Featured image above: Dr Erik Shartner with the prototype optical fibre sensor, which can detect breast cancer during surgery. Credit: University of Adelaide
An optical fibre probe has been developed to detect breast cancer tissue during surgery.
Working with excised breast cancer tissue, researchers from the University of Adelaide developed the device to differentiate cancerous cells from healthy ones.
Project leader at the Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) Dr Erik Schartner said the probe could reduce the need for follow-up surgery, which is currently required in up to 20 per cent of breast cancer cases.
“At the moment most of the soft tissue cancers use a similar method during surgery to identify whether they’ve gotten all the cancer out, and that method is very crude,” he says.
“They’ll get some radiology beforehand which tells them where the cancer should be, and the surgeon then will remove it to the best of their ability.
“But the conclusive measurements are done with pathology a couple of days or a couple of weeks after the surgery, so the patient is sown back up, thinks the cancer is removed and then they discover two weeks later with a call from the surgeon that they need to go through this whole traumatic process again.”
The probe allows more accurate measurements be taken during surgery, with the surgeon provided with information via an LED light.
Using a pH probe tip, a prototype sensor was able to distinguish cancerous and healthy cells with 90 per cent accuracy.
The research behind the probe, published today in Cancer Research, found pH was a useful tool to distinguish the two types of tissue because cancerous cells naturally produce more acid during growth.
Currently the probe is aimed for use solely for treating breast cancer, but there is some possibility for it to be used as both a diagnostic tool and during other removal surgeries.
“The method we’re using, which is basically measuring the pH of the tissue, actually looks to be common across virtually all cancer types,” Schartner says.
“We can actually see there’s some scope there for diagnostic application for things like thyroid cancer, or even melanoma, which is something we’re following up.
“The question is more about the application as to how useful it is during surgery, to be able to get this identification, and in some of the other soft tissue cancers it would be useful as well.”
Earlier this year, researchers from CNBP also developed a fibre optic probe, which could be used to examine the effects of drug use on the brain.
Schartner said both probes were noteworthy because they were far thinner than previously developed models at only a few microns across.
“The neat thing we see about this one is that it’s a lot quicker than some of the other commercial offerings and also the actual sample size you can measure is much smaller, so you get better resolution,” he says.
Researchers on the probe hope to progress to clinical trials in the near future, with a tentative product launch date in the next three years.
Also in Adelaide, researchers at the University of South Australia’s Future Industries Institute are developing tiny sensors that can detect the spread of cancer through the lymphatic system while a patient is having surgery to remove primary tumours, which could also dramatically reduce the need for follow up operations.
Australian researchers exploring “dimmer switch” medicines that could help patients with obesity, diabetes and schizophrenia, have won the prestigious GSK Award for Research Excellence.
The ground-breaking research by Professors Arthur Christopoulos and Patrick Sexton from Monash University offers hope for people with chronic conditions. According to the researchers, medicines that can be “turned up” or “turned down” rather than “on and off“ will give doctors more variability to tailor treatment to a patient’s medical needs. Medicines based on this principle will allow patients to lead a more normal life without the side effects associated with existing drugs.
Their research into G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) has begun to unravel the complexities of drug action that could lead to more targeted medicines. The “dimmer switch” of a protein, known as the allosteric site, allows the targeted protein to be dialled up or down in a way that was not previously possible.
Both professors were congratulated on winning the GSK Award for Research Excellence at the annual Research Australia Awards in Sydney. The award is well recognised among the Australian medical research community and includes an $80,000 prize that will help the winners progress their work.
“Many medicines have unwanted side effects because they work by simply turning receptors on or off, even though we know that most of these proteins have the potential for more graded levels of response that can become highly relevant in the contexts of tissue specificity, disease and individual patient profiles. We have discovered a more tailored way to exploit this functionality, by targeting regions on the receptors that act more like dimmer switches rather than on/off switches,” says Sexton.
Both professors are world leaders in the study of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), the largest class of drug targets, and the application of analytical pharmacology to understand allosteric modulation. In recent years their work has challenged traditional views of how medicines were thought to work.
“We have found molecules that can subtly dial up or dial down the effect of the receptor protein, or even ‘dictate’ which pathways it can or can’t signal to. This means we could in theory treat a range of diseases with this approach more effectively and safely by avoiding some of the side effects associated with standard on/off-type drugs.”
“Because an allosteric mechanism is more subtle and ‘tuneable’, medicines based on this principle can allow patients to lead a more normal life, especially those with chronic conditions,” says Christopoulos.
The GSK Award for Research Excellence is one of the most prestigious awards available to the Australian medical research community. It has been awarded since 1980 to recognise outstanding achievements in medical research with potential importance to human health.
Dr Andrew Weekes, Medical Director, GSK Australia, said GSK is proud to be able to support local researchers with the Award, now in its 36th year.
“The award has been given to some remarkable people over the years, many of whom are eminent academics in their field. GSK is honoured to support the research community and excited by their discoveries, which we believe will one day help patients,” says Weekes.
Professor Christopoulos said winning the GSK Award for Research Excellence is a great recognition of the efforts of all the scientists who have worked in this area over the years, often in the face of early scepticism.
“Science relies on the efforts and insights generated from dedicated people over many years. For us, this award is thus also an acknowledgement and testament to our colleagues, collaborators, students and postdocs who have helped us take a theoretical concept to the point where today we are creating a new paradigm in drug discovery,” says Christopoulos.
“This award will greatly assist us in progressing our research on allosteric modulation into new areas, and accelerate the possibility of helping patients suffering from a range of diseases that represent global health burdens but remain sub-optimally treated,” says Sexton.
Among the previous recipients of the GSK Award for Research Excellence are Australia’s most noted scientific researchers, including Professor Tony Basten (1980), Professor Nicos Nicola (1993) and Professor Peter Koopman (2007). The 2015 GSK Award for Research Excellence was awarded to James McCluskey (University of Melbourne) and Jamie Rossjohn (Monash University) for their research into the immune system.
This information on the GSK Award for Research Excellence was first shared as a media release by GSK on 17 November 2016.
Featured image above: Christophe Hoppe with his new Bauselite luxury watch casing. Credit: Flinders University/Bausele.
In 2015, Bausele became the first Australian luxury watch brand to be invited to Baselworld in Switzerland – the world’s largest and most prestigious luxury watch and jewellery expo. Its success is, in part, thanks to a partnership with nanotechnologists at Flinders University and a unique new material called Bauselite.
Founded by Swiss-born Sydneysider Christophe Hoppe, Bausele Australia bills itself as the first “Swiss-made, Australian-designed” watch company.
The name is an acronym for Beyond Australian Elements. Each watch has part of the Australian landscape embedded in its crown, or manual winding mechanism, such as red earth from the outback, beach sand or bits of opal.
But what makes the luxury watches unique is an innovative material called Bauselite developed in partnership with Flinders University’s Centre of NanoScale Science and Technology in Adelaide. An advanced ceramic nanotechnology, Bauselite is featured in Bausele’s Terra Australis watch, enabling design elements not found in its competitors.
NanoConnect program fosters industry partnership
Flinders University coordinates NanoConnect, a collaborative research program supported by the South Australian Government, which provides a low-risk pathway for companies to access university equipment and expertise.
It was through this program that Hoppe met nanotechnologist Professor David Lewis, and his colleagues Dr Jonathan Campbell and Dr Andrew Block.
“There were a lot of high IQs around that table, except for me,” jokes Hoppe about their first meeting.
After some preliminary discussions, the Flinders team set about researching the luxury watch industry and identified several areas for innovation. The one they focused on with Hoppe was around the manufacture of casings.
Apart from the face, the case is the most prominent feature on a watch head: it needs to be visually appealing but also lightweight and strong, says Hoppe, who is also Bausele’s chief designer.
The researchers suggested ceramics might be suitable. Conventional ceramics require casting, where a powder slurry is injected into a mould and heated in an oven. The process is suitable for high-volume manufacturing, but the end product is often hampered by small imperfections or deformities. This can cause components to break, resulting in wasted material, time and money. It can also make the material incompatible with complex designs, such as those featured in the Terra Australis.
New material offers ‘competitive edge’
Using a new technique, the Flinders team invented a unique, lightweight ceramic-like material that can be produced in small batches via a non-casting process, which helps eliminate defects found in conventional ceramics. They named the high-performance material Bauselite.
“Bauselite is strong, very light and, because of the way it is made, avoids many of the traps common with conventional ceramics,” explains Lewis.
The new material allows holes to be drilled more precisely, which is an important feature in watchmaking. “It means we can make bolder, more adventurous designs, which can give us a competitive advantage,” Hoppe says.
Bauselite can also be tailored to meet specific colour, shape and texture requirements. “This is a major selling point,” Hoppe says. “Watch cases usually have a shiny, stainless steel-like finish, but the Bauselite looks like a dark textured rock.”
Bauselite made its luxury watch debut in Bausele’s Terra Australis range. The ceramic nanotechnology and the watch captured the attention of several established brands when it was featured at Baselworld.
Advanced manufacturing hub in Australia
Hoppe and the Flinders University team are currently working on the development of new materials and features.
Together they have established a joint venture company called Australian Advanced Manufacturing to manufacture bauselite. A range of other precision watch components could be in the pipeline.
The team hopes to become a ‘centre of excellence’ for watchmaking in Australia, supplying components to international luxury watchmaking brands.
But the priority is for the advanced manufacturing hub to begin making Bausele watches onshore: “I’ve seen what Europe is good at when it comes to creating luxury goods, and what makes it really special is when people control the whole process from beginning to end,” says Hoppe. “This is what we want to do. We’ll start with one component now, but we’ll begin to manufacture others.”
