Archive for the ‘April 2016’ Category

One in four is not OK (#1in4)

In April 2016 on April 29, 2016 at 3:14 pm

Original plate (1836) of a Western Ground Parrot spotted by Bowie in London this week. This bird is now critically endangered, with only 140 individuals left. 

*Bowie: I was riding a bicycle through the hail and rain of cold Cardiff when I heard the news – budget cuts at CSIRO mean one in four jobs specialising in biodiversity conservation research will be axed.

Yes, one in four jobs (#1in4).

Now, I should confess at this point a vested interest: I am Australian and jobless, with my degree majoring in environmental science (botany and ecology), and my Honours essentially focused on…yep you guessed it…biodiversity conservation research. Be that as it may, learning about these changes to CSIRO forced me to pull over, find shelter at a Cardiff Bay servo and write a rant on Facebook. What follows is a refined version of that rant one day on.

How can Australia – the land of plenty – be letting something like this happen? When travelling as an Aussie the first things people say is ‘oooh kangaroooos and koalaaaaas’, ‘beautiful beaches’, ‘I love the Great Barrier Reef!’ We are home to some of the world’s most loved, unique, and sadly most threatened creatures and landscapes.

Now, about those cuts: here’s a brief summary of how the current situation evolved. The CSIRO – Australia’s leading science agency and headed by Larry Marshall – announced plans to slash around 350 jobs in an email to staff back in February. This included 110 climate research positions, and approximately 100 from the agency’s Land and Water division. In their submission to a Senate inquiry hearing on the impacts of these cuts, The Royal Zoological Society of NSW calculated this to equate to approximately a quarter of ecologists within the division. At a time when the world is experiencing a mass coral bleaching event (in which only 7% the Great Barrier Reef is reported to have escaped unscathed) these job cuts will hurt Australia’s unique and threatened ecosystems for much longer than the short-term funding cycle they were based on. The environmental juggernaut Sir David Attenborough himself essentially criticised the Australian Government for not doing enough, leaving us a laughing stock on international stages.

At this point you might be expecting a plea to save jobs for those poor old ecologists who just want to help the planet. Well, as heart-shattering as this news would’ve been for the individuals and families affected (or fledgling biologists trying to get their foot in the door), there are many more opportunities overseas. I recently visited an old mate who’s moved to Oxford University for this exact reason. We were discussing how Australia’s politics on science have become laughable within the international community, despite a strong reputation among the world’s oldest and top universities that the research going on in Australia is still top notch. It should come as no surprise then that Australian ecologists are world leaders (to use the words of our politicians) and being headhunted by overseas and international organisations like Panthera. So no, I wouldn’t feel too bad for those who can’t find a job in Australia – did someone say London calling?

Even if job prospects rebound in the next three-five years, the knowledge and people lost will be felt for much, much, much longer.

I am proud to be a part of the community focused on our environment, and not just from a scientific perspective (because it’s not about that). I studied environmental science at university because I love the great outdoors, despite being told I’d be better off in one of the ‘harder sciences’ like physics or chemistry, or even engineering. Now, don’t get me wrong: it’s all fascinating and necessary stuff, as we require the fundamental understanding gained from those more traditional sciences to develop cures to new diseases or new sources of energy, and inevitably help the environment we live in.

With the federal government’s own State of the Environment Report (2011) highlighting a decline and ongoing loss of biodiversity, why are biodiversity staff within the CSIRO seemingly suffering targeted cuts within the broader staff/budget cuts? Compound this with similar bare-bones operations of most state agencies, independent organisations, and even NGO’s and you realise how big a hit Australia’s environmental sector is copping.

My honours research focused on managing biodiversity conservation within Arid Recovery Reserve. This reserve is world renowned for its successful activities in reintroducing critically endangered and locally extinct species, such as the burrowing bettong (Bettongia lesueur) and greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis). This could not have been achieved without support from many sectors, but especially funding from what was then Western Mining Corporation’s Olympic Dam. Since then, money has become tighter with new owners BHP Billiton. Even mining is suffering – due to reduced demand for coal and ores – which can actually have negative environmental impacts, with companies cutting support for environmental projects like Arid Recovery. As funds dry up, this once-great feral-free reserve is suffering intrusions from rascally-rabbits because of the simple fact that fences can no longer be maintained.

I fear for the Australia we are leaving behind. I do not wish to be a part of the movement currently swirling out of Australia to a land not down under, but up in the air and over to Europe, Asia, or the Americas. I do not wish to be a part of this brain-drain – even if it is better for my career. I would love it if Australian science had half the public support seen in countries like Denmark. I say public support because the time when policy listened to reason has passed, but the popularity contest means we as a public can steer Australia into a smarter future. With another election looming, leaders will be looking to sweeten their parties’ pie with deals like the new submarine deal.

ritchie copy 2

Source: Twitter @EuanRitchie1 New subs = $AU50 billion,
initiate Gonski reform = $AU6.5 billion, entire ARC budget 2015-16 = $AU0.83 billion. 

