Archive for Science

Australian funding agency announces new chief

From Nature Index, 28 April 2017:

The appointment of Sue Thomas as head of the Australian Research Council adds to a growing number of women at the helms of Australia’s key scientific agencies and funding bodies. Thomas, currently the provost and deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of New England, will take over from Aidan Byrne on 3 July.

Her appointment means Australia’s two largest science funding agencies are now led by women, with Anne Kelso the CEO of the National Health and Medical Research Council. There’s also Margaret Hartley, who is the CEO of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering; Kylie Walker, the CEO of Science & Technology Australia (STA); and Anna-Maria Arabia, chief executive of the Australian Academy of Science. Read more.

Age discrimination: older Australian workers viewed as slow to learn

From The Guardian, 20 April 2017:

The trope of the older worker thrust back into the hurly-burly of working life made for great comedy in the 2015 film The Intern. But in reality this scenario isn’t always such a laughing matter.

Older workers face unique hardships. Hampered by unfair stereotypes about their abilities, their role in society and their responsibilities, they are regularly overlooked for interviews, jobs, promotions and recognition.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2016 report Willing to Work found 27% of people over the age of 50 reported experiencing age discrimination at work, a third of the most recent episodes occurring when applying for a job. One-third of those gave up looking for work.

Age discrimination was particularly acute among older women, who were more likely to be viewed as having outdated skills, being slow to learn, or as being likely to do an unsatisfactory job. Seniors with disabilities face an even steeper uphill battle for jobs and recognition. Read more.

Alien solar system of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby dwarf star could be rich with water and life

From ABC Science, 23 February 2017:

Seven Earth-sized planets, many of which could harbour life, have been discovered orbiting a dwarf star in our own galactic neighbourhood.

The complex alien solar system hosts the largest number yet of detected worlds capable of having liquid water on their surface, a team of astronomers reported on Thursday in the journal Nature.

The planets have been found around TRAPPIST-1, a Jupiter-sized ultra-cool star located 40 light-years away in the constellation of Aquarius.

“It’s the first time that we have so many Earth-sized planets around a star,” said lead author Dr Michaël Gillon, of the Space Sciences, Technologies and Astrophysics Research Institute in Belgium. Read more.

Pregnant reptile fossil suggests bird ancestors gave birth to live young

From ABC Science, 15 February 2017:

The discovery of a fossil of a pregnant marine reptile has provided the first evidence that an ancestor of modern-day birds and crocodiles gave birth to live young.

The fossil of the long-necked Dinocephalosaurus, which swam the seas during the Middle Triassic period around 245 million years ago, was unearthed by an international team of scientists in south-west China.


Inside the fossil was a much smaller fossil of the same species positioned in a way that suggested it was an embryo rather than the remains of prey, according to a paper published today in Nature Communications.

The marine reptile came from a group called the Archosauromorphs, which evolved 260 million years ago and includes modern-day birds and crocodiles, as well as extinct dinosaurs and pterosaurs. Read more.

Concrete products reabsorb nearly half CO2 released in cement manufacture

From ABC News in Science, 22 November 2016:

The production of cement is a major source of carbon dioxide, but new research suggests the material that makes up our concrete jungles also plays an important role in reabsorbing carbon emissions.


But as cement ages and weathers over time, it also absorbs carbon dioxide in a process called carbonation.

In a paper published today in Nature Geoscience, a team of researchers calculated that the carbonation process has offset as much as 43 per cent of the emissions associated with cement production, not including the emissions associated with fossil fuel use during cement production, over the past 70 years. Read more.


Bonobos suffer from failing eyesight as they get older

From ABC Science, 8 November 2016:

You may struggle to see your computer screen as you get older, but we are not the only primates to suffer from declining vision as we age.

The discovery, published today in the journal Current Biology, challenges the idea that we live longer after the end of our reproductive lives than other primates because we are physically more robust.

Long-sightedness, or presbyopia, is caused by the gradual hardening of the lens and weakening of the muscles around it, which makes it more difficult to focus on objects up close.

While studying a group of bonobos in Wamba, Congo, a team of researchers noticed the strange grooming behaviours of the older members of the troop.

The oldest male bonobo — Ten — had to stretch his arm out to groom another bonobo called Jeudi. Then, when he found something, he would come back in close to remove it with his mouth. Read more.

‘The heat is there’: is there a future for geothermal energy in Australia?

From the Guardian, 4 November 2016:

In July 2010, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (Arena) took a $32m gamble on geothermal energy, investing in Australia’s first demonstration of geothermal electricity generation.

