The Thousand Talents Plan is part of China’s long quest to become the global scientific leader


James Jin Kang, Edith Cowan University

The Thousand Talents Plan is a Chinese government program to attract scientists and engineers from overseas. Since the plan began in 2008, it has recruited thousands of researchers from countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Singapore, Canada, Japan, France and Australia.

While many countries try to lure top international research talent, the US, Canada and others have raised concerns that the Thousand Talents Plan may facilitate espionage and theft of intellectual property.

Why are we hearing about it now?

China has long been suspected of engaging in hacking and intellectual property theft. In the early 2000s, Chinese hackers were involved in the downfall of the Canadian telecommunications corporation Nortel, which some have linked to the rise of Huawei.

These efforts have attracted greater scrutiny as Western powers grow concerned about China’s increasing global influence and foreign policy projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative.

Last year, a US Senate committee declared the plan a threat to American interests. Earlier this year, Harvard nanotechnology expert Charles Lieber was arrested for lying about his links to the program.

In Australia, foreign policy think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute recently published a detailed report on Australian involvement in the plan. After media coverage of the plan, the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security is set to launch an inquiry into foreign interference in universities.




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What is the Thousand Talents Plan?

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) developed the Thousand Talents Plan to lure top scientific talent, with the goal of making China the world’s leader in science and technology by 2050. The CCP uses the plan to obtain technologies and expertise, and arguably, Intellectual Properties from overseas by illegal or non-transparent means to build their power by leveraging those technologies with minimal costs.

According to a US Senate committee report, the Thousand Talents Plan is one of more than 200 CCP talent recruitment programs. These programs drew in almost 60,000 professionals between 2008 and 2016.

China’s technology development and intellectual property portfolio has skyrocketed since the launch of the plan in 2008. Last year China overtook the US for the first time in filing the most international patents.

What are the issues?

The plan offers scientists funding and support to commercialise their research, and in return the Chinese government gains access to their technologies.

In 2019, a US Senate committee declared the plan a threat to American interests. It claimed one participating researcher stole information about US military jet engines, and more broadly that China uses American research and expertise for its own economic and military gain.




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Dozens of Australian and US employees of universities and government are believed to have participated in the plan without having declared their involvement. In May, ASIO issued all Australian universities a warning about Chinese government recruitment activities.

On top of intellectual property issues, there are serious human rights concerns. Technologies transferred to China under the program have been used in the oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and in society-wide facial recognition and other forms of surveillance.

A global network

The Chinese government has established more than 600 recruitment stations globally. This includes 146 in the US, 57 each in Germany and Australia, and more than 40 each in the UK, Canada, Japan and France.

Recruitment agencies contracted by the CCP are paid A$30,000 annually plus incentives for each successful recruitment.

They deal with individual researchers rather than institutions as it is easier to monitor them. Participants do not have to leave their current jobs to be involved in the plan.




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This can raise conflicts of interest. In the US alone, 54 scientists have lost their jobs for failing to disclose this external funding, and more than 20 have been charged on espionage and fraud allegations.

In Australia, our education sector relies significantly on the export of education to Chinese students. Chinese nationals may be employed in various sectors including research institutions.

These nationals are targets for Thousand Talents Plan recruitment agents. Our government may not know what’s going on unless participants disclose information about their external employment or grants funded by the plan.

The case of Koala AI

Heng Tao Shen was recruited by the Thousand Talents Plan in 2014 while a professor at the University of Queensland. He became head of the School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China and founded a company called Koala AI.

Members of Koala AI’s research team reportedly now include Thousand Talents Plan scholars at the University of NSW, University of Melbourne and the National University of Singapore. The plan allows participants to stay at their overseas base as long as they work in China for a few months of the year.

The company’s surveillance technology was used by authorities in Xinjiang, raising human rights issues. Shen, who relocated to China in 2017 but was as an honorary professor at the University of Queensland until September 2019, reportedly failed to disclose this information to his Australian university, going against university policy.

What should be done?

Most participants in the plan are not illegally engaged and have not breached the rules of their governments or institutions. With greater transparency and stricter adherence to the rules of foreign states and institutions, the plan could benefit both China and other nations.

Governments, universities and research institutions, and security agencies all have a role to play here.

The government can build partnership with other parties to monitor the CCP’s talent recruitment activities and increase transparency on funding in universities. Investigations of illegal behaviour related to the talent recruitment activity can be conducted by security agencies. Research institutes can tighten the integrity of grant recipients by disclosing any participation in the talent recruitment plans.




