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)

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.

This just in: There are no big cats in Victoria.

Puma concolor (image via Wikipedia)

A report ordered by the Victorian State Government on the status of ‘big cats’ in the state has just been released. You can read about it here at the ABC News or here at The Age. The authors of the report, from the Department of Sustainability and Environment, did not find any evidence to support the (crackpot) idea that large cats are roaming around the country areas of the state. The Minister for Agriculture, Peter Walsh has said, “Some preliminary DNA evidence also cannot be entirely dismissed but it is not sufficiently conclusive to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the identity of an animal.” Uh-huh. In amongst the Bureaucratese, I got ‘we had DNA but were told it was just from a domestic cat and we were disappointed’ from that statement. This may be because there are so many feral cats lurking around the place, who annoyingly would share much of their DNA with other species of cats, and also because labs that can tell you the name, address and birthday of someone/thing from a piece of DNA only exist on TV shows like CSI.

From The Age:

While the report author says it is impossible to prove something doesn’t exist, his survey of about a century’s worth of anecdotal evidence alleging big cats exist in Victoria has concluded it is highly unlikely.

“We can’t say 100 per cent there are no big cats in Victoria but we can say it is highly unlikely,” Department of Sustainability of Environment zoologist Peter Menkhorst said on Tuesday.

Mr Menkhorst examined more than 1000 pieces of data, including anecdotal reports collected by community groups and the government.

He said instances where people had blamed the mauling of livestock or other wildlife on a big cat pointed to a lack of understanding of how known predators behaved.

Some people seem to assume that big cats like pumas exist in parts of Australia, but the evidence points to regular domestic cats adapting to life as ferals and becoming really large (see here for a nice discussion on this). Obviously this takes time to occur, and over many generations. But cats were introduced into Australia in the late 1700s as part of European colonisation, and, when conditions are good, they can breed like rabbits (another environmental invader).
Let’s throw some taxonomy in while we’re here (after all, it’s what I’m all about). The article from The Age lists “pumas, leopards, jaguars or cougars” as potentially roaming around the place. This is an excellent example of why common names are stupid and confusing. The cat Puma concolor (it has been moved from the genus Felis into its own) has a wide distribution across most of the Americas, and this has led to various common names being used across different regions – a puma and a cougar are the same thing and they are also a mountain lion too. Cougars can also be called panthers, although generally ‘panther’ refers to a jaguar (Panthera onca) that is all-black in appearance instead of spotted. Finally, leopards (P. pardus) which occur in Asia and Africa but not the Americas, also come in a black morph that is referred to as a ‘panther’. So I’m not entirely sure whether the government report wanted three different species of cats serached for, or just one.

While this finding does not astound me in the slightest, what I do find jaw-droppingly incredible is that the government sought to have this report completed in the first place. They aren’t telling us how much it cost to produce, but I’d guess it was a substantial amount (as in, a decent small-research-grants’-worth). Feral cats (and dogs and foxes) have done so much harm to the overall biodiversity of the state (and the country), and their numbers go more or less unchecked. Surely the money spent on this report would have better used for developing control measures for feral cats, dogs and/or foxes?

Final note: Perhaps the Minister for Agriculture might like to turn his attention to yowies next? There are highly unsubstantiated claims that they roam around the countryside too…

Raging against abominable science writing.

*This was edited on 27 July.

I love science. I love parasites and parasitology. I sometimes love cycling (I have a love/hate relationship with the bike) and I do love watching the Tour de France coverage, but I hate bad science writing. Journalists who do not check their facts about sciency-related things really grind my gears (ooh, a bad cycling pun!).

I found an article on the cycling website Velonews, regarding Chris Froome, of Team Sky. If I’d been drinking a coffee when reading this article, I’d have ended up spitting it all over my computer. Froome reportedly has schistosomiasis, also called bilharzia in the UK and some other places. That’s not the shocking bit though. There were some glaring errors in biology and epidemiology that I will explain:

Let’s get one thing clear. The pathogen that causes schistosomiasis is a trematode (several species of genus Schistosoma), and not a virus as mentioned three(!) times in the article. A trematode may also be called a fluke, and it is, most definitely, a metazoan parasite. While it does have a complicated life cycle (see below), including very small, possibly microscopic, larval stages in snails, the snails themselves are not microscopic. While we’re on the topic – the larvae do not “transform” into worms. There are no Optimus Prime schistosomes.

