Researchers use ‘pre-prints’ to share coronavirus results quickly. But that can backfire



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Danny Kingsley, Australian National University

As the world scrambles to understand COVID-19, multiple studies seem to offer a cure or new risk factor for the disease, only to be disproven a short time later.

One sensational news story claimed people with type A blood were more likely to catch the coronavirus. The story was soon debunked.

A common factor in these stories is the original research was published as a “pre-print”. But what is a pre-print and how should we be using them?




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One clue is in the name. Pre-prints are versions of research papers available before they are formally published.

The term has been around for decades. In pre-internet days, physicists posted each other photocopied versions of draft papers for comment.

Once the internet came along, it was clearly more efficient to put these papers in a central location. In 1991 the very first electronic pre-print server was born, now called arXiv (pronounced “archive”).

This meant anyone with access to the internet could read and comment on the work. That pre-print server now holds almost 1.7 million papers.




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There has been something of an explosion of pre-print servers in the past few years.

One of the biggest after arXiv is its biological counterpart, bioRxiv, which launched in 2013. Even newer is medRxiv, launched last year.

Not surprisingly, the number of pre-prints published on these servers has also grown exponentially. And pre-prints specifically relating to COVID-19 have increased the numbers further.

So, what’s the problem? Isn’t it good that all this research is being made available? Well, yes and no.

Researchers need to share their coronavirus work quickly

In a rapidly changing environment such as a pandemic, it is important researchers know what kind of work is happening and who is doing it. Pre-prints allow them to find out quickly.

Researchers, who are the intended audience for these pre-prints, understand there can be a major difference between a pre-print and the final published version.

The public, including journalists, can also access these pre-prints as they’re openly available.

That’s very different to the vast majority of academic publications, which are held behind paywalls, with charges for a single viewing in the tens and sometimes hundreds of dollars for people without a subscription.




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But the public, including journalists, is generally less aware of the provisional nature of the research commonly found on these pre-print servers.

This situation, with the media publishing items based on unproven information, has become so problematic that Australia’s chief scientist is urging the public to be wary of claims of breakthroughs.

Pre-print servers themselves already point out the articles have not been peer reviewed and should not “be reported in news media as established information”, as seen in the yellow box below.

Pre-print servers warn that the research is preliminary.
Screenshot/bioRxiv

The path to publication

Once a research project has discovered something, the research group will write it up as a paper which describes what they did, what they found and what makes this a new finding.

This paper is sometimes published as a pre-print. The paper is then submitted to a journal for consideration and the journal editors send it out to experts in the field to comment on the work – a process called peer review.

The reviewers send back their comments, which might request the authors add extra information to the paper, or sometimes do additional experiments. The researchers address these comments and resubmit the paper before it is published.

This can take a long time, from months to sometimes years before the paper is actually published. In the middle of a pandemic that’s a problem.




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The academic publishing industry is trying to improve the flow of information. Many publishers are making COVID-19 related articles openly available.

Many publishers are also fast-tracking peer review. But even with this sped-up timeframe, the process still takes a while. Pre-prints are fast.

The thing to remember with pre-prints is they have not been peer reviewed. While many publications don’t change a great deal after peer review, some articles require considerable amendment or even withdrawal.

All of this doesn’t mean that what you read in a pre-print is rubbish. Actually, pre-prints are an important part of the publication process.

In fact, the prestigious journal Nature now encourages researchers to upload their paper as a pre-print. Other journals have similar policies.

So what can the public do?

When looking for information, ideally use published research – formatting and publisher logos are clues. But if you want to decide whether a pre-print contains valid information, try finding another article making similar claims.

So what happened with the blood type research? The original pre-print, published on March 16, had multiple comments. On March 27, a second version was uploaded, which emphasises “this is an early study with limitations”.

The system works, as long as you know what you are looking at.




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The Conversation


Danny Kingsley, Visiting Fellow, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University

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

What if the vaccine or drugs don’t save us? Plan B for coronavirus means research on alternatives is urgently needed



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Tammy Hoffmann, Bond University and Paul Glasziou, Bond University

The curve of the COVID-19 epidemic has been flattened in many countries around the world, and it hasn’t been new antivirals or a vaccine that has done it. We are being saved by non-drug interventions such as quarantine, social distancing, handwashing, and – for health-care workers – masks and other protective equipment.

We are all hoping for a vaccine in 2021. But what do we do in the meantime? And more importantly, what if no vaccine emerges?

The world has bet most of its research funding on finding a vaccine and effective drugs. That effort is vital, but it must be accompanied by research on how to target and improve the non-drug interventions that are the only things that work so far.

Debates still rage over basic questions such as whether the public should use face masks; whether we should stand 1, 2 or 4 metres apart; and whether we should wash our hands with soap or sanitiser. We need the answers now.




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What about non-drug intervention research?

Across all health research, non-drug interventions are the subject of about 40% of clinical trials. Yet they receive far less attention than drug development and testing.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of dollars have already been given to research groups around the world to develop vaccines and trial potential drug cures. Hundreds of clinical trials on drugs and vaccines are under way, but we could find only a handful of trials of non-drug interventions, and no trials on how to improve the adherence to them.

While holding our breath for the vaccine …

We all hope the massive global effort to develop a vaccine or drug treatment for COVID-19 is successful. But many experts, including Ian Frazer, who developed Australia’s HPV vaccine, think it will not be easy or quick.

If an effective vaccine or drug doesn’t materialise, we will need a Plan B that uses only non-drug interventions. That’s why we need high-quality research to find out which ones work and how to do them as effectively as possible.

Aren’t non-drug interventions straightforward?

You might think hand washing, masks and social distancing are simple things and don’t need research. In fact, non-drug interventions are often very complex.

It takes research to understand not only the “active components” of the intervention (washing your hands, for example), but also how much is needed, how to help people start and keep doing it, and how to communicate these messages to people. Developing and implementing an effective non-drug intervention is very different from developing a vaccine or a drug, but it can be just as complex.

To take one example, there has been a #Masks4All campaign to encourage everyone to wear face masks. But what type of mask, and what should it be made of? Who should wear masks – people who are ill, people who are caring for people who are ill, or everyone? And when and where? There is little agreement on these detailed questions.

Washing your hands also sounds simple. But how often? Twice a day, 10 times a day, or at specific trigger times? What’s the best way to teach people to wash their hands correctly? If people don’t have perfect technique, is hand sanitiser be better than soap and water? Is wearing masks and doing hand hygiene more effective than doing just either of them?

These are just are some of the things that we don’t know about non-drug interventions.

Existing research is lacking

We recently reviewed all the randomised controlled trials for physical interventions to interrupt the spread of respiratory viruses, including interventions such as masks, hand hygiene, eye protection, social distancing, quarantining, and any combination of these. We found a messy and varied bunch of trials, many of low quality or small sample size, and for some types of interventions, no randomised trials.

Other non-drug options to research include the built environment, such as heating, ventilation, air conditioning circulation, and surfaces (for example, the SARS-CoV-2 virus “dies” much more rapidly on copper than other hard surfaces).

Are some of the things we are doing now ineffective? Probably. The problem is we don’t know which ones. We need to know this urgently so we’re not wasting time, effort, and resources on things that don’t work.

At a time when we need to achieve rapid behaviour change on a massive scale, inconsistent and conflicting messages only creates confusion and makes achieving behaviour change much harder.

What about the next pandemic?

If a successful COVID-19 vaccine is developed, we’re out of the woods for now. But what happens when the next pandemic or epidemic arrives? Vaccines are virus-specific, so next time a new virus threatens us, we will again be in the same situation. However, what we learn now about non-drug interventions can be used to protect us against other viruses, while we wait again for another new vaccine or drug.

We have had opportunities to study non-drug interventions for respiratory viruses in the recent past, particularly during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003 and the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009. However, the chances for rigorous studies were largely wasted and we now find ourselves desperately scrambling for answers.




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What about research for Plan B?

To prepare for the future and Plan B, the case where a vaccine doesn’t arrive, we need to conduct randomised trials into non-drug interventions to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses. The current pandemic is presenting us with a rare opportunity to rapidly conduct trials to answer many of the unknowns about this set of non-drug interventions.

Concentrating all our funding, efforts, and resources into vaccine and drug research may turn out to be a devastating and costly mistake in both healthcare and economic terms. The results will be felt not only in this pandemic, but also in future ones.The Conversation

Tammy Hoffmann, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology, Bond University and Paul Glasziou, Professor of Medicine, Bond 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.
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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.

Australia must engage with nuclear research or fall far behind



Nuclear power will likely remain part of the global energy mix.
ioshimuro/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Heiko Timmers, UNSW

Much is made of the “next generation” of nuclear reactors in the debate over nuclear power in Australia. They are touted as safer than older reactors, and suitable for helping Australia move away from fossil fuels.

But much of the evidence given in September to a federal inquiry shows the economics of nuclear in Australia cannot presently compete with booming renewable electricity generation.




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However, international projections predict nuclear power will stick around beyond 2040. It is forecast to reduce the carbon footprint of other nations, in many cases fuelled by our uranium.

To choose wisely on nuclear power options in future, we ought to stay engaged. Renewables in combination with hydro storage might fail to fully decarbonise the electricity sector, or much more electricity may be needed in future for desalination, emission-free manufacturing, or hydrogen fuel to deal with an escalating climate crisis. Nuclear power might be advantageous then.

What reactors will be available in future?

All recent commissions of nuclear power stations, such as the Korean APR-1400 reactors in the United Arab Emirates, or the Chinese Hualong One design, are large Generation III type light water reactors that produce gigawatts of electricity. Discouraged by investment blowouts and considerable delays in England and Finland, Australia is not likely to consider building Generation III reactors.

The company NuScale in particular promotes a new approach to nuclear power, based on smaller modular reactors that might eventually be prefabricated and shipped to site. Although promoted as “next generation”, this technology has been used in maritime applications for many years. It might be a good choice for Australian submarines.




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NuScale has licensed its design in the United States and might be able to demonstrate the first such reactor in 2027 in a research laboratory in Idaho.

These small reactors each produce 60 megawatts of power and require a much smaller initial investment than traditional nuclear power stations. They are also safer, as the entire reactor vessel sits in a large pool of water, so no active cooling is needed once the reactor is switched off.

However the technical, operational and economic feasibility of making and maintaining modular reactors is completely untested.

Looking ahead: Generation IV reactors and thorium

If Australia decided to build a nuclear power station, it would take decades to complete. So we might also choose one of several other new reactor concepts, labelled Generation IV. Some of those designs are expected to become technology-ready after 2030.

Generation IV reactors can be divided into thermal reactors and fast breeders.

Thermal reactors

Thermal reactors are quite similar to conventional Generation III light water reactors.

However, some will use molten salts or helium gas as coolant instead of water, which makes makes hydrogen explosions – as occurred at Fukushima – impossible.

Some of these new reactor designs can operate at higher temperatures and over a larger temperature range without having to sustain the drastic pressures necessary in conventional designs. This improves effectiveness and safety.

Fast breeders

Fast breeder reactors require fuel that contains more fissile uranium, and they can also create plutonium. This plutonium might eventually support a sustainable nuclear fuel cycle. They also use the uranium fuel more efficiently, and generate less radioactive waste.

However, the enriched fuel and capacity to produce plutonium means that fast breeders are more closely linked to nuclear weapons. Fast reactors thus do not fit well with Australia’s international and strategic outlook.

Breeding fuel from thorium

An alternative to using conventional uranium fuel is thorium, which is far less useful for nuclear weapons. Thorium can be converted in a nuclear reactor to a different type of uranium fuel (U-233).

The idea of using this for nuclear power was raised as early as 1950, but development in the US largely ceased in the 1970s. Breeding fuel from thorium could in principle be sustained for thousands of years. Plenty of thorium is already available in mining tailings.

Thorium reactors have not been pursued because the conventional uranium fuel cycle is so well established. The separation of U-233 from the thorium has therefore not been demonstrated in a commercial setting.

India is working on establishing a thorium fuel cycle due to its lack of domestic uranium deposits, and China is developing a thorium research reactor.

Australia’s perspective

To choose wisely on nuclear power and the right technology in future, we can stay engaged by:

  • realising a much-needed national facility to store waste from our nuclear medicine
  • making our uranium exports competitive again
  • driving the navy’s submarines with nuclear power, and
  • possibly reconsidering the business case for a commercial spent fuel repository.

Australia has already joined the international Generation IV nuclear forum, a good first step to foster cooperation on nuclear technology research and stay in touch with reactor developments.




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Australia could deepen such research involvement by, for example, developing engineering expertise on thermal Generation IV reactors here. Such forward-looking engagement with nuclear power might pave a structured way for the commercial use of nuclear power later, if it is indeed needed.The Conversation

Heiko Timmers, Associate Professor of Physics, School of Science, UNSW Canberra, UNSW

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

Australian universities must wake up to the risks of researchers linked to China’s military



Two universities are conducting internal reviews of research collaborations linked to the suppression and surveillance of the Uyghur minority in western China.
Tracey Nearmy/AAP

Clive Hamilton, Charles Sturt University

Two Australian universities, University of Technology Sydney and Curtin University, are conducting internal reviews of their funding and research approval procedures after Four Corners’ revealed their links to researchers whose work has materially assisted China’s human rights abuses against the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province.

UTS, in particular, is in the spotlight because of a major research collaboration with CETC, the Chinese state-owned military research conglomerate. In a response to Four Corners, UTS expressed dismay at the allegations of human rights violations in Xinjiang, which were raised in a Human Rights Watch report earlier this year.

Yet, UTS has been aware of concerns about its collaboration with CETC for two years. When I met with two of the university’s deputy vice chancellors in 2017 to ask them about their work with CETC, they dismissed the concerns.




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According to a report for the Jamestown Foundation, CETC openly declares that its purpose is “leveraging civilian electronics for the gain of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army).” Similar concerns had been raised about CETC’s military links and its work with the CSIRO.

Alex Joske, now an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and I had also uncovered a pattern of widespread research collaborations between academics at Australian universities and Chinese scientists and corporations connected to China’s armed forces and security services.

Along with UTS, ANU and UNSW are the most heavily invested. Some of the collaborations have been partly funded by the Australian Research Council. Some of our research was published in June and October 2017.

Some universities challenged over their associations have reacted defensively. Responding to a story questioning the wisdom of UNSW’s huge commitment to a China-funded “Torch Technology Park”, DVC Brian Boyle dismissed the evidence and suggested the criticisms were motivated by xenophobia.

When UTS teamed up with CETC in 2016 to collaborate on research projects worth A$10 million in its CETC Research Institute on Smart Cities, CETC was already working with the Chinese state to improve the world’s most comprehensive and oppressive system of surveillance and control of its citizens.

CETC is upfront about its Smart Cities work, saying it includes “public security early warning preventative and supervisory abilities” and “cyberspace control abilities.” A report by the official Xinhua news agency in 2016 noted that CETC’s work on smart cities “integrates and connects civilian-military dual-use technologies.”

Defence controls

When asked about their collaborations with Chinese experts in military and security technology, universities have typically responded that all of their research proposals comply with the Defence Trade Controls Act, which restricts the export of technologies, including IP, deemed sensitive.

They were able to tick the right boxes on the relevant forms because it was possible to describe the planned research as “civilian.” But even well-informed amateurs know that the traditional distinction between civilian and military research no longer applies because major civilian technologies, like big data, satellite navigation and facial recognition technology, are used in modern weapons systems and citizen surveillance.

At the urging of President Xi Jinping, China’s government has been rapidly implementing a policy of “civilian-military fusion.”




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UNSW scientists have collaborated with experts from the National University of Defence Technology (NUDT), a top military research centre, on China’s Beidou satellite system, which has many civilian as well as military uses, including tracking the movements of people and guiding missiles.

Joske found that some two dozen NUDT-linked researchers have passed through UNSW as visiting scholars or PhD students in the last decade. A further 14 have passed through ANU. Some have backgrounds working on classified Chinese defence projects.

Having visited and studied at Australian institutions, these researchers, who hold rank in the People’s Liberation Army, return to China with deep international networks, advanced training, and access to research that is yet to be classified. In many cases, a clear connection can be drawn between the work that PLA personnel have done in Australia and specific projects they undertake for the Chinese military.

The same can be said for companies like CETC that take research output from Australian researchers and apply it to the security and surveillance technology used across China.

“Orwellian” seems inadequate for the types of surveillance and security technologies being implemented in China. Facial recognition scanners have even been set up in toilets to allocate the proper amount of toilet paper. The state tells you whether you can wipe your backside.

Fixing the system

Some universities pass the buck by saying that the department of immigration is responsible for any security concerns when assessing visa applications for researchers. (Now the authorities are doing more checks, but the universities are grumbling because visas for Chinese scientists are taking too long.)

The universities’ refusal to accept any responsibility tells us there is a cultural problem. Most university executives believe that international scientific collaboration is a pure public good because it contributes to the betterment of humankind — and, of course, the bottom line.

So asking them more carefully to assess and rule out some kinds of research goes against the grain.




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All of this suggests that the system is broken. The fact remains that Chinese military scientists and researchers at companies like CETC have been returning to China with improved knowledge of how to build better weapons and more Orwellian surveillance systems.

American universities are now alive to the problem by looking much more closely at the China links of scientists working in the US. So, in April 2018, it was reassuring to see the Australian minister of defence, Marise Payne, commission an inquiry into the effectiveness of the defence trade controls regime.

However, when it came time, the report failed to recognise Australia’s new security environment, especially the risks posed by China’s aggressive program of acquiring technology from abroad. It accepted the university view that the system is working fine and, apart from a few recommended adjustments to the existing Defence Trade Controls Act, kicked the can down the road.

In short, defence and security organisations, who can see how the world has changed, lost out to those who benefit from an open international research environment, one that has been heavily exploited by Beijing for its own benefit.

In the US, federal science funding authorities have been sending the message that continued funding will be contingent on universities applying more due diligence to the national security impacts of their overseas research collaborations. We can expect to see something similar in Australia.The Conversation

Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE), Charles Sturt University

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

All publicly funded research could soon be free for you, the taxpayer, to read



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The new ‘Plan S’ initiative focuses on making all publicly funded research immediately fully and freely available by open access publication.
from www.shutterstock.com

Ritesh Chugh, CQUniversity Australia and Kenneth Howah, CQUniversity Australia

What happens to research that is funded by taxpayers? A lot ends up in subscription-only journals, protected from the eyes of most by a paywall.

But a new initiative known as Plan S could change that. Plan S focuses on making all publicly funded research immediately fully and freely available by open access publication.

It sounds like a good idea – but there are possible downsides. This model could potentially undermine peer review, the process vital for ensuring the rigour and quality of published research. It could also increase costs of publication for researchers and funding bodies. So let’s do Plan S right.




Read more:
Peer review has some problems – but the science community is working on it


Strong backing in Europe

Plan S is an initiative of an international consortium of research funders known as cOAlition S. This includes European national funders UK Research and Innovation, the Science Foundation of Ireland, and others. Charitable foundations such as Wellcome and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are also signed up.

Chinese and Indian officials have expressed their support for this open access publishing movement.

Plan S aims to make scientific publications resulting from publicly funded research by national and European research councils and funding bodies directly available in open access journals or platforms after 1 January 2020.

Plan S stipulates that all articles should be published in open access mode only, with no paywalls (including in hybrid journals, where some content is open access and some paid) with the following conditions:

  • unrestricted usage and free distribution
  • authors retain copyright
  • funders or universities pay the open access publication fees.

Flaws in the current publication system

The ethical base for Plan S is sound and would undoubtedly make sense to most Australians – that is, publications that have been funded by taxpayer dollars should be readily accessible to the public immediately.

Currently, members of the public and many parts of the research community do not have easy access to research outputs for comment and scrutiny.

Research is hidden behind paywalls in subscription-only journals. Research institutions spend billions of dollars globally on subscriptions.

Hiding valuable research results – particularly those that were taxpayer-funded – behind paywalls is a drawback of the existing scholarly publication model.




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When to trust (and not to trust) peer reviewed science


The model has built its reputation on a rigorous peer review process and a strong track record. Unfortunately, although it does highlight the need for high quality open access journals, Plans S lacks adequate detail on this.

This may lead to a proliferation of journals that comply with Plan S but may not have a good history and an efficient review process, thus compromising the publishing of credible results.

Implications for taxpayer-funded research

The cOAlition S claims that:

Publication paywalls are withholding a substantial amount of research results from a large fraction of the scientific community and from society as a whole.

The basic philosophy is that, in principle, “no science should be locked behind paywalls!”. The coalition website defines “science” broadly, to include the humanities.

Hence, taxpayers can expect to see research articles resulting from public money freely available online.

If adopted, researchers will need access to more funding, particularly as open access publishing costs can be as high as US$5,000 per paper.

The implementation of Plan S could also encourage publishers to increase their publishing prices, as they mitigate potential revenue losses in the transition from a subscription-based model.




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Some researchers have labelled Plan S a serious violation of academic freedom, as it restricts their choice of suitable high-quality publication platforms.

If Australia does not adopt Plan S, it could potentially restrict collaboration, publishing, and funding opportunities with research bodies who subscribe to this ambitious movement.

Are Australians ready?

The basic notion of open access has won wide acceptance. But it’s also attracted strong criticism, with some claiming deleterious effects on young researchers of dividing the world into “Plan S” and “non-Plan S” publications.

Open access is already a policy of the Australian Research Council (ARC), which requires that:

Any Research Outputs arising from an ARC supported research Project must be made openly accessible within a twelve (12) month period from the date of publication.

However, the same policy stipulates that “contractual obligations” is an acceptable reason for non-compliance within a 12-month period. In effect, this still allows publication contracts to effectively keep research permanently behind paywalls.




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Not just available, but also useful: we must keep pushing to improve open access to research


A Plan S implementation would disallow this. It would require that authors retain full copyright even after publication, and open access would be required immediately with no 12-month delay.

In this way, Plan S could be seen as merely extending existing Australian funding policy principles.

Rethink how we do things

Despite the potential for downsides, we argue universities and research organisations in Australia should consider aligning their policies with Plan S and promote the advantages of open access to the research community.

Research funders can consider making mandatory open access a condition of grant funding.

Plan S will enable the public to freely access publications, enabling them to come to their own conclusions rather than having intermediaries interpret.

Plan S appears to be a wave that is heading this way so Australians, researchers and research organisations in particular, should start thinking and talking about how it might affect things here.

After all, if this level of open access becomes the norm in Europe, China and India – which combined account for more than one-third of global output of scientific papers – the resulting critical mass would probably force a progressive action of some kind here.The Conversation

Ritesh Chugh, Senior Lecturer/Discipline Lead – Information Systems and Analysis, CQUniversity Australia and Kenneth Howah, Lecturer, CQUniversity Australia

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

How realistic are China’s plans to build a research station on the Moon?


Joshua Chou, University of Technology Sydney

The world is still celebrating the historic landing of China’s Chang’e-4 on the dark side of the moon on January 3. This week, China announced its plans to follow up with three more lunar missions, laying the groundwork for a lunar base.

Colonising the Moon, and beyond, has always being a human aspiration. Technological advancements, and the discovery of a considerable source of water close to the lunar poles, has made this idea even more appealing.

But how close is China to actually achieving this goal?

If we focus on the technology currently available, China could start building a base on the Moon today.




Read more:
Will China’s moon landing launch a new space race?


The first lunar base

The first lunar base would likely be an unmanned facility run by automated robotics – similar to Amazon warehouses – to ensure that the necessary infrastructures and support systems are fully operational before people arrive.

The lunar environment is susceptible to deep vacuum conditions, strong temperature fluctuations and solar radiation, among other conditions hostile to humans. More importantly, we have yet to fully understand the long term impact on the human body of being in space, and on the Moon.

Seeds taken to the Moon by the Chang’e-4 mission have now reportedly sprouted. This is the first time plants have been grown on the Moon, paving the way for a future food farm on the lunar base.

Building a lunar base is no different than building the first oil rig out in the ocean. The logistics of moving construction parts must be considered, feasibility studies must be conducted and, in this case, soil samples must be tested.

China has taken the first step by examining the soil of the lunar surface. This is necessary for building an underground habitat and supporting infrastructure that will shield the base from the harsh surface conditions.

3D printed everything

Of all the possible technologies for building a lunar base, 3D printing offers the most effective strategy. 3D printing on Earth has revolutionised manufacturing productivity and efficiency, reducing both waste and cost.

China’s vision is to develop the capability to 3D print both inside and outside of the lunar base. 3D printers have the potential to make everything from daily items, like drinking cups, to repair parts for the base.

But 3D printing in space is a real challenge. It will require new technologies that can operate in the micro gravity environment of the Moon. 3D printing machines that are able to shape parts in the vacuum of space must be developed.




Read more:
Want to build a moon base? Easy. Just print it


New materials are required

We know that Earth materials, such as fibre optics, change properties once they are in space. So materials that are effective on Earth, might not be effective on the Moon.

Whatever the intended use of the 3D printed component, it will have to be resistant to the conditions of lunar environment. So the development of printing material is crucial. Step-by-step, researchers are finding and developing new materials and technologies to address this challenge.

For example, researchers in Germany expect to have the first “ready to use” stainless steel tools to be 3D printed under microgravity in the near future. NASA also demonstrated 3D printing technology in zero gravity showing it is feasible to 3D print in space.

On a larger scale we have seen houses being 3D printed on Earth. In a similar way, the lunar base will likely be built using prefabricated parts in combination with large-scale 3D printing.

Examples of what this might look like can be seen to entries in the 3D printed habitat challenge, which was started by NASA in 2005. The competition seeks to advance 3D printing construction technology needed to create sustainable housing solutions for Earth, the Moon, Mars and beyond.

NASA’s Habitat Challenge: Team Gamma showing their habitat design.
NASA 3D Printed Habitat Challenge

Living on the Moon

So far, we’ve focused on the technological feasibility of building a lunar base, but we also need to consider the long term effect of lunar living on humans. To date, limited studies have been conducted to examine the the biological impact on human physiology at the cellular level.

We know that the human organs, tissues and cells are highly responsive to gravity, but an understanding of how human cells function and regenerate is currently lacking.

What happens if the astronauts get sick? Will medicine from Earth still work? If astronauts are to live on the Moon, these fundamental questions need to be answered.

In the long term, 3D bioprinting of human organs and tissues will play a crucial role in sustaining lunar missions by allowing for robotic surgeries. Russia recently demonstrated the first 3D bioprinter to function under microgravity.




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Five reasons to forget Mars for now and return to the moon


To infinity and beyond

Can China build a lunar base? Absolutely. Can human beings survive on the Moon and other planets for the long term? The answer to that is less clear.

What is certain is that China will use the next 10 to 15 years to develop the requisite technical capabilities for conducting manned lunar missions and set the stage for space exploration.The Conversation

Joshua Chou, Senior lecturer, University of Technology Sydney

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

MYEFO rips A$130 million per year from research funding despite budget surplus



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The shockwaves of this cut will be felt for years to come at Australian universities.
http://www.shutterstock.com

Margaret Gardner, Monash University

Yesterday morning, the mid-year budget update unveiled research funding cuts of A$328.5 million over the next four years. This budget raid on research was more than double the size expected by the university research community.

This new freeze on growth in research funding and PhD scholarships follows last year’s freeze on funding for student places.




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The effect will be felt immediately by the nation’s researchers and their research projects in positions lost and projects slowed, limited or not started. But the damage done will be felt for much longer – in inventions, ideas and opportunities missed.

Why has it been done?

As yet, there has been no adequate public explanation from government, save for two paragraphs in Education Minister Dan Tehan’s media release yesterday:

The decision to pause indexation of research block grant programs for 12 months, along with adjusting growth for RSP (the Research Support Program), will allow the government to prioritise education spending, including on regional higher education.

And this further par:

We have invested over A$350 million since the 2018-19 Budget to support students in regional and remote Australia.

In truth, most of Australia’s regional universities will lose millions of dollars more under the 2017 funding freeze than will be redistributed to them via this latest research cut. And under this new research freeze, they, too, will lose scholarships for PhD students – our next generation of brilliant research talent.

Research funding also goes towards keeping the lights on in libraries and labs so researchers can complete their work.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Nationwide, the government will fund up to 500 fewer of these scholarships for PhD candidates next year due to the research funding freeze. That’s 500 fewer people who will dedicate their talent to the creation of new knowledge in the national interest.

The education minister has tried to repair the damage inflicted by the 2017 decision of his predecessor – Simon Birmingham – only to compound the damage with this second freeze. That’s throwing bad policy after bad.

Regional universities were among those hardest hit by the 2017 MYEFO decision to cut funding for student places. And that decision continues to cut deeper each year – it will be felt more in 2019 than 2018, and more in 2020 than 2019.

How this will affect Australian research

The harm this will inflict is manifold.

First, it will cut the research funding program. This scheme enables universities to pay the salaries of researchers and technicians whose work enables ground-breaking discoveries. It also funds keeping the lights on in labs and libraries.




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These overheads of research are not funded by competitive grants. For every A$100,000 an Australian university secures in competitive research grants, it must find an extra A$85,000 to be able to deliver that research. Where will universities find these funds?

Second, it will cut the research training program. This funds scholarships for PhD students to enable them to complete their higher degrees – a necessary first step on the way to a career in research. This is a cut into their brilliant careers, and Australia’s future research capacity.

Third, it damages Australia’s standing as a global research leader. Why would a great researcher come to or stay in Australia, when the government has sent a message that, in a time of budget surplus, it’s prepared to cut into research?

Research funding is critical to Australia’s status as a global research leader.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Fourth, it will further undermine Australia’s position in research and development investment relative to our economic competitors. China now invests 2.1% of its GDP in research and development – while Australia’s total investment from all sectors in research and development (government, business and research institutions) is now just 1.88% of GDP. China’s economy is ten times bigger than Australia’s, but they’re investing 30 times more than we are.

Our government only spends A$10 billion on research and development each year. Only last Friday, it was revealed Australia’s government spending on research and development was already forecast to fall this year to its lowest level in four decades as a percentage of GDP – to 0.5%. This new research funding cut only worsens this situation.

With the budget in surplus, it makes no sense

University leaders knew research funding was at risk, and so jobs for researchers, technicians and researchers were at risk. But beyond these jobs are the projects they support and the Australians from all walks of life whose lives have or will be transformed by Australian research.




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Margaret Gardner: freezing university funding is out of step with the views of most Australians


Universities Australia has stories of survivors of stroke, cervical cancer and family violence speaking about how crucial university research has been in the lives of people like them at #UniResearchChangesLives.

With a government budget surplus in sight, it makes no sense to cut the research capacity that will create jobs, income and new industries for Australia.The Conversation

Margaret Gardner, President and Vice Chancellor, Monash University

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

Australians’ trust in politicians and democracy hits an all-time low: new research


Mark Evans, University of Canberra; Gerry Stoker, University of Canberra, and Max Halupka, University of Canberra

Over the past four years, we have conducted a range of attitudinal surveys with the Social Research Institute at Ipsos on the relationship between trust in the political system and attitudes towards democracy in Australia.

Our latest research, conducted in July 2018 (prior to the Liberal Party’s leadership spill), includes a quantitative survey of a representative sample of 20 focus groups and 1,021 Australians from a wide range of demographic backgrounds. We understood political trust in this survey as “keeping promises and agreements”.

Our findings should give all democrats pause for thought. We continue to find compelling evidence of an increasing trust divide between government and citizens. This is reflected in the decline of democratic satisfaction and receding trust in politicians, political parties and other key institutions (especially media). We also found a lack of public confidence in the capacity of government to address public policy concerns.

Democratic decline and renewal

Australians should rightly be proud of their hard-won democratic traditions and freedoms and the achievement of stable government, which has delivered social and economic well-being for its citizens.

The majority of Australians dislike the conflict-driven politics of the federal parliament, but don’t dislike democratic values or democracy as a system of government.

When asked to select three aspects of Australian democracy that they liked the most, the top three in 2018 were (in order):

  1. “Australia has been able to provide good education, health, welfare and other public services to its citizens”
  2. “Australia has experienced a good economy and lifestyle”
  3. “Australian elections are free and fair”.

Respondents were least likely to choose features that praised (or showed engagement) with current democratic politics. The findings suggest that Australians are happy with the underlying democratic infrastructure of Australian society that allows them to achieve a high standard of living, but are less positive or engaged about day-to-day political operations.

Australians are deeply unhappy with democratic politics

Fewer than 41% of Australian citizens are satisfied with the way democracy works in Australia, down from 86% in 2007. Public satisfaction has fallen particularly sharply since 2013, when 72% of Australian citizens were satisfied. Generation X is least satisfied (31%) and the Baby Boomers most satisfied (50%).

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/DlIru/1/

At a time of the “#Metoo” movement, women are generally less satisfied with democracy and more distrusting of politicians and political institutions.

In general, levels of trust in government and politicians in Australia are at their lowest levels since time-series data have been available.




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Just 31% of the population trust federal government. State and local governments perform little better, with just over a third of people trusting them. Ministers and MPs (whether federal or state) rate at just 21%, while more than 60% of Australians believe the honesty and integrity of politicians is very low.

The three biggest grievances people have with politicians are:

  1. they are not accountable for broken promises
  2. they don’t deal with the issues that really matter
  3. big business has too much power (Liberal and National Party voters identify trade unions instead of big business).

The continued decline of political trust has also contaminated public confidence in other key political institutions. Only five rate above 50% – police, military, civic well-being organisations (such as Headspace or community services), universities and healthcare institutions.

Trust was lowest in political parties (16%) and web-based media (20%). Trust in banks and web-based media has significantly decreased since the last survey. This reflects the impact of the banking royal commission and the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

People who are more likely to feel satisfied with the status quo include those aged over 55 (Baby Boomers), those earning more than $200,000 a year and those who vote for the National or Liberal parties. They are more likely to be male and an immigrant, because those born overseas tend to be more satisfied with Australian politics than native-born.

Those who are most likely to be unhappy are Australian-born, female, aged in their 40s (Generation X) and struggling on less than $50,000 a year. They are more likely to identify with minor political parties like One Nation, Centre Alliance or independents.

The perfect storm for independents

Levels of social trust are also in decline. Social trust between people has fallen below 50% for the first time to 47%. A majority, though, still believe that people in their neighbourhood would help others out – except for the very rich (47%).

Four attitudinal shifts are on display here.

First, many voters care more about effective and competent government than promises of more dollars in their pockets.

Second, there is a group of voters who are completely disconnected from traditional politics. They are deeply distrustful not just of politicians but almost every major institution and authority figure listed in the survey, except for their local GP.

Third, we can identify an increasingly large group of Australians who are deeply critical of the main political parties and are looking for an alternative across the ideological spectrum.

And fourth, there is a group of Australians who vote independent for tactical reasons, either to secure greater resources for their communities or to register a protest vote against the two-party system.

Appetite for democratic reform is extremely strong

Our survey revealed a significant appetite for reform. Nine out of 15 proposed reforms received net agreement rates above 50%. The top five reforms favoured in the survey were:

  1. limiting money donated to parties and spent in elections
  2. the right for voters to recall ineffective local MPs
  3. giving all MPs a free vote in parliament
  4. co-designing policies with ordinary Australians
  5. citizen juries to solve complex problems that parliament can’t fix.

Reforms aimed at improving the practice of representative politics were the most popular, followed by reforms aimed at giving citizens a greater say. There was also strong support for reforms aimed at creating a stronger community or local focus to decision-making. Only reforms aimed at guaranteeing the representation of certain groups failed to attract majority support.

Remarkably, accessing more detailed information about innovative reforms led to greater support for those reforms. This is an important finding, revealing the importance of strategic communication in winning the war of ideas.

We are at the tipping point

Liberal democracies are founded on a delicate balance between trust and distrust. Our survey findings suggest we may have reached a tipping point due to a deepening trust divide in Australia, which has increased in scope and intensity since 2007.




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Yet citizens still appear to value the overall stability of their political system, even if the lack of political trust means they doubt its ability to deliver, especially on more challenging policy issues.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/n2xEb/1/

Australians imagine their democracy in a way that demonstrates support for a new participatory politics but with the aim of shoring up representative democracy and developing a more integrated, inclusive and responsive democratic system. In the light of this discovery, we believe an effective path to reform is not about choosing between representative and participatory democratic models, but finding linking arrangements between them.The Conversation

Mark Evans, Professor of Governance and Director of Democracy 2025 – bridging the trust divide at Old Parliament House, University of Canberra; Gerry Stoker, Fellow and Centenary Professor, Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra, and Max Halupka, Research Fellow at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra, University of Canberra

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