By Sarah Dods, Research Theme Leader, Health Services
It seems that almost every politician, health economist, policy expert and health-care worker has a different take on the state of the nation’s health system and ways to make it more sustainable. But notably absent from the debate so far is the role of technology.
So, how can digital innovation improve the health system’s bottom line?
Rising health costs
We know that Australia’s health system, in its current form, is not sustainable. Treasury projections show that we currently spend more than 20% of all government tax revenue on health, and that if current trends continue, this will rise to 40% by 2043.
State government expenditure is even more dire, currently at 40%, and rising to 100% in the same period. Over the past ten years, health-care spending has risen faster than the growth of our gross domestic product (5.4% vs 3.1%) and in 2012 health overtook retail as Australia’s largest employment sector.
The drivers of this growth are an ageing population that is living longer but not in good health, increasing rates of chronic disease (such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and asthma) that require long-term health management, and increasing expectations around medical advances and what our health system can treat.
For my grandparents’ generation, the expectation for failing hip joints was a pair of walking sticks and self-management. Today, we expect hip replacement surgery, and new hips. The social outcome today is much greater, but there is an economic cost that we need to acknowledge.
The exact maximum proportion of our national budget that can sensibly be spent on health is still up for debate, however it is clear that this limit is in sight. So, economically speaking, what are the alternatives?
Keeping a lid on spending
One approach is to look for new sources of funding into the system. Individuals already fund nearly 20% of health-care expenses through out-of-pocket payments. The current proposal of GP co-payments is one way to increase this.
But when people can choose how they interact with the health system, they will generally opt the lowest-cost option (to them) that meets their needs. So, if they have to pay to visit their GP, then they are more likely to go to the emergency department at their nearest public hospital as an alternative – at much higher cost to the health system.
A second approach is to look at how the system spends the current funding, and whether it is possible to improve what is achieved with the current budget. The best places to seek these improvements are the parts of the health system with the biggest expenditure, which are hospitals (40%), and medical services (18%).
Savings could be found through efficiency gains (doing the same things, but in smarter ways), better utilising lower cost parts of the health-care system that meet patients needs, and by changing operating models (doing smarter things to get desired outcomes).
There is a growing collection of technological solutions that started as research to demonstrate their clinical safety and economic value, and are at, or rapidly moving towards, early roll out.
Big data analytics can predict who, when and why patients arrive at hospitals. These tools can predict emergency department arrivals and how many will need admission, and days when there will likely be insufficient beds available to meet these needs.
This kind of forecasting enables hospitals to move from reactive planning (need a bed now), to proactive planning for emergency department and elective surgery needs, and look to reduce waiting times, improve bed usage, and reduce staff stress levels along the way.
Decision-making around how patients are discharged from hospital is equally important, including understanding and overcoming the barriers that keep people in hospital after they are clinically ready to go.
Patients with chronic diseases, for instance, are high users of our health-care system. For some of these patients, there is growing evidence that their needs may be better met – clinically and economically – through guided self-care at home using broadband communications.
In rural areas, broadband can also improve access to essential health services, enabling better early diagnosis and treatment of conditions before they become major and require hospitalisation. CSIRO is helping to deliver specialist ophthalmology (eye care) services, for example, to remote communities in Southwest Western Australia and the Torres Strait Islands.
At CSIRO, we are also exploring the options to take patient prediction tools to the next level: whether forecasting can also predict health deterioration. This would enable simpler, earlier medical intervention, saving the social and economic cost of a visit to hospital.
The health system is going through a profound generational change in the transition from paper to fully electronic records. The computational standard SNOMED CT is emerging internationally as the tool that will enable these records to exchange detailed, precise concepts and information.
Figuring out how to implement and manage the complexities of the standard across the many non-standard (and often text-based) health record systems is a research challenge in itself. But once implemented, the potential for big data analytics, machine learning and decision support will result in higher quality and safer patient care, as well as enormous efficiency gains in reporting, health business systems, and population health.
Australia is rightfully proud of our record of medical research achievements. But there is a strong case to refocus a significant part of our investment in clinical research towards building an equally strong capability in health-care services research.
Finding ways to deliver high-quality care with good patient outcomes at an affordable cost to the nation is just as important as finding cures for diseases.
By David Cox, Group Leader, Sensory and Behavioural Sciences
So little Harry won’t eat his vegetables? Well, he’s not alone. Poor Harry is just protecting himself from the danger of alkaloid toxins – although he doesn’t actually know this.
At the tender age of four, Harry is neophobic (fearful of new things) and facing “the omnivore’s dilemma”. The dilemma is that humans need to eat a variety of foods to grow healthy and strong but there are lots of foods out there that our sense of taste tells us might be poisonous.
There are good reasons for this because some bitter plants, for instance, contain alkaloid toxins. But some bitter components of foods, particularly in vegetables, are good for us.
So avoidance of bitterness is innate because it’s associated with toxins – and it results in children rejecting vegetables.
Widening Harry’s palate
Children only have an innate preference for sweet foods because of their association with dietary energy, and only learn to like salt early in life (at about four months of age).
But they need to learn to like bitter and sour foods too. In Brassica vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and kale, for instance, compounds such as glucosinolates and phenolics that contribute to the tastes bitterness and sourness are the same as those that contribute to their “healthy characteristics – the inhibition of carcinogenesis.
Luckily, for Harry, he has his family around him. Mum is a trusted source of information about what’s right and what’s wrong, and the gatekeeper of the food supply.
The trouble, of course, is that mum can’t face another temper tantrum over a Brussels sprout. So what to do?
The study I was involved in included a group of four- to six-year-old neophobic children. We found exposing kids to vegetables about eight or nine times over two weeks and offering them a non-food reward for tasting them resulted in a significant increase in liking vegetables, compared to just exposing them to the food.
For example, every time a child tasted a vegetable, she got a sticker to put on a chart. This kind of reward provides positive reinforcement, and the display and self-monitoring of achievement. All this is stuff is known to reinforce behaviours.
The UK research echoed and supported these findings.
Models of behaviour
Parental role modelling is important too and more work is needed to provide parents with the skills to deal with refusals. This includes improving parents’ belief in their ability to prevail in certain situations. This belief plays a major role in how people approach goals and tasks.
But does it even matter? Won’t Harry just grow out of it?
It’s true that, at four years of age, Harry has hit his neophobic peak and things might get better through gradual exposure and learning what’s safe.
Things will also change as eating vegetables becomes associated with pleasant outcomes, such as having a nice meal with friends and family. The conviviality associated with the consumption of a formal meal is thought to unconsciously increase the liking for the foods eaten.
But it’s tough because there aren’t too many immediate benefits from eating vegetables and it’s a waste of time telling him they’re healthy.
We know that taste perception rather than health information has the biggest influence on liking brassica vegetables among adults. So learning to like his vegetables early on is important because it’s going to influence what Harry eats for the rest of his life.
The importance of persistence
Loving eating vegetables at an early age could set Harry up for a life of low energy dense, high micronutrient rich diets that are going to help his weight and may protect him against chronic diseases.
So don’t give up. Exposure to a wide range of tastes in a pleasant eating environment, and watching his mum and dad eat vegetables will all help.
And when Harry’s younger sibling is still in the womb, it will probably help a lot if mum eats her vegetables because research shows flavours travel through the amniotic fluid to the growing foetus and influence food acceptance soon after birth.
So investing in their own healthy eating helps mothers save dinner table battles months or years later. Fathers, who are likely to be worse at protecting their health, should also take heed and become the right kind of role model for their children by eating vegetables too.