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More resources should be invested towards compliance and enforcement in foreign funding processes, so that researchers understand involvement in the Thousand Talents Plan may carry national security risks.

Following US government scrutiny in 2018, Chinese government websites deleted online references to the plan and some Chinese universities stopped promoting it. The plan’s website also removed the names of participating scientists.

This shows a joint effort can influence the CCP and their recruitment stations to be more cautious in approaching candidates, and reduce the impact of this plan on local and domestic affairs.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Heng Tao Shen ceased to be an honorary professor at University of Queensland in September 2019.The Conversation

James Jin Kang, Lecturer, Computing and Security, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Science publishing has opened up during the coronavirus pandemic. It won’t be easy to keep it that way



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Virginia Barbour, Queensland University of Technology

Scientific publishing is not known for moving rapidly. In normal times, publishing new research can take months, if not years. Researchers prepare a first version of a paper on new findings and submit it to a journal, where it is often rejected, before being resubmitted to another journal, peer-reviewed, revised and, eventually, hopefully published.

All scientists are familiar with the process, but few love it or the time it takes. And even after all this effort – for which neither the authors, the peer reviewers, nor most journal editors, are paid – most research papers end up locked away behind expensive journal paywalls. They can only be read by those with access to funds or to institutions that can afford subscriptions.

What we can learn from SARS

The business-as-usual publishing process is poorly equipped to handle a fast-moving emergency. In the 2003 SARS outbreaks in Hong Kong and Toronto, for example, only 22% of the epidemiological studies on SARS were even submitted to journals during the outbreak. Worse, only 8% were accepted by journals and 7% published before the crisis was over.

Fortunately, SARS was contained in a few months, but perhaps it could have been contained even quicker with better sharing of research.

Fast-forward to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the situation could not be more different. A highly infectious virus spreading across the globe has made rapid sharing of research vital. In many ways, the publishing rulebook has been thrown out the window.




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Preprints and journals

In this medical emergency, the first versions of papers (preprints) are being submitted onto preprint servers such as medRxiv and bioRxiv and made openly available within a day or two of submission. These preprints (now almost 7,000 papers on just these two sites) are being downloaded millions of times throughout the world.

However, exposing scientific content to the public before it has been peer-reviewed by experts increases the risk it will be misunderstood. Researchers need to engage with the public to improve understanding of how scientific knowledge evolves and to provide ways to question scientific information constructively.




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Traditional journals have also changed their practices. Many have made research relating to the pandemic immediately available, although some have specified the content will be locked back up once the pandemic is over. For example, a website of freely available COVID-19 research set up by major publisher Elsevier states:

These permissions are granted for free by Elsevier for as long as the Elsevier COVID-19 resource centre remains active.

Publication at journals has also sped up, though it cannot compare with the phenomenal speed of preprint servers. Interestingly, it seems posting a preprint speeds up the peer-review process when the paper is ultimately submitted to a journal.

Open data

What else has changed in the pandemic? What has become clear is the power of aggregation of research. A notable initiative is the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19), a huge, freely available public dataset of research (now more than 130,000 articles) whose development was led by the US White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Researchers can not only read this research but also reuse it, which is essential to make the most of the research. The reuse is made possible by two specific technologies: permanent unique identifiers to keep track of research papers, and machine-readable conditions (licences) on the research papers, which specify how that research can be used and reused.

These are Creative Commons licences like those that cover projects such as Wikipedia and The Conversation, and they are vital for maximising reuse. Often the reading and reuse is done now at least in a first scan by machines, and research that is not marked as being available for use and reuse may not even be seen, let alone used.

What has also become important is the need to provide access to data behind the research papers. In a fast-moving field of research not every paper receives detailed scrutiny (especially of underlying data) before publication – but making the data available ensures claims can be validated.

If the data can’t be validated, the research should be treated with extreme caution – as happened to a swiftly retracted paper about the effects of hydroxychloroquine published by The Lancet in May.




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Overnight changes, decades in the making

While opening up research literature during the pandemic may seem to have happened virtually overnight, these changes have been decades in the making. There were systems and processes in place developed over many years that could be activated when the need arose.

The international licences were developed by the Creative Commons project, which began in 2001. Advocates have been challenging the dominance of commercial journal subscription models since the early 2000s, and open access journals and other publishing routes have been growing globally since then.

Even preprints are not new. Although more recently platforms for preprints have been growing across many disciplines, their origin is in physics back in 1991.

Lessons from the pandemic

So where does publishing go after the pandemic? As in many areas of our lives, there are some positives to take forward from what became a necessity in the pandemic.

The problem with publishing during the 2003 SARS emergency wasn’t the fault of the journals – the system was not in place then for mass, rapid open publishing. As an editor at The Lancet at the time, I vividly remember we simply could not publish or even meaningfully process every paper we received.

But now, almost 20 years later, the tools are in place and this pandemic has made a compelling case for open publishing. Though there are initiatives ongoing across the globe, there is still a lack of coordinated, long term, high-level commitment and investment, especially by governments, to support key open policies and infrastructure.

We are not out of this pandemic yet, and we know that there are even bigger challenges in the form of climate change around the corner. Making it the default that research is open so it can be built on is a crucial step to ensure we can address these problems collaboratively.The Conversation

Virginia Barbour, Director, Australasian Open Access Strategy Group, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

My new life as a coronavirus tester – a scientist’s story



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Tobias Wauer, University of Cambridge

It was March 2020, and my plans to start a new cancer research project in Boston were called off for the same reason everything else was grinding to a halt: coronavirus. Facing indeterminate months confined to my sofa, I signed up to a call for scientist volunteers circulated by the University of Cambridge.

The requirements weren’t very specific, and after almost losing hope that I would ever hear back, I received a phone call inviting me to assist in the ramp-up of the UK’s testing capacity.

Three days later, at the end of March, I arrived with a handful of other volunteers at an industrial estate near the town of Milton Keynes, outside London.

Building a megalab

On the outside, the testing centre resembled a warehouse more than a lab, but an impressive management team including many of the UK’s leading scientists had already been assembled. The team leader, who had arrived the week before, introduced us to the task at hand: create a facility that would be the backbone of the UK’s testing strategy.

At this point, it seemed like a far-fetched idea to me. The “lighthouse” lab to process the bulk of the coronavirus test samples hadn’t even been constructed and unboxed equipment was piling up. There was no indication this would soon become the largest coronavirus testing site in the country.

From the start, one of the biggest challenges was in gathering equipment. Seemingly difficult tasks turned out to be straightforward, whilst trivial ones became surprisingly intractable.

Complicated, expensive machines donated from institutes all around the UK were installed within a couple of days; manufacturers massively ramped up production of sophisticated test reagents and we were able to build up our stocks.

But something as seemingly trivial as a shortage of pipettes threatened to stall the whole operation, as thousands of tests waited to be processed. In an emergency like this it was handy to have a direct line to institute heads around the UK who were eager to help. One more call and an army truck with dozens of pipettes and other equipment arrived within three hours.

In the end, the collaboration between permanent staff, scientists, external institutes, private companies and the armed forces made it possible to set up a working lab within a matter of days.

A motley crew of scientists

The volunteering scientists in my cohort were a diverse crew: most of us had PhDs and had spent years in scientific research, but we initially shared a common concern that few of us had experience dealing specifically with coronaviruses. My own expertise investigating the molecular causes of Parkinson’s disease and cancer seemed a far cry from viral diagnostics.

As it turned out, there was little cause for concern – the coronavirus test is actually quite straightforward. At its heart lies the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) method, arguably one of the most widely used techniques in molecular biology labwork and a procedure undergraduates students learn as part of basic training.

In a PCR test, the genetic material of the virus is mixed with enzymes that can build and replicate viral DNA. Short DNA sequences called “primers” are then added. In a positive test the primers “recognise” viral genes and initialise their replication. Hence, when we see more DNA being produced, we know that it must belong to the Sars-CoV-2 virus, and the PCR test returns a positive result.




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All of the newly arriving scientists had used the PCR technique in their own research many times before and it quickly became apparent that coordination and good management was a greater challenge than technical knowledge of coronavirus biology if this unprecedented undertaking was to succeed.

Every week, dozens of new volunteers were recruited from top universities and institutes all over the UK. Some of us stayed in pre-arranged hotels nearby, others commuted from our home towns. Each cohort received a week of intensive training and by the following week were themselves training the next intake of volunteers under the supervision of a shift leader.

Within two weeks, the site had changed beyond recognition. New labs had been fitted, robots had been installed, dozens of new hires were being trained every week and my initial worries started to dissipate. I began to think, “We can actually do this!”

Scaling up

With essential equipment installed, it was time to scale up. To an experienced scientist, performing a single PCR test is straightforward, but running tens of thousands of tests a day is a different story.

Time and again simple considerations turned out to be the most vital: “What’s the best way to extract the sample from its packaging?”, “Should the barcode be scanned before or after the sample is taken out?”, “At what moment should the pipette be mounted with a pipette tip?”

Feeding a robot with samples turned into a process with all the efficiency of a Formula 1 pit stop. One operator takes out the old samples, a second replenishes test reagents and a third loads another 94 samples – 10 seconds, done. Soon we had an integrated workflow of dozens of steps running in perfect orchestration.

While speed is important, precision is vital. A false negative result could see a nurse with COVID-19 going back into a care home to infect dozens of vulnerable patients; a false positive might see a healthy doctor sent home from ICU to self-isolate for a fortnight, or a key worker sending half their company into quarantine for no reason.

To prevent this, a sample must be tracked electronically and on paper at every stage. Every intervention by a scientist must be supervised by another to help prevent human error.

As our team grew, strict training routines needed to be established with clear rules. How do you write a “1”, an “I” and a “7”? Is this a “5” or an “S”? How do you distinguish an “O” from a “0”? Lecturing experienced professionals about how to write numbers and letters made me feel absurdly pedantic, but it quickly became clear that common rules have to be followed religiously to minimise all possible sources of error.

A month in, we had enough volunteers to work 24/7. I lost track of the time of day and the days of the week. The daily routine was governed by the mantra of Tedros Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization: “Test. Test. Test.”

Back in the first week, the manual sample handling process allowed a us to process a couple of hundred samples. With more volunteers coming in, this increased to a couple of thousand, and when we roped in robots to help, it quickly reached tens of thousands of processed tests per day.

Just like the spread of the virus we were competing against, our capacity was growing exponentially. What would normally have taken months or years to establish, now took days or weeks.

The eye of a political storm

The progress on testing has received a lot of bad press and many of us at the test centre felt we were being made personally responsible for hitting government targets. This added pressure caused frustration, especially when everyone gave their very best to make this undertaking a success.

Political finger-pointing over testing numbers caused frustration among volunteers.
Number 10, CC BY-NC-ND

We need to put things in perspective. From a starting point of zero, within weeks, the joint efforts of hundreds of volunteers allowed the lab to process more than 30,000 tests per day – or one test every three seconds.

This put us in a position where the processing of COVID-19 tests was no longer the limiting factor of the testing initiative and soon there has been hardly a day where our testing capacities were being used to the full. The debate now should be less about the available testing capacity and more on how to make best use of what is available.

The privilege of a lifetime

Most of the original crop of recruits have finished their time at the testing centre and have gone back to their labs to continue their previous research. What remains as one of the most positive takeaways from my perspective is that, despite the challenges and the country’s seeming divisions, it is still possible for us to rally around a common goal. Volunteers joined the testing initiative from all corners of the country, many of them from Europe and beyond living and working in the UK, eager to help out in the common effort to fend off the invisible enemy.

The work of these people has saved lives. It was my great privilege to have been part of this collaboration.The Conversation

Tobias Wauer, Sir Henry Wellcome Fellow at the Medical Research Council. Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coronavirus and university reforms put at risk Australia’s research gains of the last 15 years



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Andrew Norton, Australian National University

Education minister Dan Tehan will be meeting with university vice-chancellors to devise a new way of funding university research. They will have plenty to talk about.

Australia’s universities have been remarkably successful in building their research output. But there are cracks in the funding foundations of that success, which are being exposed by the revenue shock of COVID-19 and the minister’s reforms announced this month, which would pay for new student places with money currently spent on research.

I estimate the gap in funding that needs to be filled to maintain our current research output at around $4.7 billion.

The funding foundations crumble

The timing of Dan Tehan’s higher education reform package could not have been worse for the university research sector.

The vulnerability created by universities’ reliance on international students has been brutally revealed this year. Travel bans prevent international students arriving in Australia and the COVID-19 recession undermines their capacity to pay tuition fees.




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Profits from domestic and international students are the only way universities can finance research on the current scale, with more than A$12 billion spent in 2018.

Based on a Deloitte Access Economics analysis of teaching costs, universities make a surplus of about A$1.3 billion on domestic students. Universities use much of this surplus to fund research.

Tehan’s reform package seeks to align the total teaching funding rates for each Commonwealth supported student – the combined tuition subsidy and student contribution – with the teaching and scholarship costs identified in the Deloitte analysis.

On 2018 enrolment numbers, revenue losses for universities for Commonwealth supported students would total around $750 million with this realignment. With only teaching costs funded, universities will have little or no surplus from their teaching to spend on research.




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International student profits are larger than domestic – at around $4 billion. Much of this money is spent on research too, and much of this is at risk. The recession will also reduce how much industry partners and philanthropists can contribute to university research.

Australia’s Chief Scientist estimates 7,700 research jobs are at risk from COVID-19 factors alone. Unless the Commonwealth intervenes with a new research funding policy, its recent announcements will trigger further significant research job losses.

Combined teaching and research academic jobs will decline

Although less research employment will be available, the additional domestic students financed by redirecting research funding will generate teaching work.

More students is a good thing in itself, as the COVID-19 recession will generate more demand for higher education.

But this reallocation between research and teaching will exacerbate a major structural problem in the academic labour market. Although most academics want teaching and research, or research-only roles, over the last 30 years Commonwealth teaching and research funding has separated.

After the latest Tehan reforms, funding for the two activities will be based on entirely different criteria and put on very different growth trajectories.

An academic employment model that assumes the same people teach and research was kept alive by funding surpluses on domestic, and especially international, students. With both these surpluses being hit hard, the funding logic is that a trend towards more specialised academic staff will have to accelerate.

We can expect academic morale to fall and industrial action to rise as university workforces resist this change.




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The funding squeeze will also undermine the current system of Commonwealth research funding. This funding is allocated in two main ways. In part, it comes from competitive project grant funding, largely from the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council.

Academic prestige is attached to winning these grants, but the money allocated does not cover the project’s costs. Typically, universities pay the salaries of the lead researchers and general costs, such as laboratories and libraries.

Universities are partly compensated for those expenses through research block grants, which are awarded based on previous academic performance, including in winning competitive grants. But because block grants do not cover all competitive project grant costs, the system has relied on discretionary revenue, much of it from students, to work. It will need a major rethink if teaching becomes much less profitable.

The stakes are high

University spending on research (which was over $12 billion in 2018), has nearly tripled since 2000 in real terms.

Direct government spending on research increased this century, but not by nearly enough to finance this huge expansion in outlays. In 2018, the Commonwealth government’s main research funding programs contributed A$3.7 billion.

An additional $600 million came from other Commonwealth sources such as government department contracts for specific pieces of research.

In addition to this Commonwealth money, universities received another $1.9 billion in earmarked research funding from state, territory and other (national) governments, donations, and industry.

These research-specific sources still leave billions of dollars in research spending without a clear source of finance. Universities have investment earnings, profits on commercial operations and other revenue sources they can invest in research.

But these cannot possibly cover the estimated $4.7 billion gap between research revenue and spending.

With lower profits on teaching, this gap cannot be filled. Research spending will have to be reduced by billions of dollars.

We are at a turning point in Australian higher education. The research gains of the last fifteen years are at risk of being reversed. The minister’s meeting with vice-chancellors has very high stakes.The Conversation

Andrew Norton, Professor in the Practice of Higher Education Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Antarctic endeavours, primary health-care research and dark matter exploration – the coronavirus casualties you haven’t heard of



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Lauren Ball, Griffith University

The year 2020 came with big expectations for researchers, myself included. Last year I was successful in the first round of the National Health and Medical Research Council Investigator Grants scheme. Six years since completing my PhD, I managed to launch my Healthy Primary Care research team.

We investigate how principles of wellness such as healthy eating and exercise are incorporated into health care, particularly in general practice. I spent the summer planning how to support my team for the next five years, focusing on impact and research translation into real-world settings.

Big things were in the works. It was an exciting time. But as it turns out, wellness in health care isn’t a priority during the COVID-19 crisis.

As the pandemic lingers, big players (especially pharmaceutical companies) around the world have understandably dropped everything, joining forces to give the virus their undivided attention.

A sudden loss

Many of my team’s projects relied on doctors, nurses and other health professionals to collect or provide data. With the strain placed on health care by the pandemic, continuing was no longer viable. Grant applications, domestic and international travel, conferences and meetings have all been cancelled or postponed indefinitely.

As a supervisor, the hardest part was withdrawing research students and interns I’d lined up to start projects in clinics. This pandemic has challenged the relevance, impact and productivity of our work.




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This shock comes shortly after a summer of devastating bushfires which hindered research progress by forcing experts out of fire-affected regions, destroying expanses of equipment and reportedly setting some studies “back months or years”.

This photo was taken in Junee, New South Wales, in January. According to reports, the total tangible cost estimate of the summer bushfires was close to A$100 billion.
Shutterstock

Stoppages across the field

Social distancing, travel bans and quarantine restrictions mean scientific fieldwork across the world has almost completely stopped.

The Australian Antarctic Program, led by the federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment has been reduced to essential staff only to keep the Antarctic continent COVID-19-free. Instead of sending 500 expeditioners in the next summer season, the Australian Antarctic Division will only send about 150.

Social distancing measures are also preventing climate scientists from being able to visit their laboratories. If the pandemic continues, this could hamper important weather and climate surveillance practices. In some cases, labs have been reduced to one essential worker whose sole job is to keep laboratory animals alive for when research resumes.

Delays have also impacted one of the world’s largest efforts to investigate the nature of dark matter. The XENON experiment based in Italy is worth more than US$30 million, according to the New York Times. It faced a multitude of roadblocks when the country was forced into lockdown earlier this year.

Young research stars missing opportunities

For young researchers, social distancing and event cancellations are especially damaging to professional development. Scientific conferences and meetings foster collaboration and can also lead to employment opportunities.

Although funding cancellations and grant scheme delays mostly impact established researchers, other schemes supporting early career and postdoctoral researchers have also been postponed, such as the Rebecca L Cooper Medical Research scheme and the Griffith University Postdoctoral Fellowship scheme.




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This crisis has left the next generation of researchers unsupported, and have negative flow-on effects for all research areas. In health and disease prevention, research efforts apart from vaccinations are still vital, as the onset of COVID-19 hasn’t stopped the rise of chronic disease.

There are positives

Australia boasts a robust and passionate research workforce, which means we can divert resources to a united cause such as the coronavirus crisis. As the race for a vaccine continues, the value of research has never been more apparent to the non-scientific community. This may help weaken anti-science messages.

The pandemic is also providing opportunity for future university leaders to understand university management, funding and governance decisions. Never before has information been so accessible on where funding comes from.

Online conferencing and collaboration related to research has also made participation more accessible and affordable. This increases inclusively by removing barriers for people who may not be able to attend in-person gatherings, such as people living with a physical disability, full-time carers and people experiencing financial hardship. Less domestic and international travel is also helping reduce carbon footprints.

Charging forward

The health system isn’t working normally, which means my team’s research isn’t working normally. Nonetheless, we’re pivoting well in this uncertain time. We’re helping plan the first online conference for Australian primary care to improve access to relevant research across the country.

New grant opportunities are aligning COVID-19 to our research focus, such as the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners’s and the Hospitals Contribution Fund’s special call for projects on COVID-19 in general practice.

Some may think non-COVID-19 research isn’t currently necessary, but it will be once we combat this disease. And when that happens, we’ll be ready to continue right where we left off.The Conversation

Lauren Ball, Associate Professor/ Principal Research Fellow, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Citizen science: how you can contribute to coronavirus research without leaving the house




Ayesha Tulloch, University of Sydney; Aaron Greenville, University of Sydney; Alice Motion, University of Sydney; Cobi Calyx, UNSW; Glenda Wardle, University of Sydney; Rebecca Cross, University of Sydney; Rosanne Quinnell, University of Sydney; Samantha Rowbotham, University of Sydney, and Yun-Hee Jeon, University of Sydney

As Australians try to maintain social engagement during self-isolation, citizen science offers a unique opportunity.

Defined as “public participation and collaboration in scientific research”, citizen science allows everyday people to use technology to unite towards a common goal – from the comfort of their homes. And it is now offering a chance to contribute to research on the coronavirus pandemic.

With so many of us staying home, this could help build a sense of community where we may otherwise feel helpless, or struggle with isolation.




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Anyone is welcome to contribute. You don’t need expertise, just time and interest. Projects exist in many forms, catering to people of diverse ages, backgrounds and circumstances. Many projects offer resources and guides to help you get started, and opportunities to collaborate via online discussion forums.

Ditch the news cycle – engage, gain skills and make a difference

Scientists worldwide are racing to find effective treatments and vaccines to halt the coronavirus pandemic. As a citizen scientist, you can join the effort to help tackle COVID-19, and other infectious diseases.

Foldit is an online game that challenges players to fold proteins to better understand their structure and function. The Foldit team is now challenging citizen scientists to design antiviral proteins that can bind with the coronavirus.

The highest scoring designs will be manufactured and tested in real life. In this way, Foldit offers a creative outlet that could eventually contribute to a future vaccine for the virus.

Another similar project is Folding@home. This is a distributed computing project that, rather than using you to find proteins, uses your computer’s processing power to run calculations in the background. Your computer becomes one of thousands running calculations, all working together.

One way to combat infectious diseases is by monitoring their spread, to predict outbreaks.

Online surveillance project FluTracking helps track influenza. By completing a 10-second survey each week, participants aid researchers in monitoring the prevalence of flu-like symptoms across Australia and New Zealand. It could also help track the spread of the coronavirus.

Such initiatives are increasingly important in the global fight against emerging infectious diseases, including COVID-19.

Citizen science portal Flutracking’ was designed to allow researchers and citizens to track flu-like symptoms around Australia and New Zealand.

Another program, PatientsLikeMe, empowers patients who have tested positive to a disease to share their experiences and treatment regimes with others who have similar health concerns. This lets researchers test potential treatments more quickly.

The program recently set up a community for people who have contracted COVID-19 and recovered. These individuals are contributing to a data set that could prove useful in the fight against the virus.

Environmental projects need your support too

If you’d like to get your mind off COVID-19, there’s a plethora of other options for citizen scientists. You can contribute to conservation and nature recovery efforts – a task many took to after the recent bushfires.




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Some sites ask volunteers to digitise data from ongoing environmental monitoring programs. Contributors need no prior experience, and interpret photos taken with remote digital cameras using online guides. One example is Western Australia’s Western Shield Camera Watch, available through Zooniverse.

Other sites crowdsource volunteers to transcribe data from natural history collections (DigiVol), historical logbooks from explorers, and weather observation stations (Southern Weather Discovery).

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s citizen science app eBird uses bird sightings to fuel research and conservation efforts.
eBird

Citizen science programs such as eBird, BirdLife Australia’s Birdata, the Australian Museum’s FrogID, ClimateWatch, QuestaGame, NatureMapr, and the Urban Wildlife App, all have freely available mobile applications that let you contribute to “big” databases on urban and rural wildlife.

Nature watching is a great self-isolation activity because you can do it anywhere, including at home. Questagame runs a series of “bioquests” where people of all ages and experience levels can photograph animals and plants they encounter.

In April, we’ll also have the national Wild Pollinator Count. This project invites participants to watch any flowering plant for just ten minutes, and record insects that visit the flowers. The aim is to boost knowledge on wild pollinator activity.

The data collected through citizen science apps are used by researchers to explore animal migration, understand ranges of species, and determine how changes in climate, air quality and habitat affect animal behaviour.




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This year for the first time, several Australian cities are participating in iNaturalist’s City Nature Challenge. The organisers have adapted planned events with COVID-19 in mind, and suggest ways to document nature while maintaining social distancing. You can simply capture what you can see in your backyard, or when taking a walk, or put a moth light out at night to see what it attracts.

Connecting across generations

For those at home with children, there are a variety of projects aimed at younger audiences.

From surveying galaxies to the Bird Academy Play Lab’s Games Powered By Birds – starting young can encourage a lifetime of learning.

If you’re talented at writing or drawing, why not keep a nature diary, and share your observations through a blog.

By contributing to research through digital platforms, citizen scientists offer a repository of data experts might not otherwise have access to. The Australian Citizen Science Association (ACSA) website has details on current projects you can join, or how to start your own.

Apart from being a valuable way to pass time while self-isolating, citizen science reminds us of the importance of community and collaboration at a time it’s desperately needed.The Conversation

Ayesha Tulloch, DECRA Research Fellow, University of Sydney; Aaron Greenville, Lecturer in Spatial Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney; Alice Motion, Associate professor, University of Sydney; Cobi Calyx, Research Fellow in Science Communication, UNSW; Glenda Wardle, Professor of Ecology and Evolution, University of Sydney; Rebecca Cross, Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Sydney; Rosanne Quinnell, Associate Professor, University of Sydney; Samantha Rowbotham, Lecturer, Health Policy, University of Sydney, and Yun-Hee Jeon, Susan and Isaac Wakil Professor of Healthy Ageing, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Budget 2018: when scientists make their case effectively, politicians listen


Alan Finkel, Office of the Chief Scientist

Budget 2018 confirms that the case for funding science is being heard in Canberra.

Science and research are integrated in the national objectives laid down in the treasurer’s speech: to create jobs, boost health and improve the liveability of communities.

Many of the measures appear to have origins in proposals advanced by the science community.




Read more:
Infographic: Budget 2018 at a glance


Lessons from Budget 2018

What lessons can we take from this year’s outcome? After two years in Canberra, I haven’t discovered a magic key to the Federal coffers. But here are my general observations.

Intrinsic value is not sufficient

We can’t assume that the broad public support for science will translate into support for specific proposals unless we do the work to explain the benefits, including more jobs and better health.

Being intrinsically valuable is not sufficient. Clarity about what we can deliver is essential when science is competing with spending proposals with obvious and immediate benefits – like more hospital beds.




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Politicians need help

It helps to remember that most politicians aren’t experts in science policy. I’ve wrestled for years with the term “national research infrastructure”. People I talk to outside the research sector simply don’t understand it. A small change to saying “national research facilities” turns the lights on.

Show outcomes

It’s important for politicians to see the outcomes of public investment. They see the dollar figures in the budget papers but they don’t necessarily connect the research breakthroughs they read about in the newspapers years later to the programs that made them possible. It is important to help local members, irrespective of their party, recognise the impact of previously funded programs working for Australians.

Review and communicate

Take stock of progress and give credit to what has been achieved to date before heading back into the arena for the next round. As custodians of public funds, researchers should be proud to share their achievements with the taxpayers who ultimately make them possible.




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We’re all in this

Finally, I’ve always found politicians to be far more receptive to funding proposals when they see commitment from other quarters. It’s not just the Commonwealth that needs to step up. It’s business. It’s state and territory governments. It’s philanthropists.

If we reach out widely, we can strengthen our advocacy with new allies, and at the same time, help government to focus on the things that only government can do.

Below I highlight some key areas funded through Budget 2018.

Key science and technology items in Budget 2018, from the Australian Academy of Science.

National facilities

I welcome the emphasis on national-scale research facilities: I was Chair of the taskforce that delivered the 2016 National Research Infrastructure Roadmap.

This year’s budget invests $1.9 billion over 12 years, adding to the $1.5 billion over ten years committed to the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) in 2015.

As shown below, $393.3 million is allocated in the next five years.


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I am encouraged that the government has committed to review the investment plan every two years, in recognition of the importance of keeping this discussion firmly on the national agenda.

In addition to these funds, the budget acts on an urgent priority flagged in the Roadmap – high performance computing. $70 million for the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Perth adds to the $70 million previously committed to the National Computational Infrastructure in Canberra.

This builds on the $119 million announced for the European Southern Observatory in the previous budget.

National missions

A second notable feature is the follow-through on the national missions proposed in the Innovation and Science Australia (ISA) 2030 Plan.

The ISA mission to preserve the Great Barrier Reef is supported by $100 million in new investment for coral reef research and restoration projects, as part of a $500 million package announced last month.

The ISA mission to harness precision medicine and genomics to make Australia the healthiest nation in the world is backed with $500 million over the next ten years from the Medical Research Future Fund.




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A scaffold for the genomics revolution was provided by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) in the recent Precision Medicine Horizon Scanning report, commissioned by the Commonwealth Science Council.

A forthcoming Horizon Scanning report, on artificial intelligence, will likewise inform the $30 million commitment to AI and machine learning in the 2018 budget. The funding includes a national ethics framework for AI – a welcome development that will position Australia well in the global AI standards debate.


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More broadly, the budget acts on priorities that scientists have championed for years.

There is $41 million for a National Space Agency, including a $15 million fund for International Space Investment.


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Over four years, $36 million will be provided for the Antarctic science program.

An amount of $4.5 million over four years is aimed to encourage more women into STEM education and careers, including a decadal plan for women in science.

With a focus on GPS technology, $225 million is allocated over four years to improve the accuracy of satellite navigation, and $37 million over three years for Digital Earth Australia. The goal of this funding is to make satellite data accessible for research, regional Australia and business.


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There is also $20 million for an Asian Innovation Strategy, including an extension of the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund for four years.

Business innovation

In the business arena, changes to address integrity and additionality (that is, driving R&D to levels beyond “business as usual”) in the Research and Development Tax Incentive (RDTI) will reduce by an estimated $2.4 billion the money the scheme delivers to industry.

As one of the authors of the “3Fs” review of the RDTI – with Bill Ferris and John Fraser – I support the rebalancing of Australia’s business innovation budget. We are a global outlier in our heavy reliance on the indirect pull-through achieved through the tax system, instead of mission-driven direct investment.

The ConversationWith money recouped from the RDTI, scientists and research-intensive businesses should be making the case for more and better-targeted programs. Work remains to be done.

Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Office of the Chief Scientist

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