News & Views - December 2001 

A Short Holiday Reading List for Our Parliamentarians. (December 24, 2001)
    Now that it's the time of year when our politicians are recharging their solar cells, TFW has a very short list of recommended reading.

  • The New World of Mr Tompkins. George Gamow and Russell Stannard. Cambridge University Press, ISBN: 0-521-63009-6.

  • Flatterland: Like Flatland Only More So. Ian Stewart. Macmillan, ISBN: 0-333-78312-3.

  • The Universe in a Nutshell. Stephen Hawking. Bantam Press, ISBN: 0-593-04815-6.

  • The Tangled Field. Nathaniel C. Comfort. Harvard University Press, ISBN: 0-674-00456-6.

  • Supersymmetry. Gordon Kane. Helix Books, Perseus Press, ISBN: 0-7382-0203-7.

  • Waiting for Godot. Samuel Beckett. Faber and Faber, ISBN: 0-571-05808-6.

Big Country, Big Science - US$23.2 Billion for NIH. (December 24, 2001)
    The record US$3 billion, 15% raise for NIH, to US$23.2 billion, was included in a larger US$396 billion measure funding health, education, and welfare programs. The boost is US$200 million more than was requested by the Bush Administration. Most of the funds go to university-based scientists.
    Allowing for the fact that the US has fifteen times Australia's population and that our dollar is currently worth half the US dollar, on a population basis the Howard Government would be allocating A$3.1 billion for biomedical research for the coming year. So just what is the 2002 budget for the National Health and Medical Research Council? -- A$0.37 billion, and keep in mind that in comparison with the core sciences they're traveling the golden brick road.
    If John Howard deems that's Backing Australia's Ability, might it be construed as indicating that he's not all that impressed?

Disciplinary Arrogance Cannot Be Condoned at the University of Queensland. (December 24, 2001)
     According to the U of Q's official write-up "Professor Paul Greenfield is Deputy Vice-Chancellor at The
University of Queensland. A member of the University's Executive, his role is a significant one in leading and energising the research profile of one of Australia's top research-intensive universities into the next millennium." In a recent profile of the deputy V-C by the University's Graduate Contact the following quotes were attributed to him (Summer 2001, p.23):

[The University of Queensland] has not been hamstrung by tradition because it didn't evolve from a society which valued education to the same extent as other states. Consequently, UQ was able to adapt more easily to the pressures on the higher education sector to be self-sufficient. Of all the Universities, we continue to attract the most dollars from industry and other external partners.

You have to accept that in an institution as large as this in today's climate at no point are all parts going to be thriving. Federal Government funding is sliding therefore those areas that become self-sufficient will potentially thrive.

It follows that we will increasingly be faced with the question as to whether certain areas are viable. There's no discipline that is sacred to a university. For advocates of a discipline to claim it is the essence of a university is very arrogant.  However, the hope of UQ is that through some of the commercialisation and some of the full fee-paying revenue, we will generate sufficient surplus to support less prospective but nevertheless high quality areas.

Leaving aside the semantic escape hatches, faculty judged to be generating inadequate income at the University of Queensland ought to be well and truly windy. Disciplines such as classical languages, cosmology and quantum relativity would seem advised to find happy homes elsewhere if they'd preferred to be adequately supported let alone loved and wanted.

A Shocking Experience is as Good as it Gets. (December 24, 2001)
    The University of Queensland has announced that one of its commercial ventures, Tank IP, has shared the $100,000 prize awarded by the UQ Enterprize competition. One of the three judges was deputy V-C Professor Paul Greenfield (see above), the others came from the private sector.
    The winning entry? Oh, the Bioforce game controller "which enables computer game players to receive safe electric shocks to simulate an event in the game."
    And the judges might want to keep in mind a device based on a 1930 patent issued to Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard, a distinguished theoretical physicist and biophysicist. Beginning in 1926 and continuing for the next seven years, Einstein and Szilard collaborated on ways to improve home refrigeration units, eventually accruing 45 patents in their names for three different models. Who needs General Relativity or the photoelectric effect. At least in the case of the Einstein/Szilard fridge the motivation was to develop a safer machine.