Hoppe hopes the hub will be a place where students can develop similar, high-performance materials, which could find applications across a range of industries, from aerospace to medicine for bone and joint reconstructions.
Featured image above: Professor Richard Shine is the winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science. The PM’s prizes for science celebrate excellence in scientific research, innovation and teaching. Credit: Terri Shine
Meet the winners of this year’s Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, worth a total of $750,000.
Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science
Richard Shine – defending Australia’s snakes and lizards
Prime Minister’s Prize for Science
Northern Australia’s peak predators—snakes and lizards—are more likely to survive the cane-toad invasion thanks to the work of Professor Richard Shine.
Using behavioural conditioning, Shine and his team have successfully protected these native predators against toad invasion in WA.
He has created traps for cane toads, taught quolls and goannas that toads are ‘bad,’ and now plans to release small cane toads ahead of the invasion front, a counterintuitive ‘genetic backburn’ based on ‘old school’ ideas that his hero Charles Darwin would have recognised.
Following in the footsteps of Darwin, Shine loves lizards and snakes.
“Some people love model trains, some people love Picasso; for me, it’s snakes.”
For his work using evolutionary principles to address conservation challenges, Professor Richard Shine from The University of Sydney has been awarded the 2016 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.
Michael Aitken—fairness underpins efficiency: the profitable innovations saving Australia billions
Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation
Global stock markets are fairer and more efficient thanks to the work of Professor Michael Aitken. Now he’s applying his information technology and markets know-how to improve health, mortgage, and other markets. He says there are billions of dollars of potential savings in health expenditure in Australia alone, that can go hand in glove with significant improvements in consumers’ health.
Aitken and his team created a service that captures two million trades per second, enabling rapid analysis of markets.
Then he created the SMARTS system to detect fraud. Bought by Nasdaq Inc., it now watches over most of the world’s stock markets.
One of the companies he established to commercialise his innovations was sold for $100 million and the proceeds are supporting a new generation of researchers in the Capital Markets Cooperative Research Centre.
Now his team of IT researchers are taking on health and other markets with a spin-off company and large-scale R&D program that are identifying large-scale inefficiencies and fraud in Australia’s health markets.
A powerful advocate of scientific and technological innovation, Professor Michael Aitken from the Capital Markets Cooperative Research Centre has been awarded the 2016 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation for creating and commercialising tools that are making markets fair and efficient.
Colin Hall – creating new manufacturing jobs by replacing glass and metal with plastic
Prize for New Innovators
Dr Colin Hall and his colleagues have created a new manufacturing process that will allow manufacturers to replace components made from traditional materials like glass, in cars, aircraft, spacecraft, and even whitegoods—making them lighter and more efficient.
Their first commercial success is a plastic car wing-mirror. The Ford Motor Company has already purchased more than 1.6 million mirror assemblies for use on their F-Series trucks. The mirrors are made in Adelaide by SMR Automotive and have earned $160 million in exports to date. Other manufacturers are assessing the technology. And it all started with spectacles.
Hall used his experience in the spectacle industry to solve a problem that was holding back the University of South Australia team’s development of their new technology. He developed the magic combination of five layers of materials that will bind to plastic to create a car mirror that performs as well as glass and metal, for a fraction of the weight.
For his contribution to creating a new manufacturing technology, Dr Colin Hall from the University of South Australia receives the inaugural Prize for New Innovators.
Richard Payne – re-engineering nature to fight for global health
Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year
Richard Payne makes peptides and proteins. He sees an interesting peptide or protein in nature, say in a blood-sucking tick. Then he uses chemistry to recreate and re-engineer the molecule to create powerful new drugs, such as anti-clotting agents needed to treat stroke.
His team is developing new drugs for the global challenges in health including tuberculosis (TB), malaria, and antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. They’re even developing synthetic cancer vaccines. His underlying technologies are being picked up by researchers and pharmaceutical companies around the world and are the subject of four patent applications.
For his revolutionary drug development technologies, Professor Richard Payne from The University of Sydney has been awarded the 2016 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year.
Kerrie Wilson – conservation that works for governments, ecosystems, and people
Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year
What is the value of the services that ecosystems provide—services such as clean air, water, food, and tourism? And what are the most effective ways to protect ecosystems? Where will governments get the best return on their investment in the environment? These questions are central to the work of Associate Professor Kerrie Wilson.
Wilson can put a value on clean air, water, food, tourism, and the other benefits that forests, rivers, oceans and other ecosystems provide. And she can calculate the most effective way to protect and restore these ecosystems. Around the world she is helping governments to make smart investments in conservation.
For example, in Borneo she and her colleagues have shown how the three nations that share the island could retain half the land as forest, provide adequate habitat for the orangutan and Bornean elephant, and achieve an opportunity cost saving of over $50 billion.
In Chile, they are helping to plan national park extensions that will bring recreation and access to nature to many more Chileans, while also enhancing the conservation of native plants and animals.
On the Gold Coast, they are helping to ensure that a multi-million-dollar local government investment in rehabilitation of degraded farmland is spent wisely—in the areas where it will have the biggest impact for the natural ecosystem and local communities.
For optimising the global allocation of scarce conservation resources Associate Professor Kerrie Wilson receives the 2016 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year.
Suzy Urbaniak – turning students into scientists
Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools
Geoscientist Suzy Urbaniak combined her two loves—science and education—by becoming a science teacher 30 years after finishing high school. But she couldn’t believe it when she saw how little the teaching styles had changed over the years.
“I decided then that I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to turn the classroom into a room full of young scientists, rather than students learning from textbooks,” Urbaniak says.
Starting out as a geoscientist, Urbaniak found that while she knew all the theory from school and university, she didn’t have any hands-on experience and didn’t feel as though she knew what she was doing.
She realised there needed to be a stronger connection between the classroom and what was happening in the real world, out in the field, and took this philosophy into her teaching career at Kent Street Senior High School.
“The science in my classroom is all about inquiry and investigation, giving the students the freedom to develop their own investigations and find their own solutions. I don’t believe you can really teach science from worksheets and text books.”
For her contributions to science teaching, and inspiring our next generation of scientists, Suzy Urbaniak has been awarded the 2016 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools.
Gary Tilley – creating better science teachers
Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools
Gary Tilley is mentoring the next generation of science and maths teachers to improve the way these subjects are taught in the classroom.
“In over 30 years of teaching, I’ve never seen a primary school student who isn’t curious and doesn’t want to be engaged in science. Once they’re switched onto science, it helps their literacy and numeracy skills, and their investigative skills. Science is the key to the whole thing,” Tilley says.
Tilley recognised a long time ago that the way science was taught in primary schools needed to change. So he has taken it upon himself to mentor the younger teachers at his school, and helps train science and maths student teachers at Macquarie University through their Opening Real Science program.
At Seaforth Public School, he and his students have painted almost every wall in their school with murals of dinosaurs and marine reptiles, and created models of stars and planets, to encourage excitement and a love for science. The school is now known by local parents as the ‘Seaforth Natural History Museum’.
“Communicating science, getting children inspired with science, engaging the community and scientists themselves with science to make it a better place for the kids—that’s my passion,” Tilley says.
For his contributions to science teaching, and mentoring the next generation of science teachers, Gary Tilley has been awarded the 2016 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools.
This information on the 2016 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science was first shared by Science in Public on 20 October 2016. Read the original article and the full profiles here.
Intellectual property has had a large role to play in moving wheat breeding from being almost entirely publicly funded in the 1990s to being completely funded by the private sector today.
Wheat accounts for more than a quarter of the total value of all crops produced in Australia. In terms of all agricultural commodities produced nationwide, wheat is second only to cattle. In the 2015/16 season, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences forecasted the gross value of wheat to be $7.45 billion, with exports worth $5.8 billion.
Western Australia leads the way in wheat exports, generating half of Australia’s total annual wheat production and sending more than 95 per cent offshore. A major export avenue for Western Australian growers is the wheat used for the production of noodles. One million tonnes of Udon noodle grain is exported to Japan and Korea every year at a value of $350 million.
The Australian wheat industry has gone through significant transformation in the last 20 years and the Australian IP Report 2015 shows innovation in wheat breeding is quite healthy. Over the past decade, Triticum (the scientific genus for wheat) has had the third highest number of plant breeder’s rights (PBR) applications submitted in Australia, behind only Rosa (roses) and Prunus (trees and shrubs).
The Plant Breeder’s Rights Act 1994 (PBR Act) allows an owner of a plant variety the ability to not only sell their variety, but also to collect royalties at any point in its use. This provision led to the introduction of end point royalties (EPR) in the years following the PBR Act’s ratification. For wheat growing, this is a royalty paid on the total grain harvested by the growers of a PBR protected variety.
Kerrie Gleeson of Australian Grains Technologies explains how EPR have invigorated the wheat industry saying, “Prior to the year 2000, 95 per cent of wheat breeding programs were in the public sector, either funded by universities, Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) levies, or state governments.”
Moving ahead to the present day, Australian wheat breeding is now completely funded by the private sector due to the income generated by EPR.
Before EPR, royalties were paid to breeders when they sold their seed to farmers. Tress Walmsley, CEO of InterGrain, estimates that while a new variety of grain costs around $3 million to breed, under the old seed-based royalty system breeders only received around $50 000 per variety. This was a commercially unsustainable system and saw a decline in public investment for developing new varieties.
The EPR system radically changed the commercial value of developing new grain varieties in Australia. By deferring collection of royalties to the time of harvest, the initial cost of purchasing seed is lower.
