Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Up Front

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.

In 1665 the Royal Society published the first journal in the world exclusively devoted to science. As scientific endeavours expanded it was necessary in 1887 to split Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society into two publications serving physical sciences (A) and life sciences (B).

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.

Unrest in the Ranks – and Rankings

By Guy Nolch

Working scientists are becoming disenchanted in the workplace at a time when scientific literacy of students is slipping.

Last September this column discussed a report that science graduates were having difficulty finding employment related to their studies. The Grattan Institute’s bleak conclusion was that “employment directly related to science expertise is unlikely to increase substantially in the near future”. One would hope, then, that those who had managed to storm the gates of employment in science would find their careers rewarding.

A Sour Taste from Artificial Sweeteners

By Guy Nolch

The food industry has been accused of influencing research that it sponsors.

When a US President-elect dismisses climate science with a wave of his hairspray or a suburban parent rejects vaccination, it’s easy to blame the internet for propagating misinformation and prescribe a better way to educate the public about how to evaluate whether their sources are credible or incredible. But even the gold standard of evidence, peer review, can be gamed.

Evidence Is “Not Like It Used to Be”

By Guy Nolch

Donald Trump’s hair is a metaphor for how people misuse evidence to fit their worldview.

This month could see the election of a US President who complains that “hairspray’s not like it used to be” since it no longer contains ozone-depleting chemicals, and then argues that the hairspray he applies in his apparently airtight apartment couldn’t possibly disperse as far as the upper atmosphere to affect the ozone layer. Donald Trump must never have wondered why Trump Tower’s rarified air has never run out of oxygen, although hypoxia could explain his intellectual erraticism.

The Real Cost of Predatory Journals

By Guy Nolch

Predatory journals not only scam genuine scientists, they provide plausible citations that promote pseudoscience.

This magazine relies in great part on the enthusiasm of scientists to write about their work, putting aside their professional and personal obligations for many hours to write in a style that is far removed from the academic language with which they’re familiar.