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July 26, 2003

Bionic ear's pioneer in funds plea

From: The Age, Australia - Jul 26, 2003

By Liz Gooch

The father of the bionic ear, Professor Graeme Clark, has called for more centres of excellence to encourage young scientists to remain in Australia.

Such centres would attract international scientists as well as keep young Australians from pursuing research overseas, according to Professor Clark, the pioneer of the cochlear implant and a recent recipient of a fellowship from the Royal Society of Medicine in London.

"We've got to make more centres of excellence and make them attractive and make them feel that they really are at the centre of things here," he said. "I think if Australians see that other people from the United States and Europe are actually coming to Australia, that will do a great deal for morale."

Australia also needed to collaborate more with overseas centres, said Professor Clark, director of the Bionic Ear Institute and foundation professor of Otolaryngology at Melbourne University.

He believes more money needs to be devoted to research at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Professor Clark, 67, whose research has restored hearing to 50,000 people in 120 countries, last week returned from London, where he was made an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine.

He said he was overwhelmed to be added to a list that includes Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin and his childhood hero Louis Pasteur.

Professor Clark said it was rewarding that his work, which took 37 years and involved 175 scientists, had been recognised globally after many in the medical community doubted his early research. "It's been a long, hard battle," he said.

The effectiveness of the bionic ear may have improved since the first implant in 1978, but Professor Clark still has the same reaction when he sees a child hear for the first time.

"When I talk to them and talk to their parents . . . I just break down and cry. It brings me to tears every time, almost. People don't understand how important it is to be able to mix, have conversation and not be cut out of it," he said.

Professor Clark, whose idea for the bionic ear was derived from experimenting with a piece of grass and a seashell, said the number of people needing cochlear implants was increasing with Australia's ageing population.

The cochlear implant has led the way in applied bionics, with scientists now working on a bionic eye to restore sight.

Professor Clark's team is working with the University of Wollongong to try to help people with paraplegia or spinal cord injuries to walk again, but he believes that it will take at least another 10 years, depending on the level of funding.

Victorian Premier Steve Bracks said Professor Clark's invention had put the state on the world research map.

"When you learn that the cochlear implants have saved the hearing of so many people around the world, not just in Australia, it's a great testimony to the work that's been done here," Mr Bracks said.

Copyright © 2003 The Age Company Ltd