An example of the EPR system in action is ‘Drysdale’, a wheat variety developed by CSIRO to cope with Australia’s low rainfall. Currently a royalty of $1 is charged to famers for every tonne produced. While this may not seem like much, considering the production of wheat averages around 25 million tonnes per year, the return from EPR really adds up.
Income received from EPR helps support the continuing research into developing new varieties and reduces the reliance on public funding.
The advantage of the EPR system is that plant breeders share the risk with farmers. If a harvest is low, for example during a drought, the farmers will be affected, and as a result the returns to the breeders through the EPR will be down. This gives breeders an incentive to develop varieties that are resilient and high yielding; the more successful the crop is, the bigger the return for both breeders and growers.
THE AUSTRALIAN WHEAT INDUSTRY HAS GONE THROUGH SIGNIFICANT TRANSFORMATION IN THE LAST 20 YEARS.
Wheat breeding in Australia is now a highly competitive industry. The major wheat breeding companies now have access to new technologies and resources through foreign investment and partnerships.
The EPR system in Australia has been dominated by wheat. The first EPR variety was released in 1996. Over 260 EPR varieties are listed for the 2015/16 harvesting season. Of these varieties, over 130 are wheat.
However, implementing the EPR system has seen its share of challenges. “When we first launched back in 1996…we actually had almost two competing systems”, Tress says. “We had one system commence in Western Australia which I was responsible for, and then we also had a company start an end point royalty system on the east coast.”
“Initially each plant breeding company, each state government and each seed company worked independently. We really made the big gains when we came together and worked it out collectively”, she says.
The development of an EPR industry collection system began in 2007 when a number of Australia’s major plant breeding organisations formed the EPR Steering Committee.
“The key component is working with the grain growers and listening to their feedback and making changes to how we collect the EPR so it is actually an easier system for them to utilise”, says Tress. “The industry standard license was one of our first achievements.”
The EPR is ultimately reliant on the honesty of farmers declaring the varieties they are growing. “Our system works in finding ways where the PBR Act gives you the level of protection you need, and you dovetail in contract law where you need some extra assistance”, adds Tress.
The integrity of EPR collection is maintained in various ways, including harvest declaration forms and reports from grain traders and bulk handlers. An industry standard contract has also been developed to simplify the collection process. The competitive nature of the EPR system means farmers are given a choice when deciding on which grain to grow. If they are paying a royalty on seed they are growing, they want to be confident the crop is high yielding, disease resistant and suitable for their region.
Even though research and development into wheat has been growing in recent years, the industry faces ongoing challenges. While Australia has so far avoided the notoriously devastating Ug99, a fungal wheat stem rust which can cause entire crops to be lost, farmers do tackle other varieties of stripe, stem and leaf rusts across the country. Nationwide, 72 per cent of Australia’s wheat growing area is susceptible to at least one rust pathogen.
This highlights the importance of continued investment into the development of new wheat breeds.
“We need the research to create high-yielding, disease and pest resistant agricultural crops,” Professor Philip Pardey says, who was a keynote speaker at the 2015 International Wheat Conference held in Sydney.
The International Year of Pulses aims to raise awareness of the nutritional benefits of pulses as part of sustainable food production. The celebration is an opportunity to encourage connections throughout the food chain – and one Australian team of researchers is ahead of the game.
Murdoch University professor John Howieson is now working on a new licence structure for the upcoming release of lebeckia. This grain, originally from South Africa, is considered the ‘holy grail’ breakthrough to rectify the shortage of summertime feed for livestock.
The new National Innovation and Science Agenda will support further agricultural research both with research funds and through programs that bring together universities, researchers and producers. You can find out more at innovation.gov.au.
This article was originally published by IP Australia in IP – Your Business Edge Issue 1 2016. Read the original article here.
Featured image above: Environmental stressors which alter bee pollination, like extreme weather and pesticides, are assessed using large data sets generated by bees from all over the world via fitted micro-sensor ‘backpacks’. Credit: Giorgio Venturieri
Bee colonies are dying out worldwide and nobody is exactly sure why. The most obvious culprit is the Varroa mite which feeds on bees and bee larvae, while also spreading disease. The only country without the Varroa mite is Australia. However, experts believe that there are many factors affecting bee health.
To unravel this, CSIRO is leading the Global Initiative of Honeybee Health (GIHH) in gathering large sets of data on bee hives from all over the world. High-tech micro-sensor ’backpacks’ are fitted to bees to log their movements, similar to an e-tag. The data from individual bees is sent back to a small computer at the hive.
Researchers are able to analyse this data to assess which stressors – such as extreme weather, pesticides or water contamination – affect the movements and pollination of bees.
Maintaining honey bee populations is essential for food security as well securing economic returns from crops. Bee crop pollination is estimated to be worth up to $6 billion to Australian agriculture alone.
Currently 50,000 bees have been tagged and there may be close to one million by the end of 2017. Researchers aim to not only improve the health of honey bees but to increase crop sustainability and productivity through pollination management.
Despite strong opposition from traditional taxi operators and some governments, Uber and Uber-type ride sharing services, have proven very popular amongst travellers, according to a University of Sydney Business School survey.
“What we are seeing with Uber-styled services is the growing appeal of high quality mobility services that in due course might be a substitute for the taxi and indeed one’s own car,” said the Director of the School’s Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, Professor David Hensher.
The latest Transport Opinion Survey also found that 7% of those who used an Uber or Uber-type services did so as a substitute for some travel in their own car and 4% substituted all of their own car travel. 10% used a ride-sharing services but did not want to lose the option of their own private car.
TOPS also asked Australians if they would be willing to make their car available to other people for a fee. About 20% said they would share their car with other people either by driving for Uber or similar companies (10%), peer-to-peer car sharing, through organisations such as Car Next Door (4%), or by both (5%). More than half (56%) said that would not be prepared to share their car with anyone outside their immediate friends and family.
“These percentage are relatively low at present but suggest a growing interest in mobility as a service in contrast to having to own a car in order to use a car,” says Hensher. “This will open up in the future with the aid of digital apps and new ways of serving the transport market that are not dependent on ownership.”
The latest TOPS survey also reveals that Australians are regaining confidence in their local transport services. The TOPS Confidence index rose from 44 to 62 over the past year but remains well below the base line of 100 set in September 2010.
As for the future, more people now look to the next 12 months with confidence than did in 2015 (46 to 65) and to the next five years (62 to 78).
Video above: Murdoch University researchers Steve Wilton and Sue Fletcher discuss their new drug for Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
The powerful US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given the green light to a drug developed by Western Australia researchers Sue Fletcher and Steve Wilton for treating Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
The Murdoch University scientists developed an innovative treatment to help sufferers of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a crippling muscle-wasting disease that affects about one in 3500 boys worldwide.
The FDA decision is a huge win for the global pharma company Sarepta Therapeutics, which has developed the drug under the name Eteplirsen.
In their breakthrough research, Fletcher and Wilton had devised a way to bypass the faulty gene responsible for the disease, using a technique called exon skipping.
The FDA’s approval follows an emotional campaign by sufferers, their families, and supporters of Eteplirsen.
Earlier this year, some 40 sufferers in wheelchairs and their families flew to Washington from around the US, and from as far as the UK, to show their faith in the treatment after authorities questioned aspects of the drug’s clinical trial.
Fletcher’s and Wilton’s innovative discovery had already won the 2012 WA Innovator of the Year Award.
In 2013, the researchers, then with UWA, signed a multi-million dollar deal with Sarepta to develop Eteplirsen.
Under the deal, they would get up to US$7.1 million in upfront and milestone payments, as well as royalties on the net sales of all medicines developed and approved.
Read next: CtX forges $730 m deal for new cancer drug. A promising new cancer drug, developed in Australia by the Cancer Therapeutics CRC (CTx), has been licensed to US pharmaceutical company Merck in a deal worth $730 million.
Featured image above: Humanoid robots, like Ocean One, may soon replace human divers in carrying out deep or dangerous ocean research and engineering tasks. Credit: Osada/Seguin/DRASSM
An industrial revolution is unfolding under the seas. Rapid progress in the development of robots, artificial intelligence, low-cost sensors, satellite systems, big data and genetics are opening up whole new sectors of ocean use and research. Some of these disruptive marine technologies could mean a cleaner and safer future for our oceans. Others could themselves represent new challenges for ocean health. The following 12 emerging technologies are changing the way we harvest food, energy, minerals and data from our seas.
1. Autonomous ships
You’ve heard of driverless cars – soon there may be skipperless ships. Ocean shipping is a $380 billion dollar industry. Like traffic on land, ocean traffic is a major source of pollution, can introduce invasive species, and even causes ocean road-kills. For example, over 200 whales were struck by ships in the past decade. Companies like Rolls Royce envision autonomous shipping as a way to make the future of the industry more efficient, clean and cost-effective. Skipperless cargo ships can increase efficiency and reduce emissions by eliminating the need for accommodation for crew, but will require integration of existing sensor technology with improved decision-making algorithms.
2. SCUBA droids
SCUBA divers working at extreme depths often have less than 15 minutes to complete complicated tasks, and they submit their bodies to 10 times normal pressure. To overcome these challenges, a Stanford robotics team designed Ocean One: a humanoid underwater robot dexterous enough to handle archaeological artefacts that employs force sensors to replicate a sense of touch for its pilot. Highly skilled humanoid robots may soon replace human divers in carrying out deep or dangerous ocean research and engineering tasks.
3. Underwater augmented reality glasses
Augmented and virtual reality technologies are becoming mainstream and are poised for enormous growth. The marine sector is no exception. US navy engineers have designed augmented vision displays for their divers – a kind of waterproof, supercharged version of Google Glass. This new tech allows commercial divers and search and rescue teams to complete complex tasks with visibility near zero, and integrates data feeds from sonar sensors and intel from surface support teams.
