Research School of Biology Scientist wins Prime Minister’s Prize for Science

Wednesday 21 October 2015
Distinguished Professor Graham Farquhar AO, credit Stuart Hay
Distinguished Professor Graham Farquhar AO. Photo credit: Stuart Hay, ANU

Distinguished Professor Graham Farquhar AO has won Australia’s top science prize, in recognition of his work that transformed our understanding of the biological process that is the basis for life on earth: photosynthesis.

“Graham’s stellar career at The Australian National University has produced simple but rigorous mathematical models that capture underlying processes associated with photosynthesis and allow us to make robust predictions,” says Professor John Evans, Head of the Division of Plant Sciences at ANU.

“What makes these models special is that despite their simplicity, they correctly describe the essence of a complex process. This makes them transparent, easier to understand, adopt and implement.

“As a result, they have been used extensively at the leaf, crop and global scales,” John said.

Graham's models of plant biophysics have been used to understand cells, whole plants, whole forests, and to create new water-efficient wheat varieties. His latest project will determine which trees will grow faster in a high carbon dioxide world.

Graham Farquhar said the award was recognition of the great work being done by teams of plant scientists at ANU.

It is a great time to be a plant scientist

“It’s a great honour for both me, and for my colleagues,” Graham said. “It is recognition of work I’ve been part of at ANU now on and off since about 1970.”

His work has also revealed a global climate mystery. Evaporation rates and wind speeds are slowing around the world, contrary to the predictions of most climate models. Life under climate change may be wetter than we expected.

His latest research is looking at how plants will cope with climate change and higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and which plants will grow best in drier marginal farm lands.

“My interest in is in the biophysics of how plants interact with the environment. That covers things like droughts, increases in carbon dioxide and changes in atmospheric composition,” Graham said.

“The world needs to produce more food and produce it more efficiently as the global population increases. It has to be food production that is nutritious and healthy.

“To achieve this, we have to move into marginal lands that are not productive yet.

“This sort of research should climate proof us to some extent. The big thing is climate variability. If you can breed plants that help farmers deal with climate variability, that’s the main challenge to help see us through climate change itself.

”It is a great time to be a plant scientist.”

Graham has been interested in plant science since his childhood in Tasmania, where his father was an agricultural scientist.

He particularly wanted to do science that could one day help farmers.

“My parents were both from the land in Tasmania. I used to go to holidays with uncles and aunts who had farms,” he said.

“The feeling from my family was that it is great to do something useful and for people on the land.”

“It is fitting in 2015, the international year of light, that a plant biologist who has made a huge scientific contribution towards understanding photosynthesis is recognised with the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science. Graham Farquhar is an outstanding Australian scientist whose innovative work has had far-reaching impact on our understanding of plants in a changing world”

– John Evans, Head of the Division of Plant Sciences, Research School of Biology.


“Graham’s research, combining elegant biophysical measurements with mathematics, has had profound implications. It has enhanced our understanding of some the most fundamental biological processes underpinning life on earth and at the same time delivered important practical results, including the development of drought-resistant crops. The award of the Prime Minister’s Prize is thoroughly deserved.”

– Kiaran Kirk, Dean of the ANU College of Medicine, Biology and Environment.


“I arrived at the ANU on 1 July 2015, from Duke University in the USA, to take up the Directorship of the Research School of Biology. On a daily basis, Professor Farquhar’s research, and the research of others at the RSB, confirms my belief that The Australian National University is one of the great universities of the world. As a School, we are immensely proud of Graham; as scientists, we are excited to see where his research will go next.”

– Allen Rodrigo, Director of the Research School of Biology.

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