News & Views - February 2002 

Human Embryonic Stem Cells, Therapeutic Cloning, Cabinet Decisions and Trial Balloons. (February 28, 2002)
    Last year an all-parties parliamentary committee gave the green light for embryonic stem-cell research in Australia utilising  spare IVF human embryos. Then following the Federal Cabinet meeting in Melbourne on Monday the media reported that based on a submission by Kevin Andrews, Federal Minister for Ageing and chairman of the all party committee, the Cabinet were prepared to disregard the committee's majority recommendation ( 6 to 4). In his media release yesterday Mr Andrews writes, "The report [of the parliamentary committee] was unanimous on all issues except one - the destructive research on surplus or excess embryos. Six committee members supported research in defined limited circumstances and four members opposed it, on the grounds that they supported research on existing embryonic stem cell lines as well as adult stem cells." Mr Andrews concluded his media release, "... there will be further consultation."
    By destructive research is meant that the unused fertilised ova which were not destined for implantation and would ultimately be destroyed are instead incubated in vitro to the stage where embryonic stem cells could be harvested. Stem cells have the ability to divide for indefinite periods in culture and to give rise to specialised cells. But note, initially the fertilized egg is totipotent, meaning that its potential is total. In the first hours after fertilization, this cell divides into identical totipotent cells.  This means that either one of these cells, if placed into a woman's uterus, has the potential to develop into a fetus.  Approximately four days after fertilization and after several cycles of cell division, these totipotent cells begin to specialize, forming a hollow sphere of cells, called a blastocyst. The blastocyst has an outer layer of cells and inside the hollow sphere, there is a cluster of cells called the inner cell mass. Embryonic stem cells are obtained from this inner cell mass. There is no attempt to produce another live human. Instead, the IVF embryos only develop into 30 to 150 cells to produce stem cells that may be used in medical treatment. The points of consequence in this issue are:

  1. The already fertilised IVF ova if not utilized for stem cell research will be destroyed. Australian society has judged such disposal as being acceptable.

  2. The embryos from which the stem cells are to be derived will have been incubated less than one week.

  3. Embryonic stem cells if implanted into a womb cannot  give rise to a viable fetus, i.e. they are not totipotent, for example they can not form a placenta.

  4. It is possible that stem cells derived from adult tissues may have sufficient potential to satisfy the requirements for future tissue and organ generation and transplantation, but that is far from certain.

  5. It is possible that existing embryonic stem cell lines may have sufficient potential to satisfy the requirements for future tissue and organ generation and transplantation, but that is far from certain. For example the number of existing lines free from contamination by non-human tissue requires further testing.

  6. The production of new stem cell lines has the potential (but by no means the certainty) of making available material which may extend our understanding of the use of stem cells and to further the ultimate production of material able to save lives and enhance the quality of life throughout the seven ages of man

To restrict research avenues with the potential of alleviating or curing severe human afflictions isn't something to be dismissed without very careful consideration. And here perhaps the motto of Celera -- Craig Venter's commercial genome sequencing organisation -- has relevance:

Speed matters - Discovery can't wait.

Lastly,  perhaps making the matter public is to gauge the strength of the public's and bio-medical scientists' reaction to Cabinet's considering a ban on the use of unwanted IVF material for stem cell research.

A Bit of Hype Still Makes a Point. (February 28, 2002)
    During the past academic year the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's student body comprised 4,258 undergraduate and 5,832 graduate students. Fees and expenses for undergraduates are estimated as follows (US$):  "Undergraduate Tuition and Living Expenses, Nine months' tuition for 2000–2001 is $26,050. In addition, undergraduate room and board is approximately $7,175, with actual costs dependent on the student's housing and dining arrangements. Books, materials and personal expenses (including clothes, laundry and recreation, but excluding travel) are about $2,875," for a total of US$36,100  (A$70,100) per annum. However, the Institute continues, "The Institute's undergraduate financial aid program ensures that an MIT education is accessible to all qualified candidates regardless of their financial resources. MIT provides financial aid to meet the full cost of an MIT education, based on the calculated needs of the family. Currently, approximately 60 percent of all undergraduates receive some type of financial assistance."
    Because of its ongoing reputation and the large population from which it can draw (though it has considerable competition) its student body and its staff are among the US' best and brightest. To emphasise the point MIT recently released figures that in total 55 Nobel Laureates have ties to the Institute in one way or another and the past year saw eight individuals with MIT connections, past or present, awarded Nobel Prizes. The connections range from having been an MIT undergraduate, e.g. theoretical physicist Richard Feynman to Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, who earned his S.M. in management at MIT in 1972.
    Recently the Federal Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, opined that inflexible funding was hampering the development of a "world-class" university along the lines of Harvard. On the assumption that when he says "Harvard" that may be taken to mean Harvard and MIT in a manner similar to that when one says Oxford, Oxford and Cambridge is understood, the MEST will have to work very hard, very fast and be very persuasive with his cabinet colleagues to get anywhere close to scratch.

