News & Views - March 2001 

Singapore's New Bioinformatics Institute To Be Headed By Theoretical Physicist (March 29, 2001)
    Francis Crick studied physics at University College in London; by 1949 he was working at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, investigating the structure of proteins. Gunaretnam Rajagopal, the current assistant director of research at the Canvendish and recently tapped to set up and lead Singapore's new Bioinformatics Institute would seem to have a good academic pedigree. Rajagopal, 43, describes his research background as being in  "high energy physics, electronic structure theory, quantum molecular dynamics (density functional theory), quantum Monte Carlo calculations, and the simulations of transport in sub-micron devices."  His current research efforts are now focused on  "developing and applying theoretical concepts and computational techniques established in physics to problems of biological importance."  His current  research effort includes  "biomolecular dynamics simulations, genome analysis and understanding control and regulation of cellular function."
    Plans for the new institute include training some 100 postgraduate students a year in bioinformatics. The institute hopes to start classes for a two-year Masters' degree programme in bioinformatics by next year. It is targeting science, engineering and computing graduates.
    The Straits Times quoted Rajagopal, a Malaysian, as saying, "I felt that the Singapore Government is extremely ambitious by putting its money where its mouth is. It's a great challenge and I was tempted."
    If Australia is going to have a presence in the biomedical sciences in the 21st century, world class bioinformatics and computational biomedicine is an absolute requisite. We had better get weaving
    Population of Singapore = 4,151,264 (July 2000 est.)

Computing, One Atom at a Time (March 29, 2001)
    Quantum computing may yet become a reality. A recent report from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) suggests that the group there, having used seven molecules of crotonic acid is running a simple computer program last year, this year will be shooting for a ten molecule 'computer'. Crotonic acid and its derivatives are used in a wide variety of applications including cosmetic polymer intermediates, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals.
    The simple program shows that the vital procedure of quantum error correction is feasible. The publicity given to the work by the recent article in the New York Times is a large boost to to the LANL project which by Australian standards in wonderfully resourced. The University of Queensland/University of New South Wales/ University of Melbourne Quantum consortium while working on other aspects of the problem despite recent promises of increased funds are still in a difficult position when competing with LANL and other groups throughout the world working in the field. No one can promise that functional quantum computers will be a reality in ten or twenty years or ever, but not to make available in Australia resources to put it into world class will be consigning it to being second class. We've already just about put ourselves out of the running when it comes to gaining major rewards, intellectually as well as monetarily with regard to genomics and proteomics will this be yet another lost opportunity. On the other hand perhaps our political leaders are right, finding $500,000,000 for the Alice Springs to Darwin railway is of greater importance to our future than properly Backing Australia's Ability. 

"Double Anniversary: Promises Were Made to Change the World" (March 24, 2001)fusion2.jpg (8730 bytes)
   [The following is taken from Bob Park's What's New column of March 23] "On 23 March 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative. He called on scientists, 'those who gave us the atomic bomb,' to turn their great talents to developing a missile defense that would render nuclear weapons 'impotent and obsolete.' Six years later, on 23 March 1989, the discovery of 'cold fusion' was announced. Coincidence? Either that or Nancy Reagan and Stanley Pons used the same astrologer. Remarkably, there has been equal progress on missile defense and cold fusion."
    Not to worry, the Howard Government's endorsement of President Bush's NMD programme oughtn't to cut too much into our budget surplus.

Those $225,000 p/a Fellowships - But did You Happen to Notice the Bit of String? (March 23, 2001)
    It may be a recurrent refrain but that doesn't diminish its profundity, "The devil is in the detail." In Prime Minister Howard's January 29th innovation statement the following paragraph was emphasised, 
    "To attract and retain leading researchers in key positions, part of the new funds to be provided for national competitive research grants will be used to introduce 25 new Federation Fellowships worth $225,000 a year for five years. In addition, the number of Australian Postdoctoral Fellowships will be doubled from 55 to 110 and remuneration of these positions will be improved." 
    Oh yes we forgot to mention that the  host universities and research organisations are expected to match the Government's funding dollar for dollar. The National Tertiary Education Union claims that many of the universities do not have the funds to support a fellow and perhaps stating the obvious, point out that researchers are not attracted to institutions that have been weakened by years of funding cuts. In short the NTEU said, "There is no point in funding the top end of research if the infrastructure is crumbling."
    And to give the Australian Democrats their due they referred to the fellowships as a token effort the Government ignoring the real reasons for the brain drain. Just for comparisons sake have a look at the recently announced German effort, the Paul Awards. 

