News & Views - June 2001 

Man's Hand in the Extinction of Large Animals during Pre History. (June 27, 2001)
    Ten Researchers led by Richard Roberts of the University of Melbourne and including individuals from a half dozen Australian institutions reported in Science a couple of weeks ago (June 8th), "All Australian land mammals, reptiles, and birds weighing more than 100 kilograms, and six of the seven genera with a body mass of 45 to 100 kilograms, perished in the late Quaternary. The timing and causes of these extinctions remain uncertain. We report burial ages for megafauna from 28 sites and infer extinction across the continent around 46,400 years ago (95% confidence interval, 51,200 to 39,800 years ago). Our results rule out extreme aridity at the Last Glacial Maximum as the cause of extinction, but not other climatic impacts [such as] a "blitzkrieg" model of human-induced extinction or an extended period of anthropogenic ecosystem disruption." The authors believe that it is not at all unlikely that man was a major cause of the extinction of our giant animals.
                [Note: the Quaternary period spans from approximately 2 million years ago to the present.]
    Jared Diamond writing in Nature, June 14th, takes up the points made by Roberts and his colleagues pointing out that comparable extinctions of mega fauna occurred at various sites. He asks, "What about other places - such as the Bismarcks, Cyprus, West Indies, Fiji, Madagascar and New Zealand - where megafauna similarly evolved in the absence of humans? The estimated dates of extinctions on these six islands fall in that sequence from 32,000 to just 700 years ago, and do not coincide with each other, or with Australia's...[and] in each case they did occur soon after humans arrived in the area concerned, suggesting that these extinctions were also triggered by the arrival of humans."
    Our popular media covered the story but so far Australia's environmentalists don't appear to have given it the attention it deserves. Put simply, if primitive man was able to cause such devastation among the fauna which crossed his path, we really must take great care. In addition active support by environmentalists for scientific research might seem a given. Yet that doesn't appear to be be the case. For example Dr. Bob Brown, senator from Tasmania, has had little if anything to say as regards support for research and development or the parlous state of our university system.

Conflicts in University/Industry Partnerships a Recurring Dilemma (June 27, 2001)
    In a recent report, Working Together, Creating Knowledge: The University-Industry Research Collaboration Initiative representatives from both groups concluded that detailed hard-headed contracts covering all aspects of a collaboration need to be hammered out in order to avoid costly misunderstandings which can lead to protracted litigation. The study was co-chaired by Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities and Hank McKinnell, CEO of Pfizer. The fact was emphasised that these collaborations involve two very different cultures, which can lead, for example, to imbroglios concerning when and how much of research findings may be published or who owns what of the intellectual property. One particular area of concern lies in clinical research and the influence on published findings by academics funded by companies which may have a vested interest in the results. A criticism of the report considered that this particular aspect was not taken into sufficient account.

The Debate and Legislation Regarding Stem Cell Research (June 25, 2001)
    A three page overview in Science "Can Adult Stem Cell Research Suffice" (June 8, 2001, pp 1820-22) focuses on the political debate in the US "over the use of embryonic stem cells[. S]ome opponents claim that malleable adult cells can take the place of their embryonic cousins. Many scientists aren't so sure." The objective and well-balanced article by Gretchen Vogel  should commend itself to the federal and state parliamentarians who will have to pass on legislation affecting Australian research utilising stem cells. For those with online access to Science the article can be found at:
while the sidebar is at

MIT's Media Lab May Set Up Branch Office in India (June 25, 2001)
    Last year the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's 16 year old, ultra high tech Media Lab set up a mirror of its Cambridge (MA) facility in Dublin. Now India is negotiating with MIT to set up an Asian counterpart as part of a proposed 10 year A$2.5 billion drive toward high technology.

