Monday’s music – Soundgarden

Today is usually an Awesome day, but today, I’m really just wanting to play music really loud. Given I share an office, my music will be confined to my headphones. Here’s a taste of what might be coming up on my all-purpose rage-against-everything playlist: Soundgarden, from the early 90s. The music video is very early 90s too, which is a bit of a laugh.

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More evidence that the Aust. government doesn’t care about research

Thanks everyone for reading my post last week. It was incredibly popular – by my blog’s standards anyway – showing that there are a lot of people who care about the state of research in Australia.

Federal Greens MP Adam Bandt started a petition on 27 September about stopping research funding cuts. Sign it here.

We seem to be learning more about the extremely cavalier attitude the government is taking towards research funding in Australia. The lack of information around the rumoured cuts to funding make it a very bleak and uncomfortable time for the researchers in Australia waiting on funding outcomes for the major grants schemes.

This week, we’ve learned that the Group of Eight universities are concerned (see article from The Australian at the bottom of the post) that the research funding cuts may come via the Sustainable Research Excellence initiative, part of the block grant funding scheme for covering indirect costs associated with running research at universities. They fear up to $150million will be lost. According the article:

Commentators say it may be a more politically astute way of clawing back money by avoiding unwanted headlines if researchers lost jobs as a result of cuts to grants

So the government is reportedly trying to be sneaky with its budget cuts. I say that’s a red herring, because indirect costs for universities’ budgets include salaries for people working who are not permanent staff. And if research programs have to be scaled back, who gets their marching orders first? People like research assistants and technical officers and postdocs, who may find themselves out of a job because the uni can’t afford to fund the indirect cost of them working with a professor on an ARC grant.

But it gets worse. Yesterday, amidst editorials that actually mentioned the current frozen state of research grant funding (it’s about time it got more attention), we were treated to the knowledge that the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science Research and Tertiary Education (DIISRTE) – the very department in charge of this research funding debacle – have dropped a cool $75,000 on five coffee machines for their office in Canberra. But, according to a spokesperson, “the machines generate value for employees and we believe increase productivity”. Never mind the fact that there is a cafe in the foyer of their building, or that $75K would just about fund a postdoc’s salary for a year.

Meanwhile, as DIISRTE sips its coffee the ARC is still frozen in time, unable to say whether all the Discovery projects listed as successful will actually receive funding. It doesn’t know when it might be able to announce the outcomes of the Discovery round, or open the next Linkage round:

Australian Research Council chief Aidan Byrne told a Senate hearing yesterday he didn’t know whether or when hundreds of millions of dollars of grants with preliminary approval would be announced and paid.

Next year’s ARC grants were due to be announced this month. But a funding ”freeze” or ”pause” in the leadup to the minibudget means the ARC is unable to tell applicants anything. Many of the grants are for continuing projects.

Applications for grants for 2014 were meant to have closed by now but ”because of the pause or freeze, we haven’t even opened them”, Professor Byrne said.

I thought that the ARC was being coy by not giving any information out about the funding freeze, but they are actually in the dark as much as we are.
However, it gets worse. Reported by the ABC this morning, at the Senate Estimates Committee hearing, Greens senator Lee Rhiannon said that the government risks losing researchers overseas with their handling of the funding freeze. Our esteemed Minister for Research, Chris Evans, defended the government’s decision by saying that Rhiannon’s claims were “outrageous” and “No-one apart from you [Rhiannon] is suggesting that it is playing out in that way….I don’t mean to be aggressive, but sometimes you make these statements and they’re just plain wrong.”
Evans is clearly deluded. What Rhiannon said is perfectly true – this current climate is not conducive to job security for many researchers, and certainly some would be assessing their options for working overseas right now. What does Evans think researchers do all day? Sit around drinking coffee and waiting for some extra, superfluous money to drop into our laps? No, we don’t – and not because we don’t have fancy $15K coffee machines either. Researchers work bloody hard for little reward, apart from advancing knowledge in their discipline (which is important, but often negligible if converted into a purely economic or monetary context). Many of the people waiting on ARC outcomes are waiting to see not only if they get funded to do research next year, but also if they’ll have a salary.