It costs A$10 million a Year and it Lets Small University Research Groups Work Big Time. (December 20, 2001)
   Bates College is a small undergraduate institution in the north-east US state of Maine and academic staffer Pam Baker is analysing how the bacterium Porphyromonas gingivalis helps spark gum disease. Up until recently she'd have been wasting her time and resources because she had neither funding nor access to current technology to do the job properly. That's the case for a number of highly competent academic researchers in small schools. Now in a first, The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) a private nonprofit powerhouse will supply glass microarrays to allow Baker to determine how the beast's genes and proteins behave during infection. As Baker points out, "We've got just basic equipment, [to be able] to use microarrays is a big step up." This has all come about because the NIH's Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has awarded a five year US$25 million contract to TIGR to assist scientists in delving into the inner workings of at least ten human pathogens whose genome sequences are now known. But as Science points out, "putting all that information to use in understanding infections or developing drugs is difficult. It takes expertise and money to make the specialized reagents, gene clones, and microarrays (chemically treated glass slides or silicon wafers that can detect the activity of hundreds of genes at a time) that researchers need. A first task will be to select three target pathogens from a short list of hot candidates, with at least another seven coming by 2004. Then TIGR can begin making and distributing materials, processing samples, and analyzing data for needy labs."
    The approach is straight forward, cheap and ought to be applied here, and not only in molecular biology. The stimulating effect it would have at Australian universities could be a fillip to Australian science. It takes only a glance to see how different this approach is from that of our Cooperative Research Centres and how well it would augment their work were it adequately resourced.

Just in Case You Thought Play-Doh was Passé. (December 20, 2001)
     It's old news now but worth recounting. Was it a top-secret Al-Qaeda DIY atomic bomb recipe? Found by BBC reporters in a mound of documents left in Kabul when the Taliban fled the city on 12 November it got the wind up more than one "military pundit". Mold plutonium into massive spheres using rubber cement, surround them with a mix of dynamite and Play-Doh, and add a remote-control mechanism from a toy car. In fact it was copied from a 1979 issue of the Journal of Irreproducible Results, former editor Marc Abrahams'  lampoon of junk science. "It really is a small world," was his comment.

Human Stem Cells: Five Views. (December 18, 2001)
    The premature announcement on November 25th by Applied Cell Technology that it had cloned a human embryo with the eventual intention of using stem cells from such a system, which would have a genetic makeup identical to that of the intended recipient from whom it was derived for medical therapy, has caused consternation from both scientific (it was a grossly misleading announcement) and moral/religious considerations. Now the New York Times has devoted five articles reviewing stem cell research and its development for practical medicine. For anyone taking more than a passing interest in the subject they are worth spending time on.
    Sheryl Stolberg discusses the reaction of the US Congress in "Controversy Over Cloning Reignites in Congress". Stolberg points out "the next battleground will be the Senate, where, as early as February, members are expected to consider two bills related to stem cells. One would allow a wider range of federally financed research than the president wants. The other, a broad ban on cloning, would effectively end Advanced Cell's work... At the heart of the debates over stem cells and cloning are questions that politicians cannot settle: When does human life begin, and what is the moral status of the human embryo?"
    Nicholas Wade follows up "In Tiny Cells, Glimpses of Body's Master Plan" telling his readers that "biologists only dimly grasp the principles of this extraordinary self-assembly [of living tissue], but they are quickly learning the habits of its principal actors, a special class of cell known as stem cells," and discusses the progress of work on embryonic and adult stem cells pointing out that there's a long way to go in understanding the systems let alone making medical use of them.
    Gina Kolata reemphasises  the point that there is "A Thick Line Between Theory and Therapy, as Shown With Mice" while Nicholas Wade returns with a thumbnail of the characters playing leading roles in the research with "In Production of Stem Cells, Many Featured Actors but Few Stars."
    Finally Natalie Angier gets into muddy water pointing out that  "scientists have had a devilishly difficult time specifying, delimiting and agreeing on the characteristics that define life, and that exclude the apparently nonliving."
    How Australians and their governing representatives will deal with the matter of therapeutic cloning and stem cell research over the next few years will have a significant affect on our population from many aspects. It's to be hoped that decisions will not be governed by ignorance and pre or misconceptions.

The Premier of New South Wales Reads Books. (December 18, 2001)
    It may come as something of a surprise to some, but it is being put about that at least one Australian head of government reads books. In fact it's been rumored that whereas the late British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden used to tidy his finger nails during question time, the New South Welsh Premier has been seen to settle down with a good book while bedlam broke about him. In any case Mr. Carr has a list of something over 500 books which is the basis for his Premier's Reading Challenge; a challenge thrown down to year 5-8 students. And...