Shakespeare Shows the Way for Science to Have Artistic Relevance -- Perhaps. (February 27, 2002)
     Nature reports in its February 14th issue that the Royal Shakespeare Company put in a request to the Royal Society of Chemistry for some of the love potion which got Titania loopy over the ass headed Bottom in Midsummer Night's Dream.

'Come hither, Puck,' said Oberon to this little merry wanderer of the night; 'fetch me the flower which maids call Love in Idleness; the juice of that little purple flower laid on the eyelids of those who sleep, will make them, when they awake, dote on the first thing they see. Some of the juice of that flower I will drop on the eyelids of my Titania when she is asleep; and the first thing she looks upon when she opens her eyes she will fall in love with, even though it be a lion or a bear, a meddling monkey, or a busy ape; and before I will take this charm from off her sight, which I can do with another charm I know of, I will make her give me that boy to be my page.'

...and Oberon seeing a clown near her, who had lost his way in the wood, and was likewise asleep: 'This fellow,' said he, 'shall be my Titania's true love'; and clapping an ass's head over the clown's, it seemed to fit him as well as if it had grown upon his own shoulders. (From Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare)

The Royal Chemists immediately took up the challenge and showing what modern, entrepreneurial stuff they're made of outsourced the request to Quest International, in Naarden, the Netherlands. Watch this space for further developments.

Government Rationale for a Replacement of the Nuclear Reactor in Sydney. (February 26, 2002)
    In a segment on the ABC's Earthbeat program on Saturday February 23rd Interviews were aired with Dr Clarence Hardy; Australian Nuclear Association; Federal Science Minister Peter McGauran; Dr Jim Green, Wollongong University; Lorraine Dixon, Anti Nuclear Reactor Activist; South Australian Shadow Environment Minister John Hill; Stephen Campbell, Greenpeace. The whole segment is available as a Media Release from the Department of Education, Science and Training. In response to Dr Green's challenge that Australia had no requirement for a reactor to produce medically important isotopes, there are adequate means for either manufacturing or procuring them, Dr Hardy responded with,

    You've got to really understand what this technology's all about. And I think to train people to understand it and to be useful in the general community, and also giving advice to government in this area, is an important role, if you like, the education and training role.
    Now you could, of course, do all of these things overseas. I mean, you could say don't let's have a reactor, send all your scientists overseas for their training and then bring them back and use them in this country for the practical applications. Import all the radioisotopes that you need and that's what people like to see. They say let's have all the benefits and the applications in this country, but don't let's take any of the risks, any of the costs of making them ourselves.
    It is almost like, should we have a manufacturing industry in this country? Should we buy all our cars? It might be cheaper of we didn't build a single car in Australia but imported them all. But there are problems with that and I'd say there are problems with not having that expertise in the country."

 The Federal Government has budgeted $326 million for the reactor's design and construction; maintenance of the facility is a rather sizable additional though imprecisely defined cost. But taking Dr. Hardy's point -- if nothing else, it would seem appropriate to apply comparable criteria to our higher education system. It would take a lot of hard slog for the governmental spin doctors to cobble up a brief in support of a contention that it does.