Life cycle of Schistosoma spp. (from CDC)

Also, the disease is not “obscure”, as mentioned in the piece. I think that the roughly 290 million people infected globally with schistosomiasis might have something to say about the disease being referred to as ‘obscure’ (ref: Mathers et al. 2007 PLoS NTD doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0000114). Schistosomiasis is a serious disease. While it doesn’t kill as many people as malaria, as a chronic infection, it causes long-term health effects in sufferers including anaemia, malnutrition, and can affect organs such as the spleen, liver and bladder (depending on the species infecting). It is a neglected tropical disease, exacerbated by poverty in many cases, and should not be trivialised. Chris Froome can afford treatment for the disease, but millions of others are not so lucky to be in the same financial position.

It’s probable that only parasitologists have gotten upset about this (there are several incredulous tweets about it on my twitter feed). Parasitologists tend to be quite sensitive to these kinds of errors and levels of ignorance. It’s par for the course a lot of the time, when you work on something as disgusting as a parasite (yes, someone once said that to me). But discussing parasites is no excuse for sloppy writing. This is yet another example of journalists not checking their facts before writing. It’s not difficult. Even a quick look at Wikipedia would have been helpful in this instance.

Post-script: After writing this, I went back to the article to check it again. All references to ‘virus’ have been edited out. Hooray!

Harry Potter spoiler alert…

…he’s not real.

But you already knew that, as did I. He’s a fictional character – Frodo Baggins isn’t real either, and gasp, neither is James Bond. So imagine my surprise when I read a news piece about a literary conference on Harry Potter, going on in Scotland this week.

At first I thought it was tongue-in-cheek, because things like ‘politics of goblins’ was listed as a discussion topic and presentation, but then other topics were listed – such as the influence of various fiction writers on, presumably, popular culture – which led me to think that it was actually serious. The latter could make sense – there is nothing wrong with analysing the way in which certain events and items change our lives. Many events and conferences have surely been held to discuss the way the Suffrage Movement affected society. But I can’t help feeling a bit uneasy about a conference that may well have academic merit being billed as a bunch of people in wizard hats talking about the aerodynamics of the golden snorch* (or whatever it’s called – I’m not really au fait with the world of the Potter).

At the end of the day, no matter how much the Potter books are perceived to have changed our society, they remain a series of books for children. They aren’t exactly War and Peace, or Les Miserables. The conference organiser defends the conference by noting that the books are really long and therefore could generate lengthy discussion. The point that the books were works of fantasy aimed at kids seems to have been missed. There’s a gap in logic there – long-winded and high-selling does not necessarily equate to sophisticated literature. Heavens, if that was the case, we’d be running conferences on the Da Vinci Code – which was not real either, but nevertheless sold like crazy and had a movie made of it too.

I’m uneasy because there is a public perception that many academics are out of touch with reality, or don’t deserve funding because the research they do is not seen to be ‘useful’. If this was a serious academic conference, it should have been pitched as such. If it actually was a bunch of adults in wizard hats mulling over whether the goblins were mistreated by their owners, well, that’s just silly.

*edit: It’s a snitch, not a snorch, apparently. This is a snorch:

credit: real monsters wiki

Meddlesome Catholic Church can’t do statistics.

I can’t figure out if this piece of “research” is for real or not. It could be bad journalism, but is most likely a combination of bad journalism and bad application of statistics for a thinly veiled jab by the church at all young women who aren’t married and with 3 kids in tow.

Reported in the font of all reputable knowledge (not!), the Melbourne-based News Ltd paper Herald-Sun, is a story that the Catholic church has decreed a ‘man-drought’ in Australia, with a huge decline in available men aged 25-34 years old.