Does Australian Industry Demand a Governmental Budgetary Surplus? (March 23, 2001)
     The downturn in the world economy together with the question of whether or not the Mir Space station may fall on our heads are the preoccupations of the moment. From the viewpoint of governmental spending the matter of budgetary surplus, or at least a balanced federal budget, is a recurrent theme and it is depicted as an absolute good thing. These days the corollary is that in hard times government spending must be curtailed, and the question then arises as to just what gets cut. The projected increase in support for science and tertiary education could look like a soft target even though the Prime Minister's Backing Australia's Ability statement detailed a pretty puny backing compared to comparable nations. In this context it's interesting to look at the conclusion of a dialogue on Wednesday's 7:30 Report between Kerry O'Brien and Heather Ridout, representing the Australian Industries Group:

KERRY O'BRIEN: Very briefly, business over the years has put pressure on governments - Labor and Liberal - for surpluses, for tight fiscal management. Would business be more relaxed about the prospect of a Budget deficit in this coming budget, if it meant that it was going to help bring Australia out of recession? 

HEATHER RIDOUT: Our organisations have never supported surpluses for surpluses sake. We've always thought a surplus across the course of a cycle was what you should aim for. In a slowing economy, this bigger and bigger surplus argument really doesn't hold water. We want the Australian economy to position itself for growth going forward. That's what international markets will mark us for, not whether we balance the Budget. And that's really our view.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Heather Ridout, thanks for talking with us.

That's a hard-headed representative of Australian industry talking, but is the Government or the Opposition or those that hold the balance of power in the Senate listening let alone heeding the advice?

Biodiversity Global Database - A Possible Home in Australia (March 23, 2001)
    The Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) has been launched to collate and provide information on collections of plant and animal species held throughout the world in a publicly and readily accessible database. Initially US$2 million (A$4 million) have been received from its 12 member countries, which includes Australia. In mid June an executive secretary as well as the country to host the GBIF Secretariat will be selected. Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands and Spain are in the running.
    Economic downturn or not it would be a valuable initiative for our Government to make meaningful representations for Australia to host GBIF. A considerable effort was made to stage the 2000 Olympics, in the long run having the GBIF Secretariat based in Australia may be at least as worthwhile. [Press Release]

Australians Asking BIG Questions (March 18, 2001)
 What's the big picture of the Universe? In the March 8 issue of Nature the lead article deals with this question. The study, authored by 28 astronomers and cosmologists, 12 of whom are Australian connected, utilised the most advanced facility of its kind (a multiplexed fibre-optic spectrograph) coupled to the Anglo-Australian Telescope, at Siding Spring, N.S.W. The interim report deals with observations of the distribution of 150,000 galaxies in a region ranging out 3 billion light years from Earth. They show that these galaxies are far from evenly distributed, in short the universe, so far as visible material is concerned, is very lumpy. Their conclusion? The analysis, "gives strong support to [a mechanism of] gravitational instability in a sea of collisionless dark matter." What constitutes the dark matter? Stick around, they and a lot of others are working on it. Only 35% of the Universe's contents is in the form of matter, according to findings published in  the Nature article. "The major constituent of the Universe is believed to be some kind of 'dark energy', which is pushing the Universe apart," said Dr Matthew Colless of the  Australian National University, one of the survey team leaders. [Press Release]

Genome Initiative Canadian Style (March 18, 2001)
    Genome Canada, a not-for-profit corporation that intends Canada to become a world leader in genomics, in February 2000 received an allocation from the Canadian Government of  Can$160 milliongenome canada.jpg (25265 bytes) (A$206 million), "to support a national genomics research initiative for the benefit of Canadians." Apparently the Canadian Government following its return to power after the recent election decided it was being a bit mean and announced a one off additional grant of  Can$140 million (A$181 million) to bring the total allocation to A$387 million. The Minister of Industry, Brian Tobin, in announcing the additional funding said, "Genomics promises tremendous quality of life benefits for all Canadians, especially in health, and will be a key economic engine in the 21st century. Genome Canada is an important component of the Government of Canada's innovation agenda and this funding will further enable Genome Canada to secure those benefits for Canadians."

Science and Technology Advisors (March 18, 2001)
    After much lobbying by the American science community, the Clinton administration appointed a science and technology advisor to the United States Department of State. That position is being retained by the current administration. While such a position mightn't be appropriate for Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs, it might be worthwhile for those departments responsible for areas that rely on knowledge in  science, technology and engineering. The fact is that those ministers who are responsible for decisions in such areas are not expert in them and unbiased individuals, who are immediately available to advise them and who are knowledgeable, could be of marked assistance.