Six years later, the wells in South Australia’s Cooper Basin have been filled with concrete and abandoned, and the geothermal exploration company involved – Geodynamics Limited – has announced it is rebranding and pivoting to biogas, solar photovoltaic, battery storage and hybrid solutions.

Although geothermal energy is a mainstay of electricity generation in countries such as Iceland and El Salvador, the ancient, slumbering strata of Australia presents a more challenging landscape.

Since 2009 Arena has funded seven geothermal projects at a cost of more than $40m. Only one is still active.

In 2013 the agency established an international geothermal expert group to review Australia’s prospects for commercial geothermal energy generation. That group came to the conclusion that, despite more than $1bn worth of investment from the private sector and governments since the 1990s, the Australian geothermal energy sector faced significant technical hurdles, and the prospect of commercial viability before 2030 was slim. Read more.

Tracing bloodlines for the roots of an age-old friendship

From Nature Index, 17 July 2016:

Performing a medical procedure on a live animal isn’t for a faint hearted researcher. So when a village dog in rural India bit Ryan Boyko’s thumb, he figured it was a small price to pay (although he got a tetanus shot to be safe) for the opportunity to explore some of the big questions of dog lovers — when and where did that special relationship between dog and human begin?

To answer these questions, Boyko and an international team of collaborators, led by his brother Professor Adam Boyko from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, took on a project that would make most vets blanch: to collect blood from 549 village dogs across 38 countries.

The aim was to map the dogs’ genetic relationships and through that, trace the history of dog domestication. Boyko, the CEO of dog DNA testing company, Embark Veterinary Inc, wanted to know “what makes dogs dogs and to what extent does that help us understand what makes people people?” Read more.

The myths and reality of interstellar travel

From BBC Future, 4 October 2016:

Science fiction writers and moviemakers have shown us countless visions of humanity spread out across the Universe, so you might be forgiven for thinking that we’ve already got this in the bag. Unfortunately, we still have more than a few technical limitations to overcome – like the laws of physics as we understand them – before we can start colonising new worlds beyond our Solar System and galaxy.
That said, several privately funded or volunteer initiatives such as the Tau Zero Foundation, Project Icarus and Breakthrough Starshot have emerged in recent years, each hoping to bring us a little bit closer to reaching across the cosmos. The discovery in August of an Earth-sized planet orbiting our nearest star has also raised fresh hopes about visiting an alien world.
Interstellar spacecraft will be one of the topics discussed at BBC Future’s World-Changing Ideas Summit in Sydney in November. Is travelling to other galaxies possible? And if so, what kinds of spacecraft might we need to achieve it? Read more.

The privilege and responsibility of being a science journalist

(An edited version of this was delivered as a speech at the 2016 Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival)

So I’m a huge nerd, both in the writing sense and the science sense.

In highschool, I used to write essays … for fun. I used to read books about science, purely for the delight I took in learning about the world and universe we live in. I lived and breathed David Attenborough documentaries. I collected rocks until the seams of my pockets gave way (and I still have them all too). I listened, fascinated, as my medical parents discussed their day over dinner.

So imagine my joy when I discovered there was an actual career that combined both of these things. I discovered this quite by accident when I was editor of the student newspaper at the Australian National University. I wrote a column about some new cinema projection technology that was being used at the university, and the thought sprang into my head ‘what if I could do this all the time?”.

And here I am, two decades later, a full-time freelance science writer.

There aren’t many of us, it’s worth pointing out. An obituary for science journalism in Australia was published two years ago. Some question whether there is any future for it at all, in this era when scientists are doing Ask-Me-Anythings (or AMAs) on Reddit; when research organisations and universities are producing their high-quality, well-written magazines to tell their own science stories direct to the general public; when there are so few in-house science journalists in the mainstream media that you can literally count them on the fingers of one hand.

In that sense, being a science journalist is a privilege. I’m lucky enough to be able to do this because I’m a freelancer, so the science journalism work that I do is spread across a lot of publications and it is subsidised by the science writing work I do for those very organisations and universities I mentioned earlier.

It’s also a privilege because I absolutely love writing about science. Isaac Newtown said, “if I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” As a science journalist, I would say if I have seen further, it is by peeking over the shoulders of giants and asking “what does that do?”, or “what happens if you mix those things together?”, or “why did you do that?”

And it is some privilege. What other profession allows you access to just about any laboratory in the country, or even the world; gives you the remit to ask any question you want; and to learn in a couple of hours what someone has worked their entire life to discover?

