Welcome remarks at the 5th International Vitamins Conference

I’d like to begin with an acknowledgement that we stand on the land of the Gadigal people, and we draw inspiration from their story. I pay my respects to them as the Traditional Custodians of this land, and I also pay my respects to Elders both past and present.

And I welcome you all, especially those who have travelled from overseas and interstate, to the fifth international vitamin conference, and the first to be held here in Australia. You’ll notice I am holding on to my pronunciation of vitamin, I just can’t bring myself to say VYE-tamin like the Aussies.

I think the conference theme says it all when it comes to the importance of research into vitamins.

The breakthroughs that have happened in this area have highlighted that diet and nutrition are indeed crucial ‘from the womb to the tomb’.

The correlation between health and vitamins is not new, of course. Everyone has heard tales of old seafarers suffering from scurvy because of a lack of fresh vegetables.

Many a mother of a certain generation would try to frighten their children into eating Brussel Sprouts by telling them they would get scurvy if they didn’t.

But since World War II we have seen enormous strides in public health because of vitamin supplementation and fortification. Scurvy with Vitamin C, for example, beriberi with thiamine and the Vitamin K shot for newborns.

One of the conference topics, Vitamins in pregnancy and the first 1000 days after birth, features in this morning’s session, and I want to highlight the work of two of this morning’s speakers to illustrate how the research journey can differ.

Professor Carol Bowers and Heather D’Antoine’s work on the effect of folic acid on neural tube defects is built on decades of research…while Professor Sally Dunwoodie’s work is new and novel.

Professor Dunwoodie and her team – after 12 years trying to find that one change in six billion pieces of DNA data that would be the key to a breakthrough – found the never-before-associated link between birth defects and miscarriage and low levels of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide…and that vitamin B3 has the potential to restore NAD levels, and prevent defects.

And while we eagerly anticipate the results of Professor Dunwoodie’s work in the years to come, Professor Bower’s work to have folate added to our flour shows astounding results…particularly in Indigenous Australian communities where, before the folate initiative, babies were 40% more likely to have a neural tube defect than those with non-Indigenous mothers.

In 2016, seven years after folate was introduced into the nation’s bread, an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report showed a statistically significant reduction of 14.4 percent in neural tube defects – but among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, that rate reduced by a phenomenal 74 percent.

I know Professor Bower and Heather D’Antoine will expand on this during their presentation but it is powerful illustration of the role of vitamins in public health. It illustrates what Professor Dunwoodie has said about her work with NAD and Vitamin B3…the fact vitamins are cost-effective, natural, water soluble and easy to administer makes these discoveries particularly consequential for remote or disadvantaged communities.

This is where research is so crucial to better equality in health outcomes and the many benefits that cascade out of that.

This conference will have many more stories of successes and new endeavours. It allows the sharing of knowledge, the chance for young and emerging scientists to present their research, and the opportunity for all of you to encourage each other to keep going with your valuable work.

As a researcher myself, I understand that our work can at times be frustrating and thankless. But collegiality, multidisciplinary collaboration and a dedication to the greater good often give us the impetus to persist.

And for the presenters I’ve just mentioned, the parents of babies born with birth defects who participated in their studies were a great motivation.

The willingness of those parents – the ‘real heroes’ as Carol Bower described them – to help find answers, truly captures the generosity of spirit which we, as researchers, must strive to achieve in our own work.

Research matters. It is the cornerstone of a successful, prosperous, healthy society. And that will be the strong message I deliver next week when I address the National Press Club in Canberra.

Society, as a whole, must care more about research. In Australia we are faced with the reality of falling behind the rest of the world’s leading economies in Research & Development spend.

Some of you visiting from overseas may also experience this in your own country. Not only has business investment in R&D in Australia declined for the first time in two decades, but we lag internationally.

We spend just 1.9 % of GDP on R&D while the OECD average is 2.4%, with Israel’s spend way up at 4.5%. So, if there are any Israeli researchers out there, please tell us your secret.

Public research institutions in Australia are constantly asked to make their case for government funding. We need to change the mindset in some quarters that funding research is tantamount to a charitable donation.

It is not. It is an investment with a significant economic return. But it is not just a source of revenue.

Research changes lives. It changes entire communities. And, in some cases, it changes the world. I applaud you for your work and your dedication to finding answers. And I wish you all the best for the conference.

Check against delivery