Physics Needs Better Public Relations (June 17, 2001)
    Physics in the New Era was issued at the beginning of April by the US National Academy of Sciences as a draft document. While the 161 page report makes no pointed recommendations comparable to those made for astronomy last year it urges US physicists to work as though they were a part of a global village even more than is currently the case. Of at least equal interest is the committee's statement of the obvious, that stable long term funding is essential for long term international projects. The further point is made that physics forms the foundation for applications on which research in the biomedical sciences is based and that that should be emphasised and  promoted. There is no doubt that this reliance will continue if not increase in the future. For example quantum physics is no longer an esoteric discipline of no consequence to biomedical research.
    Unfortunately if support for physical research is suffering in the United States it is virtually neglected in Australia. Currently applied research in biomedicine is fashionable and a relatively "easy sell". However, without a firm foundation of basic research in the more fundamental aspects of science the well of knowledge will go dry and individuals who can make use of that knowledge will migrate. 

As Others See Us. (June 17, 2001)
    The following Item is quoted in full from Nature, June 7 (page 626)

Australians dismayed by share of budget
[CANBERRA] Australian scientists reacted with disappointment to last month's national budget, claiming that the money allocated to science fails to make up for previous cuts.

The A$160-million (US$80-million) allocation is the first part of a five-year, A$2.9-billion spending plan for science announced this February (see Nature 409, 655; 2001). Researchers had hoped for more now, but Treasurer Peter Costello chose to divert money into other programmes, including schemes to help the elderly.

"The chance to kick-start universities has been ignored," says Michael Barber, policy secretary of the Australian Academy of Science. Government officials say that further increases in science spending would require taxes to be raised.

The Academy's media release (in full) was rather more circumspect but there was no mistaking its meaning. The last paragraph reads, "Given half the chance, Australian scientists and technologists can deliver on wealth generation for the nation. It is too bad that only about $160 million of the $3 billion expected over five years for Backing Australia's Ability has been delivered this year." Surely the implication is that the Federal Government is giving our scientists less than half a chance. Overly fair comment and yet the Labor opposition equivocates (see below, A lesson Out of Africa).

A Lesson Out of Africa. (June 17, 2001)
    Mohamed H. A. Hassan is president of the African Academy of Sciences as well as being the executive director of the Third World Academy of Sciences based in Trieste. Science asked him to write its June 1st editorial. His observations, whether we like it or not, are a good object lesson for Australia. 

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, science departments in many African universities... were among the finest in the developing world. Once heralded as beacons of progress on the continent, [they] now suffer from a host of problems that have made it all but impossible for them to meet even minimal responsibilities.

He continues, 

Science alone cannot save Africa, but Africa without science cannot be saved. So what can be done to revive African science, and who is responsible for leading such an effort... During the late 1960s and early 1970s, funding for science and technology in Africa was driven by governmental commitments to quality education and research. But years of political instability and chronic socio-economic problems have turned what became increasingly neglected universities into destitute institutions.

Dr. Hassan goes on to say that the African nations will require aid from abroad to reverse the depredation and degradation of its institutions and to be able to recall the scientists who have emigrated to more salubrious intellectual environments. The question for Australia is - just how far away are we from facing a similar situation? The egregious support by the current government as well as the pre-emptive qualifications placed by Mr Beazley on Labor's support for its Knowledge Nation in his address to the Sydney Institute don't augur well.

[T]he main legacy for an incoming government, in the short term, will be a fairly tight financial position. The government's panic-stricken spending spree will severely constrain the pace of our efforts, though not the direction, and certainly not the commitment.
    It will certainly take longer than one term of government to complete these reforms. This is a ten year agenda. What is important in our first term is that we make a real start.

 Is it really the case that those who govern or would govern us are prepared to "loseth good sheep for a ha'pennyworth of tar?" Because this is precisely what is happening. For example the spectre of higher taxes/budget deficits are being used as whipping boys not with the view of the good of the nation but with the hope of retaining or obtaining power. That, not to put to fine a point on it, is contemptible. The longer we take to adopt corrective measures the more difficult and costly they will become.

Support for Science Can Be Bipartisan, Why Not in Australia? (June 17, 2001)
    Despite the change in majority in the United States Senate from Republican to Democratic, Senate support for science will remain much the same - good. In particular Michigan State University lobbyist, Howard Grobstein is on record, "Support for science is bipartisan." That can only benefit US progress. Of course the Senate is more likely to take a more critical view of the the Bush Administrations plans for missile defence, and its downplaying greenhouse gas reduction initiatives.