4. Blue revolution
The year 2014 was the first in which the world ate more fish from farms than the wild. Explosive growth in underwater farming has been facilitated by the development of new aquaculture tech. Submerged “aquapod” cages, for example, have been deployed in Hawaii, Mexico, and Panama. Innovations like this have moved aquaculture further offshore, which helps mitigate problems of pollution and disease that can plague coastal fish farms.
5. Undersea cloud computing
Over 95% of internet traffic is transmitted via undersea cables. Soon, data may not only be sent, but also stored underwater. High energy costs of data centres (up to 3% of global energy use) have driven their relocation to places like Iceland, where cold climates increase cooling efficiency. Meanwhile, about 40% of people on the planet live in coastal cities. To simultaneously cope with high real estate costs in these oceanfront growth centres, reduce latency, and overcome the typically high expense of cooling data centres, Microsoft successfully tested a prototype underwater data centre off the coast of California last year. Next-generation underwater cloud pods may be hybridised with their own ocean energy-generating power plants.
6. New waves of ocean energy
The ocean is an enormous storehouse of energy. Wave energy alone is estimated to have the technical potential of 11,400 terawatt-hours/year (with sustainable output equivalent to over 400 small nuclear power plants). Technological innovation is opening up new possibilities for plugging into the power of waves and tides. A commercial project in Australia, for example, produces both electricity and zero-emission desalinated water. The next hurdles are scaling up and making ocean energy harvest cost-efficient.
7. Ocean thermal energy
Ocean thermal energy conversion technology, which exploits the temperature difference between shallow tropical waters and the deep sea to generate electricity, was successfully implemented in Hawaii last year at its largest scale yet. Lockheed Martin is now designing a plant with 100 times greater capacity. Drawing cold water in large volumes up from depths of over 1 kilometre requires large flexible pipelines made with new composite materials and manufacturing techniques.
8. Deep sea mining
Portions of the seafloor are rich in rare and precious metals like gold, platinum and cobalt. These marine mineral resources have, up until now, lain mostly out of reach. New 300 tonne waterproof mining machines were recently developed that can now travel to some of the deepest parts of the sea to mine these metals. Over a million square kilometres of ocean have been gazetted as mining claims in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans, and an ocean gold rush may open up as early as 2018. Mining the seafloor without destroying the fragile ecosystems and ancient species often co-located with these deep sea mineral resources remains an unsolved challenge.
9. Ocean big data
Most large oceangoing ships are required to carry safety sensors that transmit their location through open channels to satellites and other ships. Several emerging firms have developed sophisticated algorithms to process this mass influx of ocean big data into usable patterns that detect illegal fishing, promote maritime security, and help build intelligent zoning plans that better balance the needs of fishermen, marine transport and ocean conservation. In addition, new streams of imagery from nanosatellite constellations can be analysed to monitor habitat changes in near-real time.
10. Medicines from the seas
The oceans hold vast promise for novel life-saving medications such as cancer treatments and antibiotics. The search for marine-derived pharmaceuticals is increasing in momentum. The European Union, for example, funded a consortium called PharmaSea to collect and screen biological samples using deep sea sampling equipment, genome scanning, chemical informatics and data-mining.
11. Coastal sensors
The proliferation of low-cost, connected sensors is allowing us to monitor coastlines in ways never possible before. This matters in an ocean that is rapidly warming and becoming more acidic as a result of climate change. Surfboard-embedded sensors could crowd-source data on temperature, salinity and pH similar to the way traffic data is being sourced from drivers’ smartphones. To protect the safety of beachgoers, sonar imaging sensors are being developed in Australia to detect sharks close to shore and push out real-time alerts to mobile devices.
12. Biomimetic robots
The field of ocean robotics has begun borrowing blue prints from the world’s best engineering firm: Mother Nature. Robo-tuna cruise the ocean on surveillance missions; sea snake-inspired marine robots inspect pipes on offshore oil rigs; 1,400 pound crab-like robots collect new data on the seafloor; and robo-jellyfish are under development to carry out environmental monitoring. That ocean species are models for ocean problem-solving is no surprise given that these animals are the result of millions of years of trial and error.
Our fate is inextricably linked to the fate of the oceans. Technological innovation on land has helped us immeasurably to clean up polluting industries, promote sustainable economic growth, and intelligently watch over changes in terrestrial ecosystems.
We now need ocean tech to do the same under the sea.
As the marine industrial revolution advances, we will need to lean heavily on innovation, ingenuity and disruptive tech to successfully take more from the ocean while simultaneously damaging them less.
Featured image above: (left) False colour reconstruction of Degas’ hidden portrait, created from the X-ray fluorescence microscopy elemental maps produced at the Australian Synchrotron (right) Portrait of a Woman by Edgar Degas (c). 1876–80 . Credit: Australian Synchrotron/National Gallery of Victoria.
An alliance of Australian scientists and conservators have made a quantum leap forward in the analysis of priceless artworks, revealing an earlier painting of a different woman beneath a French Impressionist masterpiece in unprecedented detail, using a technology combination unavailable anywhere else in the world.
Shedding light on a decades-old riddle through a unique technology pipeline, researchers from Australian Synchrotron, National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and CSIRO published stunning images of what lies beneath Edgar Degas’ Portrait of a Woman (c. 1876-1880) in the journal Scientific Reports overnight, midway through the artwork’s display at NGV International as part of Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition, Degas: A new vision.
Dr Daryl Howard, scientist on the X-ray Fluorescence Microscopy (XFM) beamline at the Australian Synchrotron – the newest addition to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO)’s world-class line-up of landmark research infrastructure – says the re-creation of the underpainting was achieved by first producing complex metal maps to highlight minerals in the many paint types.
“‘Paint from Degas’ period was primarily composed of ground-up rocks and early synthetic pigments – with copper creating green and mercury creating red, for example – and he swirled and mixed different paints from different tubes on his palette at different times, as did the restorers who touched up this painting into the early twentieth century.
“Placing the artwork in the path of the Australian Synchrotron beam, which is a million times brighter than the sun, we measured the exact location of different pigment mixtures in every one millimetre square pixel, and fed the vast volumes of data into a computer to reconstruct both the surface and underlying layers.”
Howard says the technique is an ‘order of magnitude’ improvement for non-intrusive art analysis, crucial when handling priceless artworks.
“Eight years ago, a low resolution three-element image, which revealed a face beneath Vincent Van Gogh’s Patch of Grass 1887, inspired us to refine and advance non-destructive imaging using some of the world’s most advanced scientific technology.
“This analysis takes this “hands-off” approach to the next level, producing enormous 31.6 megapixel images – beyond the resolution of most of today’s best digital cameras – while subjecting each part of the artwork to radiation for only a fraction of a second to ensure it is not damaged.”
CSIRO engineer Robin Kirkham says the powerful light of the Australian Synchrotron combined with a highly sensitive detector devised at CSIRO are behind the revolutionary new technique.
“Developed by CSIRO with US project partner Brookhaven National Laboratory over the past few years, the Maia detector can complete complex elemental imaging a hundred times faster than conventional systems.”
“Coupled with the brilliant synchrotron beam, in 33 hours the detector produced images with around 250 times more pixel definition than the far smaller 2008 Van Gogh images that took about two days to produce.”
It’s not the first time the NGV, Australian Synchrotron and CSIRO have joined forces to solve an art mystery. In 2010 similar techniques were used to find a hidden Arthur Streeton self-portrait buried under layers of lead paint and, in 2015, a major project helped uncover hidden secrets in Frederick McCubbin’s The North wind.
Degas: a new vision is exhibiting at NGV until Sunday 18 September.
Professor Fiona Stanley is well known for her work in using biostatistics to research the causes and prevention of birth defects, including establishing the WA Maternal and Child Health Research Database in 1977.
In 1989 Professor Stanley and colleague Professor Carol Bower used another database, the WA birth defects register, to source subjects for a study of neural tube defects (NTDs). The neural tube is what forms the brain and spine in a baby. Development issues can lead to common but incurable birth defects such as spina bifida where the backbone does not close over the spinal cord properly.
The researchers measured the folate intake of 308 mothers of children born with NTDs, other defects, and no defects. They discovered that mothers who take the vitamin folate during pregnancy are less likely to have babies with NTDs. Their data contributed to worldwide research that found folate can reduce the likelihood of NTDs by 70%.
After the discovery Professor Stanley established the Telethon Kids Institute where she continued to research this topic alongside Professor Bower. Together they worked on education campaigns to encourage pregnant women to take folate supplements.
Their great success came in 2009 when the Australian government implemented mandatory folic acid fortification of flour. The need for such legislation is now recognised by the World Health Organisation.
A 2016 review conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that since the flour fortification program’s introduction, levels of NTDs have dropped by 14.4%.
Read next: Big data, big business. Whether it’s using pigeons to help monitor air quality in London or designing umbrellas that can predict if it will rain, information is becoming a must-have asset for innovative businesses.
For many of us staying connected is almost as important as breathing. Using a smartphone or tablet to check in with the office or family and friends is a given in our increasingly fast-paced technological society.
Having the right tools do this provides comfort and keeps our networks strong.
For women tackling satisfying but competitive STEM careers, staying connected when taking a career break is a key concern.
I was visiting a regional AECOM office recently, and I was chatting with a female staff member who had come into the office while on maternity leave to watch my presentation.
Our conversation covered a lot of ground, but it was her relief at being provided with a laptop while on leave that struck me. She wanted to stay connected and looped in with work while looking after her growing family.