Your Challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to read 20 books in one year, that is, the books you read from 1 September this year to 31 August next year. Of those 20 books, fifteen should be chosen from the list, which you can view on this website. Five of the books can be of your own choice, of any sort.
    When you read 20 books, give your Reading Record to your teacher. Your Reading Record will be sent to the Premier, who will then send you a signed certificate.
    You can do it again the following year, and get another certificate. If and when you receive certificates for four years in a row, you will receive a Gold Award for Reading.
    Your school is also invited to be in the Challenge. The primary school and high school with the most students who receive certificates will receive a special prize of $1500.

Oh, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is on the list. Some nineteen categories run the gamut, and it's well worth a look to see what the Premier and his advisors have chosen.

Different Government, Different Terms, Same Problem. (December 13, 2001)
    It was the Indian government that criticized the state of the nation's science this week, and did so in no uncertain terms. Draft Document: Action Plan - Version 3 dated October 29 was publicly released this week following the collection of responses requested from interested parties. The report examines how India can better compete in a global economy.
    Its preamble makes it patently clear that the Indian Government is severely exercised with regard to India's position in the global economy and how it sees the role of science and technology.

[T]here is an urgent need to revitalize the scientific enterprise in the country and to raise the standards of science and technology in our institutions, in order to meet the challenges of a technologically sophisticated world. The University system in India is under severe strain and science departments have difficulties in attracting high quality, students and faculty. Science teaching at the undergraduate level is in a state of crisis, with students drifting away to other disciplines which offer better avenues for employment. Research laboratories are faced with the problems of an aging pool of scientists, a consequence of the slow pace of recruitment, inadequate infrastructure, declining numbers of research students and limited resources.

Among other initiatives the Draft document states the Indian Government will undertake, "Reconstruction of the Academic Science System. A major initiative to modernize the infrastructure for science and engineering in Universities and academic institutions will be undertaken. The recognition that the University science and engineering departments are central to the scientific enterprise is essential for ensuring that the foundations of our science and technology establishment are strong." It goes on to state, "The Government will consider the institution of new funding mechanisms for the promotion of basic science and will ensure greater autonomy for organizations and departments charged with the responsibility of furthering the objectives of the Science and Technology Policy-2001."
    It must be noted that at present India spends less than 1% of its gross national product on research, and its academic system is woeful. That said the draft recommends that the government more than double research spending over the next 5 years, which will be far in excess both in absolute terms and in terms of GDP, of what either of our major parties is prepared to continence. It must be emphasised that this is a government policy document not a senate committee report which will be pilloried and dismissed by cabinet. Should the Howard government continue in its abject denial that we are falling rapidly behind our cohort nations, the Indian report ought to be a sharp reminder that we have a potent regional rival who will be the one to whom the region will turn for leadership in science and technology. And it will happen in this decade unless we get off our collective backsides.

Australian Astronomy Having Won One, Now Loses One. (December 10, 2001)
    On August 21st the then Minister for Industry, Science and Resources, Senator Nick Minchin announced the allocation of $155 million under the Commonwealth Government’s Major National Research Facilities Program. One of the fifteen winners was  the Gemini and Square Kilometer Array project for optical and radio astronomy respectively with a grant of $23.50 million over five years.
    Now comes the bad news. ScienceNow reports, "Today's trendy astronomer uses an 8-meter telescope--4-meter telescopes are just so '80s. That's why the United Kingdom is now joining the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which runs a clutch of 8-meter telescopes in Chile. To finance the deal, announced Wednesday, Britain will drastically cut its contribution to the Anglo-Australian Observatory and several other facilities." The cost to UK astronomy for ponying up to the ESO comes to A$27 million a year for 10 years, half of which will come from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council's own budget, starting around 2005. It's that money that will be derived from winding back its commitments to other facilities, most significantly the Anglo-Australian Observatory. What the Howard Government's response will be to this news remains to be seen.
    It will be interesting to see, as least to some, how the new Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, reacts and if the Shadow Minister, Jenny Macklin, will have anything to say.

Hi Tech Belling the Cat, Take 2. (December 10, 2001)
    On Monday December 3 the weather cleared so the seventh of 18 planned US missile defence tests took place. The test design was identical to the successful test conducted eighteen months ago, i.e. the target carried a homing beacon and deployed a single decoy that didn't resemble a real warhead. In addition the "defenders" were privy to the missile's planned trajectory. Again a success, and the powers that be with buoyed spirits now promise to make the tests more realistic in coming months. To paraphrase Bill Gates when giving taped testimony in Microsoft's antitrust trial, what does the Pentagon mean by "more realistic". Dispensing with the beacon would seem a bit drastic but you never know.

