HUGH SPENCER, founder of the Cape Tribulation Tropical Research Station, was announced as the 2002 Unsung Hero of Australian Science, an annual award given by the Australian Science Communicators.

By creating the Cape Tribulation Tropical Research Station, he has pioneered tropical rainforest research and conservation, and supported the work of scientists and volunteers from around the world. And he’s passionate about bats – devising high technology methods of separating farmers and flying foxes, and using GPS to track flying fox journeys.

The award was presented in Canberra today by Wilson da Silva, President of Australian Science Communicators (ASC).

“The Daintree lowland rainforests have a pedigree of over a hundred million years,” Hugh Spencer said. “It’s one of the last remnants of the giant Gondwanan rainforests. It is incredibly species-rich and worth conserving both for its intrinsic value, for its commercial value – bioprospecting plants, animals and fungi for unique compounds, and the fact that it is one area of rainforest in the world that can really be saved”.

Hugh has put his money where his mouth is. In 1988 he left a tenured position at the University of Wollongong to establish a tropical research station in the rainforest of Cape Tribulation in Queensland.

Not relying on government or university funding, Hugh and his wife Brigitta sold their house, cashed in their entire savings and bought a strip of cleared land – once pristine rainforest – running from the highlands almost to the water’s edge.

Their dream was to create a not-for-profit facility for researchers from many disciplines and many parts of the world. They hoped that their discoveries would increase scientific knowledge and help support efforts to protect the unique Daintree lowland rainforests.

Hugh and Brigitta’s hard work has paid off. Dozens of scientists from five countries have used the Cape Tribulation Tropical Research Station, along with over one thousand volunteers. Moreover, the once damaged station property is now almost completely reforested, and serves as a reforestation model.

Meanwhile, Hugh has continued his own research. He has revealed the critical role fig wasps play in the pollination of cluster fig trees, a “keystone” species in the area; increased knowledge of poorly-studied rainforest bat species; developed sophisticated radio tracking technology, and much more.

Hugh is especially proud of the miniaturised automatic radio-tracking technology, which has just been adopted by three German universities for the study of little thumb-sized bats. “Until now, the researchers had been unable to investigate just how these tiny, but critical, little animals used the environment,” he said.

His accomplishments have come at great personal and financial cost. Hugh has endured personal attacks, caught up in academic backbiting and turf wars, ongoing financial uncertainty, not to mention mosquitoes, humidity, and cyclones!

Hugh’s passionate campaigns on environmental issues have appeared in the media. However, he remains “unsung” for his scientific achievements and his perseverance in maintaining this unique research facility—the embodiment of many novel approaches to operating in a tropical environment.

According to Prof Michael Archer, Director of the Australian Museum, Hugh’s research is first rate and highly innovative.

“In a time of bottom-line accounting and scientific conservatism, it’s absolutely crucial that we acknowledge people who, like Hugh, think outside the square and take risks,” he claims. “I’m delighted that the Australian Science Communicators have named Hugh Spencer this year’s Unsung Hero of Science.”

”It’s individuals like Dr Spencer who remind us that, if it wasn’t for the passion and dedication of unsung scientists like him, much great research would never happen, “ said Wilson da Silva, President of the Australian Science Communicators. “We commend him, and thank him for his commitment. “


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