What Would You Do if Given A$720,000,000?
Science has reported that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, must have made a big impression on someone. An anonymous donor is handing over $360 (A$720) million, no strings attached. It's the biggest donation by A$20 million in history to a U.S. university. A large part of the money will go for construction of two new facilities, one to focus on biotechnology and the other on electronic media and performing arts.
"A gift of this magnitude, offered to the university fully unrestricted, is unprecedented. The remarkable generosity of this donor will enable Rensselaer to move boldly into new arenas that are vital for society."  Shirley Ann Jackson, President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The New York Times reported that Charles M. Vest, president of M.I.T., where Dr. Jackson, a physicist who was chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, earned her bachelor's degree and her doctorate, said: "R.P.I. has been on the distinct upward trajectory. They've carried out some very innovative advances in engineering education. I believe that with Shirley's leadership and vision to ramp up both their education and research, they certainly are within shooting distance of the top institutions."
To put this gift into perspective, recently the Chair of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee, Professor Ian Chubb, proposed that the Federal Government should move to incrementally  increase it's base funding for Australian universities by 1 billion dollars a year by 2006/07. The AVCC represents 38 universities. [See the March 15 Op-Ed page].

"...the major driver of our nation's economic success is scientific innovation." D Alan Bromley (March 11, 2001)
    D Alan Bromley was Scientific Advisor to President Bush (Sr.) from 1989 to 1993, currently he holds a chair in nuclear physics at Yale University. In a short Op-Ed piece published in the New York Times on March 9th  he takes George W. Bush to task and vigorously, "...the major driver of our nation's economic success is scientific innovation. And the Bush budget includes cuts, after accounting for inflation, to the three primary sources of ideas and personnel in the high-tech economy: the National Science Foundation is cut by 2.6 percent, NASA by 3.6 percent and the Department of Energy by an alarming 7.1 percent. The proposed cuts to scientific research are a self-defeating policy. Congress must increase the federal investment in science. No science, no surplus. It's that simple."

Our government will point to it's innovation package, published at the end of January, to demonstrate its commitment to research and development. Make no mistake, it is a pittance offered to an area which together with education will determine the well-being of this nation for generations to come and which is falling increasingly far behind that of our peers. So, for example, Finland which currently spends 3.1% of its GDP on research and development (exactly double that of Australia) will install the new President of the Academy of Finland, Anneli Pauli, on the 1st of April. Her top priority is to forge stronger ties with the world's scientific community. The increasingly high regard in which Finnish R&D is held puts her is an enviable position to realise the goal.  Surely now is the time for our scientific representatives such as the Chief Scientist to speak, and speak loudly.

Power Line Paranoia (March 11, 2001)
    The mass media can show a lack or responsibility which is reprehensible, particularly when it comes to coverage which boarders on scare mongering. Witness the reportage of the finding published this past week by the National Radiological Protection Board (UK). The headline on their press release reads, "After a wide-ranging and thorough review of scientific research, an independent Advisory Group (chairman: Sir Richard Doll) to the Board of NRPB has concluded that the power frequency electromagnetic fields that exist in the vast majority of homes, are not a cause of cancer in general. However, some epidemiological studies do indicate a possible small risk of childhood leukaemia associated with exposure to unusually high levels of power frequency magnetic fields." Doll was the first to report a causative connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. The Group elaborates further,

Laboratory experiments have provided no good evidence that extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields are capable of producing cancer, nor do human epidemiological studies suggest that they cause cancer in general. There is, however, some epidemiological evidence that prolonged exposure to higher levels of power frequency magnetic fields is associated with a small risk of leukaemia in children. In practice, such levels of exposure are seldom encountered by the general public in the UK. In the absence of clear evidence of a carcinogenic effect in adults, or of a plausible explanation from experiments on animals or isolated cells, the epidemiological evidence is currently not strong enough to justify a firm conclusion that such fields cause leukaemia in children. Unless, however, further research indicates that the finding is due to chance or some currently unrecognised artefact, the possibility remains that intense and prolonged exposures to magnetic fields can increase the risk of leukaemia in children.

The impression given by  elements of the mass media was rather more alarmist than the assessment issued by Sir Richard's Advisory Group. The full report is published and available on the Web.

Exercises for the Brain May be Good for One's Health (March 9, 2001)
    Suggestions that "exercising" the brain may be beneficial have probably been around since before we emigrated out of Africa. More recently the medical profession has provided some anecdotal evidence for the claim, but the latest work of Robert Friedland and his co-workers at Case Western Reserve University  is perhaps the closest thing to hard science so far to support the proposal. They found that a group suffering from Alzheimer's disease had been significantly less mentally active prior to showing symptoms of the disorder than a normal control group. Friedland and his colleagues carefully conclude, "These findings may be because inactivity is a risk factor for the disease or because inactivity is a reflection of very early subclinical effects of the disease, or both." In any case encouraging additional mental exercise is unlikely to cause much harm, and who knows, were the Government to actively support such activity, it could reduce the increasing cost of treating at least some forms of mental illness. Perhaps an ounce of education could equal more than a pound of hospitalisation.