"Find a Great Mentor." (December 5, 2001)
    David Bondanis opens his book review (Nature 414:395(2001)) of William Cropper's latest volume Great Physicists with the observation, "It's easy to be an exceptionally good physics student ...[but] how many will
enter the history books as achieving anything of the very first rank?" And goes on to list the key steps required. By and large the steps are pretty true for most endeavours.
    Leaving aside the question of just how easy is "easy" and ignoring the singularities like Einstein or Bradman the first requisite apart from inherent ability is "find a great mentor ...With a great mentor you learn the latest tools, you're exposed to the latest research and you pick up a huge number of 'implicit' tools that are never put into the standard literature, but which are indispensable for coming up with top work of your own." And of course you'll be in a milieu which exposes you to the best minds and demands the best of you.
    If we take Cropper at his word, the question for Australian graduate students is where do you find such an environment in Australian universities. Currently most of our best mentors and potential mentors migrate overseas. As one individual wrote to TFW recently, "Considering the present academic situation at home, this brain is going to remain drained." As long as our political servants refuse to hold constructive dialogue with groups such as the Australian Academy of Science, the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee, the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies and the Group of Eight, the situation will continue to decline.

Arcane Basic Research Turns Vital. (December 2, 2001)
    You never know when what appears to be esoteric fundamental research may become vital knowledge. In a Science nota bene Orla Smith points out that studies on Bacillus anthracis' toxic mechanism have suddenly assumed crucial relevance. the spores cause a systemic form of anthrax that is fatal unless treated immediately with antibiotics. This lethality is principally due to the "tripartite toxin produced by the anthrax bacillus. Assembled on the surface of host cells, this toxin is composed of protective antigen (PA) bound to two enzymes, lethal factor (LF) and edema factor (EF), which block macrophage activity." Recently the specific sites on the cell surface onto which the protective antigen and its passengers attach has been discovered. This together with an understanding of the path of entrance of the two toxins and knowledge of the structure of the lethal factor (LF) allows researches to systematically attempt development of prophylaxes and therapies.
    It may be a worthwhile exercise for those representing our research and tertiary institutions to point out the fundamental science required before you can even attempt to undertake such research, for example the field of X-ray crystallography and the understanding of the mechanisms involved in the movement of LF and EF into the cell and the subsequent destruction they cause. After all, such work could even lead to the saving of the lives of a Prime Minister or a Federal Treasurer.

Worth a Second Try. (December 2, 2001)
    In May last year the US National Science Foundation proposed a large boost in Federal spending for the mathematical and physical sciences and brought down a 20 page paper supporting its contention that it was essential to the US economy as well as the nation's security. It fell flat which ought to have a ring of familiarity to Australian academics and researchers. However, a recent US Department of Defense commission under the joint chairmanship of two former Senators making very similar recommendations got the nation's attention and there is every likelihood significant resources will be made available.
    Any recently retired members of Parliament available and willing to try to boost support for Australian core science?

Scientific Literacy, Are We Much Different? (December 1, 2001)
    Although done over seven months ago, a survey undertaken by the California Academy of Sciences may have relevance for Australia, in any case a similar analysis ought to be undertaken. The survey summary is entitled, "National Survey of American Public by California Academy of Sciences and Harris Interactive Reveals Profound Lack of Scientific Knowledge at a Time When Science is Changing Our Daily Lives" and points out that:

While crucial social, economic, and health issues now facing the public are being profoundly influenced by new scientific research, a startling number of Americans cannot answer even basic scientific questions:

    More than half of all American adults (53%) do not know that the Earth goes around the Sun once a year.

    Nearly half (48%) do not have a sense of what percentage of the Earth's surface is covered by water.

    And 42% can't answer correctly when asked if the earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs.

    Nearly 1 in 5 people (19%) couldn't answer any of these questions correctly. Even college graduates did not fare well, just over a third (35%) were able to respond correctly to all three questions.

With the recasting of the Federal ministries and shadow ministries science and education are the responsibility of the same individual, Dr. Nelson and Ms Macklin respectively. It will be interesting to see just how much importance they assign the question of the scientific literacy of the Australian population. And another finding of the California Academy might give them pause:

When asked whom they trust as a reliable source of information about the environment and the natural world, the public overwhelmingly looks to scientists for a reliable perspective. Teachers ranked a distant second, while government officials and business leaders tied for last place.
    Scientists 64%
    Teachers 15%
    Reporters 6%
    Government Officials 3%
    Business Leaders 3%
By giving the public the tools to evaluate scientific arguments, they gain a better ability to judge the trustworthiness of the information they hear. Such knowledge would help frame more open and productive discussions of difficult issues.