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)


A revolution in taxonomy: electronic-only publication OK’d by ICZN.

I’m excited.

The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) has published an amendment to the International Codeof Zoological Nomenclature (which confusingly can also be abbreviated to ICZN, but is usually called the Code instead) allowing for publication of taxonomic works in online-only journals.

This is great news. Previously, all taxonomic works (i.e., species descriptions, revisions etc) had to be published in such a way that they had a permanent hard-copy. In the old days, ALL journals were published in hard-copy, so this wasn’t a problem. But in our new  digital age, there have been several journals spring up that do not have a hard-copy version – they’re only available online, for example the journals in the PLoS and BMC stables. Any taxonomic works published in those journals have been invalid until now.

The major change to the Code is that if you wish to publish a description in an online-only journal, you must register your new species with ZooBank, and include information on where the permanent (electronic) record of your work will be held, along with the ISSN or ISBN for the publication.

Go forth and describe!

Agoutis: saviours of the forest.

I discovered a really neat paper this morning, published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Mr IncreasingDisorder had left the PDF open on the computer, which was very helpful in me discovering it! I really liked the paper – it was a simple hypothesis tested in a very clever way. And it involved rodents. Here’s a short summary of the paper.

Jansen et al. (2012) Thieving rodents as substitute dispersers or megafaunal seeds. PNAS 109, 12610-12615. 

In the rainforest of Panama, many palms and trees have fruits bearing very large seeds. Too large, in fact, to be ingested whole by any of the extant fauna, leading researchers to suggest that these palms adapted to dispersal by megafauna during the Pleistocene, now extinct. Very large animals would have been able to eat the fruit and swallow the seeds intact, allowing them to be dispersed as the animals moved around. Yet the palms still survive, and disperse. The simple, yet elegant aim of the research was to find out how good agoutis were at dispersing the seeds.

Dasyprocta punctata (via Wikipedia)

Agoutis, Dasyprocta punctata, are caviomorph rodents who like to cache their food – called ‘scatter-hoarding’ in the paper. While rodents are typically not known for their seed-dispersal ability, the agoutis are large enough to carry the seeds around. In the absence of any other larger herbivorous mammals, the agoutis have gone from partial seed disperser to the only seed disperser for the target palm species, Astrocaryum stanleyanum.

Astrocaryum sp. (via Wikipedia)

Using radio-tracking, of both individual palm seeds and agoutis, the researchers were able to plot the fate of the tagged seeds. Known agouti caches were monitored using remote cameras, which gave insight into the frequency of caches being dug up, as well as information on who it was doing the digging. They found that the agoutis did indeed serve as the principal dispersers of the seeds (over 80% of tagged seeds were taken by agoutis), but it was not via single agoutis moving single seeds to new areas. A complex network of caching, re-caching and cache-raiding was going on. Agoutis did not tend to eat their seeds immediately, but had a tendency to dig up and re-cache their seeds. This re-caching created a step-wise movement away from the point of collection of the seed, increasing the potential dispersal area for the seeds.

But what about the raiding? Via the remote cameras, it was seen that most seeds (over 80%) were dug up by other agoutis, not by the owner of the cache. To quote the article: “Theft was strongly reciprocal: individuals that were robbed also stole cached seeds from others. Thus, the stepwise dispersal of seeds across home range boundaries was driven by reciprocal theft.” (I love the phrase ‘reciprocal theft’.)

What all this means is that the agoutis are far better at dispersing seeds than previously thought. The researchers were surprised by the distance travelled by the seeds, which was facilitated by the stealing and re-burying of seeds elsewhere. The agoutis do not eat all the seeds though, and it was estimated that approx. 14% of palm seeds taken by agoutis would survive to germination. Despite the agoutis being far smaller in size than the megafauna that previously dispersed large tropical seeds, they appear to be doing a rather nice job of filling the vacant niche left by extinction.


Science round-up: Herpetological social insights and tasty grasshoppers.

The IncreasingDisorder computer was suffering from a deficit of internet over the past week. The modem had broken AND there were problems with the line. At least I got all the problems sorted out at once. But I was severely restricted by what science bits and general browsing I could do – stabbing at an iPhone screen to browse via 3G is not as fun as it sounds.