So I’ll leave you with this point: it’s not the jobs losses you should cry out about, nor the fantastic (and often fanatic) people who once loved those jobs. What you should tell your friends is that Australians don’t seem care for what is quintessentially Australia. It is no longer ‘what kind of world do you want to leave for your grandchildren?’ but ‘what kind of world do you want to live in?’

Because this is happening now and each of us can make that decision. #1in4 is not ok – so please spread the word and keep this in mind when you vote in Australia’s Federal election in July.

*Guest post from ecologist and science communicator Matthew Bowie. Learn a bit more about Bowie in his first Science for Life.365 blog post 


I went for a walk and thought about stuff

In April 2016 on April 13, 2016 at 4:03 pm


Sarah: Today I went for a walk and thought about stuff*.

The stuff kinda went a bit like this:

Now I’m 43 years old, and have three kids aged 12, 11 and 6. I’ve been married for nearly 18 years. I have a house and a garden and a dog. I do exercise and I eat well.

I’m a grown-up. Really, yes, now I am a grown up.

I’m working as a science writer, which gives me great freedom and flexibility and allows me to earn money, to continue learning about really cool science and to hone my writing skills on an ongoing basis. This is great. I am very lucky.

But I’m really not anywhere near set in my career. I will not be freelance writing forever. I have plans. I have really big plans.

The fact that my big plans are not at all clear at the moment does not stop me. All I know is that all this thinking and writing and learning about audience and thinking and writing some more is giving me skills that have value.

Will I come up with a kick-arse idea and become an entrepeneur? Will I work for a huge scientific or medical institution? Will I write a book? Will I start teaching? Will I go back to research? Will I study medicine?

I don’t know. And that’s ok. For now.

*title and theme inspired by this post by veggiemama , which I heard about through this Australian Writers’ Centre podcast 

Ethical dilemmas in malaria research

In April 2016 on April 8, 2016 at 9:21 am


Sarah: ‘Slow motion genocide’ of native West Papuans is currently taking place just north of Australia according to a recent report presented on Australia’s Radio National. Sister Susan Connelly recently told Andrew West on The Religion and Ethics Report, ‘the people are being erased from their own land.’ It’s a pattern that reminds her of activities in East Timor around 20 years ago, with Indonesian military forces acting to control and murder indigenous peoples.

A key factor at play is a huge influx of migrants – not from another country, but from the Indonesian island of Java. Known in the Bahasa Indonesia language as ‘transmigrasi’, this process provides land grants and work to families willing to leave heavily overcrowded and dominant Indonesian islands, and move to more sparsely inhabited places like West Papua (officially part of Indonesia since the late 1960s). It rapidly brings different cultural groups together under competitive conditions, although technically they are one nation under the Indonesian flag.

“The white ship comes every week and disgorges thousands more migrants,” says Sister Connelly. “Forty years ago, Papuans were 96% of the population. Now they’re about 48%”.

Notwithstanding the social and human rights issues presented by Indonesian transmigration programs and the enforcement of them, there’s a health angle to this story too. Papua has a deadly form of malaria (due to the parasite Plasmodium falciparum), whereas Java and many other heavily populated Indonesian islands do not. Freshly arrived transmigrants are welcomed by infected Anopheles mosquitos, and soon commence their first cycle of febrile malaria.

I first learnt about Javanese transmigrants to Papua when I was working in immunology research in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. At my place of employment, a collaborative project between Indonesian and American scientists examined anti-malarial immunity in migrants who had arrived in Papua during the period 1996-1999. It should be noted that all study subjects gave their consent to participate in the study, received free health check-ups, and were provided with treatment immediately following a diagnosis. (I do not know whether transmigrants in general were provided with advice regarding malaria prevention, or had avenues for treatment by Indonesian health services).

The blood samples we worked with were highly unique, because they provided the rare opportunity to examine a question that vexed malaria researchers and health professionals around the world. Why do children suffer so much from malarial illness compared to their adult counterparts? Of course you can’t address this question studying immune responses in people born and bred in malaria-rife regions, because first exposure to the parasites happens during childhood for everyone. So you never know in these cases if immunological protection against the symptoms of malaria in adults is due to cumulative exposure to the parasites, or the age of the infected person. However, when entire families are plonked down in a malarial area, you can study the first infection in children and adults alike, and compare their responses.

And this is just what we did. A paper I published with colleagues details the findings – host age was found to be a significant factor in determining the antibody response of people to a key component of the parasite. While the peak antibody response in adults was achieved after a single infection, comparable responses in children required at least 3–4 infections. Those kids that did produce a high antibody response were less likely to experience symptoms with a subsequent high parasite load.

I recall that prior to it being accepted for publication, one of the reviewers of our paper asked about the ethics of the transmigration program. At the time, the question did prick my ears and my conscience a little. And now I find myself wondering about it again. It’s understandable that a modern nation would attempt to reduce overcrowding on its most inhabited islands. But when blokes with guns are sent in to enforce the process, and tales of cultural bias and even extermination start to filter out, it’s a whole other story.

Interestingly, it was not long after I left Indonesia (in late 2002) that Indonesia stopped their program of collaborative Papua-based research with the Americans. More recently, they’ve not been happy when foreign media attempted to document life in that province either.

[image thanks to Matt Brown]