MIT OpenCourseWare Update. (February 25, 2002)
    At the beginning of April last year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced its intention to make the materials from virtually all of its courses freely available on the World Wide Web for non-commercial use. In the nearly eleven months since the "OpenCourseWare" (OCW) project has progressed to the point where it has announced that initial public access is scheduled in seven months time. The media release reads:

Pilot Web Sites Built

The OCW Transition Team has built 20 pilot course web sites for internal testing at MIT this spring. Several of these sites will be the primary online presence for their respective courses this semester, providing an opportunity for user testing and evaluation of the sites' structure and design.

Courses were selected from the following departments and groups for the pilot phase:

Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Linguistics and Philosophy
Ocean Engineering
Sloan School of Management
Speech Communications
Urban Studies and Planning

Pilot site access is currently restricted to MIT domain users. These 20 sites, plus an additional 80 sites that will be built over the next 6 months, will be released to the public in September 2002.

The September publication date coincides with the beginning of the next US academic year. While the courseware may be of interest to individuals per se, it is more likely to be of value to tertiary institutions to augment their teaching material. Whether or not it will be utilised by Australian universities remains to be seen, but it would seem a pity if the material weren't accessed and assessed by lecturers actively interested in the areas being developed. For further information about OCW the email address is:

Sleep, Where Dost Thou Lead Me?* (February 23, 2002)
    Based on two reports this week, it's a question of whether you want to be smart or long lived, they maybe mutually exclusive.
    The February issue of Archives of General Psychiatry contains an article by Daniel Kripke, et al. at the University of California, San Diego using data collected from 1.1 million adults. It reports that those who slept eight hours a night were 12 percent more likely to die within six years than those who got 6.5 to 7.5 hours of sleep. The increased risk was more than 15 percent for those who reported getting more than 8.5 hours or less than about 4 hours nightly. Kripke agreed that "Additional studies are needed to determine if setting your alarm clock earlier will actually improve your health." The study is not without its critics, pointing out that it was not designed to look at sleep's effect on longevity, per se. It relied on patients' recollections of their sleep habits and did not ask if they took naps. It did not look at the quality of people's sleep or whether they felt drowsy all day. Nevertheless it may give pause.
    But now comes Nature Science Update which reports "Intellect thrives on sleep".
    "Human and animal experiments are lending new support to a common parental adage: that a good night's sleep is essential to learning.
    " 'Modern life's erosion of sleep time could be seriously short-changing our education potential,' warned Robert Stickgold of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston this week."
    Perhaps those late night Federal parliamentary and cabinet sessions may benefit the individual while being deleterious for the Nation. On the other hand for those with four hours sleep or less everybody loses.
*With apologies to G. F. Händel.

Hubble Update. (February 20, 2002)
    It's now into its twelfth year, has had three "face lifts" since it first flew in a myopic state and will get its fourth at the end of this month. The A$4 billion Hubble Space Telescope has had a profound effect not only on astronomy and cosmology per se but also on the public's appreciation of the these sciences and the building and use of modern ground based optical telescopes. It's due for decommissioning in 2010 but don't be surprised if it continues well past that even though the Next Generation Space Telescope is scheduled to fly in 2009.
    Recently the New York Times published a thumbnail review of its history and listed the steps in the currently scheduled and most extensive upgrade. The article is accompanied with three "slide shows" about Hubble's work as well as upgrading its image capturing capability.

Canada's Plan to Spur Innovation (February 15, 2002)
    Canadian scientists are wondering if the rhetoric will match the reality in a new 10-year research innovation plan unveiled in Ottawa  today. The plan reaffirms the Canadian government's commitment to double annual R&D spending, to US$9.2 billion (A$17.9 billion annually or A$11.9 billion on a per capita basis), by 2010. It also backs greater commercialization of publicly funded academic research and demands that universities "more aggressively" contribute to industrial innovation if they want more money.
    Thomas Brzustowski, president of Canada's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council points out, "Even if the funding is increased, the granting councils and the universities together have to learn to translate that into accelerated graduation rates of highly qualified personnel."
     "The real test will be, of course, whether the government is prepared to properly fund these initiatives," says Robert Giroux, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. It has made a commitment in principle to  cover part of indirect research costs at universities and address the growing gap between have and have-not institutions. The proof will come when the budgetary details are brought down; in any case it does appear at least that Canada's government is prepared to back its rhetoric with resources. The Government's report is available online.