Civil Rights, Bob Moses and The Algebra Project (June 17, 2001)
    bob-moses.jpeg (15853 bytes)Robert P. Moses teaches maths. In 1964, age 31, he was one of the principals of the US civil rights movement's non violent Freedom Summer. He took more than one beating for his pains. Now sixty-six he commutes weekly from Cambridge, Massachusetts to the all black Lanier High School in Jackson, Mississippi to teach algebra. He's fighting what he calls "sharecropper education". His mission is simply stated: to have his students master algebra by year eight.
    So that they will be ready to take university oriented maths in years 9 through 12. And open up the opportunities from which they would otherwise be  excluded. The approach he's designed relates the abstractions of algebra to physical experience to get the kids interested.  And it works. Perhaps those with a genuine interest in a knowledgeable nation may take note.

Sir William Deane Leaves a Legacy and Some Unfinished Business. (June 12, 2001)
    He may be soft-spoken but you're never in doubt where he stands. He leaves the office of Governor General in three weeks. 
    He agreed to a rare interview for the ABC's 7:30 Report which was telecast yesterday evening. The full transcript is available online

The excerpt below is taken from late in the interview.

KERRY O'BRIEN: How do we judge when we've arrived at both meeting the principle of reconciliation and matching it with practical reality?

SIR WILLIAM DEANE: I have a clear idea. It's not that we reach the stage where Aboriginal disadvantage no longer exists, because we're not going to see that in our lifetimes.
    What I would say is necessary is that we reach the stage where, to use language I used a minute ago, the future prospects of an Aboriginal child are at least in the same realm of discourse as those of a non-Aboriginal one...

Self-Interest, Enlightened and Otherwise (June 11, 2001)
    The pressures placed on Australian universities and CSIRO by successive governments to be increasingly entrepreneurial is less than a mixed blessing. Within less than a generation the approach has had a progressively stultifying effect on Australian basic research, and it is of critical consequence that it is not merely a matter of the quantity of basic research that is under assault, but of even greater consequence - its quality. In its May 31st editorial, Nature refers to the "Dangers of Nationalism" and concludes, "Countries who recognize that applied science can underpin their strength and prestige must also be prepared to support basic research, and to sustain the internationalism that is so essential to it."
    The behaviour of  both Labor and the Coalition has been to not only reduce support for basic research compared with our OECD cohort, they ignore the question of the relative quality of Australian basic research. Were they to determine the relative proportion of Australian scientific papers in the most prestigious international journals now as compared to 30 years ago they mightn't be quite so publicly smug about their performances.
    There is an increasing understanding that both industry and government must have horizons beyond the fringe of the carpet to serve themselves as well as their nations successfully. We might paraphrase the comment made several months ago by D. Alan Bromley, one of  former President Bill Clinton's science advisors, "No science no surplus, it's that simple." to be Poor basic research, weak applied science, national deterioration. It's that destructive.

Sydney University Part of Online Bioinformatics Consortium (June 11, 2001)
    If you log onto using Microsoft's Internet Explorer version 5.5 you'll be witness to a five nation, six university effort to address the growing problem of the shortage of bioinformaticists and courses that teach bioinformatics. The endeavour is in its infancy and is severely under funded, but it shows the way of the future. Currently the six institutions are supplying introductory lectures covering essentially all aspects of bioinformatics. Most of the lectures are videos of course lectures and are most certainly not infotainment, and are anything but slick products. But this tends to enhance the feeling that in many of the presentations you are present, together with your fellow students, at a real rather than a virtual lecture. Most consist of PowerPoint presentations with a talking head and while the course shows its cobbled together origin, if followed sequentially from beginning to end, will give a good basic understanding of bioinformatics. Despite its shortcomings it can be a worthwhile teaching aid for advanced secondary school pupils or beginning university students.
    The most important aspect of this effort is that used appropriately with face to face teaching it will bring world class scientists and lectures to any teacher or student prepared to utilise the Web site. While it is but one beginning example of what a working online university might bring, it's heartening to have an Australian university as a driving force in this consortium.