Providing tools like a laptop or a work mobile is a very simple way of making sure that women remain plugged into the workplace when they aren’t physically there. While they may not want to connect every day, it does mean that they can continue a conversation around how their career will evolve when they come back into the workforce.
Not only this, it also allows women to be involved with what’s going on in the office, maintain control over their career planning, including performance and salary discussions.
We do need to get better at supporting women as life transitions take them on different pathways, and such initiatives have important implications for retaining women as they move through their STEM career.
While some women have communicated to me that they want to progress in terms of their own merit (and I am very confident that we do that), we also need to consciously intervene with strategies and solutions. After all, it is still not a level playing field – the numbers tell us that.
Recently a lot of the conversation has centred around ways of attracting more women into the STEM sector (and AECOM is committed to this, recently achieving a 50/50 gender intake in our graduate program), retaining them is also a key focus of our efforts.
All too often we see women drop out of the workforce because the framework isn’t there to support them, this is where mentoring comes in.
When women are at that critical juncture where it may seem too difficult to continue, connecting with other women who have had similar experiences and with whom they can share their concerns and benefit from their perspective is extremely important.
Personally, mentoring has shown me that many of the concerns of women undertaking STEM careers revolve around practical things like how to ask for a promotion or a salary increase, or how they can work more flexibly.
For me this is an important connection to have, as it gives me a perspective on how women are feeling, and I can bring that to the table at wider industry discussions, as a board member at Infrastructure Partnerships Australia or as a champion of change with Consult Australia.
On a more practical level, at AECOM we are equipping our managers with the skills to have conversations about career and flexible work – we are being very conscious in terms of planning for the future compositions of our teams.
By doing this we are increasing our connectivity, and supplementing it with technology and open conversations to help both our female and male staff as they move through different life stages. For women working in STEM, my advice is to take charge of your own career. You’ve got to treat it like a project, communicate your needs and back yourself.
Chief Executive Officer, AECOM, Australia and New Zealand
Read next:Innovating Australia – Australia’s top thinkers describe their vision for the future of innovation.
People and careers:Meet women who’ve paved brilliant careers in STEM here, find further success stories here and explore your own career options at postgradfutures.com.
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The stars are aligning for Australia to transition to 100% renewable energy. Our fossil fuel infrastructure is ageing, which means we will soon need to invest in new power generators. New technologies such as battery storage could revolutionise long-standing business models. With care, the transitions away from fossil fuels could offer greater job opportunities.
Our latest research, which corroborates previous work, shows the technology already exists to solve many of the remaining questions around technological capability. For instance, the fact that wind and solar don’t generate electricity when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining can be dealt with by installing a network of diverse generators across a wide area, or by increasing our use of energy storage.
One of the biggest remaining barriers to transition is cost. But this is also rapidly changing. Much work is going into reducing the cost of renewable energy, including the latest funding announcement from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) of A$92 million for 12 solar projects.
The cost of building renewable energy
The cost of renewable energy is highly variable across the world and even within Australia. The picture is not simple, but it does help to start by looking at the big picture.
Average capital costs of constructing new wind, solar PV and ocean/tidal generators are already lower than equivalent coal generation infrastructure.
Research suggests that, overall, the cost of moving to 100% renewable energy is not significantly higher than the cost of hitting a lower target.
The capital cost of investment in renewable energy generation technologies is also falling rapidly. In its 2014 report on global renewable power generation costs, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) showed that the total cost of installation and operation over a lifetime of small-scale residential PV systems in Australia has fallen from US$0.35 to US$0.17 per kilowatt-hour between 2010 and 2014.
In part this has been because of reduced installation costs, together with our exceptional abundance of sunshine.
As a result, Australian new residential solar installation has soared to the fifth highest in the world. Installed capacity accounts for 9% of national electricity generation capacity and 2.8% of electrical energy generation.
The historical reductions in installation costs for wind energy are similar globally and in Australia. Recent 2016 reverse auctions in the Australian Capital Territory have received Australia’s lowest known contract price for renewables with bids at A$77 per megawatt-hour.
But the capital cost of building generation infrastructure is not the whole story. Once the generator is built, operations and maintenance costs also become important. For most renewables (biomass excluded) the fuel costs are zero because nature itself provides the fuel for free.
Other costs that we must consider are variable and fixed costs. Fixed costs, such as annual preventative maintenance or insurance, don’t change with the amount of electricity produced. Variable costs, such as casual labour or generator repairs, may increase when more electricity is produced.
The variable costs for some renewables (biomass, hydropower and large-scale solar PV) are lower than coal. For other renewable technologies they are only slightly higher. Fixed costs for almost all renewable technologies are lower than for coal.
We also need to think about costs beyond individual generators. The vastness of our Australian continent is a bonus and a challenge for building 100% renewable energy.
It can be used strategically to give a 100% renewables supply reliability by using an interconnected network of generators. For instance, it may be very sunny or windy in one region. Excess electricity produced in this region can fill a gap in electricity demand in less sunny or windy places elsewhere.
But this also poses challenges. To take advantage of the reliability that a highly distributed renewable electricity system can provide, we must also consider the costs associated with expanding the transmission network.
For example, in our research we investigated one possible 100% renewables electricity scenario. This was conservatively based on current technology and demand (conservative because technology is likely to change, and electricity demand has been unexpectedly falling). The scenario required a transmission grid two-and-a-half times larger than our current grid, including new cross-continental linkages between Western Australia and the Northern Territory, which currently stand alone from the well-integrated eastern Australian networks.
The challenges of transitioning to a renewable electricity sector are no doubt great, but our ageing generator infrastructure means that an overhaul will soon be due. Even though the price of electricity from old coal power plants is currently cheaper than that from many new renewable plants (because the former are already paid off), cost reductions mean a strong business case now exists for renewable technologies investment.
In a recent article on The Conversation, John Hewson wrote that “renewable energy is one of our most ‘shovel ready’ business opportunities”.
Now is the time to pre-empt the looming deadline for infrastructure overhaul to ensure future economic resilience for Australia.
– Bonnie McBain
This article was first published by The Conversationon September 8 2016. Read the original article here.
Featured image above: BAE Systems new e-textile could benefit a wide variety of professions, including the military. Credit: BAE Systems
A wireless conductive fabric that allows soldiers to plug electronic devices directly into armour is making a commercial push into Southeast Asia.
BAE Systems has developed the Broadsword Spine garment, which is being distributed throughout the Asia Pacific region by its Australian arm, based in Adelaide.
It was designed using a unique e-textile created by Intelligent Textiles Limited in the United Kingdom and can be inserted inside vests, jackets or belts.
BAE Systems’ wireless connector promises a range of benefits for multiple professions including the emergency services.
Broadsword Spine is on display this week at the Land Forces 2016 event in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia.
Program manager David Wilson said the technology was extremely lightweight and was able to pass power from any source, which made it adaptable to an assortment of devices.
“It’s revolutionary in terms of how it can pass power and data through USB 2.0,” he says.
“It reduces the weight and cognitive burden of the soldier because it is doing a lot of power and data management automatically.
“It also has no cables, which means you’ve got no snag hazard and no issue in terms of the breaking of cables and having to replace them.”
Broadsword Spine has been designed to replace contemporary heavy portable data and power supplies used by the military as well as firefighters, paramedics and rescue personnel.
The lack of cables and additional batteries make the new material 40 per cent lighter than other systems.
The e-textile was also developed to withstand harsh environments and is water, humidity, fire and shock resistant.
The material uses highly developed yarns that act as the electricity and data conductor.
It is able to connect to a central power source to support all electronic devices and is easily recharged in the field using simple batteries or in-vehicle charging points.
There are eight protected data or power ports that are capable of supplying 5A and operate at USB 2.0 speeds.
The management of power and data is automated and is performed by a computer that is embedded into the e-textile loom.
Users also have the option of monitoring and controlling the technology manually using a smartphone app.
Wilson said contemporary models were often heavy could be highly complicated products that required special maintenance.
“It’s unique in that regard in that we don’t sell the whole system, we sell the middle architecture and allow the customer to decide what they want and how to integrate that system,” he says.
“We’ve published the pin-outs and connections so they can create their own integration cables. They don’t have to keep coming back to us and that way they can support it themselves.”
Low rate production of the Broadsword Spine has begun in the United Kingdom.
Wilson said when production increased, the company would work to distribute the product to the Asia-Pacific region from its Adelaide base next year.
Land Forces is the Southern Hemisphere’s premier defence industry exhibition and has more than 400 participating exhibition companies from about 20 countries as well as about 11,000 trade visitors.
South Australian exhibitors at the event include University of South Australia, which has developed camouflage cells for tanks, and Supashock, which has unveiled damping technology taken from race cars for use in army trucks.
Featured image above: The peanut (Arachis hypogaea L.) is an important global food source and a staple crop grown in more than 100 countries, with approximately 42 million tonnes produced every year. Credit: ICRISAT
In a world first, under the leadership of University of Western Australia Winthrop Professor Rajeev Varshney, a global team sequenced and identified 50,324 genes in an ancestor of the cultivated peanut, Arachis duranensis.
They decoded the peanut DNA to gain an insight into the legume’s evolution and identify opportunities for using its genetic variability.
Importantly, the researchers have isolated 21 allergen genes, that, when altered, may be able to prevent an allergic response in humans.
The last decade has seen an alarming rise in peanut allergies with almost three in every 100 Australian children suffering, and only 20 per cent growing out of the allergy.
“These 21 characterised genes will be useful in breeding to select the superior varieties in the laboratory such as ones that are non-allergenic,” Varshney says.