And the variety! In any given week, I could be writing about the death throes of the oldest known star, born in the fiery aftermath of the Big Bang – or the discovery of the oldest fossilised human poo. I might be privy to the very first results of a trial of a new anti-cancer drug that sees people with just months or even weeks to live, still going strong four years later.

I might also be writing about when science and scientists get it wrong: when pressure or ego or money drives researchers and companies to fake results, use unethical methods, conceal information about side effects.

And this is why I believe being a science writer also comes with considerable – and growing – responsibility.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, when talking about the demise of journalism in the US, pointed it was a fantastic time to be a corrupt politician, because there were so few journalists and newspapers left to hold them to account.

While the situation with science isn’t quite that grim-sounding, the same principles apply. With so many researchers and scientific institutions now communicating direct to the public, to policy makers, to funders, we need science journalists to be doing to that science what a political journalist – or any other journalist, for that matter – does for their subject, which is to ask the hard and the right questions.

And in science, those questions can be a matter of life and death. We’ve seen this recently, with the furore around statins. These are drugs to lower a person’s cholesterol levels. They are very good at what they are supposed to do, they are relatively safe – with all the usual caveats – and they have been embraced by modern healthcare with the sort of enthusiasm that pharmaceutical executives dream about.

The statins story is incredibly nuanced. It’s not as simple as saying anyone with high cholesterol should take them. Nor is it as simple as saying that we’ve got it wrong, and no one should be taking them, or that the side effects outweigh the benefits.

Unfortunately, a lot of these nuances were missed in some of the public discussion and coverage around statins. As a result, a significant number of people on statins decided to stop taking them. Perhaps some of those people didn’t need them. But some of them did.

The same thing happened with hormone replacement therapy for post-menopausal women. A huge study published its results, suggesting in some women, the risks of HRT outweighed the benefits. The resulting coverage caused panic amongst women and doctors.

But again, the nuances of that study, its limitations and its significance, were lost in the black and white, simplistic coverage. The result was that a large number of women stopped taking a drug that might have reduced their risk of certain health conditions. As with statins, some of them shouldn’t have been taking HRT in the first place (which was a story in itself) but some of them should.

Health is one area where we need journalists with experience on the beat, who can read a scientific paper, who understand research statistics, who know which experts to go to, and what resources are reliable.

Another area is environment reporting. Humanity is at an environmental cross-roads, and the decisions we make now as a society will have profound, potentially catastrophic repercussions for future generations. And yet our political leaders try to censor science, dismiss the research, ignore the looming iceberg. This is why we need good science journalists. Who else would reveal that our own government is trying to cover up the dire state of the Great Barrier Reef’s health, or ignore advice on the environmental impact of mining projects.

If you look at the finalists for the Australian Museum’s Eureka Prize for Science Journalism over recent years, you get a glimpse into why we need science journalism. This year, one of the finalists was a team reporting on the so-called ‘Ebola with wings’ – this epidemic of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis that is ravaging a nation on our doorstep: Papua New Guinea.

Science journalism occupies a weird space at the moment. It’s journalism, that’s for sure. But many also place it under the umbrella of science communication. In Australia, we have an organisation that represents science communicators, which for the time being, includes science journalists alongside media/PR people for research organisations, science museum experts, science educators, scientists who communicate, and a whole host of other sub-specialities that share the commonality that we all are talking, writing, teaching or presenting about science.

But I believe the genre of science journalism rightly occupies its own space.

To be a science journalist is to understand how science works; to know that there is no such thing as proof, and that what is accepted as doctrine– like that cigarettes are good for your health and eggs are bad – can be totally and utterly reversed as studies are done, new results are found, and new understand emerges from those results. It is to understand the role that science and scientific discovery plays in society, and the impact it has on so many aspects of our day-to day-existence.

But science journalists are not, and never should be, an unquestioning cheer squad for science. Sure, we can get carried away with excitement about the discovery of the Higgs boson and gravitational waves like everyone else – and to be honest, that’s the part I like the best. But even amidst that excitement, we are still asking those same hard, good questions, looking for the fudged data, looking for the justification for those billions of dollars invested, challenging the researchers to explain the conclusions they see in their data.

As our lives become more dependent on technology, as we advance our understanding of the genome and how to alter it, as we interact with our environment and planet in ever more intimate and large-scale ways, as we face more and more choices in how we control our health and our appearance, we as a society need to be equipped to make informed decisions about what we want, and what we don’t want. I believe science journalists have an important role to play in helping to build a more science-literate society and that’s a cause I champion constantly.

This is the responsibility of being a science writer, and it is the privilege. And I wouldn’t give it up for the world.