I am an independent researcher and writer on progress, sustainability, culture, health and wellbeing. I am a founding director of Australia21 Ltd, an independent, non-profit, public-interest, research company. I was, from 1998 to 2010, a fellow and visiting fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University.
My research approach - transdisciplinary synthesis - is unusual. I range across many fields of knowledge to develop new, common frameworks of understanding. Synthesis strives for coherence in the overall conceptual picture rather than precision in the empirical detail. This work has been undertaken initially as a sideline to my main career, then through a series of short-term, part-time or unpaid appointments.
My main contributions have been in advocating:
- better measures of national progress and human development.
- health and wellbeing as a benchmark for progress and sustainable development.
- the importance of mainstream culture in shaping population health.
- a new narrative of young people's health and wellbeing.
My research challenges several, powerful scientific and political orthodoxies, including that:
- young people have never been healthier;
- the most important social determinants of health are socio-economic;
- western liberal democracies represent the best model of progress and human development;
- environmental and economic matters define and determine sustainability.
These issues have a critical bearing on humanity’s future.
My work has been brought together in a book, Well & Good: Morality, Meaning and Happiness (Text, 2004, 2005), available on the first 'Books' page. I have also edited or co-edited and contributed to three other books: The Social Origins of Health and Wellbeing (CUP, 2001), Measuring Progress: Is Life Getting Better? (CSIRO, 1998) and Challenge to Change: Australia in 2020 (CSIRO, 1995).
I have published about 180 journal papers, book chapters, monographs and specialist magazine articles, and written many articles for leading Australian newspapers and for broadcast on national radio. I speak to a wide range of audiences, and have served on many boards, committees and advisory groups. Current and recent positions include: the board of Families Australia, the ACT Community Inclusion Board, the Australian Bureau of Statistics' expert reference group on measures of Australia's progress, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's national youth information advisory group, and a government expert working group on science engagement (chair).
I am a co-author of a national index of subjective wellbeing, introduced in 2001 and the first of its kind in the world, and of the Australian Wellbeing Manifesto, published in 2005. My work has influenced a range of national initiatives, including: a national youth suicide prevention strategy; Government ‘green jobs’ and ‘regreening’ programs; and the Australian Bureau of Statistics report series, Measures of Australia’s Progress (and, through the ABS, the OECD’s global project, Measuring the Progress of Societies).
In June 2013, I was made a member of the Order of Australia (AM) for significant service to the community as a researcher, analyst and commentator on population health and well-being in Australia.
I studied zoology and later completed a masters degree in the history, philosophy and sociology of science and technology. My former positions include: science reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald; head of the media liaison office of CSIRO, Australia's national scientific research organisation; senior analyst with the Australian Commission for the Future; ministerial consultant to an Australian Government minister; senior specialist, strategic analysis, at CSIRO; and fellow and visiting fellow at the Australian National University.
Before settling into a career (and family life) in my 30s, I worked as a labourer and professional fisherman, and travelled abroad for two years. My travels had a profound influence on my life and work, allowing me to see more clearly Western culture's assumptions and values, strengths and flaws.
From Well & Good, p. 43:
'In the 1970s, I spent two years travelling overseas, through Africa, Western and Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and Asia. Like many long-term travellers, I found that the most difficult cultural adjustment I had to make was on my return home. My first reaction on flying into Sydney from Bangkok was one of wonder at the orderliness and cleanliness, the abundantly stocked shops, the clear-eyed children, so healthy and carefree. However, my initial celebration of the material richness and comfort of the Western way of life soon gave way to a growing apprehension about its emotional harshness, social ‘distances’ and spiritual desiccation.
In a way I hadn’t anticipated, the experience allowed me to view my native culture from the outside; and in ways I hadn’t appreciated before, I realised ours was a tough culture. I became acutely aware that the Western worldview is just one of many, defined and supported by myths like any other. We tend to see material poverty as synonymous with misery and squalor; yet only with the most abject poverty is this so. We see others as crippled by ignorance and cowed by superstition; we don’t see the extent to which we are, in our own ways, burdened by our rational knowledge and cowed by our lack of superstition - of spiritual beliefs.'