They also identified additional genes that would help increase crop productivity and improve peanut nutritional value by altering oil biosynthesis and protein content.
Peanuts or groundnuts (Arachis hypogaea L.) are an important global food source and are a staple crop grown in more than 100 countries, with approximately 42 million tonnes produced every year.
Originating in South America, humans have cultivated peanuts for more than 7,600 years.
With a very high seed oil content of 45–56 per cent, peanut oil contains nearly half of the 13 essential vitamins and 35 per cent of the essential minerals.
Peanuts are also associated with several human health benefits, and have been found to improve cardiovascular health, reduce the risk of certain cancers, and control blood sugar levels.
“This genome sequence has helped to identify genes related to resistance to different diseases, tolerance to abiotic stresses and yield-related traits,” Varshney says.
“By using this ’molecular breeding’ approach, we can also accelerate the breeding process, and generate superior varieties in 3–5 years compared to traditional breeding that takes 6–10 years.”
Varshney says genomics-assisted breeding is a non-GMO or ‘non-transgenic’ approach.
“This is basically a simple breeding process that uses the molecular markers/genes to select the lines in the breeding, and farmers have been growing such varieties for many crops all around the world,” Varshney says.
Featured image above: 2016 WA Scientist of the Year, plant researcher Professor Kingsley Dixon (centre), with Premier Colin Barnett (right) and WA Chief Scientist, Professor Peter Klinken (left). Credit: Office of Science/The Scene Team
Professor Kingsley Dixon has been the Curtin University Professor at Kings Park and Botanic Garden since 2015, but his career in plant research stretches back decades.
He was the Director of Science at Kings Park for 32 years, leading its research efforts and building a team of more than 50 scientists and research students.
With his trademark approach of turning ‘science into practice’ he discovered that bushfire smoke triggers the germination of plants in Australia, as well as other parts of the world.
“This discovery has led to new horticultural products, and the improved restoration and conservation of many rare and threatened Australian plants that are unable to be conserved or propagated by other means,” the Premier and Science Minister Colin Barnett says.
In accepting the award, Dixon paid tribute to his colleagues over the years.
“The incredible verve and enthusiasm of all the young people who came through the Kings Park labs over the years just inspired me in the belief that WA is a great place, it’s the greatest place on earth to do the sort of science that we do,” he says.
Scores of WA’s top scientists and researchers attended the awards ceremony at the Kieran McNamara Conservation Science Centre in Kensington.
The late Professor Ian Ritchie AO was inducted into the WA Science Hall of Fame for his lifelong dedication to science.
Professor Ritchie was instrumental in setting up ChemCentre, as well as establishing the AJ Parker Cooperative Research Centre for Hydrometallurgy (extracting metals from their ores).
Other award winners
Woodside Early Career Scientist of the Year
Dr Scott Draper, a renewable energy engineer investigating wave and tidal energy, based at the School of Civil, Environmental and Mining Engineering (CEME) at UWA.
ExxonMobil Student Scientist of the Year
Christopher Brennan-Jones, a PhD candidate at UWA’s Ear Sciences Centre who led an international consortium assessing the reliability of automated hearing tests.
Chevron Science Engagement Initiative of the Year
Curtin University’s Fireballs in the Sky project, a citizen science initiative which uses digital cameras in the outback to track the fireballs created by meteorites to better understand the solar system.
You’ll find more details on the finalists in each of the four categories here.
Promising results have been reported from a world-first study of cochlear implant electrodes designed to stimulate hearing nerves and slowly release drugs into the inner ear.
HEARing Cooperative Research Centre (HEARing CRC) CEO Professor Robert Cowan said research using a cochlear implant electrode array that slowly releases anti-inflammatory drugs into the cochlear following implantation could lead to new benefits for cochlear implant users.
“The beauty of this approach is that it is based on use of the standard cochlear implant electrode array inserted into the inner ear that delivers sound sensations to the brain via the electrical stimulation of hearing nerve cells,” says Cowan.
“The cochlear implant electrode array used in the research study was modified to slowly release a cortico-steroid after implantation. This drug is intended to reduce inflammation and the growth of fibrous tissue around the electrode array triggered by the body’s immune response.”
After completing extensive biosafety studies, HEARing CRC researchers progressed to a study of the experimental electrode in ten adult patients, eight at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital in Melbourne (RVEEH) and two at the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children – Sydney Cochlear Implant Clinic (SCIC).
ENT surgeons Professor Rob Briggs and Professor Catherine Birman reported no compromise in surgical insertion characteristics with the experimental array.
Initial results confirm lower electrical impedance levels for the drug-eluting array patients, as compared with control groups from both clinics. Impedance levels continue to remain lower 12 months post-implantation.
“The suppression of the inflammatory reaction in the cochlear following electrode insertion is likely responsible for these lower impedance levels and may potentially contribute to preservation of an implant user’s residual hearing abilities when combined with slimmer electrode designs and newer surgical techniques,” Cowan explains.
“Hearing preservation is important, as many candidates for cochlear implants have significant residual acoustic hearing, and want to be assured that they can use their residual acoustic hearing together with their cochlear implants.”
“Our hope is that this breakthrough will result in more people now considering cochlear implants as a viable way to manage their hearing loss”.
This drug-eluting electrode research has been made possible through the collaboration of Cochlear, RVEEH, and RIDBC-SCIC as members of the HEARing CRC, supported through the Commonwealth Governments CRC Programme.
“The HEARing CRC collaboration has contributed to commercial cochlear implant technologies that are now in world-wide use, as well as fitting technologies for both cochlear implants and hearing aids, helping to maintain Australia’s preeminent international standing in hearing research and service delivery,” says Cowan.
Featured image: A computer generated image of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope dish antennas in South Africa. Credit: SKA Project Office.
What is dark matter? What did the universe look like when the first galaxies formed? Is there other life out there? These are just some of the mysteries that the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will aim to solve.
Covering an area equivalent to around one million square metres, or one square kilometre, SKA will comprise of hundreds of thousands of radio antennas in the Karoo desert, South Africa and the Murchison region, Western Australia.
The multi-billion dollar array will be 10 times more sensitive and significantly faster at surveying galaxies than any current radio telescope.
The massive flow of data from the telescope will be processed by supercomputing facilities that have one trillion times the computing power of those that landed men on the Moon.
Phase 1 of SKA’s construction will commence in 2018. The construction will be a collaboration of 500 engineers from 20 different countries around the world.
The Turnbull Government has announced that twenty businesses across Australia will be offered $11.3 million in Entrepreneurs’ Programme grants to help boost commercialisation and break into new international markets.
A 3-D printed jaw joint replacement, termite-proof building materials and a safer way to store grain outdoors are amongst the diverse products and services that will be fast-tracked.
The grants range from $213,000 to $1 million and are matched dollar-for-dollar by recipients.
So far, the Government has invested $78.1 million since commencement of this initiative – helping 146 Australian businesses to get their products off the ground.
The grants help businesses to undertake development and commercialisation activities like product trials, licensing, and manufacturing scale-up—essential and often challenging steps in taking new products to market.
Projects supported by today’s grant offers will address problems and meet needs in key industries including food and agribusiness, mining, advanced manufacturing and medical technologies.
The 20 projects to receive commercialisation support include:
a safer, cheaper and more efficient outdoor grain storage solution for the agricultural industry
recycling technology for fats, oils and greases from restaurants that will save money and reduce pollution
a lighter, stronger and more flexible concrete product
an anti-theft automated security system for the retail fuel industry
a cheaper, faster and safer decontamination process for mine drainage
smaller, cheaper and more patient-friendly MRI technology used for medical diagnostics
a 3-D printed medical device for jaw joint replacements that reduces surgery risk and improves patient quality-of-life
insect and termite-proof expansion joint foam for the building industry, combining a two-step process into a single product.
The Entrepreneurs’ Programme commercialisation grants help Australian entrepreneurs, researchers and small and medium businesses find commercialisation solutions.
It aims to:
• accelerate the commercialisation of novel intellectual property in the form of new products, processes and services; • support new businesses based on novel intellectual property with high growth potential; and • generate greater commercial and economic returns from both public and private sector research and facilitate investment to drive business growth and competitiveness.
In 2015, the Australian and Queensland governments agreed on targets to greatly reduce the sediment and nutrient pollutants flowing onto the Great Barrier Reef.
What we do on land has a real impact out on the reef: sediments can smother the corals, while high nutrient levels help to trigger more regular and larger outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish. This damage leaves the Great Barrier Reef even more vulnerable to climate change, storms, cyclones and other impacts.
Dealing with water quality alone isn’t enough to protect the reef, as many others have pointed out before. But it is an essential ingredient in making it more resilient.
The water quality targets call for sediment runoff to be reduced by up to 50% below 2009 levels by 2025, and for nitrogen levels to be cut by up to 80% over the same period. But so far, detailed information about the costs of achieving these targets has not been available.
New work commissioned by the taskforce now gives us an idea of the likely cost of meeting those reef water quality targets.
This groundbreaking study, which drew on the expertise of water quality researchers, economists and “paddock to reef” modellers, has found that investing A$8.2 billion would get us to those targets by the 2025 deadline, albeit with a little more to be done in the Wet Tropics.
That A$8.2 billion cost is half the size of the estimates of between A$16 billion and A$17 billion discussed in a draft-for-comment report produced in May 2016, which were reported by the ABC and other media.
Those draft figures did not take into account the reductions in pollution already achieved between 2009 and 2013. They also included full steps of measures that then exceeded the targets. A full review process identified these, and now this modelling gives a more accurate estimate of what it would cost to deliver the targets using the knowledge and technology available today.
A future for farming
Importantly, the research confirms that a well-managed agricultural sector can continue to coexist with a healthy reef through improvements to land management practices.
Even more heartening is the report’s finding that we can get halfway to the nitrogen and sediment targets by spending around A$600 million in the most cost-effective areas. This is very important because prioritising these areas enables significant improvement while allowing time to focus on finding solutions that will more cost-effectively close the remaining gap.
Among those priority solutions are improving land and farm management practices, such as adopting best management practices among cane growers to reduce fertiliser loss, and in grazing to reduce soil loss.
While these actions have been the focus of many water quality programs to date, much more can be done. For example, we can have a significant impact on pollutants in the Great Barrier Reef water catchments by achieving much higher levels of adoption and larger improvements to practices such as maintaining grass cover in grazing areas and reducing and better targeting fertiliser use in cane and other cropping settings. These activities will be a focus of the two major integrated projects that will result from the taskforce’s recommendations.
A new agenda
The new study, produced by environmental consultancy Alluvium and a range of other researchers (and for which I was one of the external peer reviewers), is significant because nothing on this scale involving the Great Barrier Reef and policy costings has been done before.
Guidelines already released by the taskforce tell us a lot about what we need to do to protect the reef. Each of its ten recommendations now has formal government agreement and implementation has begun.
Alluvium’s consultants and other experts who contributed to the study – including researchers from CQ University and James Cook University – were asked to investigate how much could be achieved, and at what price, by action in the following seven areas:
Land management practice change for cane and grazing
Improved irrigation practices
Changes to land use
Urban stormwater management
Those seven areas for potential action were chosen on the basis of modelling data and expert opinion as the most feasible to achieve the level of change required to achieve the targets. By modelling the cost of delivering these areas and the change to nutrient and sediments entering the reef, the consultants were able to identify which activities were cheapest through to the most expensive across five catchment areas (Wet Tropics, Burdekin, Mackay-Whitsunday, Fitzroy and Burnett Mary).
Alluvium’s study confirmed the water science taskforce’s recommendation that investing in some catchments and activities along the Great Barrier Reef is likely to prove more valuable than in others, in both an environmental and economic sense.
Some actions have much lower costs and are more certain; these should be implemented first. Other actions are much more expensive. Of the total A$8.2 billion cost of meeting the targets, two-thirds (A$5.59 billion) could be spent on addressing gully remediation in just one water catchment (the Fitzroy region). Projects with such high costs are impractical and highly unlikely to be implemented at the scale required.
The Alluvium study suggests we would be wise not to invest too heavily in some costly repair measures such as wetland construction for nutrient removal just yet – at least until we have exhausted all of the cheaper options, tried to find other cost-effective ways of reaching the targets, and encouraged innovative landholders and other entrepreneurs to try their hand at finding ways to reduce costs.
The value of a healthier Great Barrier Reef
The A$8.2 billion funding requirement between now and 2025 is large, but let’s look at it in context. It’s still significantly less than the A$13 billion that the Australian government is investing in the Murray-Darling Basin.
It would also be an important investment in protecting the more than A$5 billion a year that the reef generates for the Australian economy and for Queensland communities.
The immediate focus should be on better allocating available funds and looking for more effective solutions to meet the targets to protect the reef. More work is still needed to ensure we do so.
If we start by targeting the most cost-effective A$1 billion-worth of measures, that should get us more than halfway towards achieving the 2025 targets. The challenge now is to develop new ideas and solutions to deliver those expensive last steps in improving water quality. The Alluvium report provides a valuable tool long-term to ensure the most cost-effective interventions are chosen to protect the Great Barrier Reef.
– John Rolfe
This article was first published by The Conversation on 12 April 2016. Read the original article here.
Award-winning naturalist David Attenborough has brought some of the world’s most remote environments into our living rooms with documentaries like Planet Earth and Life.
But now you can be side-by-side with Attenborough as you are immersed in a prehistoric ocean and the Great Barrier Reef in two virtual reality films screening at the Australian Museum.
The virtual reality experiences were created by innovative UK-based studio Alchemy VR and are presented at the museum in partnership with Samsung.
In First Life, viewers travel back 540 million years and come face-to-face with ancient sea creatures such as giant shrimp-like predator Anomalocaris and the spine-covered Hallucigenia. While Attenborough guides you through the seamlessly animated ocean, you can explore all 360 degrees of the visuals.
But in Great Barrier Reef Dive things get even more real. Filmed at the museum’s own Lizard Island Research Station as part of David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef TV series, viewers explore the world’s largest reef system in a bubble-like submarine. Turn to your right, and David is seated next to you gazing at the multitudes of fish, sharks and coral surrounding the submarine. The real-world footage also gives viewers a glimpse at the devastating effects of coral bleaching.
While virtual reality is still seen as a novelty by many, Kim McKay, CEO of the Australian Museum, says the technology is a game-changer for engaging the public in museum experiences.
“Virtual reality is a powerful new way of transporting us to the most extraordinary places on our planet, and David Attenborough is the perfect guide,” says Kim McKay, CEO of the Australian Museum. “It revolutionises the way people experience museums.”
The virtual reality films are also setting a new benchmark for educating viewers about the natural world in a compelling way.
“VR is opening up new frontiers for how Australians create, consume and interact with content,” says Phillip Newton, Corporate Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at Samsung Electronics. “What better way to be fully immersed in our innovative technology than through these experiences?”
The two films are showing at the Australian Museum until 9th October 2016.
Featured image above: Achieving greater water sensitivity in Australia is possible if the community is engaged in water management strategies, says a recent report.
Has pursuit of the Australian dream – house and garden on the quarter-acre block – led to unsustainable water consumption? While our population grows and climate change renders rainfall less reliable, millions of backyards in our sprawling cities continue to drink thirstily from increasingly scarce water resources.
The engaging historical account of white settlement and water management in Brisbane, Melbourne, and Perth suggests how such adaptation might be achieved. Arguing that good public policy must be historically informed so that lessons of the past influence practice in the future, the report demonstrates the effectiveness of simple and relatively inexpensive strategies to reduce cities’ water consumption, and makes recommendations for how these measures may be employed as part of an overall strategy toward a more water sensitive future.
Historical context crucial to creating water sensitivity
So can the Aussie dream survive in a water sensitive age? In fact, we have no choice, argues Seamus. “We simply cannot go back to year zero and start again. Rather, we must work with suburban communities to adapt to hydrological constraints.”
A central concept in the report is “path-dependency”, meaning that decisions made in the past constrain contemporary practices and policy options. For example, since the early nineteenth century, Australians have displayed a preference for low-density detached housing with gardens, despite the high per-capita cost of supplying services and infrastructure. That, argues Seamus, is not likely to change significantly.
Traditionally, water shortages in Australian cities have been overcome by increasing supply. Governments and water managers have focused on big engineering solutions, such as more and bigger dams (and, more recently, desalination plants) to “drought-proof” growing cities. Increasing water security during the post-war decades encouraged Australians to develop profligate water-use habits, such as frequent showering, growing lush gardens, and hosing driveways.
It was not until the 1980s that thinking began to turn from increasing supply to fostering more efficient usage. In some cities, residential water use had not even been monitored; and charging residents for its use was unthinkable.
Pricing and public education
The report shows that, while Australians have been extravagant with water, they have always shown a remarkable willingness to adapt water habits and usage (notably for gardens) during times of crisis. In practice, two important but administratively simple and cheap policy changes have had enormous impact on residential water use: water pricing and public education campaigns.
This offers a valuable clue about how we can make our thirsty cities more water sensitive. Our adaptability to changed water conditions demonstrates how attitudes – of both government and the public – can change significantly towards.
“Trusting in people to modify behaviour and having a price mechanism are big, big ways of making changes.”
However, the report points out how quickly lessons of water sensitivity are let go in times of plenty. It argues that we can no longer afford to forget: “In a climate-change influenced, water-constrained future, public education campaigns about the importance of water sensitivity should become a permanent component of public policy.”
Working with people
Working with people is pivotal, Seamus insists. “We need behaviour change, but we have to accept that people want to live in a certain way. So let’s adapt our policies to address that – the obvious one is rainwater tanks. The detached house allows you to capture water, which is not so easy to do in multi-storey blocks and apartments.”
Jean Brennan, Coordinator Water and Catchments at Sydney’s Inner West Council, has had considerable success in delivering water sensitive outcomes through sub-catchment programs in Marrickville that work at the neighbourhood level and involve extensive engagement with local communities and stakeholders. “Every activity we do – from involving whole communities, to individuals and local government staff – is, in effect, public education,” she says.
“This report is a fascinating read and particularly useful for advancing the third pillar of water sensitive cities: cities comprising water sensitive communities,” says Jean. “It brings to light the importance of water professionals needing to understand the full history and context before embarking on plans and decisions around water management.”
Decision makers with historical understanding and support for community participation will develop appropriate, context-specific plans that are broadly supported and likely to be implemented, Jean argues. “This report will support practitioners to do that,” she says.
Since successful genome sequencing was first announced in 2000 by geneticists Craig Venter and Francis Collins, the cost of mapping DNA’s roughly three billion base pairs has fallen exponentially. Venter’s effort to sequence his genome cost a reported US$100 million and took nine months. In March, Veritas Genetics announced pre-orders for whole genome sequencing, plus interpretation and counselling, for US$999.
Another genetics-based start-up, Human Longevity Inc (HLI), believes abundant, relatively affordable sequencing and collecting other biological data will revolutionise healthcare delivery. Founded by Venter, stem cell specialist Robert Hariri and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, it claims to have sequenced more human genomes than the rest of the world combined, with 20,000 last year, a goal of reaching 100,000 this year and over a million by 2020.
HLI offers to “fully digitise” a patient’s body – including genotypic and phenotypic data collection, and MRI, brain vascular system scans – under its US$25,000 Health Nucleus service. Large-scale machine learning is applied to genomes and phenotypic data, following the efforts at what Venter has called “digitising biology”.
The claim is that artificial intelligence (AI) can predict maladies before they emerge, with “many” successes in saving lives seen in the first year alone. The company’s business includes an FDA-approved stem cell therapy line and individualised medicines. The slogan “make 100 the new 60” is sometimes mentioned in interviews with founders. Their optimism is not isolated. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel admits he takes human growth hormone to maintain muscle mass, confident the heightened risk of cancer will be dealt with completely by a cancer cure, and plans to live to 120.
“We understand what the surgeon needs and we embed that in an algorithm so it’s full automated.”
Bill Maris, CEO of GV (formerly Google Ventures), provocatively said last year that he thinks it’s possible to live to 500. An anit-ageing crusader, biological gerontologist Dr Aubrey de Grey, co-founder and chief science officer of Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS, whose backers include Thiel), has claimed that people alive today might live to 1000.
Longevity expectations are constantly being updated. Consider that, in 1928, American demographer Louis Dublin put the upper limit of the average human lifespan at 64.8. How long a life might possibly last is a complex topic and there’s “some debate”, says Professor of Actuarial Studies at UNSW Michael Sherris.
He says there have been studies examining how long a life could be extended if certain types of mortality, such as cancer, were eliminated, points out Sherris.
“However, humans will still die of something else,” he adds. “The reality is that the oldest person lived to 122.”
Will we see a 1000-year-old human? It isn’t known. What is clear, though, is that efforts to extend health and improve lives have gotten increasingly sophisticated.
The definition of bioengineering has also grown and changed over the years. Now concerning fields including biomaterials, bioinformatics and computational biology, it has expanded with the ability to apply engineering principles at the cellular and molecular level.
Editing out problems to reverse ageing
What if, further than reading and comprehending the code life is written in, it could also be rewritten as desired? A technique enabling this with better productivity and accuracy than any before it, has gotten many excited about this possibility.
“In terms of speed, it’s probably 10 times as quick as the old technology and is five to 10 times as cheap,” says Professor Robert Brink, Chief Scientist at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research’s MEGA Genome Engineering Facility.
The facility uses the CRISPR/Cas9 process to make genetically-engineered mice for academic and research institute clients. Like many labs, Brink’s facility has embraced CRISPR/Cas9, which has made editing plant and animal DNA so accessible even amateurs are dabbling.
First described in a June 2012 paper in Science, CRISPR/Cas9 is an adaptation of bacteria’s defences against viruses. Using a guide RNA matching a target’s DNA, the Cas9 in the title is an endonuclease that makes a precise cut at the site matching the RNA guide. Used against a virus, the cut degrades and kills it. The triumphant bacteria cell then keeps a piece of viral DNA for later use and identification (described sometimes as like an immunisation card). This is assimilated at a locus in a chromosome known as CRISPR (short for clustered regularly spaced short palindromic repeats).
In DNA more complicated than a virus’s, the cut DNA is able to repair itself, and incorporates specific bits of the new material into its sequence before joining the cut back up. Though ‘off-target’ gene edits are an issue being addressed, the technique has grabbed lots of attention. Some claim it could earn a Nobel prize this year. There is hope it can be used to eventually address gene disorders, such as Beta thalassemias and Huntington’s disease.
“Probably the obvious ones are gene therapy, for humans, and agricultural applications in plants and animals,” says Dr George Church of Harvard Medical School.
Among numerous appointments, Church is Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and founding core faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Last year, a team led by Dr Church used CRISPR to remove one of the major barriers to pig-human organ transplants – retroviral DNA – in pig embryos.
You can have what are called, ‘universal donors’. That’s being used, for example, in making cells that fight cancer.
“We’re now at the point where it used to be that you would have to have a perfect match between donor and recipient of human cells, but that was because you couldn’t engineer either one of them genetically,” he says. “You can engineer the donor so that it doesn’t cause an immune reaction. Now, you can have what are called, ‘universal donors’. That’s being used, for example, in making T cells that fight cancer – what some of us call CAR-T cells. You can use CRISPR to engineer them so that they’re not only effective against your cancer, but they don’t cause immune complications.”
Uncertainty exists in a number of areas regarding CRISPR (including patent disputes, as well as ethical concerns). However, there is no doubt it has promise.
“I think it will eventually have a great impact on medicine,” believes Brink. “It’s come so far, so quickly already that it’s almost hard to predict… Being able to do things and also being able to ensure everyone it’s safe is another thing, but that will happen.”
And as far as acceptance by the general public? Everything that works to overcome nature seems, well, unnatural, at least at first. Then it’s easier to accept once the benefits of are apparent. Church – who believes we could reverse ageing in five or six years – is hopeful about the future. He also feels the world needs people leery about progress, and who might even throw up a “playing God” argument or two.
“I mean it’s good to have people who don’t drive cars and don’t wear clothes and things like that, [and] it’s good to have people who are anti-technology because they give us an alternative way of thinking about things,” he says.
“[Genetic modification] is now broadly accepted in the sense that in many countries people eat genetically-modified foods and almost all countries, they use genetically-modified bacteria to make drugs like Insulin. I think there are very few people who would refuse to take Insulin just because it’s made in bacteria.”
A complete mindshift
Extended, healthier lives are all well and good. However, humans are constrained by the upper limits of what our cells are capable of, believes Dr Randal Koene.
For that and other reasons, the Dutch neuroscientist and founder of Carbon Copies is advancing the goal of Substrate Independent Minds (SIM). The most conservative form (relatively speaking) of SIM is Whole Brain Emulation, a reverse-engineering of our grey matter.
“In system identification, you pick something as your black box, a piece of the puzzle small enough to describe by using the information you can glean about signals going in and signals going out,” he explains, adding that the approach is that of mainstream neuroscience. “The system identification approach is used in neuroscience explicitly both in brain-machine interfaces, and in the work on prostheses.”
No brain much more complicated than a roundworm’s has been emulated yet. Its 302 neurons are a fraction of the human brain’s roughly 100 billion.
Koene believes that a drosophila fly, with a connectome of 100,000 or so neurons, could be emulated within the next decade. He is reluctant to predict when this might be achieved for people.
Sobering statistics on gender disparity were released by the Office of the Chief Scientist in early 2016 as part of a report on STEM-based employment. These followed the federal government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) announcement of a $13 million investment to encourage women to choose and stick with STEM careers. So, what are the issues for men and women entering STEM graduate pathways today and how can you change the game?
The rate of increase in female STEM-qualified graduates is outstripping that of males by 6 per cent. Overall, however, women make up just 16% of STEM-qualified people, according to the Chief Scientist’s March 2016 report, Australia’s STEM Workforce.
SAGE was founded by Professors Nalini Joshi and Brian Schmidt (a Nobel laureate) with a view to creating an Australian pilot of UK program the Athena SWAN Charter. Established in 2005, Athena SWAN was described by the British House of Commons as the “most comprehensive and practical scheme to improve academics’ careers by addressing gender inequity”.
Since September 2015, 32 organisations have signed up for Australia’s SAGE pilot, which takes a data analysis approach to affect change. Organisations gather information such as the number of women and men hired, trained and promoted across various employment categories. They then analyse these figures to uncover any underlying gender inequality issues, explains Dr Susan Pond, a SAGE program leader and adjunct professor in engineering and information technologies at the University of Sydney. Finally, participating organisations develop a sustainable four-year action plan to resolve the diversity issues that emerge from the analyses.
Women occupy fewer than one in five senior researcher positions in Australian universities and institutes, and there are almost three times as many male than female STEM graduates in the highest income bracket ($104K and above). The Australia’s STEM Workforce report found this wealth gap is not accounted for by the percentage of women with children, or by the higher proportion of females working part-time.
There are, however, some opportunities revealed by the report. While only 13% of engineering graduates are female, 35% of employees with engineering degrees are female, so a larger proportion of women engineers are finding jobs. Across all sectors, however, employment prospects for STEM-qualified women are worse than for non-STEM qualified women – a situation that’s reversed for men.
Part of the problem is that graduates view academic careers as the only outcome of a STEM degree – they aren’t being exposed to careers in industry and the corporate sector, says Dr Marguerite Evans-Galea, a senior research leader at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and co-founder of Women in Science Australia.
“There are so many compounding issues in the academic environment: it’s hypercompetitive, you have to be an elite athlete throughout your entire career,” she says. “This impacts women more because they are often the primary caregivers.”
An increased focus on diversity in STEM skills taught at schools, however, is changing the way women relate to careers in the field, Marguerite says.
“There are opportunities for women because, with diversified training, we can realise there is a broad spectrum of careers. A PhD is an opportunity to hone your skills towards these careers.”
In the workforce, more flexible work arrangements and greater technical connectivity are improving conditions for women at the early-career level but, as Marguerite points out, there is still a bottleneck at the top.
“I’m still justifying my career breaks to this day,” she says. “It’s something that travels throughout your entire career – and this needs to change.”
Part of the issue is the way we measure success, as well as gender disparity, on career and grant application review panels – and this won’t change overnight.
“How we define merit may be different if there are more women in the room,” Marguerite adds. “There will be a more diverse range of ideas. Collaborations and engagement with the public may be valued more, as well as your ability to be an advocate and be a role model to other women in STEM. Paired with essential high-quality research, it could provide a broader lens.”