Alumni Award for International Achievement
Dr Tom Beer’s international career began early: his parents fled Hungary in 1948, crossing the border with their one-year-old son, Tom, in a backpack in a desperate bid to escape Communist rule. They arrived in Australia when he was three.
Fast forward to July 2007, when Melbourne’s newspaper of record, The Age, ran a brief article under the headline, ‘Australian to head world science body’. That Australian was Tom Beer, who had just been elected president of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG), which fosters research and collaboration between Earth scientists from diverse fields in 68 countries.
His appointment saw the hosting of the IUGG’s 25th General Assembly in Melbourne in 2011, attracting 5000 scientists from around the world. Tom’s interest in climate science flourished when he joined the CSIRO in 1986 to be in charge of bushfire meteorology. He specialised in atmospheric physics and environmental risk.
“Our job back then was to find out if this newfangled idea of climate change had any legs,” he says.
Asked if climate change turned out be real, Tom’s answer is direct. “Our grandchildren will live with a drier south-eastern Australia. Perth will run out of water, though technology may be able to save it. But all our predictions and calculations have so far been vindicated.”
Tom’s research has not only been vindicated, it has also been awarded. As a lead author with an expert panel advising the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), his work led to the awarding of a joint Nobel Peace Prize to the IPCC and former US presidential candidate Al Gore. Tom is humble about this high honour, insisting that “the award goes to the organisation”.
The future is his focus. “I hope to find ways to bring larger parts of the scientific community together to work on climate change – as in food technologists, food scientists, nutrition scientists – areas of science that physics and geophysics wouldn’t normally collaborate with,” he says. He maintains it’s the “job of scientists and engineers to ameliorate problems and make life better”.
Rewind now to 1966, Tom graduates from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Science, majoring in physics and mathematics. He then went on to postgraduate study at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, earning a Master of Science with a distinction in physics in 1968, then a PhD from the University of Western Ontario, Canada, in 1971. He considers his time at university “the springboard into my career”.
Sydney imparted to Tom the political and people skills he has needed in his international roles. “I started as activities officer at the Students’ Representative Council in 1965-6. I learned to get along with people outside of my narrow area of science. All science and all business is people business, especially when you put yourself up for election.”
With the hindsight of a long and satisfying career, Tom has just a little advice for his younger self. “Never forget that your parents were refugees, neither of whom had been the inside of a university,” he says. “Remember to help those from less developed countries and never forget that a university education is a privilege, not a right.”