Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938


Scientists Told to Get Dirty

By Simon Grose

Science Minister Chris Evans is a no-nonsense, tough-talking coach who has given Team Science a reality check.

It’s almost a year since ministerial responsibility for science in Canberra passed from one gruff, burly Senator to another – from Kim Carr to Chris Evans.

While this had no effect on the lives of the nation’s scientists, for the 200 or so at this year’s Science Meets Parliament event hosted by Science & Technology Australia, that ministerial shuffle made for a markedly different experience.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (

The Last of the Flying Giants


Its 5–6 metre wingspan, narrow wing shape and light skeleton would have made Pelagornis an efficient long-distance glider. Credit: Peter Trusler/Museum Victoria

By Erich Fitzgerald

For 55 million years, giant seabirds with serrated beaks successfully soared above the waves before vanishing 2.5 million years ago. Now fossils uncovered in Melbourne show for the first time that these bizarre birds called Australia home and reached every continent, deepening the mystery of their extinction.

“It’s not a penguin.” That thought occurred to me as I stood among Museum Victoria’s vast Geosciences Collection pondering the identity of a 9 cm-long honey-coloured fossil. It was 2004, and I was a PhD student immersed in the esoteric world of fossil whales.

So why was I studying a bird? How did I know that this one bone was not the relic of a primordial penguin? And if it wasn’t a penguin, what kind of bird was the former owner of this bone? Why does it matter anyway?

Erich Fitzgerald is Senior Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at Museum Victoria.

Stem Cell Researchers Win Nobel Prize

By Michael Cook

The development of induced pluripotent stem cells overturned conventional thinking and removed the ethical issues associated with the destruction of embryos.

Two stem cell researchers shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine for 2012, Britain’s John B. Gurdon and Japan’s Shinya Yamanaka. By a serendipitous coincidence, Gurdon made his discovery in 1962 – the year of Yamanaka’s birth.

Fifty years of stem cell research have brought cures for intractable diseases within reach but they have also generated controversy. Between 2001 and 2008, stem cell research vied with climate change as the stormiest issue in science.

Michael Cook is editor of the online bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

Wind Energy Blows Strong

By Ian Lowe

South Australia’s wind farms are generating almost one-quarter of the state’s energy needs.

The Murdoch press has been running a campaign against wind energy, but the facts from South Australia show that wind turbines can make a major contribution to a clean energy future.

On one windy day in early September, the state’s wind farms produced 55% of all the electricity used in South Australia. At its peak in the early hours of one morning, wind was producing 85% of the power being consumed.

So much for the furphies that renewables can’t provide baseload power or contribute significantly to reducing greenhouse gas emissions!

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.

The Value of an Old Tree in the City

By Karen Ikin

Large old trees provide a significant biodiversity benefit that should be factored in by governments when managing biodiversity.

Large old trees are valued and protected in many of Australia’s city and suburban landscapes because of the environmental and economic benefits they provide. These include wind reduction, shade, storm water management and landscape improvement. The biodiversity benefit of old trees, however, is often forgotten and rarely quantified.

Karen Ikin is a researcher with the Environmental Decisions Group. She is based at the Australian National University.

Ozone Protection Is a Warming Issue

Credit: iStockphoto

For the past 3 years there have been efforts to list under the Montreal Protocol a group of substances that replace the CFCs and HCFCs but do not contain chlorine and therefore cannot harm the ozone layer. Credit: iStockphoto

By Ian D. Rae

Ozone-depleting chemicals may have been phased out under the Montreal Protocol, but the global warming potential of their replacements is thousands of times greater than carbon dioxide.

In September the world celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, which controls and phases out substances that deplete the ozone layer. The Protocol is the operative arm of the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, and every country in the world has signed and ratified it. As a country close to the springtime Antarctic ozone hole (, and a good global citizen, Australia has put a lot of effort into the development and implementation of this multinational environment agreement.

Ian Rae is an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne. He is co-chair of the Montreal Protocol’s Chemicals Technical Options Committee, and a member of the Technology and Economic Advisory Panel. These expert groups provide technical information and are not involved in advocacy or policy formulation.

When ARTG and CAM Spell SFA

By Rachael Dunlop

Recent moves to improve the regulation of alternative medicines looked promising until the Therapeutic Goods Administration caved under pressure from the industry.

Readers might recall recent moves by the Australian government to remove $30 million in private health insurance subsidies for complementary and alternative medicine (CAMs). On the chopping block were homeopathy, aromatherapy, ear candling, crystal therapy, flower essences, iridology, kinesiology and naturopathy.

Rachael Dunlop is a medical researcher focusing on the causes of motor neurone disease. She is a Vice President of Australian Skeptics Inc, blogs at The Skeptics Book of Pooh Pooh, and tweets @DrRachie.

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Malaria Vaccine Target Confirmed

The importance of the protein PfEMP1 in the development of immunity to malaria has been demonstrated, marking a step towards a desperately needed vaccine.

Malaria infects human red blood cells and produces a range of proteins while it grows and multiplies within red blood cells. “People have long suspected PfEMP1 is an important protein in malaria, but increasingly the research community has identified a bunch of others, and the question is which are important,” says Prof James Beeson of the Burnet Institute.


By Stephen Luntz

Brief bites of science news

Devil Tumour Not Weakening

The Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) is not among the infectious diseases that weaken or slow with time, vets at the University of Sydney have revealed in PLoS ONE.

Diseases that are too infectious and lethal can wipe out their hosts, so many evolve as they are transmitted. With DFTD having wiped out 85% of the devil population, it’s own survival is endangered if it does not stop killing devils.