The church tells the newspaper that there are only 86,000 eligible men between 25 and 34 for over 1.3 million women of the same age bracket. This seems like a massive mismatch of gender. I went outside over the weekend and was not overrun by hordes of desperate females – it all seemed that pretty even numbers of both men and women were walking around the place.

Apparently this magic number of 86,000 was achieved by taking the total men (1.343 million) and subtracting the following groups: 485,000 married, 185,000 de facto, 7000 gay, 12,000 single parents and 568,000 men earning less than $60K per year.

I was staggered that no-one seemed to notice that they’d based their analysis on a fundamental flaw: they seem to think that every single woman aged 25-34 is single. There was no equivalent extrapolation of how many of the 1.3 million girls would be similarly categorised as ‘inappropriate’/’ineligible’. This obviously means that none of the women of the equivalent age would be either married, de facto, gay, parents or poor?? That all of these 1.3 million young ladies are wringing their hands because all they see around them are smug marrieds, filthy de factos, children out of wedlock and poverty-ridden hipsters (why else could they not afford belts for their trousers??)? This begs several questions:

  • Who are all these ineligible men married or de facto’ed to? Cougars, obviously because there are 1.3 million 25-34 year old women out there looking for men, or so we’re led to believe.
  • Who decided that having a child would make a person ‘ineligible’ as a male?
  • What on earth does money have to do with anything? And why the arbitrary figure of $60K?
  • How does this crap get in a newspaper anyway? Wait, it’s the Herald-Sun. I’ve just answered my own question.

And to top it off, we also have the endorsement of this ridiculousness by a federal Liberal MP.

Somebody open a window – let some of the stupid out.

How do you think? Lessons from Q&A (ABC1, 9 April 2012).

Last night’s Q&A show comprised only two panellists, Prof Richard Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell. Plenty of people were excited about it, and it was billed as a kind of definitive discussion on the debate between religion (specifically Catholicism in this instance) and atheism. This isn’t going to be a post about science and atheism, there are plenty of blogs out there that deal with all that (including Dawkins’ own).

The whole show is available on the Q&A website, if you’re interested in watching it, or reading the transcript. It was not a fair fight. Religion, by its nature, is indefensible because there is no evidence for what is being said. So Pell was on the back foot from the very start. However, Pell did himself absolutely no favours any time he opened his mouth. He had some very ‘woolly thinking’, to borrow a phrase from my PhD supervisor.

The audience was confused between biology and theoretical physics. Dawkins is a biologist. Asking him to explain the big bang is the same as asking Pell to discuss the intricacies regarding Allah’s teachings in the Koran. It’s simply not his jurisdiction (or, field of expertise). Why people expect Dawkins to have all the answers to questions that physicists don’t even have yet is beyond me.

Dawkins may have been jet lagged, but Pell had no such excuse. The more time Pell had to discuss an answer to a question, the more contradictions and inconsistencies became apparent. Human evolution seemed to bamboozle him, when it should have been straightforward, as the teachings he subscribes to say that God created humans. His comment that he “probably” believed that evolution is true, and his suggestion that modern H. sapiens, as a species, is descended from H. neanderthalensis, is damaging for two reasons. The first is that it goes against Catholic dogma and teachings, which I’d assume he’d uphold. Second, it highlights how ignorant he is on the topic of human evolution, of which, if he ‘probably’ believed it, he should at least know the basics. Dawkins didn’t quite know what to say, so he asked “Why Neanderthals?” Pell: “well, who else would you suggest?”. Hmmm.

Dawkins gets derided for coming across as pompous and being too provocative. But last night, he was neither and he need not have said a word. Pell dug himself into holes and tripped over himself numerous times. Perhaps it was nerves, I don’t know. What this highlighted to me was that I was seeing the result of learning in two completely different ways. In the bios on the Q&A site, I learned that both men were born in the same year, and both received numerous degrees, including PhDs. Yet, while Dawkins has spent his professional life developing his ability to critically question the world around him, develop his skills of analysis and sharpen his inquiring mind, Pell was indoctrinated into accepting that God was the answer to everything, and therefore there is no need to question anything.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?