Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Expert Opinion

Experts pick apart the veracity of claims made in research papers and the media.

Chemical Exposure Linked to Preterm Birth Risk


Women exposed to phthalates during pregnancy are at increased risk of preterm birth, according to US research. Phthalates are found in lotions, perfumes, deodorants and plastics such as PVC.

“This is a better study than most of its kind, but I think that the fourfold difference in the odds of preterm birth is larger than one would expect just from the measured differences in phthalate concentrations... Are other factors, not controlled for in this study, possibly involved? The authors allow of this possibility. They wisely say that it’s not enough to identify one or two causes, and that ‘detailed investigation of many component contributors is necessary’ before the cause is known.

Designer Baby Patent Makes Scientists Uneasy

A private company, 23andMe, has patented a method of creating “designer” babies by allowing the selection of sperm and eggs that are most likely to produce traits chosen by the parents, such as eye colour or athleticism, and also allows screening out of sperm and eggs likely to lead to genetic disease.

23andMe will develop a genetic service to screen egg or sperm donors for desirable traits. Egg or sperm donors are already screened for transmittable infectious diseases and for a range of genetic disorders, such as cystic fibrosis. Screening more widely for other genetic disorders can make sense, but there is a point where screening becomes futile because many diseases are more likely to be driven by environmental factors rather than by genetic influences.

Stem Cells Reset Inside Mice

Spanish researchers have successfully reset stem cells so they can become any cell type within the bodies of live mice, bypassing the need for transplantation.

The ability to change multiple different cell types in a living mouse back into iPS cells (induced pluripotent stem cells), that can turn into any cell type in that mouse or even into an entire new mouse, is unprecedented. This research provides a better understanding of the reprogramming process in mice and will enable further investigations into applications targeted at treating specific diseases and injuries.

Experts respond to the IPCC's 5th report on climate change

Experts from Australia, New Zealand and the UK respond to the IPCC's report “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis”.

"There are human and natural factors acting in the climate system, and understanding all the factors influencing our climate is an ongoing scientific goal. But the current increase in CO2 and its effects on our planet are attributed to human activity because they have a pattern, in space and in time, which is what we expect from increased greenhouse gases, and which cannot be explained by other forces, such as changes in solar output or volcanic ash.

IVF Increases the Risk of Mental Retardation

A Swedish study has found that IVF was associated with a small risk of mental retardation.

“This study provides further strong broad evidence that babies born after IVF are healthy. IVF treatment was not associated with autistic disorder in the offspring but was associated with a small but statistically significantly increased risk of mental retardation. This, however, disappeared when the analysis was restricted to singletons (single births).

GM pig feed and stomach inflammation

Experts respond to a study finding that GM soy and corn cause stomach inflammation in pigs.

Prof Tom Sanders, Head of the Nutritional Sciences Research Division at Kings College London, said:

“It does not look like a convincing adverse effect as it was a minor incidental finding. There were no differences in growth and mortality rates and pigs at sacrifice appeared in similar health. The dietary groups were also not identical as different supplements had been used. If you do not specify outcomes at least one in 20 will come up as being statistically significant by play of chance.

Food Standards Authority Defends GM Safety

Earlier this year, a scientific review raised concerns that double-stranded RNA molecules produced in new genetically modified crops could pose a risk to human health. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has responded to the claims by Heinemann et al. (2013) that this gene silencing technology is entering the food supply without adequate scrutiny.

“The FSANZ response to Heinemann et al. 2013 is well-considered and very thorough. It demonstrates that the risk claims in the article are an overreaction based on dubious scientific evidence about the biosafety risks in plants genetically modified with gene silencing approaches.

“The public can take comfort from two key aspects.

  • Double-stranded RNAs (dsRNA) do not present a new issue for food safety. They are very common in a wide range of organisms, including many fresh foods that have a long history of safe use in our diet.


Where does Australia stand on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education?

Experts respond to a report into international comparisons of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

The Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) is releasing a report into international comparisons of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. The report recommends introducing maths as a compulsory subject up to and including Year 12, reintroducing more comprehensive prerequisite requirements for university programs that require knowledge of science and maths and the recruitment of science PhD graduates into teaching.

The first two comments are from independent experts:

Federal Budget 2013 – experts respond


Experts address how the latest announcements will impact on science, the Murray Darling Basin and the Great Barrier Reef.

General comments on science research and science education spending

“While the Academy welcomes investments in research grant funding and research infrastructure, this Budget unfortunately represents a missed opportunity to support a strategic long-term vision for Australia’s future. The investment has been small and short-term in the same year in which the Government has announced $3.3 billion in cuts and deferrals to research and higher education.

Novel Coronavirus Outbreak

A new coronavirus – from the same group of viruses responsible for the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) – has been identified as the cause of an increasing number of illnesses and deaths in several countries.

A second case of the novel coronavirus in France was confirmed as the result of patient-to-patient transmission within a French hospital. The news has prompted some to speculate whether coronavirus will be behind the next global pandemic.


Professor Charles Watson is a John Curtin Distinguished Professor of Health Science at Curtin University in Western Australia