The Human Genome Four Months On and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. (June 4, 2001)
    In the May 25th Issue of Science Michael Goldman reviews Gary Zweiger's account of the beginnings of the "genomic revolution" (ISBN 0-07-136980-5). Amidst significant controversy, funding for the mapping and sequencing of the human genome was instituted by the US Department of Energy in 1987 some two years following the initial proposal. Drafts for the complete sequence were published in Nature  and Science in the middle of February 2001. 
    Zweiger describes a talk, not long after the work began, given by one of the proponents, Maynard Olsen, "He analyzed the costs per technician, as well as costs per base pair... it all seemed so inelegant, even mindless." Which reminds Goldman of an earlier experience when another protagonist, Leroy Hood, gave a similar talk which put Goldmen to sleep. "The idea of a brute-force, big-science sequencing project, which would produce reams of data we couldn't interpret, seemed ridiculous in 1985."
    And where are we now? At a meeting early last month at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, New York the discussion centred on what genes are required to differentiate the simple organisms such as bacteria, which lack a cell nucleus from the simplest of organisms that have a true nucleus and represent the the first step in the formation of complex multicellular plants and animals. Six complete  genomes were compared, two different types of yeast, the plant Arabidopsis, the fruit fly, Drosophila, the nematode worm, and human. This allowed the elimination of  genes necessary for multi-cellularity. The remainder were compared with bacterial genomes. As a result those genes necessary for the formation of the nucleated cell have been determined to a first approximation. Score one for mindless acquisition of sequence data.
    And now for the entrepreneurship. Nature reports in its May 24th issue that Solexa, a Cambridge (UK) start-up claims to be working on technology that will allow it, in the not too distant future, to sequence the genomes of individuals in a few days. If it eventuates, the approach may allow laboratories to determine complex associations between genetic diseases, or specific susceptibilities, and genetic variability through specific individual comparisons. Naturally they are not the only ones in the game.

One final note, if this is big science have a look at the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, an almost perfect contemporary of the Human Genome Project. Quoting from their home page, "After more than a decade of planning, building, and testing [project start date 1986], the Sloan Digital Sky Survey was officially dedicated on Thursday October 5, 2000... The survey will map in detail one-quarter of the entire sky, determining the positions and absolute brightnesses of more than 100 million celestial objects. It will also measure the distances to more than a million galaxies and quasars." Well why bother? "There are many fundamental, but as yet unanswered, questions about the structure of the Universe and the cosmogony of its constituents, from stars, through galaxies to quasars... To produce the samples necessary to address these problems, we are carrying out a digital photometric and spectroscopic survey over a large fraction of the sky... The database that will result from the SDSS will be enormous; a processed pixel map of the whole region at 0.4 arcsecond resolution is about 8.2 Terabytes, and the extracted spectra alone about 50 Gigabytes." 
    Estimated date of completion - 2005. Estimated pecuniary reward to participants - it keeps them off the street. Reason for undertaking the SDSS - to gain knowledge about the universe including a greater understanding of its birth and development. Total cost - A$165 million (about 3% of the estimated cost of the publicly funded HGP). 
    BUT WOULD IT STAND UP TO A PROPER COST BENEFIT ANALYSIS; for that matter was Galileo's telescope sound economics. On the other hand perhaps man doesn't live by entrepreneurship alone. 

It Could Never Happen Here, Could It? (June 4, 2001)
    J.C. Watts is a Republican Representative from Oklahoma. In a letter to fellow Republican members of the House he wrote, "The new political theory of relativity is E squared equals MC: Education plus economy means majority in Congress." So not only has he redefined the relationship of  energy, matter and the velocity of light (e = mc2  last time we looked) to be E2 = MC, addition and multiplication are considered one, (E2  ?=? E + E). And yes, he'll have a say comes time to vote on science appropriations.