The final word for today shall go to Brian Schmidt, Nobel laureate and professor at ANU, who tweeted, “We need to spend our research $ smarter-This freeze does the opposite- devaluing the $ invested by creating uncertainty”

The Australian, 17 Oct 2012 (click for larger version)

M. Josephine Mackerras: Parasitologist

Today is Ada Lovelace Day. The day is all about raising the profile of women who have contributed to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Therefore, I’m going to write about M. Josephine Mackerras, an Australian parasitologist. Her work on helminths of Australian mammals was one of the first papers on parasites that I read when I started my PhD research.

Mabel Josephine Mackerras (nee Bancroft), 1896 – 1971.

M. Josephine Mackerras (image via Sprent 1972)

Josephine Mackerras was born in Brisbane. Her grandfather wasThomas Bancroft, the first to find the microfilariae that would bear his name, Wuchereria bancrofti, the causative agent of filariasis. Josephine was educated at the University of Queensland (BSc Hons 1918), and University of Sydney (MB Hons 1924). She worked on understanding the transmission of malaria, and the effects of anti-malaria drugs during the second world war, when she was working as a member of the 2nd Australia Imperial Force. Following the war, she worked on several different projects, including understanding the life history of Angiostrongylus mackerrasae (then called A. cantonensis), a rat lungworm that causes eosinphilic meningitis in humans. She also published many papers on haematozoa and helminths of native animals.

Josephine was married to Ian Mackerras, an entomologist, and while they did much of their work separately, they did co-author some research papers together. I once heard a story that Josephine and Ian would go fishing, and take blood smears on slides from their catch for Josephine’s work on haematozoa. They’d fix, stain and examine the slides while the fish cooked for their dinner.

Josephine’s contribution to Australian entomology and parasitology was not unnoticed by her peers, as she was made a Fellow of the Australian Society for Parasitology in 1966, and was conferred an honorary doctorate by the University of Queensland in 1967. In all, she produced 86 publications, including a book chapter the year before her death.

References:

Australian Dictionary of Biography (web), MJ Mackerras.

Sprent, JFA (1972) Obituary: MJ Mackerras. Int J Parasitol 2, 181-185.

The Australian government doesn’t care about research.

In a weird week in politics, we’ve been treated to all kinds of pontificating about standards and principles, heated arguments relating to who disrespects women more, and widespread misuse of the word ‘misogyny’. But, at the same time as all this was taking place, we learned something far more worrying. The Australian government doesn’t care about research, or researchers.

In amongst all of the parliamentary posturing this week, a stealth bombshell was dropped: the Australian Research Council (who hand out federal funding for research in Australia) will be delaying their announcement of funding outcomes for Discovery Projects indefinitely, and will not be opening the next round of Linkage Projects until further notice. The only place I saw this reported was in The Australian, buried in the Higher Ed section and it was behind a paywall online. The quote from the CEO of the ARC described the timeframe as a “brief pause”. This delay is due to the federal government wanting to reassess the budget as part of their ambition to deliver a surplus. But the amount of cash the ARC gets to spend is a drop in a bucket and getting smaller every year, so it’s really a slap in the face to people who rely on this funding. I also saw a line that the government wanted to make sure that they were getting ‘value for money’ and ‘quality control’ for the projects. This also implies that the peer-review process for grants is somehow inadequate and the College of Experts who determine which projects get funded don’t know what they’re talking about.

October is the time of year when successful Discovery grants are announced, and it is this time of year that researchers develop a heightened sense of anxiety. Discovery project proposals close in March, so the wait is long enough without an impromptu extra delay. The ARC never has enough money to fund all the projects, and the rate of success is usually quite low. I wrote about this sad state of affairs last year. There is always a feeling of unease associated with Discovery season, because so much rides on so little funding. If you don’t get a grant, you may not be able to do that research you want to, or may not have enough money left to fund your research staff, or worse, not have a position left for you at your research institution.

Peoples’ salaries and livelihoods rely on ARC grant outcomes. For the government to decide not to tell us when we might know who will have a job next year and who won’t seems very flippant. But, more tellingly, their decision to do this demonstrates that they really don’t care about the state of research in Australia. The noise associated with the Gonski Review on education, and the recent announcement that the Office of the Chief Scientist wants to spend $4 million over five years on a national maths, science education and industry advisor seem quite hollow in light of this decision. What’s the point in all the support for students if there’s nothing for them when they’re ready to be researchers? Inspired kids who go through school and tertiary education studying science get spat out the other end with their newly-minted PhDs and the cold reality that there is hardly any funding, fewer jobs, and that the competitiveness relating to the preciousness of the scant resources is fierce. Pardon my cynicism, but there is really very little that is inspiring about such a poor research environment in Australia.

