Tag Archives: Australian Research Council

gender equality in research

Gender equality in research and physics

The underrepresentation of women in the STEM research sector in Australia is a significant issue. I acknowledge, with some degree of shame, that my own core discipline of physics is one of the worst offenders.

Data from the ARC’s latest Excellence in Research for Australia round indicates that women represent only 16% of academic levels A–E in the physics discipline. As with all other Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) disciplines, the fraction is even worse in higher levels — only 10% of physics professorial staff are women.

While this fraction is probably representative of physics around the world, there are some interesting exceptions. For example, in France, the overall rate of women in physics is much stronger (around 26%). As a practitioner of nuclear physics, I was always struck by the much stronger presence of women in that sub-discipline in France. Of course, France has the presence of Marie Curie, who was awarded two Nobel prizes for her contributions to physics and chemistry. Clearly role models matter!

It is with this in mind that at least two dedicated fellowships for exceptional women researchers are awarded under the ARC’s Australian Laureate Fellowships scheme each round. One of these, the Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellowship, is awarded to a female researcher in science and technology. The award is won on the basis of merit, but these researchers are given extra funding to assist them to undertake an ambassadorial role to promote women in research and to mentor early career researchers.


“Australia’s research institutions need to take joint responsibility for the progression and retention of women in the research workforce.”


Australian Laureate Fellows, such as Professors Veena Sahajwalla and Michelle Simmons from UNSW Australia and Professor Nalini Joshi from The University of Sydney, are tremendous role models and are actively encouraging and supporting women to undertake careers in STEM. A fantastic example of this is the Science 50:50 programme, led by Sahajawalla, which aims to inspire Australian girls and young women to pursue degrees and careers in science and technology.

This is a start, but it is not enough. I have been determined to strengthen the ARC’s commitment to gender equality in research through a number of initiatives. We have achieved relatively even success rates for women and men across the schemes of the National Competitive Grants Programme, but we still need significant improvements in the participation rate of women in research.

While the ARC can promote and monitor gender equality in research, Australia’s research institutions need to take joint responsibility for the progression and retention of women in the research workforce. That is why it has been so encouraging to see the research sector’s very strong response to the Science and Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot. This is surely a pivotal step forward, and one we should all support to ensure it succeeds.

Professor Aidan Byrne

Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Research Council (ARC)

Read next: Macquarie University’s Professor Barbara Messerle highlights the need to celebrate cross-disciplinary role models who have paved non-linear careers from foundations in STEM.

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.

Spread the word: Help Australian women achieve successful careers in STEM! Share this piece on gender equality in research using the social media buttons below.

More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Graduate Futures Thought Leadership Series here.

Australian research funding

Australian research funding infographic

Featured image above: CSIRO has received significant budget cuts in recent years. Credit: David McClenaghan

The election is rapidly approaching, and all major parties – Liberal, Labor and Greens – have now made announcements about their policies to support science and research.

But how are we doing so far? Here we look at the state of science and research funding in Australia so you can better appreciate the policies each party has announced.

The latest OECD figures show that Australia does not fare well compared with other OECD countries on federal government funding research and development.

As a percentage of GDP, the government only spends 0.4% on research and development. This is less than comparable nations.

CC BY-ND

But looking at total country spending on research and development, including funding by state governments and the private sector, the picture is not so bleak: here Australia sits in the middle among OECD countries.

CC BY-ND

Over the years, there have been hundreds of announcements and new initiatives but this graph indicates that, in general, it has been a matter of rearranging the deck chairs rather than committing to strategic investments in research.

The Paul Keating Labor government made some investments. During the John Howard Liberal government’s years, there were ups and downs. The Kevin Rudd/Julia Gillard Labor governments were mostly up. And in Tony Abbott’s Liberal government, the graph suggests that it was mostly down with science.

CC BY-ND

Over the past decade, there have been some minor changes in funding to various areas, although energy has received the greatest proportional increase.

CC BY-SA

This pie chart reminds us that the higher education sector is a major provider of research and is highly dependent on government funding. It also tells us that business also conducts a great deal of research.

CC BY-ND

The timeline below shows that the government does listen and respond when issues arise. It has recognised the importance of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme (NCRIS), the Australian Synchrotron and sustainable medical research funding by different initiatives.

But, sadly, one must remember that funding is effectively being shifted from one domain to another, and it has seldom been the case that significantly new commitments are made. The balance of red and blue shows how one hand gives while the other takes funding away.

CC BY-SA

This useful graph highlights the fact that Australian Research Council (ARC) funding now amounts to little more than the National Health and Medical Research Council’s funding.

This is remarkable, given that the ARC funds all disciplines, including sciences, humanities and social sciences, while the NHMRC essentially focuses on human biology and health.

CC BY-SA

This graphic also highlights the lack of any sustained funding strategy. The only clear trend is that the investment in the ARC has gradually declined and the NHMRC has grown.

This, in part, reflects the undeniable importance of health research. But it is also indicative of effective and coherent organisation and communication by health researchers. This has been more difficult to achieve in the ARC space with researchers coming from a vast array of disciplines.

– Merlin Crossley, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Education and Professor of Molecular Biology, UNSW Australia
– Les Field, Secretary for Science Policy at the Australian Academy of Science, and Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, UNSW Australia
This article was first published by The Conversation on June 22 2016. Read the original article here.
Australian automotives

Transforming Australian automotives

More than $3 million in Australian Research Council (ARC) funding has been awarded to RMIT to establish a new centre that will support the transformation of the nation’s automotive industry.

Funded by the ARC Industrial Transformation Research Hub scheme, the RMIT Centre in Lightweight Automotive Structures brings together 31 world-leading scientists and industrial engineers from 16 organisations from Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom and the USA.

Professor Calum Drummond, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Innovation and Vice-President at RMIT, says the grant builds on the university’s commitment to help shape a vibrant Australian manufacturing sector in the global economy.

“RMIT’s distinctive approach to connected education and research links creative ideas with technical knowledge and focuses on the challenges and opportunities emerging around the world,” says Drummond.

“Australia’s automotive industry is undergoing a major structural change, due to the cessation of motor vehicle assembly by the end of 2017.

“This places more than 260 local component manufacturers, which form Australia’s automotive supply chain, under extreme pressure.

“The new centre aims to assist the transformation of Australia’s automotive industry from vehicle production to exporting engineering services and locally manufactured high-value products.”

The strategic partnership with Ford Motor Company, Deakin University, the Australian National University, Australian Rollforming Manufacturers, Composite Materials Engineering, Quickstep Automotive, Capral Aluminium, MTM Automotive Components, CSIRO, dataM, Sheet Metal Solutions, Shape Corporation, University of Bristol, Michigan Technological University, Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen, and Imperial College London will collectively invest $11.6 million over five years to train industry-focused researchers.

The Centre’s Director is Professor Chun Wang from the School of Engineering, who is also the Director of the Sir Lawrence Wackett Aerospace Research Centre at RMIT.

Wang says the aim is to develop new lightweight materials, advanced manufacturing processes, energy storage designs, and rapid non-destructive evaluation techniques, which are a key to reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in transportation.

“More importantly, we hope the centre will accelerate the transformation of Australia’s automotive industry – now facing unprecedented structural adjustment – from vehicle production to the export of design and engineering services, high-value products and novel technology solutions.”

The ARC Industrial Transformation Research Hub scheme is designed to engage Australia’s best researchers in issues facing the new industrial economies and training the future workforce.

The scheme supports collaborative research activity between the Australian higher education sector and industry designed to focus on strategic outcomes not independently realisable.

 Petra van Nieuwenhoven

This article was first published by RMIT University on 17 May 2016. Read the original article here.

Safety of chromium questioned

Safety of chromium questioned

Featured image by The University of Sydney: The synchrotron’s high energy x-ray beam allowed scientists to identify chromium spots throughout the cell. By using a second high energy beam focused at these spots, the scientists were able to tell that the cell had converted into the carcinogenic form of chromium. The spots are identified by the arrows in this image.

An Australian research team found chromium is partially converted into a carcinogenic form when it enters cells.

Chromium is a trace mineral found primarily in two forms. Trivalent chromium(III) picolinate and a range of other chromium(III) forms are sold as a nutritional supplements, while hexavalent chromium(VI) is its ‘carcinogenic cousin’. The latter gained notoriety from the book and 2000 movie, Erin Brockovich, which linked an elevated cluster of illnesses, including cancer, to hexavalent chromium in the drinking water of the Californian town of Hinkley.

The University of Sydney and UNSW researchers’ concerns are based on a study published in the prestigious chemistry journal, Angewandte Chemie.

Controversy remains over whether the dietary form of chromium is essential for humans, with an increasing body of evidence indicating it is not safe for humans.

Supplements containing chromium are consumed for the purported treatment of metabolic disorders, such as insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, but chromium’s mechanism of action in the body is not well understood.

Supplements containing chromium are also commonly used for weight loss and body building with some containing up to 500 micrograms per tablet.

The US National Academy of Sciences has estimated up to 200 micrograms of chromium is a safe and adequate daily dietary intake for adults. Australia’s current National Health and Medical Research Council Nutrient Reference Values, which are currently under review, recommend 25–35 micrograms of chromium daily as an ‘adequate intake’ for adults.

In the latest study, the Australian research team treated animal fat cells with chromium(III) in the laboratory. It then created a map of every chemical element contained within the cell using an intense X-ray beam at a facility known as a synchrotron.

The team, led by Professor Peter Lay from the University of Sydney’s School of Chemistry and Dr Lindsay Wu, now with UNSW’s School of Medical Sciences, travelled near to Chicago to Argonne National Laboratory to perform the experiments in collaboration with colleagues at Argonne’s, the Advanced Photon Source, a US Department of Energy Office of Science User Facility that generates ultra-bright, high-energy X-rays.

“The high energy X-ray beam from the synchrotron acted as a fluorescent microscope, which allowed us to not only see the chromium spots throughout the cell but also to determine whether the spots were chromium(III) or a combination of chromium(III) chromium(V) and chromium(VI),” says Wu, who conducted the study while based at the University of Sydney.

“The health hazards associated with exposure to chromium are dependent on its oxidation state. We were able to show that oxidation of chromium inside the cell does occur, meaning it loses electrons and transforms into a carcinogenic form.”

Additional experiments have since been conducted at Australia’s National Beamline Facility and the Photon Factory in Tsukuba Japan, (operated by the Australian Synchrotron) that has helped clarify the carcinogenic nature of chromium(V) and chromium(VI) formed in cells.

Lay says with the latency period for chromium(VI)-related cancers often greater than 20 years, the finding raised concerns about the possible cancer-causing qualities of chromium compounds and the risks of taking chromium nutritional supplements long term or in high doses.

“With questionable evidence over the effectiveness of chromium as a dietary supplement, these findings should make people think twice about taking supplements containing large doses of chromium,” Lay says.

“However additional research is needed to ascertain whether chromium supplements significantly alter cancer risk.”

The researchers said the findings are very unlikely to apply to trace amounts of chromium(III) found in food.

The research was supported by the Australian Research Council, the Australian Synchrotron Research Program and the Australian Synchrotron.

This article was first published by The University of Sydney on 11 January 2016. Read the original article here.