News & Views - April 2001 

Knowledge Nation Taskforce - Fruition? (April 30, 2001)
    On August 3rd at the Federal Labor Party Conference, Kim Beazley, leader of the Opposition, announced, "Labor will establish a Leader's Taskforce on the Knowledge Nation. The Taskforce will report to me on measures to encourage the development of the Knowledge Nation. The Taskforce will be wpe3.jpg (34057 bytes)chaired by the Hon Barry Jones AO."
    On April 18th Michelle Grattan reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, "Mr Jones chairs the group that has produced a plan to give horsepower to Labor's Knowledge Nation policy. In Sydney today the committee puts the final touches to its work."
   Grattan goes on to say, "Talking to expatriate Australians about what would make them return" she quotes Jones, "They say, why would you come back to play in the B team? There have got to be signs of life. We've got to challenge the business community about how serious they are - whether they want Australia to develop new industries or simply rely on the traditional ones, which are a declining share of world trade. It's also about creating public attitudes." 
    As a parting shot she comments, "It will be up to the Opposition Leader, Mr Beazley, to decide whether to release the report quickly for discussion. That would be Mr Jones's preference."
    Your move Mr. Beazley.

A Toast to Innovation (April 30, 2001)
 Just when you thought innovation in consumer IT was groping for expression comes a toaster with awareness, at least so far as weather reporting is concerned. The modem equipped toaster connects with a specific web site, downloads the day's forecast and following normal toasting superimposes a toasted silhouette such as rain (left). Unfortunately, currently it is only in prototype, but the designers are working on expanding its capabilities.

The New Leader of the Australian Democrats Could Show Academe a Bit When it Comes to PR. (April 25, 2001)
    Senator Natasha Stott Despoja obtained the services of the public relations firm Gavin Anderson and Company free of charge to assist her in her run for the leadership. The senator has often stated her support for science and education and justifiably upbraided both the Coalition and Labor for insufficient backing of either. Perhaps she could advise the Group of Eight (Go8), the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) on how to go about top order lobbying while constrained by a small budget. When it comes to self promotion, the senator ranks with the best and as was pointed out in an earlier N&V "cultivate smart friends".

Soft Dollar Fills UNSW Coffers (April 24, 2001)
    That's the header above Patrick Lawnham's column in the higher education section of today's Australian. Lawnham working from the University of New South Wales Annual Report points out that the University has attracted an increased number of Asian students over the past year. This is partly at the expense of American and British universities because of the drop in value of our dollar and that Asian economies are still tight. So if you can't be better, be cheaper, that is if your principal aim for our universities is to earn foreign exchange. Mind you when Asian economies pick up, and they can afford to be choosy again, matters may not look so sanguine. 

Be With It - Know Your Protein. (April 23, 2001)
    Sequencing the human genome was the easy bit. Perhaps is ought to be the operative verb because it really ain't finished, and the truth is, there are still several years of refinement required. Gaining a thorough understanding of the function of the various bits will take even longer. But in any case one of the major bottlenecks in what is called functional genomics is knowledge of the 3-D structure of our protein set. Apart from increasing our knowledge of the workings of living organisms, it's a critical element for modern drug design. Recent work in both Europe (European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, Grenoble) and the US (Advanced Light Source, Berkeley - another synchrotron facility) has focused on developing automated procedures in upping the throughput of protein crystals. Automated procedures for producing protein crystals are well advanced. A ten-fold increase in 3-D structural determinations is expected at these facilities.
    Oh yes, Australian scientists are still trying to get money to build our first synchrotron let alone develop automated procedures to up structural protein analyses. We don't really appear to be one of the OECD front runners, and we could have been.

The Royal Road to Discovery. (April 22, 2001)
    The Neurologists David Paydarfar and William Schwartz, writing in Science (Editorial April 6th, p.13) outline their five axioms for discovery (if you like you may substitute innovation for discovery).

1. Slow down to explore
2. Read, but not too much
3. Pursue quality for its own sake
4. Look at the raw data
5. Cultivate smart friends.

Perhaps it mightn't be such a bad paradigm for our parliamentarians and their staffs to follow.

Life on Earth Probably Originated... On Earth (April 22, 2001)
    Jay Melosh of the University of Arizona has done a front of the computer calculation that the probability of life arriving on Earth from another solar system is infinitesimal. For starters Melosh calculates that the chances that a rock launched from a terrestrial planet in one solar system will land in another stellar system is once every 100 million years. Not impressed? Wait on. He also determined that 1 in 10,000 rocks captured into orbit by a star will hit a terrestrial planet. So the expectation of a terrestrial type rock from one stellar system landing on another terrestrial planet in another is once in every trillion years. Factor in the likelihood of life surviving such a journey and the fact that our earth is about 5 billion years old, i.e. one two-hundredth of 1 trillion and it doesn't appear too likely.

Hands-on Science Exhibits UK Style (April 22, 2001)
    Since the middle of 1999 ten new centres have opened their doors to the public throughout Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Another seven are scheduled to open in 2002. The money comes from Britain's national lottery which must earmark a certain percentage of the takings for science. In the case of the science centres, matching funds have to be found and the Millennium Commission will not provide operating expenses. As a result, in all probability not all of the centres will survive. Nevertheless the centres provide a good model for Australia. Currently we have the excellent National Science and Technology Centre in Canberra, Questacon, but no hands-on interactive centre of comparable top quality is available in other Australian centres. It should be. Here is an area where state, federal and municipal authorities together with the corporate sector could have a powerful impact on the perception of and public support for science and technology in Australia. Were that to happen the country as a whole will benefit.

How to Get the Most for Your R & D Dollar. (April 22, 2001)
    The  Committee on Strategic Science and Engineering Policy Issues issued a twenty page draft discussion paper, The Scientific Allocation of Scientific Resources, for discussion and comment by the US National Science Board. At issue is the best way to set priorities for allocation of government funding for research. The overall conclusion is that the Executive and Legislative branches of the Federal Government should spend more time and resources in determining how best distribute the A$180 billion annual R&D budget. That would be A$11.4 billion per annum the Australian Government would allocate on a per capita basis. At the very least, the document should be required reading for members of our Federal and shadow cabinets. Appropriate and extensive consultation is urged by the report. Below are the key points bulleted in the covering letter from the Chairman, Eamon Kelly.

Enhancements to the existing S&T policy apparatus in the White House to provide a continuing Federal capability for expert review, evaluation, and advice, representing a broad cross-section of the science and engineering research and education community, to inform decisions on research budget allocations;

Better quantitative data and methods of analysis for evaluation of the effectiveness of Federal research support in achieving goals for research;

A mechanism to identify and track the relevant Federal funds for S&T through the budget process in the Administration and Congress to support a coordinated Federal budget for research across agencies and departments.

Don't Look Now (April 16, 2001)
    If Japan's economy recovers to the point that over the next five years it will grow by 3.5% (admittedly a rate not achieved during the '90s) the government aims to up public spending on science by A$390 billion, i.e. to 1% of GDP. That would rank Japan near the top for R&D support. Japan's population of 126.5 million is about 6.6 times that of Australia. Put simply our government would allocate A$60 billion for fiscal 2001 - 2006 to give comparable support on a per capita basis. Even with the increased funds promised in Backing Australia's Ability the Commonwealth will be allocating far less than half that sum, and it's worth contrasting Japan's intentions with the proposal put forward by the Group of Eight this past December:

In summary the additional investment [in research and development] required over five years (2001-02 to 2005-06) is $4.2 billion from business, $6.75 billion from the Commonwealth and $2.7 billion from other non-Commonwealth sources. This increase in R&D investment could be phased in so that, for example, the Commonwealth contribution would start at $450 million in 2001-02 and rise to $2.25 billion in 2005-06.

Considering that Australia's rate of growth over the past decade has been substantial, the Group of Eight's proposal would appear pretty modest. Nevertheless, the Commonwealth hasn't even come close to the Go8s scheme. The Government shows little recognition of the medium and long term consequences to the Nation if it continues its remarkably short sighted path while those around us appear all too aware of the cost. 
    On the other hand perhaps we're being overly pessimistic and the Government's "tax reform" will make it all come good in the end; but if not and the Opposition gets in, reform of the "tax reform" may do the job?

Criteria for Judging Proposals for Research Grants (April 15, 2001)
    Government granting agencies distribute proposals for funding to peers for evaluation. Several years ago, under pressure from the American Congress, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) significantly altered the set of criteria to be used for assessment. Congress had suggested that that unless the NSF demonstrated that its peer review system provided impartial and broadly based evaluations, it might attempt its own revision.
    As a result the NSW developed a two criteria system. It is sufficiently interesting to quote it below:

Criterion 1: How important is the proposed activity to advancing knowledge?
    How well qualified is the proposer to conduct the project?... Is there sufficient access to resources?

Criterion 2: How well does the activity promote teaching, training and learning... broaden the participation of underrepresented groups... enhance the infrastructure for research and education?
    What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?

So far reviewers have addressed the points in the first criterion but have given short shrift to the second, due partly to NSF's not demanding it be treated thoroughly and partly because, for the reviewers, it would require a marked change of the 'culture' of the review process. Congress has indicated that unless the NSF put some teeth into its "request" it would get tough.
    One worthwhile outcome from the fracas could be that graduate students and postdocs may get a better deal. Let's hope so. And we might take note, the future of Australian research and development could be the winner.

Alan Williamson: Champion of Enlightened Self-Interest (April 15, 2001)
    Up until several years ago Alan Williamson was Vice President, Research Strategy Worldwide for Merck & Co. While still with Merck, he was instrumental together with several others in launching a consortium (TSC) of ten pharmaceutical companies and the Wellcome Trust which to date has made publicly available, over 850,000 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). SNPs can be used as analytical tools, making it easier to trace inherited disease risks and abnormal responses to drugs.
    Williamson, since retired from Merck, is now attempting a similar approach with proteins and has broached a plan to have companies determine the 3-dimentional structures of 200 human proteins per annum and make the information publicly available, again with the intent of accelerating drug research and development. The Wellcome Trust backs the initiative and nine or so firms are considering putting in US$3 million each.

The Supercomputer Named Grendel (April 13, 2001)
    Claimed to be Australia's most powerful general purpose super-computer  the facility was officially opened  in Melbourne yesterday, by former ALP President, Barry Jones. It comprises a cluster of 128, 800MHz Compaq Alpha computers which can run calculations more than 500 times faster than the best desktop personal computer. Among other assignments it is already working on a "planetary reconstruction on a global scale where we combine the physics of the Earth using work done by CSIRO in Western Australia, along with the plate reconstruction done at Monash and at the University of Melbourne," said Professor Bill Appelbe, CEO of the new supercomputing centre. More than 100 researchers, from the private as well as the public sector, are already making use of the facility which is the product of a computing consortium, formed by La Trobe, Monash, RMIT universities, the Swinburne University of Technology, and the Universities of Ballarat and Melbourne. It has been given initial funding of $6million by the Victorian Government. Ultimately it hopes to be commercially self-sufficient.
    Perhaps the major worry is that the consortium has christened it "Grendel", the monstrous demon of the Beowulf  epic poem. A few lines from Seamus Heaney's brilliant 1999 translation may illustrate the point.

So times were pleasant for the people there
until finally one, a fiend out of hell,
began to work his evil in the world.
Grendel was the name of this evil demon
haunting the marches...

[And later]
In off the moors, down through the mist bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.

Makes HAL look almost saintly. What the consortium of six may have created remains to be seen but it may be wise to tread warily when entering the "high hall."

A$155 Million Competition for Major Research Facilities for Australian Scientists (April 8, 2001)
    Senator Nick Minchen announced in March that the Commonwealth Government was now prepared to entertain competitive applications to fund major national research facilities. This is in fact a direct result of the Prime Minister's Backing Australia's Ability statement of January 29th which contains the paragraph, "To provide researchers with the most up-to-date equipment and facilities the Government will provide $155 million towards establishing collaborative Major National Research Facilities."
    Among the items that will most probably be considered is a synchrotron facility being put up by a consortium of nine of our universities. In addition Australian astronomers may have put in up to four proposals for funding. Matching funds will have to be found for the proposals to be considered. One of the critical matters will be the question of adequate recurrent funding for maintenance of the facilities and for staff salaries.
    Regarding that synchrotron, it is hardly before time that serious consideration for such a facility were given. On October 3rd last year the president of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS), Professor Sue Serjeantson pointed out, "Australia is the only developed country that doesn't have a synchrotron and they are used in the development of  IT and drug design." In short we're still playing catch up.
    Or trying to!  It's worth recalling comments made by Professor Serjeantson just 18 days before the PM released his innovation statement. Tom Allard the Sydney Morning Herald's economics correspondent wrote,

The Federal Government's expected five-year investment of about $2 billion [it was in fact $2.9 billion] in science and innovation will be dwarfed by the extra funding put into the sector by Australia's international rivals for the technology dollar.
Singapore, with a population of just over 3 million, boosted research and development funding last year to more than $6 billion over five years.
If that kind of investment were replicated in Australia, the Prime Minister would be unveiling a $32 billion package, says [the President of] the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS). [Emphases ours]

Interestingly, neither immediately following the publication of Backing Australia's Ability, nor at any time subsequently, has any member of Labor's shadow cabinet or the Australian Democrats' spokeswoman for science and education (now leader), Senator Stott Despoja, alluded to Professor Serjeantson's observations.
There's nothing like having real friends and supporters when you need them.

Oh yes, Allard's header read "Microscopic $2bn science investment".

"NO SCIENCE, NO SURPLUS." (April 7, 2001)
    Alan Bromley's one liner (TWF Editorial, March 19th, see also NYT, March 9) seems to have caused quite a stir on Capital Hill. Within Republican ranks supporters of a strong science program have been speaking up. Earlier this week Bromley's line was quoted in an editorial in the widely-read Capital Hill newspaper, Roll Call. Even more to the point, a letter to the House Appropriations Committee, signed by both Republican and Democratic members, urged that science agencies,  particularly the Nation Science Foundation, be given high priority in the budget. In addition the House Science Committee expressed concern about the "minuscule" budget increase for NSF in its Views and Estimates report.
    Yesterday, President Bush in a speech to American Newspaper Editors reiterated that he would finish the job of doubling medical research at NIH by 2003. But then added, "Basic research gets big increases too." If a US President wants congressional cooperation, and party margins are tight, Presidents listen.
    Perhaps, just perhaps, our representatives in Canberra might show some multi-partisanship and demonstrate that they really do understand how vital upgrading science and education to a first class standard is for Australia.

"As Business Races to Decipher Proteins, Is Equal Effort by Government Desirable?" (April 6, 2001)
    That's the question asked by The Wall Street Journal of April 5th. In McLean, Virginia a just concluded three day conference was held on the Human Proteome Project. Topics ranging from research methods to legal and commercial considerations were covered. An outline of the subjects is available on-line.
    A number of the academically based scientists argued that a large public endeavour is necessary not only to coordinate a number of independent efforts but also to ensure that protein data are widely shared. Not surprisingly some in industry demur, claiming that existing commercial efforts may render a public project redundant. Craig Venter, President of Celera, the commercial venture that in competition with the publicly funded Human Genome Project successfully sequenced most of the human genome, is seldom one to mince words, "There ain't no such thing as a proteome," declaring that human proteins vary too widely from cell to cell to make a proteome feasible project. The Wall Street Journal reports, "Celera plans to focus on unearthing new proteins associated with particular diseases and using them to develop vaccines, tests and other therapeutics. ...[S]cientists worry that protein data produced by companies will remain locked up in proprietary databases, where they will benefit only companies willing to pay for the information. Myriad [Genetics' Peter] Meldrum says [his] company plans to charge even academic researchers for access to its data, although it plans to do so in a 'cost-effective' way."
    [Note: Macquarie University's Brad Walsh, Manager of the Australian Proteome Analysis Facility was one of the conference speakers.]

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Post Materials for Nearly all its
Courses on a Free Web Site in the Next Few Years
(April 6, 2001)
    MIT is not offering on-line courses for credit. However, by making the material available, teachers and students everywhere will have access to teaching notes and ideas from one of the world's leading research universities. Patti Richards, spokeswoman for the MIT OpenCourseWare project, said that the idea was born out of faculty disquiet, "over the growing privatisation of knowledge." Materials from most of the MIT courses, assignments and tests as well as videotaped lectures will be posted over the next 10 years, starting with about 500 courses in the fall of 2003. Science commented, "So what does MIT get for its efforts, which could cost as much as $100 million that the university hopes to raise through private donations? The objective, says Richards, is to give students and teachers worldwide, particularly those in developing countries, access to educational resources they might never get otherwise. MIT electrical engineering professor Paul Penfield Jr. says most professors supported the plan at MIT, the campus that's home to the open source software movement." 

Germany Allocates A$350 Million for Functional Genomic Research (April 4, 2001)
    Germany's Minister for Research, Edelgard Bulmahn, announced that over the next three years the money would finance a National Genome Research Network. Core genomic research would absorb A$134 million, while a "disease-oriented genome network" would get A$132 million, with A$64 million going to proteomics and bioinformatics. The remaining A$20 million will be directed toward determining the social and legal aspects of functional genomics. Some 25 German universities and research institutes would be involved in the effort.
    Of course Germany's population at 84 million is not quite 4.5 times that of Australia's. Nevertheless the per capita GDP is the same and so Federal Government support for a comparable effort of about $80 million might seem a reasonable investment. However, it would appear that Backing Australia's Ability doesn't extend to quite those lengths.
    What is particularly worrying is that not even our scientific community, let alone our political leaders are aware of just how stunted the support for science is in our nation.

Universe's Rate of Expansion May be Accelerating (April 4, 2001)
    The Hubble Space Telescope identified the farthest stellar explosion ever seen, a supernova that erupted 10 billion years ago. By examining the glow from this dying star, astronomers have amassed more evidence that a mysterious, repulsive force is at work in the cosmos, making galaxies rush ever faster away from each other. Science reports, "The supernova called SN1997ff has provided more decisive evidence [than previously available] for universal acceleration. ...[A] team of astronomers led by Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore spotted [supernova] SN1997ff in... a series of infrared images, taken over 35 days. The images showed that SN1997ff was in a galaxy over 10 billion light-years away. At that distance, the supernova was dim enough to support an accelerating universe, but too bright to be explained by dust or stellar evolution."