Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Up Front

A Military Motive for the Space Agency

By Guy Nolch

National security, not economic opportunity, may have motivated the government’s new interest in a sovereign space capability.

In November 1967 Australia became the third nation, behind the USA and Russia, to build and launch a satellite on its own soil. Fifty years after the launch of the Weapons Research Establishment Satellite (WRESAT), the Australian government announced that it would provide $41 million over 4 years to establish the Australian Space Agency. At the time, Australia and Iceland were the only two OECD nations without a space agency.

STEMM Faces Generational Gender Gap

By Guy Nolch

A meta-analysis of academic authorship has concluded that gender equity in science remains decades away.

For all the efforts being made to promote opportunities for women in science, parity between the genders remains decades away in some scientific disciplines, according to a meta-research article published in PLoS Biology (https://goo.gl/bcLFRK). “Although women are increasingly studying Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine (STEMM) subjects at university, women comprise a minority of senior staff, are less often trained in elite research groups, are promoted more slowly, and are more likely to leave STEMM careers,” the paper ominously began.

AI Faces Its Manhattan Project Moment

By Guy Nolch

Researchers are boycotting a major university that is opening an autonomous weapons lab in collaboration with an arms company.

Most Australians have lived through an unprecedented era of prosperity and stability. It’s now more than 70 years since the end of the Second World War and almost 90 years since the start of the Great Depression. Since then medical advances have extended our life expectancy well into our eighties, and some futurists even proclaim that we are the last mortal generation before the “singularity” combines biological and artificial intelligence (AI).

Science Meets Parliament (But No Minister)

By Guy Nolch

It’s not enough to win the hearts of politicians when the government itself lacks a head for science.

Last month saw the 19th staging of Science Meets Parliament, with a reported 200 scientists converging on Canberra to rattle the political cage and network with both politicians and other advocates for science.

Born This Way

By Guy Nolch

A study reporting a weak association between two genes and homosexuality could have powerful consequences.

On 7 December 2017 the Australian Parliament passed a historic bill legalising gay marriage. The process followed a nationwide postal vote in which 61.6% of the 12.7 million Australians who voted were in favour of same-sex marriage.

The Yes campaign had argued that marriage was a basic civil right that should be open to all regardless of their sexuality. The No campaign had appealed to those who believed that homosexuality was “unnatural” and should not be sanctioned in legislation.

Lost in Space

By Guy Nolch

Australia’s space industry has been adrift in a vacuum of national neglect for more than 20 years, but that is about to change.

It’s an exciting time for anyone who dreams of worlds beyond our own. Since the last issue of Australasian Science we’ve seen Cassini’s heroic death plunge through Saturn’s rings and the detection of gravitational waves released from the collision of two neutron stars (see p.6). Australian astronomers have played their roles in these events by collaborating with international colleagues and hooking into the data generated by phenomenal new observing facilities abroad and in space.

Publish, Patent, Be Social or Perish

By Guy Nolch

A researcher’s impact extends beyond measures of publications and citations to patents, peer review and social media influence.

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A New Twist in the DNA Revolution

Credit: vchalup

Credit: vchalup

By Guy Nolch

Gene drives take genetic modification to the population level, with applications in health, conservation and agriculture, but there are also practical and ethical concerns.

Since the dawn of agriculture, humans have been modifying the genomes of plants and animals through selective breeding, yet the acceleration of this process through molecular genetics has brought mistrust among the public. Even today, despite no evidence of harm from the long-term consumption of genetically modified foods, there remains widespread wariness of what some have labelled “Frankenfoods” despite the best efforts of the scientific community to “educate” the public about the issue.

Gender Bias Extends to Peer Review

By Guy Nolch

Gender bias in science is found not only in pay and seniority but also in the peer review process.

Science is a tough career, beginning with the long road to completing a PhD and continuing with issues of short-term funding cycles with low chances of success, and the reality that a particular area of expertise may limit career progression opportunities to a few institutions scattered across the globe – not exactly family-friendly stuff. It’s little wonder, then, that a survey of professional scientists last year (AS, Jan/Feb 2017, p.41) uncovered concerns about fatigue, remuneration and the impacts of cost-cutting on scientific capability.

“We Have Always Been at War with Science”

By Guy Nolch

An Orwellian dystopia is upon us when scientists are muzzled and their expertise disappears into a memory hole.

When I was a student I was fascinated by the dystopian future imagined by George Orwell in 1984. The thought of an extensive network of cameras, microphones and two-way telescreens to monitor each citizen seemed far-fetched in the 1980s, let alone the concept of government departments dedicated to rewriting historical records, but in 2017 we now seem to have caught up with Orwell’s imagination.