By Ian Oppermann, Director, Digital Productivity and Services
When disaster strikes – such as January’s bushfire in Victoria or the recent cold spell that froze much of north America – it’s vital for emergency services to get the latest information.
They need to access real-time data from any emergency sites and command centres so they can analyse it, make timely decisions and broadcast public-service updates.
CSIRO thinks it has a solution in its high speed and high bandwidth wireless technology known as Ngara, originally developed to help deliver broadband speeds to rural Australia.
The organisation has announced a licensing deal with Australian company RF Technology to commercialise Ngara so it can be used to allow massive amounts of information to be passed between control centres and emergency services in the field.
There is already interest from agencies in the United States and it’s hoped that Australian agencies will soon follow.
Squeezing more data through
The technology will package four to five times the usual amount of data into the same spectrum. This will allow emergency services to send and receive real time data, track assets and view interactive maps and live high definition video from their vehicles. It’s a step in what has been a long journey toward an ambitious vision.
For years, the vision of the communications research community was “connecting anyone, anywhere, anytime” – a bold goal encompassing many technical challenges. Achieving that depended heavily on radio technology because only radio supports connectivity and mobility.
Over the years we designed ever more complex mobile radio systems – more exotic radio waveforms, more antenna elements, clever frequency reuse, separation of users by power or by spreading sequence and shrinking the “cell” sizes users operate in.
A research surge in the late 1990s and 2000s led to a wealth of technology developed in the constant drive to squeeze more out of radio spectrum, and to make connections faster and more reliable for mobile users.
This radio access technology became 3G, LTE, LTE-A and now 4G. Europe is working on a 5G technology. We’ve also seen huge advances in wireless local area networks (WLAN) and a strong trend to offload cellular network data to WLAN to help cope with the traffic flowing through the networks.
Demand for more keeps growing
Despite this, the data rate demands from users are higher than what mobile technology can offer. Industry commentators who live in the world of fixed communication networks predict staggering growth in data demand which, time tells us, is constantly underestimated.
We’ve even stretched our ability to name the volume of data flowing through networks: following terabytes we have exabytes (1018), zetabytes (1021) and yottabyes (1024 bytes) to describe galloping data volumes.
A few more serious problems arise from all of this traffic flowing through the world’s networks. The first is the “spectrum crunch”. We have sliced the available radio spectrum in frequency, time, space and power. We need to pull something big out of the hat to squeeze more out of the spectrum available in heavy traffic environments such as cities.
The second is the “backhaul bottleneck”. All the data produced in the radio access part of the network (where mobile users connect) needs to flow to other parts of the network (for example to fixed or mobile users in other cities).
Network operators maintain dedicated high capacity links to carry this “backhaul” traffic, typically by optical fibre or point-to-point microwave links. This works well when the backhaul connects two cities, but less well when connecting the “last mile” in a built-up urban environment.
When the total data volume which needs to be moved in terms of bits-per-second-per-square-metre rises into the range requiring backhaul capacities and is mobile, then some clever dynamic backhaul technology is needed.
As more of us carry yet more devices, and continue to enjoy high quality video-intensive services, we will keep pushing up our data rate demands on mobile networks. In theory, there is no known upper limit on the amount of data an individual can generate or consume. In practice, it depends on available bandwidth, the cost of data and the ability of devices to serve it up to us.
We have seen amazing progress in mobile data rates over the past decade. This trend will need to continue if we’re to keep pace with demand.
A new solution
To address the burgeoning data demand, and building on a strong history in wireless research, CSIRO has developed two major pieces of new technology – Ngara point-to-point (backhaul) and Ngara point-to-multi-point (access) technology. (Ngara is an Aboriginal word from the language of the Dharug people and means to “listen, hear, think”.)
The latter Ngara technology solves several big challenges over LTE networks through its “narrow cast” beam forming transmissions and smart algorithms which can form a large number of “fat pipes” in the air, reducing energy wastage of the radio signal, and increasing data rates and range.
It also enables wireless signals to avoid obstacles like trees, minimises the need for large chunks of expensive spectrum and allows agencies to dynamically change data rates where and when needed during an emergency.
In Australia we are looking at a field trial of Ngara in remote and regional communities to deliver critical broadband services such as health and education.
By Andrew Holmes, CSIRO Fellow
This article is part of the Australia 2025 series.
Chemistry is the most central of scientific disciplines and underpins the physical, material and biological world. Opportunities are abundant in the field of chemistry, as most major advances take place at the interface of two or more disciplines and chemistry sits at the core of trans-disciplinary research.
Most scientific research and development is collaborative and global. For Australia to continue to be a prosperous nation, post the mining boom dividends, we must create wealth through invention and innovation, and we must view this national wealth creation through invention and translation as a global enterprise.
Chemistry started saving lives when pharmaceutical drugs were invented. A catastrophic threat from disease in the future will be presented by the strains of pathogens developing resistance to antimicrobial drugs.
A safe and prosperous Australia will be one in which we redouble our efforts to invent new antibiotics to kill common bacteria as well as the drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis that are emerging. It is not too fanciful to imagine a new class of antibiotic using a delivery system that enters bacterial cells carrying a built-in warhead that explodes and shatters the cell wall, destroying the bacterium.
Many cancers are influenced by the way key proteins interact in living organisms. In the future we can expect to continue seeing the development of anticancer drugs consisting of molecules that inhibit certain protein interactions.
This is a completely new approach in the fight against cancer, as is the use of delivery systems based on specialist polymers; these can carry the toxic anticancer drug specifically to the required point of action where they recognise tumour cells that can be destroyed on release of the drug while leaving other non-tumour cells unaffected.
Response of cancer cells to chemotherapy varies from individual to individual. Now it is possible to sequence the human genes of individuals, and this is heavily dependent on analytical chemistry techniques in combination with biological approaches.
The ability to carry out genome sequencing cheaply and effectively will depend on the invention of new techniques for reading the genetic code on long chains of DNA. One promising approach is the use of protein nanopores or custom-synthesised porous macromolecular systems whose pores allow only DNA chains to be threaded through.
As each base on the DNA passes through the pore it is “read” by inbuilt optical or electrical nanodetectors/transistors that allow the chain sequence to be recorded fast and efficiently.
Acquisition of these vast quantities of data and the ability to correlate the information with disease states in humans will depend on the close interaction of chemists with statistical biologists and bioinformaticists (so chemists will need a good mathematics training as well).
These are the kinds of contributions that chemistry will make to health care in Australia provided we invest now in training and pathways for ideas to be converted into commercial products.
Next generation electronics
In my own field of polymers, chemistry in combination with physics and materials science has revolutionised the way in which we think of plastics.
There is now a whole emerging field of “plastic electronics” in which specialised plastics (the so-called semiconducting polymers) can replace the traditional semiconducting materials such as silicon to serve as transistors, and as the active material in flat panel displays (TV screens, laptop and smart phone displays) as well as numerous other “smart” devices.
These materials are already in some of the largest colour TVs seen last year at the annual consumer electronics show in Las Vegas.
It will not be long before we are able to print flexible solar cells (just as we print another great Australian invention, the polymer banknote) that can be sewn into clothing to serve as cheap portable power sources for recharging mobile devices.
It is my dream that large area arrays will eventually provide substantial amounts of renewable electricity for our nation.
Returning to transistors, just imagine a flexible plastic inner helmet lining full of transistors that can detect and monitor brain function in real time when a sportsperson (such as a Test cricketer or AFL player) receives a severe and damaging blow to the skull.
We won’t be merely waiting to carry them off the field when they cannot say which day it is. We shall know instantly which parts of the brain may not be functioning properly after the injury. This is the field of flexible electronics that chemists will invent.
There will be applications that will be life changing, just like the change in our lives that happened with the emergence of mobile devices in the past ten years. With appropriate investment and a calculated risk Australia can become a “Master of the Universe” through clever chemistry.
What are the technologies that traditionally have made Australia wealthy? Historically we have been a strong agricultural nation. Good agriculture depends on many factors including soil and climate conditions. Chemists will continue to invent safe and efficient herbicides and pesticides, but these will in the future be integrated with genetically modified organisms so that the specific threat will be defeated without interfering with the surrounding ecosystem.
The mining industry has dominated recent Australian exports. Extraction of the key chemical elements from ore bodies employs the “froth flotation process” initially developed in Australia and researched by surface scientist Sir Ian Wark from CSIRO.
However, all mining industries employ vast quantities of water. My vision for the future of chemistry is to develop a water-free mining industry (as well as other chemical manufacturing) that employs solid state chemical separation processes perhaps in combination with supercritical fluids such as carbon dioxide or other benign solvents.
Energy and efficiency
That brings us to the topic of energy. Burning carbon-based fuels to generate energy would not be so bad if we could capture the resulting carbon dioxide efficiently and convert it back into hydrocarbon products such as methane and diesel.
These are the two grand challenges for chemistry. Chemists are working on capturing carbon dioxide from flue gas emissions using amine-trapping agents to form carbamates, but we have a long way to go. This has to be 100% effective and the resulting product has to be able to release the carbon dioxide into a suitable storage without consuming too much energy.
Then we have to invent ways of turning the carbon dioxide back into methane. This requires hydrogen and a superb catalyst or electricity because in terms of an energy scale carbon dioxide lies at the bottom of Mount Everest and methane is on the top.
The hydrogen will have to come from using sunlight (photochemistry) and a catalyst to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.
Humankind has not yet solved this, although Nature does it through photosynthesis, surprisingly not very efficiently, but certainly well enough to have sustained life on earth for billions of years. Some challenge for chemists but we will do it!
We will only achieve these ambitions if we also recognise the need to inspire young people in a broad-based science education with an opportunity to become practising chemists.
By Wenju Cai, Principal Research Scientist, Wealth from Oceans Flagship
Recently speculation has been rife that the end of 2014 will see an El Niño event — the change in Pacific ocean and atmosphere circulation that is known to produce drought, extreme heat, and fire in Australia. The Bureau of Meteorology’s latest statement predicts that Pacific Ocean temperatures may approach El Niño levels by early winter, but the jury is out beyond the end of this year.
Given the catastrophic effects El Niño can have, should we be getting prepared anyway?
An El Niño for 2014?
A small number of models have predicted an El Niño later in the year. But these models generally suffer from what scientists call an “autumn predictability barrier”. During the southern hemisphere autumn it is hard to distinguish the development of an El Niño from background variability.
But a recent high-profile paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences adamantly predicted an El Niño later this year, using a new framework that explores how ocean temperatures are connected between the equatorial Pacific and other regions. The paper claims to overcome the autumn predictability barrier, quoting a 70% success rate in simulating prediction of historical El Niño events.
Preparing for the worst
To better ready ourselves for an El Niño event, we need to know what the impact might be. El Niño affects our lives in many ways.
One important consideration is Murray River, which supports economic activities estimated at tens of billions of dollars each year, including our irrigated agriculture and water supply in regional areas.
El Niño can also happen in conjunction with other climate cycles. When an El Niño coincides with the positive phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole, there is usually a dramatic reduction in annual inflow.
A prediction of an El Niño will trigger consideration of water allocation by our water managers, taking into account of the need for environmental flow to ensure the long-term health of the river.
Another consideration is drought, which has a direct impact on our ecosystems and farming communities. Our farmers are very skilled in using El Niño prediction information. They use the information to decide what crops to plant and level of cropping activities. Sometimes it is better not to grow anything, to limit losses.
An incorrect prediction can be costly too. So our farmers make ongoing decisions using updated information (normally on a monthly basis). From time to time they will need help to get through tough times, and so our federal government needs to budget for drought relief.
A further consideration is extreme weather. More heatwaves, bushfires and dust storms will have an impact of human health, infrastructure, and emergency services. For example, our senior citizens are most affected by heat stress.
In the week of the recent January heatwave in Victoria, the number of deaths more than doubled. It’s a common-sense matter of getting well prepared to ensure relief is available when needed. If a cooler is needed, it is too late to install it after you hear the weather forecast.
Global warming: loading the dice
This year, and in summer 2013, southeast Australia experienced significant and unprecedented heatwaves, both associated with bushfires. These kinds of events usually take place in an El Niño year.
In fact, an average El Niño increases the global mean temperature by 0.1C. One example is the extreme El Niño of 1982-83, in which a string of heatwaves preceded the Ash Wednesday bushfires, amid severe drought conditions.
But 2013 and the summer just past were not a result of El Niño. In fact these record-breaking heatwaves occurred at a time when the increase of global surface temperatures has slowed, although regionally temperatures continue to increase. Inland Australia — the source of heat in south east Australian heatwaves — continues to warm.
The reason for the slowdown in the rising global surface temperatures is another ocean and atmosphere cycle: the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). Currently in a negative phase, the PDO is encouraging heat to be stored in the ocean thanks to changes in trade winds. Likewise, during a positive PDO, less heat is stored in the ocean, which can enhance the effect of El Niño as in the 1982-83 event.
So there are a range of scenarios depending on a number of different climate cycles. Imagine this one: global warming continues unmitigated by a “hiatus”, and then an El Niño or extreme El Niño occurs. Such an alignment of warming, positive PDO and El Niño is likely to occur several times over the next 20 years. While we can’t predict exactly when the PDO might shift to a positive phase, we might expect the current negative phase to last another four to five years.
If we didn’t like what we experienced in 2013 and early 2014, we’re unlikely to enjoy this worst-case scenario. Heatwaves will be not only more frequent, but hotter too. The associated drought would eventually break, but it will be longer and more severe. Are we ready?
By Cathy Foley, President of Science and Technology Australia
As International Women’s Day approaches on March 8 and my time as NSW Premier’s Woman of the Year draws to a close, I have been thinking about diversity in the workplace, and in particular, the relationship between diversity and innovation.
Science and technology that lead to innovation are critical for the changes that lead to a better quality of life, greater business opportunities and a happier, healthier and more equitable society.
We don’t have to look far from our own backyard to see examples of this. The rapid global expansion of wireless communications is in part possible because of the now widely acknowledged work by John O’Sullivan and his team at the CSIRO. Wi-Fi is now estimated to be used in more than 3 billion devices worldwide.
Given the huge benefits that innovation can bring – economically and socially – we should be doing everything we can to encourage environments where this type of thinking and practice can thrive. One of the most effective ways to do this would be achieve gender balance in our innovation system.
The gender balance
There is strong evidence that companies operating with a gender-balance actually enhance their innovation quotient and gain a competitive advantage.
Reports also suggest that advances in gender equality correlate positively with higher Gross National Product (GNP) and that increasing women’s labour force participation and earnings generates greater economic benefits for a family’s health and education. Surely this can only be a good thing.
So where exactly are we at? As a nation we have achieved great things. Last year Australia was named the country with the highest quality of life in the world, according to the OECD better life index.
The gender gap
But we still have considerable work to do in many ways, including closing the gender gap in the workplace. The World Economic Forum has reported that in 2013 Australia continues to sit at 24th in closing this gap – just above Ecuador and Mozambique.
Australia still has only 17.6% representation of women on ASX 200 boards (as of 14 February 2014), and almost a quarter of boards of the ASX 200 still do not have any females at all.
Women working in science remain hugely underrepresented in leadership roles and some areas of physics and engineering have as little as 5% female participation.
The Australian Businesswomen’s Network says that women are starting small businesses at twice the rate of men. Despite this, a US study has found that female-owned companies are less likely to attract private investment compared to male-owned companies.
The recipe for success
If the nexus of women, science and business is the recipe for success in innovation, then how do women, science and business meet?
Equity, diversity and the lost opportunity of not capturing the full human potential are important arguments for having more women involved in science, technology and business.
But I have a new reason. As the traditional “social organisers” women bring a lot to the table. Business and science success is all about relationships and networking. You have to meet to do business.
Take the science world as an example. On average it takes about 20 years for a discovery to develop into a product. This has been an international rule of thumb. Everyone wants this to happen faster.
When you look at the reason for the delay, it is often when the development gets caught up in what is often called the “valley of death” or a black hole in the commercialisation process which can add years to transitioning time. Translating a discovery in the science lab to the engineering and development, then finally securing industry adoption can be a tortuous process.
What women can do
Women can offer a great deal in making that link as years of social conditioning means that it comes naturally to us.
Could the gender gap be a factor holding back the transition of science to industry, leading to missed opportunities? The diversity that women bring as scientists, technologists, engineers and nascent entrepreneurs might be the answer.
If women’s participation is a demonstrated element for business success and innovation is the essential ingredient for businesses to flourish, then why have we not embraced the opportunity to boost the role of women in science and business? Perhaps if we did we would witness greater translation of research to industry and our economic success would grow even more.
So at the end of a year thinking about what needs to change if we are to grow our economic and social prosperity, I think that increasing the participation of women in science, technology and business (big and small) is critical if Australia is to continue to have world leading quality of life, close the gender gap and have internationally competitive businesses.
Economic and social prosperity depends on change. This is one change we need to make now.
Cathy Foley is one of the keynote speakers at the Open Space free event today at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, Melbourne, 11:30 am to 2:30 pm 20/2/14.
Cathy Foley is affiliated with CSIRO. She is Chief of the Division of Materials Science and Engineering where she has worked for 29 years.
By Zoe Leviston, Research Scientist
Most Australians overestimate how much they are doing for the environment compared to others, and are more concerned about water shortages, pollution and household waste than climate change, a new CSIRO survey reveals.
Taken over a period of July to August last year, it is the latest in a series of annual national surveys on Australians’ attitudes to climate change involving more than 5000 people from across urban, regional, and rural Australia. (You can read about past survey results here and here.)
More than 70% of people said they thought climate change was an important issue, which has remained consistently the case since we first asked this question in 2010.
However, compared to many other issues including health, costs of living and other environmental issues such as drought, we found that climate change was considered to be much less of a concern.
Biased towards ourselves
The way we perceive ourselves and others can influence how we respond to contested issues, including climate change. However, these perceptions are subject to cognitive biases or distortions as we attempt to make sense of the world around us.
Misperceptions about what others think about climate change extend to misperceptions about what others do.
One of the questions we asked people in this latest survey was what they were doing in their everyday lives to respond to climate change, and why.
For example, did they always recycle their household waste, had they installed solar panels, or had they changed their diet? The results are shown below.
When we added up all the actions people said yes to (regardless of why they were doing them), we found a normal distribution of responses: a few people did not much of anything; quite a lot of people did a moderate amount; and a few people did a great deal.
We then asked our respondents this question: “How much do you think you do compared to the average Australian: a lot less, a little less, about the same, a bit more, or a lot more?” Here’s what they said.
So how good were our 5000 respondents at guessing how they compared with others? To find out, we cross-referenced what people said they did with their estimates of how they compared with an average Australian.
Just under one-quarter (21.5%) got it about right: regardless of how many actions they performed, their assessment of where they stood in relation to other people was fairly accurate.
The same amount (21.5%) were what we might call “self-deprecating”: they undervalued their comparative performance.
But more than half our participants (57.1%) were “self-enhancing”: they tended to overestimate how much environmental action they were compared to others.
Research tells us that it’s not just the environment where we tend to think we’re better than others.
The “better than average effect” describes our predisposition to think of ourselves as exceptional, especially among our peers. The effect reflects our tendency to think of ourselves as more virtuous and moral, more compassionate and understanding and (ironically) as less biased than other people.
In a famous example, when people were asked to assess their own driving ability relative to peers, more than three-quarters of people considered themselves to be safer than the average driver.
How important is climate change?
When we asked people how important climate change was, just over 70% of people rated it as “somewhat”, “very”, or “extremely” important. That importance rating has remained unchanged when we first asked this back in 2010.
But this year we also asked people to rank the importance of climate change relative to a list of 16 general concerns in society, including health, the cost of living, and the economy. When framed in these relative terms, climate change was ranked as the third least important issue.
Similar to previous years, we found the majority of respondents (81%) think the Earth’s climate is changing, and people are more likely to think that human activity is the cause (47%) as opposed to natural variations in temperature (39%). When we look at repeat respondents (those people who participated in more than one of our surveys), we find no significant changes since 2010, although there was a very slight increase in the small proportion of people who say they “don’t know”.
Other changes have been slight, but noteworthy. There has been an increase in the levels of responsibility individuals feel to respond to climate change. People have also become more trusting about information from environmental and government scientists.
Zoe Leviston does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Take a look at our video exploring the key findings of the survey:
By Maxine McCall, Research Leader: Nanosafety
Nanoparticles — or nanomaterials, as they are often called — are chemical objects with dimensions in the range of 1-100 nanometres (nm).
Particles this tiny are hard to imagine, but it may help to think that a 1nm nanoparticle could fit up to 80,000 times across a human hair.
Nanoparticles occur naturally in the environment, such as in clay, milk, and in volcanic ash and sea spray.
Manufacturers also make nanoparticles for use in a range of everyday products.
- The surfaces of your fridge may hold silver nanoparticles to stop bacteria growing
- Sunscreen applied as a clear film to your skin may contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide nanoparticles to provide broad-spectrum sun protection
- The frame of your new bicycle may even contain carbon nanotubes to make it stronger and lighter than older bikes.
Nanoparticles are intriguing to scientists because the properties of a chemical — such as silver or zinc oxide — in nano form can be very different to a larger particle of the same chemical.
This is because surface properties dominate in the nano form (due to higher surface area). It’s the internal composition that defines the properties of larger particles. This difference opens up a range of new uses for that chemical.
What are the benefits of nanomaterials?
The prevalence of manufactured nanoparticles is increasing.
Nanoparticles may be more conductive, stronger or more chemically reactive than larger particles of the same substance.
This means smaller amounts of the chemical in nano form can achieve the same effects, making a product cheaper – or the same quantities may be used to create an enhanced product.
What are the potential risks?
The same properties that make nanoparticles promising for new manufacturing opportunities may also present new risks to us and our natural environment.
Normally, new chemicals and their commercial use would be assessed by one or more of a number of regulatory bodies within Australia. But if a chemical in traditional form has already been assessed, it may not require further scrutiny by regulators if it is made in nano form. That’s the case even though the two forms of the same chemical may have quite different properties.
It is this “slipping through the cracks” that has raised some concerns in the community about the large-scale use of untested nanomaterials.
Assessing the risks associated with manufactured nanomaterials is never easy or straightforward. Unlike traditional chemicals, the classification of the properties and potential risks of nanomaterials is not based on composition alone.
Rather, it is a complex function of a number of properties, including particle size, shape, surface area, surface coating and even how tightly the particles are clumped together.
Adding to the challenge, many of these properties can change with time and through use as the nanomaterials move through a complex system, such as our own bodies or a waste-treatment plant.
What safety research is being done?
In 2007 the Working Party for Manufactured Nanomaterials, in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), launched an international programme to test 13 different types of manufactured nanomaterials that were in the early stages of commercialisation.
OECD member countries were invited to comprehensively test these nanomaterials for their physical and chemical properties, their fate and transport in the environment, and their potential toxicities in a range of biological systems.
Australia took part and tested a number of zinc oxide, cerium dioxide and silver nanoparticles. The CSIRO was a major contributor to the Australian effort.
This international effort gave clarity on the types of nanomaterial properties needed for toxicity assessments, and developments on how to make those measurements. While these are important steps forward, more work still needs to be done before such measurements will be routine.
The timeline to achieve this is tight, especially for Australian companies that export internationally. New regulations will be in force this year in Europe that require mandatory labelling of certain nano-containing products.
This is by no means a simple task. It is not easy to find — let alone count and measure sizes of — these very tiny particles in complex products. This makes it tricky to determine whether they are even captured by the definition of “nano” and hence require labelling.
At present, CSIRO’s nanosafety team is investigating:
- nanoparticles in sunscreens
- the environmental effects of nanoparticles added to fuels for combustion engines
- whether nanoparticles eaten by freshwater animals are excreted or retained and then transported up the food chain
- whether nanoparticles are produced in bush fires.
Ongoing research in this area is both relevant and vital to the future of Australian manufacturing.
Maxine McCall coordinated the Australian Consortium that participated in the OECD program to test manufactured nanomaterials. Through CSIRO, the Consortium received funds from the Australian Government under its National Enabling Technologies Strategy and its International Science Linkages program.
The short answer is that it’s a lot safer than not cutting it off.
Some moulds make and release poisons, called mycotoxins, into the food that could, over time, make you very sick. Why they do it is not especially well understood but that doesn’t make it any safer.
Some mouldy foods should simply be discarded (ideally, to compost). For others, though, you can salvage and use the unaffected parts without exposing yourself to a health risk. That’s good if your mouldy food is an expensive, vintage cheddar cheese!
The life of moulds
Moulds are fungi. They’re related to mushrooms, and the yeasts we use to make bread, or convert sugars to alcohol. They are heterotrophs, meaning they can’t make their own food (unlike plants). Instead, they degrade complex organic molecules in their environment into smaller molecules they can absorb to meet their energy and nutrient needs.
In nature, mould’s ability to break down detritus (waste) ensures that dead matter doesn’t accumulate. It also enables the release of minerals that are chemically tied up in detritus to the plants that need them for their primary production.
Moulds are single-celled organisms and, individually, are microscopic. When water and nutrients are available (such as in semi-perishable foods) they grow in number: to procreate, mould cells simply make copies of all essential cell components, and then divide into two new (genetically identical) “daughter” cells.
When moulds divide the two cells stay connected and when they divide again and again, they form a long chain of cells, called a hypha. The hyphae can branch and collectively form a complex matrix called a mycelium that, when big enough, can be seen with an unaided eye. This is the furry growth we can see, for example, on crumpets, berries, jam, tomato paste, cheese, and so on.
The growing tips of the hyphae release enzymes into the environment to degrade complex organic molecules into usable nutrients. The tips of the hyphae also release the mycotoxins which are probably released to ward off competitors.
So, wherever the mycelia go in search of nutrients, toxins may also be found. The extent of spread of the mycelium is not always visible, however, and herein lies the problem.
What to do?
Many moulds can grow on, and spoil, our foods. Among those we are likely to encounter on foods in our homes are Penicillium (“cousins” of those used to make antibiotics, or to ripen some cheeses), Aspergillus, and on fruits, Botrytis.
You’re unlikely to experience any immediate symptoms from ingestion of mycotoxin-contaminated foods. Ongoing exposure increases the chances of a range of diseases including include kidney, liver and immune system damage, increased risk of a range of cancers and neurological symptoms; though these worst-case scenarios are rare.
Not all moulds on foods will produce mycotoxins, or produce them at harmful levels, but without a microscope and laboratory its hard to distinguish the dangerous and harmless ones. Given the risk to your health its best to take a very cautious approach to visible mould growth on any food with some exceptions.
A good rule of thumb to judge whether a mouldy food can be “saved” is its moisture content or firmness. Foods with a high moisture content such as cooked casseroles, soft fruit and vegetables, pastes/sauces and soft cheeses can have invisible hyphae growing below the surface and producing mycotoxins.
The same is true for porous foods such as bread and cakes where the hyphae can penetrate. All of these foods should be discarded if you see mould on the surface.
Conversely a cheddar, or a salami, or carrot, that have dense structure are less likely to have extensive hyphal growth away from the visible mycelium. In these cases the mycelium can be cut away (to a centimetre or two depth) and the remaining food consumed with little risk.
The United States’ Department of Agriculture’s website is a good source of advice for dealing with mould contamination on a wide variety of foods.
The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.
Cutting away portions of food is not a safe way to deal with other food safety risks such as contamination or bacterial growth. It should not be used on products beyond their use by date or where products have not been stored correctly. And when in doubt throw it out.
CSIRO also produced a range of infographics covering food safety, health tips and recipes. Check out the ‘Be Food Safe’ Health Bite below:
By Paulo de Souza, Science Leader – Sensor Networks
Coinciding with ten years of the NASA Mars Exploration Rover Project, research published today in Science has found some of the oldest evidence of past water on Mars – and confirmed it was ideal to nurture life.
Found in ancient mudstones at Mars’ Endeavour Crater, the geochemical data collected by the Opportunity Rover shows that water was almost fresh. It would have been, almost four billion years ago, the most liveable mud on Mars.
Opportunity sampled the Matijevic formation – a grouping of fine-grained, layered rocks enriched with clay minerals – and analyses showed they were the oldest Martian rocks, and had the earliest evidence of water activity, the rover has encountered so far.
Back in 2004, Opportunity discovered rich deposits on hematite, jarosite and round concretions we dubbed “blueberries”. That was definitive proof that an ocean flowed on Mars.
However, scientists around the world were sceptical about the suitability for life as that water was probably too acidic. Just as you wouldn’t quench your thirst with a glass of vinegar, this water would not make the kind of mud microbes would be able to live in.
But our results indicate that microbes would have found in that place a delight to live in – not too salty, not too acidic, but just right.
Now we just need to see if there were any microbes there, by searching for any fossils that might hint that Mars was once inhabited and not just habitable. The search, and the fascination, goes on.
Centuries of wondering
As a long-term member of the science team guiding research on Mars, I’d like to reflect on what we’re looking for and why it’s worthwhile to keep exploring.
Start by looking at the night sky. Even though we can see just a part of it, the universe has more stars and planets than you could possibly imagine. Yet just a few hundred years ago, we thought we on Earth were at the centre of the universe, putting us in a very special place.
The science done by our first astronomers revealed that, in fact, we were turning around the sun. Later we discovered our sun is just another star, one of many in the universe.
The first confirmed accounts for another planet beyond our solar system was reported in 1988 by Canadian astronomers Campbell, Walker and Yang. The natural questions we now face are: is there life somewhere else in the universe? Or are we alone?
In the thousands of years since the Egyptians and Babylonians first knew of its existence, the red planet has been an object of study and fascination. More recent perspectives on Mars are also interesting to revisit.
In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli saw “continents”, “seas” and “channels” on Mars through his telescope.
More recently still, with the advancement of science, we’ve been in a position to get a more accurate picture of our nearest neighbour. The world of sensors, where my expertise lies, has leaped ahead so we can send compact sensors on spacecraft that gather a wealth of information.
With all this combined international exploration effort, we’ve sent many spacecraft to Mars to study large areas from the air and in minute detail on the ground.
The list of spacecraft reads like a roll-call at school:
- Mariner orbiter in late 1960s
- Viking landers during the 1970s
- Mars Pathfinder in 1997
- In the past decade Mars Exploration Rovers Opportunity and Spirit, Phoenix and more recently with Curiosity
We also have an Indian mission Mangalyaan on the way to Mars today, a number of missions being planned for the future like the rover on 2020, Chinese attempts to get there as well as the lottery for a one-way ticket to the red planet.
Our reason for living
All this exploration was fuelled by the 1996 analysis of the meteorite ALH84001 in Antarctica. This meteorite came from Mars, has carbonate in its chemistry (carbonate needs water to be formed) and has a number of structures that resemble fossilised bacteria.
Since then the traffic on Mars has never been so intense.
But what are we looking for so intensively on Mars? The answer is everywhere on a full-of-life Earth: water.
Even though some landscape features observed by Mars orbiters provide evidence that liquid water might have flowed on the surface of Mars long ago, surface studies like ours look for direct evidence for mineral deposits created by an interaction with water and rock. The gadgetry on the Mars Rovers is designed to carry out these sophisticated geochemical analyses.
Life, as we know it, depends on water to be formed, sustained and to evolve. It does not mean, however, that life somewhere else in the universe might not depend on another substance. It is much easier to look for something we know so well.
Paulo de Souza is a collaborating scientist on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover mission.
Why would young Australians buck international trends and move to the country? According to our research, a growing youth population has been observed in coal seam gas (CSG) development areas within the Surat and Bowen Basin regions of Queensland in recent years.
In contrast to other rural areas of Queensland, where the youth population is not growing, those two regions taking in areas such as Chinchilla and Moranbah have seen their youth population grow.
For example, in Chinchilla there were 1,112 young people aged 15 to 29 years old in 2006; just five years later, the number of young people had increased by about 46% to 1618. Out of that total, the male youth population in Chinchilla jumped 53% (to 978 young men), while the female youth population rose by 36% (to 640 young women).
This noteworthy increase in rural youth – for both men and women – is also seen in the broader regions of the Surat and Bowen basins, where CSG development is happening.
Over the same period, family incomes have grown and overall employment has increased.
However, in studying the impacts of unconventional gas development, the one negative trend we found was that agricultural employment had decreased more than the rest of rural Queensland during the expansion of the coal seam gas industry.
A re-injection of youth
Declining populations in rural regions is a worldwide phenomenon. That’s because young people are usually the first to leave, seeking employment, training and education opportunities in cities.
After gaining new skills and experience, 20-somethings tend to stay in urban areas rather than return to their rural homelands. And women are more likely to leave rural areas than men.
The combined impact of these trends is a reduction in the skills base of rural areas and a skewed population, with more older people and far more men.
In figures 2 and 3, we track the age group which was 15-19 in 2001 though time up until 2011. In the control group, which is made up of other comparable rural Queensland regions (dark grey line), the youth population is at its lowest when this group hits their early 20s. By contrast, for communities in coal seam gas areas (blue line) the youth population is increasing throughout their 20s as more people stay in the region and others come to the region as CSG development takes off.
We’ve singled out the case of Chinchilla (green line) as an example of a turn-around in about 2006 from losing young people to gaining young people as the pace of CSG development speeds up.
Because these increases occurred in male and female populations, the research suggests that the wider rural population are experiencing social and economic benefits from the CSG sector, rather than just a male workforce commuting from distant cities, as can happen with fly-in fly-out workforces in other contexts.
The fact that rural youth populations have grown in regions with CSG development is a significant finding and an important contributor to the health of rural communities.
In terms of the long-term future of rural communities,re-injection of youth may indeed be more important than the focus on jobs, which has traditionally been the main way that the industry has sought to demonstrate its benefit to rural communities.
More jobs in resources sector, but fewer in agriculture
Our research also found that jobs have increased in regions where CSG development has occurred.
During the ten years between 2001 and 2011, jobs in the resources sector across rural Queensland increased; notably this increase was about 31% more in CSG regions than in other rural Queensland regions. This figure is even higher when looking only at the Surat region, where it has grown by 45%.
For every new job in the resources sector there has been around two new jobs created in the related sectors of construction and professional services. By contrast, for each new job in the resources sector there has been a reduction of 1.7 jobs in agriculture.
These new jobs in CSG areas are not just restricted to males. Focusing on Chinchilla, total female employment increased 26% from 1204 in 2006 to 1516 in 2011. Over those five years, women left some agriculture and manufacturing jobs, but increased their employment in mining, construction and hospitality.
Family income and community welfare
Another important finding is that family income has increased more in regions where CSG development has occurred.
Family income increased by around 15% in the average region with CSG development when compared to other rural regions in Queensland. Family income is a useful measure of benefit because it provides an indicator of income that stays in the region, compared with other measures that may be affected by long-distance commuting workforces, who spend their income elsewhere.
However, while family income is up, this also has to be balanced against higher housing costs in some CSG regions such as Chinchilla.
We found that CSG regions had slightly more educated populations, but mostly among men. Poverty reduction was also observed in CSG regions, concentrated particularly in Chinchilla.
Finally, it is also important to consider the impacts of CSG development on other aspects of community well-being, such as noise and stress. These issues are currently being explored in related projects conducted by CSIRO.
By Leo Joseph, Research Director and Curator, Australian National Wildlife Collection
The Night Parrot has been called the “world’s most mysterious bird”. First discovered in 1845, it was rarely seen alive for most of the next hundred and seventy years, but it has been rediscovered in 2013 by Queensland naturalist John Young.
The rediscovery has been shrouded in secrecy; photo and video evidence of the parrot was presented at an invitation-only viewing, and the Queensland government hasn’t been told the location of the parrot. So, why all the secrecy?
The first Night Parrot specimen was collected in 1845 in northern South Australia. After a spate of records in the 1870s, the parrot vanished. The 20th Century yielded almost no reliable reports until a single, road-killed specimen was found in 1990 in western Queensland. In 2006 another was found further to the south-east. This one was headless, presumably having flown into a fence line, decapitating itself.
Western Queensland seemed like the place to be. With colleagues, we have analysed existing records of Night Parrots to learn about where to look for the birds and when in relation to climatic events, and flowering and seeding cycles of plants that the parrots might feed on, such as spinifex. It has been a frustrating exercise, however.
In 2013, Queensland naturalist John Young found what he thinks might be two pairs of Night Parrots, and, to top it off, a nest with three nestlings. Young recently presented a select group of experts with photographic and video evidence of Night Parrots from May 2013, confirming that these were indeed Night Parrots.
Young also made recordings of the parrot’s vocalisations, which he used to draw the birds close enough to photograph.
Young is keeping the Night Parrots’ western Queensland location secret for now. The fragile environments at the locality, if revealed, could be damaged by well-meaning but perhaps over-enthusiastic birdwatchers. The birds appear to have recently bred, and even relatively small numbers of people could have a serious impact. Disturbance could also interfere with research.
There is also the ongoing threat of illegal bird trade. Secrecy at least provides some restraint on this unscrupulous activity.
There are other examples of the locations of rare species remaining secret, particularly fish, reptiles and plants that are popular in exotic trade. In Australia, the exact location of the gorge close to Sydney in which the only known population of the Wollemi Pine grows remains a closely guarded secret.
But, this strategy can backfire, as shown by the case of the Mace Pagoda (Mimetes stokoei), a South African plant related to Australia’s banksias. Discovered in 1922, the location was kept secret. Unfortunately, no one knew it was there when the land where it grew was cleared for an orchard in the 1960s. Only when a single Mace Pagoda germinated from a seed in the soil was the mistake realised, but it soon died. The Night Parrot, like these other examples, has its own set of circumstances. Some secrecy about the location for now has some merit.
The solution is for John Young to share the find with researchers, and we are happy to report that this process has begun. There is much to learn about the parrot: basic biology, threats, and where else the bird might live. This find is the biggest clue in a century as to where the Night Parrot lives and which habitat it prefers.
The sound recordings John Young made of the Night Parrots are particularly interesting. For example, computers could screen sound recordings to identify whether the Night Parrot’s vocalisation was part of nocturnal soundscapes. But Young made it very clear that even slight use of the recordings to lure a bird can stress them. Nobody wants to promote that.
Following on from this momentous discovery, we look forward to the Night Parrot’s removal from that list of the world’s most mysterious birds. With careful research conducted with due permits and effective management we believe its intriguing history could see it become a flagship species. Such a species could galvanize community support, not only for its own conservation but for the conservation of our precious rangelands and arid zone into the future for all, including the Night Parrot, to enjoy.
This article was co-authored by Allan Burbidge, Principle Research Scientist and the Western Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife. Allan works in management of one of the Night Parrot’s closest relatives, the critically endangered Western Ground Parrot.
Leo Joseph does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Silicon Valley is a bit like the ancient city of Babylon. A confluence of the right geography, right timing, and the right mix in the melting pot allowed them both to thrive.
Even the mythological status is fitting. After all, it’s not easy to replicate what circumstance has brought together.
And yet, many are looking for the secret recipe to copy what Silicon Valley has achieved. But is it just a matter of understanding the recipe, picking the right scale, and being patient?
There have been successful innovation hubs elsewhere and in disciplines outside of information technology. Take the Cambridge Science Park for instance. The site was donated to Trinity College in 1546, but wasn’t developed until 1970. It is now one of the leading innovation and research hubs in the world.
One imperative for the development of the Cambridge Science Park was a push from the then UK Government to improve returns on investment in basic research and higher education through increased technology transfer and new technologies. There are strong parallels here with the current push in Australia to improve the connection between research and industry.
In Cambridge, it took a decade for the number of companies in the science park to grow to 25. Initially being close to the world class research activity of Cambridge University was the pull. As a mini-cluster of technologies and talented people emerged in the 1980s it became attractive to more people and organisations, and so the effect snowballed. Venture capitalists and spin-outs joined the mix.
Importantly, there was also investment in accommodation and sporting facilities, conference and meeting places, and eating places. These facilities helped to develop the culture of the Cambridge Science Park.
In the 1990s, the number of companies grew to around 64 with larger and better funded companies present, and a focus on life sciences emerged. Some degree of evolution to the natural focus for the geographical area has been in the recipe for success in Cambridge.
There are also plenty of examples of less successful innovation clusters. The One-North Science Habitat in Singapore encompasses a number of other science parks creating better integration and private sector participation. It was built with further investment from the Singapore Government after the initial Singapore Science Park only achieved modest success. The Singapore Science Park was originally largely government directed in its set up with a low density design and no direct academic links.
The lessons from these examples are that culture is critical. Silicon Valley, Cambridge Science Park, and other successful examples of clusters have brought people together and actively facilitated interactions between them.
The benefits of this kind of collaboration extend beyond immediate economic growth. Close interactions give rise to new networks. New networks then facilitate the flow of expertise and knowledge between people and organisations which is essential for supporting future discoveries and breakthroughs.
Networks are important for the types of challenges we are facing. Think about climate change, biosecurity, and food security; these span country, organisational and disciplinary boundaries. Collaboration across traditional disciplines and between sectors (particularly between the research and industry sectors) is an essential ingredient in developing solutions to the world’s most wicked challenges.
Then there are the efficiency dividends from joining up the players, and lowering the costs of interacting.
Australia can learn from these international examples to improve its own collaborative effort. The 2013 Global Innovation Index placed Australia at 19 out of 142 countries, behind countries such New Zealand, Israel, the Republic of Korea and Ireland.
Two of the areas in which Australia performed poorly related to our ability to form clusters and export high technologies. Increasing collaboration and knowledge adoption are key areas that need to be improved if Australia is to remain globally competitive.
In Australia, we have a number of successful programs that improve collaboration such as Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs), Australian Research Council Centres of Excellence, Enterprise Connect, Research and Development Corporations, Technology Parks, and CSIRO’s National Research Flagships. CSIRO is also currently developing five Global Precincts.
At the moment, however, we still don’t have anything that combines the right geography, the right scale and the right mix in the melting pot to get the broad and deep connections of a Silicon Valley or Cambridge Science Park.
There are certain areas in Australia were there is sufficient expertise and industry activity to build collaborative melting pots of global scale. We have natural focus points such as manufacturing in Melbourne, and resources in Perth. Taking key lessons from around the globe we can build on these strengths to improve collaboration. High density, shared facilities and direct links to academia would also improve flows between industry, research, and government.
With scale comes international visibility, easier access, greater efficiency of investment for public and private funds, and that magic that happens when people with different backgrounds collaborate. The critical part will be to get the culture right.
With patience we can bring research and industry together and improve our collaborative performance. CSIRO’s own Global Precincts aim to do just that by emphasising physical closeness, direct linkages, and active facilitation of collaboration.
Australia might not have a Silicon Valley, but these kinds of projects already underway, will help Australia compete in the increasingly global innovation system.
David Ireland is the General Manager: International, Precincts and Innovation Systems
Business Services and is involved in developing the Australian Global Precincts mentioned in this article.
Louise Osborne works for the CSIRO in the Global Precincts program.
Australians are set to munch through half a billion prawns this Christmas. But where do all those prawns come from? And can we feel good as we throw another one on the barbie?
About half of the prawns eaten in Australia come from overseas. More than A$200 million worth of frozen prawns were imported in 2011–2012, mainly from southeast and east Asia, and these imports are on the rise.
Most of the imported prawns are farm-grown and the main species is commonly known as vannamei, or white shrimp.
The rapid growth of prawn farming has generated public debate over its sustainability and effects on the environment.
Concerns have surrounded the destruction of mangrove areas, coastal pollution, salinisation, wild prawn collection, the use of marine-based feeds, and conflict with other resource users.
But there is some good news: according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, worldwide environmental certification programs such as Global Gap are having a positive influence on farming practices.
Growers are breeding prawns that use protein more efficiently, and adopting low-water-exchange pond systems with less environmental impact. These aerated systems encourage the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms that recycle unused food. Other advances include better biosecurity and traceability, and reduced chemical residues.
Australian scientists are supporting better aquaculture practices in Vietnam by helping farmers to establish prawn breeding programs that improve farm productivity.
Australian farmed prawns
About 20% of Australian prawns are farm grown. Australia has some 20 prawn farms, located mainly in Queensland. The most common farmed species is the black tiger prawn, followed by the banana prawn.
Australian prawn farmers have worked with scientists to develop healthy, fast-growing prawns that can be produced efficiently on farms that meet the world’s highest standards for environmental management.
Research has also addressed the industry’s perceived dependency on marine-based feeds.
What do prawns eat?
Farmed prawns are fed on a compounded pellet made from a range of ingredients that satisfies their nutritional needs.
In Australia, the ingredients include soybeans, lupins and canola, and recycled waste proteins, plus small amounts of sustainably-sourced fish meal and fish oil. But now the technology exists to phase-out these marine ingredients.
A new food additive developed by CSIRO has been shown to improve prawn growth rates by 30% and eliminates the need for fish products in their diet. The additive is moving towards commercial production in Australia and Asia.
Trawling for prawns
The rest of our prawns are harvested by 500 prawn trawlers that operate across 15 Australian fisheries off Queensland, the Northern Territory, Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales.
Wild-caught Australian prawns are available year-round, although some seasonality occurs. Many of the fisheries are remote, so catches are commonly packaged and frozen on board the vessels.
Australian prawn fisheries, like all Australian fisheries, are recognised as among the best-managed in the world.
Scientists work with managers and industry to set fishing levels that are strictly regulated and monitored. Escape hatches in the trawl nets have been used for more than a decade to reduce the capture of large species, and all prawn fisheries must pass ecological assessments to meet conservation and export regulations.
South Australia’s Spencer Gulf Fishery and the Commonwealth Northern Prawn Fishery have both achieved certification from the Marine Stewardship Council, an independent body that certifies sustainable fisheries worldwide.
Look out for labels
All prawns sold at major supermarkets in Australia must be labelled according to the country of origin.
In some states, such as the Northern Territory and South Australia, that compulsory labelling extends to all seafood retail outlets, including restaurants.
Australian prawn farmers and fishers are trying to encourage people to eat Aussie prawns throughout the year with a Love Australian prawns campaign in an effort to smooth out some of the logistics associated with stocking so many prawns at Christmas.
So if you do want to buy homegrown prawns, look out for the labels at your supermarket, or ask your fishmonger where they’ll be getting their supplies from this Christmas.
It’s April 2011, summer is well and truly over and Betty*, a juvenile white shark, has just surfaced off the coast of New South Wales.
It is the first time the female ocean predator has come to the top of the ocean in several hours and the only break she has had in several days.
For almost a month this young but big fish has been making her way from the cool waters of the Bass Strait, some 800km behind her, to the warmer northern climes in search of food.
And boy is she hungry.
Luckily for Betty just a few kilometres ahead is Port Stephens where a smorgasbord of fish, rays and other sharks await her.
Betty spends the next few months dining out on this selection of marine life that frequent this stretch of coastline – one of only two known white shark nursery areas on the east coast – before she heads south.
For the next two weeks she hugs the coastline resurfacing every two to three days before arriving off the top end of the Victorian coast.
Her satellite tracking device, which was fitted at Christmas 2010, keeps transmitting her position every time she resurfaces from the ocean but then goes dead at the end of July 2011, recording 2400km in total.
It’s another five months, at Christmas again, before Betty’s tag begins transmitting once more.
Betty, still a juvenile and likely to be measuring at least 3.1m, pops up near Corner Inlet off the Victorian coast at the southern end of 90 Mile Beach – the other known white shark nursery area.
She spends at least a week in this popular feeding ground before beginning another journey.
But rather than head back down to the coastal waters of Tasmania as she did the previous year, Betty changes tack and begins a mammoth trek to the Great Barrier Reef.
And unlike the year before, Betty doesn’t stop in any one place for great periods of time.
She basically swims continuously over the course of this journey along the coastlines of Victoria, NSW and Queensland, resurfacing multiple times along NSW but then submerging for days at a time until she reaches – what can only be assumed – was her intended destination, an area south of Swains Reef.
This pristine body of water 250km off the Queensland coast is rich with manta rays and sea snakes, as well as recreational fishing-sized tuna, coral trout and giant trevally, making it very popular with sharks.
By the time she makes her way back to the Victorian coastline she would have travelled a staggering 4500km in six months.
Details of this intriguing two-year journey, covering almost 7000km, were collected by a satellite tracking tag as part of our shark tagging program.
Information collected over the course of the almost two-decade long project has led scientists to believe that Betty will make this trek numerous times in her long life. But whether it will be the exact same journey, how long she will stay or why is still a mystery.
Australian scientists know white sharks follow food.
They know they can spend days, weeks, sometimes months in one area.
But predicting exactly when or how long they will stay – or what danger they pose to humans – is still unknown.
As arguably Australia’s top shark expert, Barry Bruce knows more than most about these feared but fascinating creatures.
The scientist and his team have scoured our oceans in search of answers for nearly 20 years.
The team have uncovered a treasure trove of riveting behavioural patterns that hopefully will help us – and government policy makers – to understand these ocean predators.
We now know, thanks to this research and that of collaborators at the University of Queensland, that Australia has two distinct populations of white sharks, one which travels up and down the east coast and sometimes across to New Zealand, and another which travels from South Australia all the way up the West Australian coast.
Generally these two populations do not venture past their side of the Bass Strait.
This is supported by the data collected by one of the more well-known satellite-tagged white sharks, Columba, a 3.5m 10-year-old female, who was tagged in 2006.
Columba travelled an estimated 3600km from the Neptune Islands, off South Australia, and the site of Australia’s largest seal colony, up to Exmouth in WA’s north and back again in less than six months.
After being tagged, Columba, whose journey is revered among our shark scientists, swam west then travelled through the shelf waters across the Great Australian Bight to Cape Leeuwin, before turning north.
Data collected from her track shows she then travelled in waters of 500 to 1000m in depth, for much of her trip to Exmouth. She then remained some 100km off Exmouth until early October that year before returning to The Bight. Her tag stopped transmitting in November 2006.
Yet, Bruce says, there is still so much we don’t know, and he believes further research is key to finding out more.
His team’s most recent project – studying juvenile white sharks off the NSW coast – led to the discovery that young white sharks congregate off the coast of Port Stephens, about 200km north of Sydney, for several months of the year before heading to the Corner Inlet/Lakes Entrance area in Victoria.
His team uses both satellite and acoustic tags and collaborates with scientists in SA, WA and New Zealand.
So far, scientists have tagged more than 50 white sharks with satellite tags and almost 300 with acoustic tags throughout Australia.
Initially satellite tags gave scientists their first real glimpse of how far and fast sharks can travel in a day.
Bruce estimates a shark travels between three to five kilometres per hour and is capable of covering around 70 to 125km per day, 500 to 875km per week and 2200 to 3150km per month.
But satellite tags are expensive, have a very short battery life and rely on the shark to surface before a position can be recorded. Researchers have now switched to using acoustic tags because they can last up to ten years and use underwater receivers, which are deployed along our coastlines and are capable of recording much more data to collect the information.
Our current white shark research is funded by the Australian Government’s National Environmental Research Program’s Marine Biodiversity Hub.
*Betty is a name given to the shark for the purpose of this story. Her travels outlined in this article are speculative. We stopped naming sharks after Columba*
The above post is based on a longer article originally published by The Sunday Times. Read the original article.