No Time for Physics (March 3, 2001)
    In the hastily cobbled together Bush budget allocations the physical sciences take a hammering. Except for the last Clinton budget they didn't do too well previously either. The mind set behind this funding approach appears straight forward, and Australian Governments whether Labor or the Coalition have had a similar albeit more ruthless approach. People like to be neither sick nor poor. Therefore, be seen to support biomedical research and cut taxes, and although our Federal Government's support for biomedicine compared to our cohort nations isn't good that for the physical sciences is appalling. Never mind that the advanced technology for medical diagnosis and treatment would be all but non existent without the discoveries of modern physics to say nothing of the existence of the high technology industries. If it's efficacy can't be given an immediately easy to grasped explanation, it's starting from behind scratch.
    Simple minded attempts at lobbying our parliamentary representatives are unlikely to work (it's no good shouting if you're carrying a small stick). What is more likely to evoke a positive response is to develop a collaborative effort with the leaders and power brokers of both the Government and Opposition parties. It's our belief that priorities for research projects should be determined from within the disciplines much as has been done by the US astronomers. The Australian Academy of Sciences together with the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies could be the initiators of such a proposal. Conjointly the importance of the Office of the Chief Scientist as well as the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council should be upgraded significantly.
  Early last month the 91-year-old Nobel Laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini led 1,000 Italian scientists on a march in Rome protesting low science budgets and restrictive measures on biological research. Perhaps our scientific establishment might borrow her for a bit.

Age Before Creativity or Vice Versa (March 3, 2001)
    Adrian Gibbs (Op-Ed 17/01/01) observed, "There are two crucially important and related aspects of the current Australian science scene that have not attracted enough attention. First, whether the current treatment of Australia's young scientists is optimal for the future of science in this nation, and secondly whether innovation is optimally fostered by the present system that controls publicly funded research." With regard to his first point it's interesting to repeat an observation made by Sydney Brenner (one of the early movers and shakers of the international Human Genome Project though not always on the winning side). He recounts in a book review appearing in a recent issue of Nature (16, Feb, 2001) how at a meeting, some years ago now, he was one of three speakers discussing the sequencing of our genome, he spoke for sequencing where the others were neutral and against. when it came time for him to say his piece, "I began by asking: 'Hands up all the graduate students who are sequencing genes for their professors!' One by one, hands were raised until eventually there was a forest. 'I have come to liberate you,' I said. 'Graduate students should be learning how to do research and leave DNA sequencing to their elders.' "
    Although that particular dog's body work has all but become extinct, the generalisation that can be taken from Brenner's remarks is as pertinent as ever. Too many academics in charge of research projects look upon their graduate students and postdoctoral fellows as indentured servants rather than having undertaken an obligation to develop their potential as creative scientists and engineers. Australia is hardly unique in this failing but our granting agencies could develop stratagems to foster appropriate regard for our next generation  scientists and engineers.

Will the Squeeze Now be On? (March 2, 2001)
    The announcements during the past week that the legislation regarding private trusts is being abandoned and the Federal excise on petrol will be reduced and no longer subjected to increase indicated a significant reduction in revenue both immediately and in the longer term. The Federal Treasurer, Peter Costello, has signalled that these decisions will have a marked effect on the Government's projected surplus, which in turn will mean that projected spending will have to be reduced correspondently. The immediate question is what will be cut.
    The release yesterday of the budget recommendations for science by President Bush might give a hint: the National Institutes of Health (NIH) gets a 13.8% boost, but the other major science agencies took a hammering. The National Science Foundation (NSF) would receive a minuscule A$106 million increase, amounting to 1.3%, worse the research account would actually shrink because current funds would be partially redirected to other initiatives. Neal Lane, President Clinton's science adviser, the immediate past head of the NSF and a recent visitor to Australia, gave full vent to his views. "It's absurd," he said, "not just because of the imbalance [with NIH], but also because it sends exactly the wrong message to students who might want to go into science, and to industry, which relies on academic research for its ability to innovate." 
    Whether or not the Government uses the projected drop in its surplus to reduce the commitment given by the Prime Minister in Backing Australia's Ability remains to be seen, but it might be prudent for those who believe that the future well being of Australians is dependent on a strong scientific and technological effort to make their opinions known. Writing members of Parliament would seem prudent as would getting the President of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) to make representations.