Most scientists (while the ARC does fund all aspects of research in Australia, I’m most familiar with the science aspect) don’t want a lot – they just want the ability to conduct the best research they can. If the government was really into being principled and wanting the best for the country, they would not delay the decision on outcomes, nor try to claw back a measly few million dollars. That money is the only thing keeping us as a ‘clever country’ and the government would be a fool to remove it from people who produce world-class research of the highest calibre.

The parasites that could kill you (or at least make you a bit sick). Part 1 – Protozoa

This is a bit of a departure from the way I usually talk about parasites. They do have a bit of an image problem, coming mainly from their reputation for killing people, animals and plants. Normally I try to avoid talking up their more deadly attributes, but an acquaintance casually dismissed infections with parasites in humans as if they simply won’t happen. I thought, ‘this won’t do at all’, so here’s part 1 of 4 snapshots of just how many parasites may be out to get you.

Before we start, I want to make a few things clear. First, this is not an exhaustive list, just what I can think of off the top of my head, with some details from my trusty Foundations of Parasitology text and supplemented with stats and pictures from the internet. Therefore there’s every chance that I’ve neglected to include something. Second, the likelihood of infection with any given parasite varies hugely and is dependent on a whole range of factors that I’m not even going to get into. As I said, this is a snapshot.

Life cycle of Plasmodium sp. (via wehi.edu.au)

Plasmodium spp. – the most famous protozoan parasite. Several species cause malaria in humans, and millions of people (mostly children) die every year from the disease. Present in tropical and subtropical areas, vector-borne (mosquitoes).

Entamoeba histolytica – an amoeba that will give you dysentery and you might die. Present mainly in areas of poor sanitation. Faecal-oral transmission.

Naegleria fowleri – a water-borne amoeba that will infect your brain, via your nasal mucous membranes. Usually fatal, but infective amoebas are usually in low prevalence in water. There is currently an outbreak in Pakistan that has killed 10 people.

Leishmania spp. – vector-borne (phlebotomine sandflies) protozoans, causing visceral or cutaneous leishmaniasis. Can be fatal. Present in tropical and subtropical areas.

Trypanosoma cruzi  (via uconn.edu)

Trypanosoma spp. – vector-borne (tsetse flies in Africa, triatomine bugs in S. America) protozoans, causing sleeping sickness in Africa and Chagas disease in S. America. Can be fatal, especially in acute phase of infection. Chronic infection also occurs. Present in tropical, subtropical Africa and South America.

Toxoplasma gondii – coccidian parasite of cats. Humans get infected as intermediate hosts (regular intermediate hosts are rodents). Not likely to kill an immunocompetent human, but will possibly make you feel a bit crappy. More important is the potential danger for foetuses, with spontaneous abortions and stillbirths associated with toxoplasmosis of mothers (not just human ones either). Cosmopolitan distribution, zoonotic.

Cryptosporidium parvum –  coccidian parasite with common transmission being faecal-oral, or occasionally water-borne. Will cause diarrhoea, and can kill severely immunocompromised people. Cosmopolitan distribution, can be zoonotic.

Giardia lamblia trophozoites (via cdc.gov)

Giardia lamblia (sometimes called duodenalis): highly infective, usually via faecal-oral route. Not generally fatal, but with symptoms including diarrhoea and bloating, likely to be highly uncomfortable at the very least. Cosmopolitan distribution, can be zoonotic.

There are many more parasitic protozoa that can potentially infect humans. In developed areas with high standards of hygiene (theoretically), the risk of infection with a protozoan is fairly low. But even in these areas, pathogens like Toxoplasma, Giardia and Cryptosporidium can lurk close by.

Stay tuned for Part 2 – Platyhelminths.

Monday Awesome: Something for Kate

I bought the new Something for Kate album last week. It’s called Leave Your Soul to Science, and it’s actually quite good. It definitely grows with repeated listenings, although I still can’t like the first track. There were some acoustic covers at the end of the album, which I really, really like. Here’s one taken from a recent gig: