Kudos to our volunteers for making science class awesome


Science partnership between Marnie Sparrow from Sandringham College (Vic) and Felix Lipkin, CSIRO Land and Water

By Hannah Scott

Think back to when you were at school and imagine what it would have been like to have had a Nobel-winning scientist come to your class, or a world-renowned mathematician?

This has been a reality for many students around the county, and it’s all thanks to over 2,500 teachers and STEM professionals who volunteer their time – in addition to their day jobs we might add – to bring science to life in classroom.

National Volunteer Week seemed like the perfect opportunity to thank these amazing people as without their dedication and enthusiasm, our Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools (SMiS) program would not be possible.

So without further ado, meet just a few of our volunteer heroes who are spreading the science-love at a school near you! Click on your favourite Teacher or STEM professional to find out what inspired them to take part in the SMiS program.

About the program

Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools (SMiS) is a national education program which facilitates ongoing professional partnerships between teachers and Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) professionals.

Through the SMiS program, teachers and students engage with STEM professionals, and together, the partners share enthusiasm, expertise, and knowledge to enhance science, maths and ICT education.

Want to join us? Watch the video and read more about the SMiS program on our website.

Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools is supported by the Australian Government.

Big Data is useful, but we need to protect your privacy too

Protecting your privacy when your data collected for one use might have a secondary use for other researchers. Flickr/, CC BY-NC-ND

Protecting your privacy when your data collected for one use might have a secondary use for other researchers. Flickr/, CC BY-NC-ND

Christine O’Keefe

These days, massive volumes of data about us are collected from censuses and surveys, computers and mobile devices, as well as scanning machines and sensors of many kinds. But this data can also reveal personal and sensitive information about us, raising some serious privacy concerns.

Data are routinely collected when we shop, use public transport, visit our GP or access government services in person or online. There’s also data from using our smart phones and fitness monitoring devices.

These data are generally collected for a purpose, called the “primary purpose”. For example, having purchased goods delivered, catching a bus from home to work, having a health check, obtaining a Medicare refund, navigating or searching our local area, as well as logging our fitness regime.

But in addition to being used for such primary purposes, many data are stored and used for other purposes, called “secondary purposes”. This includes research to help inform decision-making and debate within government and the community.

For example, data from Medicare, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and hospitals can be used to identify potential adverse drug reactions much faster than is currently possible.

What about privacy?

But these data can also reveal highly sensitive information about us, such as about our preferences, behaviours, friends and whether we have a disease or not.

Given the rapid change in the volume and nature of data in the digital age, it is timely to ask whether the existing ethics frameworks for the secondary use of such data are still adequate. Do they address the right ethical issues associated with research using the data? In particular, how will an individual’s privacy be protected?

There have been two important responses to these issues. A group of researchers, supported by the University of Melbourne and the Carlton Connect Initiative, explored these issues through workshops, desk research and many consultations.

They produced the Guidelines for the Ethical Use of Digital Data in Human Research. It’s a work in progress, requiring ongoing practice and revision, rather than a definitive set of prescriptions.

A team at CSIRO and the Sax Institute also addressed the deeper ethical issue of protecting privacy in the secondary use of health data. This work will be developed into Guidelines for Confidentiality Protection in Public Health Research Results.

Ethical issues for digital data

In the first of the guidelines, five key categories of ethical issues are identified as highly relevant to digital data and require additional consideration when using digital data.

  1. Consent: making sure that participants can make informed decisions about their participation in the research
  2. Privacy and confidentiality: privacy is the control that individuals have over who can access their personal information. Confidentiality is the principle that only authorised persons should have access to information
  3. Ownership and authorship: who has responsibility for the data, and at what point does the individual give up their right to control their personal data?
  4. Data sharing – assessing the social benefits of research: data matching and re-use of data from one source or research project in another
  5. Governance and custodianship: oversight and implementation of the management, organisation, access and preservation of digital data.

The voluntary guidelines were developed to help people conducting research and to assist ethics committees to assess research involving digital data.

Without such guidelines, there is a risk that new ethical issues involving digital data will not adequately be considered and managed by researchers and ethics committees.

Privacy risks from the data

Traditionally, the data custodians responsible for granting access to data sets have sought to protect people’s confidentiality by only providing access to approved researchers. They also restricted the detail of the data released, such as replacing age or date of birth by month or year of birth.

More recently, data custodians are increasingly being asked for highly flexible access to more and more details about individual persons from an expanded range of data collections.

Custodians are responding by developing a new flexible range of access modes or mechanisms, including remote analysis systems and virtual data centres.

Under remote analysis, a researcher does not have access to any of the data but submits queries and receives analysis results through a secure webpage.

A virtual data centre is less restrictive than a remote analysis system. It enables researchers to interact directly with data, submit queries and receive results through a secure interface.

But the results of statistical analysis as released by a virtual data centre may still reveal personal information. For example, if a result such as an average is computed on a very small number of people then it is probably very close to the value for each of those people.

By following such voluntary guidelines, researchers can maintain confidentiality while ensuring that society can benefit from their work.

The rapid technological advances in our society are creating more and more data archives of many different types. It’s vital that we continue to assess the ethical and privacy risks from secondary use of this data if researchers are to reap the potential benefits from access to the information.

The Conversation

Christine O’Keefe is Research Director · Digital Productivity at CSIRO.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Perytons: finding our ghost in the machine

What's the source of mysterious radio signals at The Dish?

What was the source of mysterious radio signals at The Dish?

By Indra Tomic

What do the smell of lasagna, hunger pangs and a cosmic radio signal have in common? The surprising answer was discovered by our scientists at The Dish telescope this week when they went on a search to track the source of a mysterious radio signal known as a ‘peryton’.

Despite baffling scientists for years, the team had always suspected the origin of the signal was local to the telescope. And as more and more perytons were discovered, and only during office hours weekdays, suspicion quickly fell on human activity, and then the lunch room…

So, how did we found our own ‘ghost in the machine’?

In December 2014 the team installed a Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) monitoring antenna at The Dish. It was hoped this piece of equipment would help us detect any unwanted signals, like these perytons, so they could be eliminated.

Just one month later astronomers searching for fast radio bursts with the 64m dish detected three perytons on three separate days. By comparing them against the data from the RFI monitoring antenna, we realised that they appeared at the same time as the operation of a microwave.

This gave us the first clue as to their possible origin.

It was only after further testing that we eventually confirmed their true origin – the perytons appeared when the microwave doors were opened mid-operation. Bingo!

Scooby Doo gif

And we would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling scientists!

The RFI monitoring antenna helps us pick up all sorts of radio emissions – from mobiles and tablets all the way through to electrical devices like motors and generators. By installing equipment like this we are trying to achieve ‘radio quiet’ at our observatory sites.

Radio quiet zones are hugely important to astronomers. Any radio frequency ‘noise’ could interfere with the already weak astronomical radio signals being received, thereby reducing the ability to unlock more mysteries.

Within only a few months of installing the RFI monitoring antenna at The Dish, this piece of equipment immediately showed its worth by helping us solve this strange little mystery.

So for the world of space science you could say one cosmic mystery down, a million more to go.

Aussie innovation overseas: Euro vision turns reality for iconic ‘green whistle’

The Penthrox inhaler, nicknamed the ‘green whistle’, delivers immediate pain-relief .

The Penthrox inhaler, nicknamed the ‘green whistle’, is an emergency pain relief device used by hospitals, surf life savers, ambulances, the defence forces and national sporting leagues.

This story is part of our spotlight series on #CSIROhealth. From apps to 3D printing, global epidemics to preventative wellbeing, we’re working in many ways, across many industries, to keep you healthy. More on our website.

By Emily Lehmann

We can be proud of a lengthy list of homegrown Aussie inventions that have ‘made it’ overseas, helping to improve people’s everyday lives. Around the world, the comfy ugg boot is ensuring toes stay warm and dry, WiFi is keeping everyone connected, while the bionic ear is enabling hundreds of thousands of deaf people to hear.

Now, another iconic Australian product is about to head across to foreign shores to offer a helping hand to life savers.

After getting the green light from regulators for its sale in Europe and the UK, Australian healthcare company Medical Developments International’s (MDI) is set to take the emergency pain killer Penthrox – aka the ‘green whistle’ – to the rest of the world.

Entering these huge overseas markets is a company-making achievement for MDI and we’re proud to say we’ve been integrally involved in the journey. Together we’ve developed a new manufacturing process that MDI will use to increase their production of Penthrox by ten times and meet the anticipated demand of the European market.

CSIRO's John Tsanaktsidis has worked closely with MDI to help them upscale production of the ‘green whistle’ and enter new export markets.

CSIRO’s John Tsanaktsidis has worked closely with MDI to help them upscale production of the ‘green whistle’ and enter new export markets.

Made in Melbourne, Penthrox has been used across Australia for more than 30 years, administered by hospitals, surf life savers, ambulances, the defence forces, national sporting leagues and other services in emergency situations.

What’s so unique about Penthrox? It’s administered through the unique ‘green whistle’ device which is held by the patient and inhaled via the mouth – literally sucked on – bringing immediate pain relief in a way that’s safe and non-addictive.

MDI has been granted initial regulatory approval to sell the product in the UK, France, Belgium and Ireland where Penthrox will meet a significant gap in the marketplace for a non-narcotic analgesic.

There are more than 50 million accident and emergency hospital attendances each year in these countries alone and MDI has estimated that these markets for Penthrox are worth about $100 million per year.

The new smart manufacturing process significantly reduces the cost to manufacture Penthrox’s key ingredient, the drug methoxyflurane, and provides much more consistent results.This will secure MDI’s competitive advantage on the world stage as the only global manufacturer of methoxyflurane.

Our partnership with the company goes back more than 15 years and shows how long-term research collaborations can help companies grow and become world leaders in their respective markets.

Read more about our work with MDI and some of the other health technologies we’ve developed.

The seventh megatrend: why Australia must embrace innovation

Bright ideas are needed if Australia is to remain competitive. Flickr/Andr s Nieto Porras, CC BY-SA

Bright ideas are needed if Australia is to remain competitive. Flickr/Andr s Nieto Porras, CC BY-SA

Stefan Hajkowicz, CSIRO

An emerging new “megatrend” is that Australia’s scientists and researchers need to be more innovative, particularly if the country is to play a significant role in the world’s economy.

Megatrends are deep-set trajectories of change that will reshape the landscape for government, business and society over the coming 20 years. They herald both challenge and opportunity.

The term was minted by the American John Naisbitt in his 1982 book, Megatrends. Today megatrends are used by organisations such as CSIRO, KPMG, Boston Consulting Group, Price Waterhouse Coopers, the United States National Intelligence Council and many others.

Back in 2012, at CSIRO we identified six global megatrends that would substantially change the way people live in Australia.

They told a story of natural resource scarcity in a growing world, pressures on biodiversity and the global climate, a changing world economy, an ageing population and escalating healthcare costs, the rise of the digital economy and the all-important experience factor for consumers, societies and individuals.

Many of these themes remain but after three years the story is changing. New topics include the rise of artificial intelligence, structural change within the Chinese and East-Asian economies, the era of big data and digital disruption to name a few.

The seventh megatrend

We have identified an additional, seventh megatrend, known as “the innovation imperative”, which I have detailed in a new CSIRO book titled Global Megatrends.

This megatrend argues that Australia and advanced economies are in a tight spot and the only way out involves risk-taking, new ideas and blue-sky scientific research.

Promising areas for such research and development include regenerative and personalised medicine, energy storage, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems and informatics. But the innovation imperative cuts across all fields of scientific research and human endeavour.

Why does innovation matter more today? The main reason is that we generated wealth last century by doing some clever things – mostly basic things such as exploiting high grade and easily accessible mineral ore deposits, or opening up new areas of land.

Now we’ve done all the basic things we need to do clever, and very clever, things.

Tyler Cowen is a professor in economics at George Mason University who argues that productivity decline is happening in advanced economies because we have run out of ideas. The title of his 2011 book gives much away about his thesis – it’s called The Great Stagnation – How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better.

Cowen tells a story of declining productivity because, according to The Economist, the “ideas machine” may have broken down.

Mining for ideas

The fuel source for growth in an advanced economy is no longer land, minerals or water. The fuel source of a modern economy is ideas. That’s because ideas are how industry achieves more output for the same or fewer inputs.

Ideas allow us to light a room with bulbs that have the same luminosity as older technology bulbs but consume less power. Ideas allow us to construct a building with fewer materials, but which perform the same functions. Ideas allow us to make cars, trains and planes that travel faster, cleaner and more safely. In other words ideas allow us to do more with less.

When multiplied across the economy, ideas allow us to increase productivity – the ratio of inputs to outputs in a production process. Productivity is an underlying driver of wealth creation. Productivity improvements ultimately mean we can raise people’s incomes.

In his book The Age of Diminished Expectations: U.S. Economic Policy in the 1990s, the economics Nobel Prize laureate Paul Krugman is famous for saying:

Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything. A country’s ability to improve its standard of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its output per worker.

Does this situation apply to Australia? Data compiled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that productivity has experienced a sustained period of strong growth over the latter part of last century and into the beginning of this century.

Multifactor productivity for all industries in the Australian economy. Australian Bureau of Statistics

Multifactor productivity for all industries in the Australian economy. Australian Bureau of Statistics

But at around 2004 it hits a peak. After that it starts to decline. There are some questions about how alarmed we should be about productivity decline and whether it’s a cyclical phenomenon or a sustained slump.

Regardless of how these questions are answered the overwhelming view is that it would be much better for the Australian economy (and people’s incomes) if this graph resumed an upward-sloping trend. And quickly.

And the future looks…?

But the future is not that bleak. At least it doesn’t need to be. Tyler Cowen’s book title ends with the words “… and Will (Eventually) Feel Better”. A return to productivity growth can and will happen in Australia as well.

It will be achieved by a return to deeper innovation. Our rapidly changing world means what was once a bold idea is now mundane. Bold and new ideas will come from fundamental research that helps us understand how physical and social systems operate.

This will allow us to identify radically new and improved ways of manufacturing goods, extracting resources and doing everything industry does better.

That’s the challenge before Australia’s innovation system. We need to dive deeper and push the boundaries of knowledge into new places. As the Chinese economy transitions into an advanced services sector economy, Australia needs to become an advanced-services sector economy.

We need to build new industries connecting to new export markets. The World Economic Forum argues that digital technologies combined with rapid income growth in emerging Asian economies sets the scene for a boom in knowledge and creative industries.

To capture these opportunities Australia needs to breathe new life into our innovation system. To continue to grow our economy and create wealth for future generations we are faced with an imperative to innovate like never before.

Dr Stefan Hajkowicz will be speaking about the megatrends and the innovation imperative at the Australia 2040 Summit at Parliament House in Canberra on May 26, 2015.

The Conversation

Stefan Hajkowicz is Leader – CSIRO Futures at CSIRO.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Putting Cyprus Hill on the map: how we’re bringing our solar technology to the world

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see a solar field constructed in less than three minutes? Of course you haven’t, but what the heck, here it is.

This timelapse footage was taken on the south coast of Cyprus, where our team recently designed and installed a solar thermal field of 50 heliostats (mirrors that reflect the sun’s heat to a central tower) which could generate enough heat to boil a kettle in less than five seconds.

Super quick cups of tea aside, solar energy has enormous potential for Cyprus.

Being the southern-most member of the EU, the country is blessed with abundant sunshine. However most of the island nation’s electricity is generated – expensively – using oil, making solar an attractive option for power generation.

This is good news for Cyprus which, under European legislation, is required to derive 13% of its total energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020.

These are just some of the driving forces behind the Cyprus Institute’s decision to establish a solar thermal research facility at Pentakamo on the south coast, a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean Sea.

Solar Field low

A Mediterranean getaway like no other. This thermal solar field is part of a plan for Cyprus to generate 13% of its energy requirements through renewable sources. Credit: Cyprus Institute

For the team in our Energy Flagship, this project was a big step, as it’s the first time we’ve deployed this cutting edge technology outside of our own backyard.

“We’ve developed a lot of confidence building our own fields,” said our solar research leader Wes Stein, “but we were glad to step out of our comfort-zone for the Cyprus Institute because we shared a common goal. They’ve been a fantastic partner, and in fact we’ve just signed a MoU to further the partnership and undertake joint solar research with them.

“The project has given us a strong understanding of how to deploy these projects outside of our own safety zone and into other environments. And that’s where we want to go, we want solar thermal to be commercialised by building on the good research that we’re doing now.”

The Solar field of dreams and the dreamers. From left to right: Professor Costas Papanicolas, President of the Cyprus Institute, Mike Collins, CSIRO Mechanical Engineer, Wes Stein, CSIRO Solar Research Leader

The people who made it happen, from left to right: Professor Costas Papanicolas, President of the Cyprus Institute, Mike Collins, CSIRO Mechanical Engineer, Wes Stein, CSIRO Solar Research Leader

With a unique and smaller than usual design, our high-performance heliostats are well suited to the rugged terrain on Cyprus’ south coast. They also give the user more control over the intensity of the solar concentration and versatile installation.

Solar-thermal tower technology uses many mirrors (heliostats) that accurately track the sun, reflecting light towards a receiver on top of a tower which heats a fluid. The heated fluid is then used to drive a turbine for generating electricity and, in the case of the Cyprus Institute’s research, also powering a sea-water desalination plant.

As thermal energy can also be stored relatively cheaply compared to other technologies, there’s great potential for large-scale power generation regardless of when the sun is shining.

The experimental facility in Cyprus will be used for demonstration purposes by the Cyprus Institute. In the longer-term, we will be looking into the commercial use of the technology for other Mediterranean islands and the Middle East.

You can read more about the work we’re doing in solar and other renewable energy here.

Solar field of dreams. Credit: Cyprus Institute

Solar field of dreams. Credit: Cyprus Institute

Some Apple a Day: How we can improve search engine diagnoses


Forget Bing and beeline it to your GP. Screen capture from Bing 6/05/2015

‘Achy neck’, ‘poor attention’, search. I’m Googling my current symptoms. I suspect it’s because my current office chair/monitor configuration isn’t optimal, but let’s see. First hit suggests “poor posture, working at a desk for too long without changing position”. Interesting.

Unless I have undiagnosed fibromyalgia or an impending attack of bacterial meningitis (the next two suggestions), this diagnosis was not too sensational. But Dr Google doesn’t always give such tempered results, no, they can often be both unreliable and disconcerting. The good doctor isn’t here to assuage our fears, and cyberchondria is a real and potentially dangerous thing — especially when patients misdiagnose themselves, leading to mistaken self-medication.

Maybe I do have bacterial meningitis, ahh! Picture: Jesse Hawley

Maybe I do have bacterial meningitis, ahh! Picture: Jesse Hawley

Our researchers have teamed up with the Queensland University of Technology and the Vienna University of Technology, Austria to improve search engine processes to help individuals find more reliable online health advice, and to help health professionals treat patients more effectively.

“We’ve been looking at the use of search engines by everyday people to find medical advice online,” said Dr Bevan Koopman, one of our applied health informatics researchers. “People are using search engines all the time and there is a lot of information about illness and disease.

“This is easy when you’re searching for conditions that you already know, that are clear and simple. But it’s a bit harder when things are less well described and you have to tease out what particular symptoms you have, or just general health information. These might not be that well expressed, and so it’s difficult to return good results from a search engine.

“There are two parts to our research: one is evaluating how people are using systems and how effective they are, [and the second] is being done in order to develop new systems.”

The team did a preliminary evaluation of popular search engines, like Google and Bing, using participants and sample queries.

The results showed only 3 out of the first 10 results to be helpful in diagnosing the sample diseases, and only half of those 10 were partially relevant. Many results led to rarer, more fatal cyberchondria-inducing diagnoses, a phenomena which occurs because of the inherent mechanics of search engines, the researchers suggest.

“Our research goes beyond these results” said Bevan, “we’re also developing new methods for search engines to improve the way we can search for health information. For example, methods that take into account how readable the results are.”

The team has developed algorithms for search engines to determine which results are appropriate for the self-diagnosing searcher. The algorithms can determine if a page is jargon-heavy, it’s likely intended for an expert and not layperson.

In the longer term, the team aims to connect the ‘patient’ not only with appropriate webpages but with appropriate health services.

Doctor Google’s doors are always open, especially with the ubiquity of smart devices. Photo: Michael Summers

Doctor Google’s doors are always open, especially with the ubiquity of smart devices. Photo: Michael Summers

The research also has applications for healthcare professionals.

“We’re doing a lot of research into search engines to help doctors search patient records more effectively.

“For example, we’ve developed a system that allows radiologists to quickly look up common conditions,” said Bevan.

Through clinical partnerships we are delivering technology that improves the safety, quality, and efficiency of health services to create a better health system for all Australians. Find out more about our digital health research.

Right, finished the article. Maybe it’s time for a stretch and walk around the block.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,626 other followers