Dr Alan Finkel AM and Dr Elizabeth Finkel are leading donors to Monash University and the community through the Alan and Elizabeth Finkel Foundation.
In 2008 Alan Finkel (BE 1976, PhD 1981) became Monash University’s Chancellor, the first alumnus to hold the position. Elizabeth Finkel is a noted science journalist and author. The Finkels spoke to us! about their philanthropy.
You have recently made a significant philanthropic gift to create the Finkel Chair in Global Health in Monash University’s Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences. What was the inspiration behind the theme of global health?
Dr Elizabeth Finkel: I trained as a molecular biologist, but had I not gone in that direction my very strong interest was global development. It has always been an abiding interest.
When we set up the Foundation I was able to re-visit that interest, this time as a philanthropist. Our Foundation has always reflected Alan’s compelling passions and my compelling passions. Also, through my work as a journalist I have been able to pay attention to global health issues.
There is also a more poignant reason why this theme was so relevant at this time. I was in Botswana in February doing research for a book I’m writing. It’s about the impact of genetics [research] on medicine and agriculture. I spent a day with a doctor in an AIDS ward at Princess Marina Hospital.
Botswana is the showpiece of the world. They are the country that is rolling out free HIV medication to the people who need it, yet the AIDS wards were full of dying young women and men. I couldn’t figure out why. It had to be a failure of the public health system.
Dr Alan Finkel: The theme of global health also appeals to me because I am an outcomes oriented person. When there are so many health issues to deal with, one of the most practical places to start is with those health problems that are preventable. In particular, communicable diseases in developing countries can be prevented by good health practices and a deep understanding of the social and health services shortcomings that have led to these diseases getting out of control.
In 20 years time, what do you hope that the Chair will have achieved?
EF: I hope that they will have been able to capitalise on what Monash has already put in place, including the campuses in South Africa and Malaysia. When we were in South Africa in February I was so inspired and moved that Monash was involved in South Africa’s development. I hope this Chair will take advantage of what’s already in place, build on public health measures and apply expertise that’s developed at Monash, using data from South Africa and Asia.
AF: I will be extremely pleased if I can see that the research contributed to a change in policies and practices, in one or more of the governments around the world, that actually helped prevent disease.
What does the word philanthropy mean to you?
AF: It means investing in the community that underpinned your own achievements. You have a bit of success in your life and achieve some goals and you find that you want to give back. One way I give back is by investing my personal time and effort on education. [Dr Finkel is also involved with a number of educationrelated activities and projects outside Monash University.]
Another way of giving back is financially and I think we have an obligation to do that. To me philanthropy is giving back to the community that has supported me and helped contribute to my success.
EF: For me philanthropy is a little more seamless with what I do. Through journalism I try to do public good in providing good, objective information. Public good is the way I approach journalism, and philanthropy is about public good.
Through your Foundation you support a wide range of causes and projects. How do you choose what to support?
AF: Fundamentally, we support things that we find personally interesting. Given our backgrounds the projects are often in health, science, engineering, education, development and community engagement. For example, we have supported the educational officer of the Koori Museum and the educational officer of the Jewish Museum. We give to things that we believe in.
We have tried to give our money to areas that interest us but also where we see some sort of multiplicative effect. We prefer to give our money to a research or educational activity that will build the capacity of a researcher or build the capacity of a student. They can then do so much more, in the long-term. Leveraging, through education, is an important part of what motivates us. Thanks! January 2009 5
EF: Before Alan became Chancellor, neither of us really thought about universities as a destination for philanthropy. Now that fate has positioned us where we are, I ask myself: why isn’t the philanthropic community alive to this? What better place is there to invest in for public good? Who else is going to do the research about issues like climate change, feeding the world, water shortages, and emergent diseases? Where are you going to find solutions to those problems? You are only going to find them at universities.
Tell us about your recent donation to establish the Finkel PhD Scholarships in Engineering at Monash University. The scholarships are ‘top-up’ scholarships that add to the recipients’ Australian or Monash PhD scholarships.
AF: Australia’s core research system depends on HDRs (Higher Degree by Research students), primarily PhD students, to do the research. They are undertaking the research that will ultimately improve our economy and wellbeing through innovation.
There is a shortage of PhD students nowadays for a number of reasons including demographics and the many attractive job opportunities resulting from the strong economy.
The top-up scholarships mean that the students can concentrate on their research more and not have to spend so much time working for income.
I feel we are achieving something important through that donation. It’s very multiplicative. With a relatively small amount of money we are enabling somebody to do research that might not otherwise be done. It’s for the long-term benefit of the country. It’s for the benefit of the University. And it’s to the enormous benefit of that student.