Everything’s OK now through. So it’s high time for a science round-up. What have I found so far?

  • some lizards just like to fight
  • turtles got busted having sex – 47 million years ago!
  • stressed-out grasshoppers have a different elemental composition to laid-back ones

Them’s fightin’ words….

Dalmatian wall lizard. Image via NewScientist

From NewScientist, and published in the Journal of Zoology, we have a fun story about pugnacious lizards. Most animals do not like to fight, with notable exceptions to this convention being my cat (a feisty piece indeed), and the Dalmatian wall lizard (Podarcis melisellensis). Generally, if one must fight, it’s usually against the same species, and for reasons such as food availability or sex rivalry. But the Dalmatian wall lizard is aggressive and likes to fight – and it will fight even if unprovoked. The reasons for this behaviour is unknown, although the researcher pointed out that he’d put the wall lizards into artificial situations with other species of lizards that they normally don’t hang out with. Social etiquette be damned. Next time I’m on a bus or somewhere with a lot people I don’t know, I’ll start a fight.

Ref: Lailvaux et al. 2012 Journal of Zoology online early DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7998.2012.00943.x

Herptile pr0n

image via Science

Various news outlets, including Science mag (ScienceNOW in fact), are reporting on the finding of a pair of turtles  caught having sex, published in Biology Letters (but not yet available to us proles who don’t work for ScienceNOW). The notable aspect of this is that the turtles are fossils and are about 47 million years old. Nine pairs of turtles have been found from the Messel pit in Germany, which was a lake a long, long time ago. The Messel pit has provided many high quality specimens of animals, but never any copulating. How did the palaeontologists know what these turtles were doing? Several things provided clues: the size of both turtles. All the pairs had a large and a small turtle, and freshwater turtles even today display sexual dimorphism, the relative positioning of the turtles to each other, and that in two pairs, the male’s tail was wrapped around that of the female’s – a turtle sex thing apparently.

The main question, however, was how did they die caught in the act? One hypothesis is that the Messel lake had anoxic (no oxygen) water in its deeper areas, and because turtle sex can take some time, pairs sinking a bit while taking a break could find themselves in depths with too little oxygen to survive. Either way, I’m sure the Science journalists had fun writing the article.

Stressed grasshoppers taste different….

Well, possibly, but that’s not the point of the article. Published in Science, is some research examining how the elemental composition of herbivore insects varies with exposure to predators, and what that means for soil community function. Grasshoppers that are stressed out because of exposure to spider predators have a higher carbon to nitrogen ratio than those that have no predators nearby. What this means is that decomposition of biomass in soils is slower in areas where herbivores are predated on because of the different chemical composition of the herbivores and the volume of herbivores returned to the soil. From the paper:

…predator-induced changes in the nutritional composition of herbivore biomass dramatically slow the decomposition of plant litter through legacy effects on soil communities.


Ref: Hawlena et al. 2012 Science 336, 1434-1438.


Some cosmic prettiness in the form of an infrared photo of the Pleiades, from NASA, via the BBC website.

Image via NASA/BBC News

Monday Awesome: Walking rats!

Rat walks again! (image via NewScientist)

Published in Science last week, and reported by NewScientist (amongst others) was some seriously amazing research on spinal cord injuries. Rats that had their spinal cords cut to simulate trauma/damage learned to walk again following a series of treatments with chemicals and electrical stimulation of the spinal cord. Part of the rehabilitation process was motivation, because initially the electrical stimulation was making the rats’ legs move involuntarily. Modifications to the special rat-harness to allow independent movement by the rats but still provide support if they fell over, and addition of a treadmill almost did the trick. The final element was motivation, in the form of a treat at the end of the treadmill. Rats were able to walk, voluntarily, for a few steps after 2-3 weeks of treatment/rehab. Longer treatment periods allowed the rats to walk further unassisted. The rats had to ‘will’ themselves to walk towards the treat, and the researchers think this has something to do with the brain’s messages down the spinal cord kick-starting the growth of nerves at the site of the spinal injury. I’ve simplified it rather a lot, but the implications for this kind of research for humans with certain kinds of spinal injuries is exciting.

See the video of rats walking from the New Scientist website.


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.