Cervelli in Fuga (Brains on the Run). (February 12, 2002)
    This 189 page collection of essays is written by some of Italy's most brilliant expatriate scientists and details why they felt impelled to leave the country of their birth and education. While the institutional shortcomings in Italy are only partly applicable to Australia, it is certainly not without relevance if Roberto Battiston's sympathetic review in the February 7th issue of Nature is accepted. His final paragraph is telling:

Most Italian universities are still capable of producing highly talented scientists. Burton Richter, Nobel prizewinner and professor of physics at Stanford University in California, knows the Italian system well, being a member of an international committee charged with reviewing the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics. As he writes in this book, he does not understand how Italy can afford the social cost of this continuing brain drain, particularly in the absence of a brain gain from other countries, which is hampered by the bureaucratic and parochial selection system in Italy, as well as by poor funding. I don't understand it either. But reading this book gave me a better idea of the causes and consequences of this process.

Are we really so very different?

"The Government of Canada’s strategy is to place our country among the most innovative nations in the world by 2010." (February 12, 2002)
    That statement was made by Canada's Minister for Industry Allan Rock in announcing the latest round of grants made by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), the agency set up in 1997 to help to revive the country's research infrastructure. 280 recipients will receive awards, totalling Can$779 million (A$950 million,  A$630 million on a per capita basis). The foundation plans to invest Can$3.15 billion (A$3.85 billion,  A$2.5 billion on a per capita basis) in university buildings and equipment by 2010. Last week's announcement takes it halfway to meeting that goal. The awards, announced on 30 January, totalled about twice as much as in previous rounds. The full list of recipient projects and institutions is available from the CFI web site. It makes interesting reading for both the breadth of grants and the amounts, which are given on the basis of 40% from the Canadian Government and 60% raised by the institution.
    Bluntly speaking, the Canadian initiative shows the lack of vision and the parsimony of the Coalition's Backing Australia's Ability; what Labor's policy on research, development and revitalising Australia's tertiary education sector will be remains to be articulated.

Preliminary Analysis of US R&D Budget by AAAS. (Feb 12, 2002)
    The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has released its initial assessment of the Bush administration's R&D budget for 2003. The total request  is a record  US$112 billion. Basic research would grow by 8.5 percent or US$2.0  billion to US$25.5 billion. The biggest increases will go to the Department of Defence and  NIH. For other agencies, including NSF, Department of Energy, and NASA, the picture is decidedly mixed. The AAAS makes its assessment available on line with the message to the US science community, "It will help you  understand how the budget process will play out in the coming  months and how the science and engineering communities can play a role... [it] is widely recognized as the most timely and  authoritative source of information on the future prospects for  federal funding of science and engineering." While much of the analyses are not directly pertinent to Australian R&D, overall it may be useful in helping Australia's scientists and technologists to frame and articulate their views to the Australian public and the nation's parliamentarians.
    The  full AAAS report on R&D is prepared in collaboration with over 20 of its affiliated societies. It is to be made available on the web in late March.

Australian Academy of Science (AAS) Tells it Like It Is. (February 8, 2002)
    The media release by the Federal Minister for Education, Science and Training, Dr. Brendan Nelson, listing priority areas for Australian Research Council Grants in 2003 seems to have been the last straw so far as the AAS was concerned in its having the distinct characteristic of a decree from on high.
    Heading its comment, "Australian Academy of Science dismayed at ARC funding decision" the Academy in one of its most forthright statements to date regarding the Coalition's science policy opens with,

    The Australian Academy of Science today expressed dismay at the process used by the new coalition government to impose priority areas of research on the Australian Research Council.

While the Academy strongly supports a role for Government in articulating broad priorities for a whole-of-government approach to R&D in Australia, the Academy believes that this exercise, focused on one agency, will have serious deleterious effects on Australian research. The Academy is particularly concerned at the timing of the decision, the extent of ARC funding affected, and the lack of any apparent integration with the activities of other agencies or other Government programs designed to assist innovation... The timing of the announcement could not have been worse [coming just six weeks before ARC research proposals are due] and is not conducive to the development of strong competitive proposals.

The Academy’s Secretary (Science Policy), Professor [Michael] Barber, said, 'To advance all of the identified priorities will require basic research in often at first sight unlikely areas of science. The true value of basic research will not be fully realised until the well of creativity runs dry.'

Professor Barber, whose day job is being Pro Vice Chancellor of Research at the University of Western Australia in comments made to the ABC's News in Science went on to say he had seen no "thorough analysis or publicly available rationale" for the choice of research areas, or evidence of long-term strategic planning. "There is a disconnect between this fast-paced policy and the planning process of universities, which takes around two years... We only knew that the [Minister's] working committee [for determining ARC priorities] existed, and had rumours there may be an impact on 10 per cent of ARC funding." In fact 33% of the funding is affected.
    In rebuttal a Ministerial spokesperson alluded to the statement made in Dr. Nelson's media release, "The priority research areas have been adopted on the advice of a working group of the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council following deliberations of the ARC’s own Expert Advisory Committees and the ARC Board." Clearly the Australian Academy of Science had little more than an inkling of what was afoot. Considering that the nation's most eminent scientists are Fellows of the Academy it leaves one wondering precisely who was it that the Minister consulted. So far he ain't telling.

Bush Administration's Science Budget Proposal Sent to Congress. (February 6, 2002)
    The US$2.1 trillion budget request sent to the US Congress calls for increasing federal government R&D spending in 2003 by 8%, to US$112 billion (5.3% of the total). However, according to the journal Science, "Congress is unlikely to go along with some of the Administration's plans, such as shifting certain research programs to the National Science Foundation (NSF)." The biggest winner the National Institutes of Health (NIH), would get a 16%, US$3.7 billion raise (more than a third for bioterrorism research) to US$27.3 billion (A$3.5 billion on a per capita basis). The NSF will get a 5% increase but that would include 2% for the shift of research programs. On the other hand several multi-agency research initiatives also get boosts. A nanotechnology initiative aimed at understanding how to manipulate matter at the atomic level would get a 17% increase, with US$679 million (A$89 million on a per capita basis) spread among nine agencies.
    Science also reports, "The Department of Energy, the nation's largest funder of the physical sciences, would see its research budget grow by less than 2%, to US$3.3 billion [A$430 million on a per capita basis]. And the Department of Defense's basic research account, a major source of university math, engineering, and computer science funding, would grow by 2%, to US$1.3 billion [A$170 million on a per capita basis]."  The Office of Science and Technology Policy has published details online.

Not the Facts Please, the Decision Has Been Taken. (February 2, 2002)

    The American Physical Society's Bob Park in his February 1st  What's New column has the US' National Missile Defence scheme in his sights again.


Or was that, "dumb interceptor hits dumber target"? Missile defense proponents crowed that we now have all the components of a national missile shield. But an official quoted by AP said the test "wasn't meant to determine if a ship-based interceptor could intercept an enemy missile under realistic conditions." The target, after all, had a homing beacon. To be part of a layered national defense, WN was told, an interceptor would have to be  at least twice as fast. As one defense expert explained, "we're now closer to a missile-defense shield to the extent that we're closer to the moon when we stand on a step ladder."


Hanbury Brown Said It Nine Years Ago and Look How Far We've Come. (February 1, 2002)
    Robert Hanbury Brown died late last month in Hampshire, UK. He was 85. He was one of the pioneers in radar and later radio astronomy, and after working at Jodrell Bank, in 1963 Hanbury Brown accepted the offer of the chair of astronomy at Sydney University. It gave him the opportunity to build a large mirror intensity interferometer of his own design which over twenty years allowed him to compile a catalogue of measurements of the southern sky whose precision remains unequalled. Following his retirement in 1982 he returned to England but visited Australia from time to time. On a visit in 1993 the 77 year old made these observations. "I do not trust that the universities can remain in the front line of research, except for areas where only paper and computers are needed. If the CSIRO doesn't earn 30 per cent of its income and produce something 'useful' for industry, someone in Canberra will cut their throats. Those silly folk don't realise that all significant advances in science have come from fundamental research."
    The New York Times heads its obit Robert Hanbury Brown, Sized Up the Stars.