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.

Alzheimer’s disease: protective gene uncovered in human cell model – bringing promise for new drug discoveries



Our method could someday potentially detect the disease before it starts developing in a person’s brain.
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Dean Nizetic, Queen Mary University of London

Every three seconds, someone in the world develops dementia. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. While researchers have identified a number of risk factors that are linked to dementia – including genetics, smoking, and high blood pressure – there is currently still no cure.

Part of the reason for this is because of how complicated it is to test potential Alzheimer’s drugs. In order to conduct clinical trials participants need to have symptoms. But by the time symptoms appear, it’s usually too late for treatments to have a large effect as many of their brain cells have already died.

But our latest research developed a new human cell model that is able to rapidly simulate the development of Alzheimer’s disease in the lab. This allowed us to identify a gene, called BACE2, that is naturally able to suppress the signs of Alzheimer’s disease in human brain cells. Our research is the result of around five years’ work, and was the collaborative effort of teams based in London, Singapore, Sweden and Croatia.

Researchers already know a lot about which genes cause Alzheimer’s disease or make someone more likely to develop it. These genes contribute to certain toxic proteins accumulating in the human brain. So our team thought that the opposite must also be true: our brain cells must also have proteins that can naturally slow down the development of Alzheimer’s.

One gene that can definitely cause Alzheimer’s disease is a gene found on the 21st pair of human chromosomes that is responsible for making the amyloid precursor protein (APP). Research shows that 100% of people born with just one extra copy of the APP gene (called “DupAPP”) will develop dementia by age 60.

People with Down’s syndrome are born with three copies of APP because they have a third 21st chromosome. But by age 60, only 60% of them will develop clinical dementia. We wanted to know why some people with Down’s syndrome have delayed development of – or never develop – Alzheimer’s dementia compared to those who have one extra DupAPP gene.

The simple answer for this is because they have an extra dose of all other genes located in chromosome 21. We believed that there could be some dose-sensitive genes on chromosome 21 that, when triplicated, protect against Alzheimer’s disease by counteracting the effects of the third APP gene.

These genes must then appear to delay the onset of clinical dementia in some people with Down’s syndrome by approximately 20 years. Studies have even shown that any future drug able to delay dementia onset by just five years would reduce the prevalence of Alzheimer’s in the general population by half.

We re-programmed cells, turning them into brain cells.
arrideo/ Shutterstock

To study the potential of the extra genes, we took hair follicle cells from people with Down’s syndrome and re-programmed the cells to become like stem cells. This allowed us to turn them into brain cells in a Petri dish.

We then grew them into 3D balls of cells that imitated the tissue of the grey matter (cortex) of the human brain. The 3D nature of the culturing allowed misfolded and toxic proteins to accumulate, which are crucial changes that lead to Alzheimer’s disease in the brain.

We found all three major signs of Alzheimer’s disease (plaque build-up in the brain, misfolded “tau” proteins and dying brain neurons) in cell cultures from 71% of people with Down’s syndrome who donated samples. This proportion was similar to the percentage of clinical dementia among adults with Down’s syndrome.

We were also able to use CRISPR – a technology that allows researchers to alter DNA sequences and modify a gene’s function – to reduce the number of BACE2 genes from three copies to two copies on chromosome 21. This was only done in cases where there were no indications of Alzheimer’s disease in our cellular model. Surprisingly, reducing the number of BACE2 genes on chromosome 21 provoked signs of the disease. This strongly suggest that having extra copies of a normal BACE2 gene could prevent Alzheimer’s.

The protective action of BACE2 reduces the levels of toxic amyloid proteins. This was verified in our cellular models, as well as in cerebrospinal fluid and post-mortem brain tissue from people with Down’s syndrome.

Our study provides proof that natural Alzheimer’s-preventing genes exist, and now we have a system to detect new potential protective genes. Importantly, recent research showed the protective action of BACE2 might also be relevant to people who don’t have Down’s syndrome.

Our results also show that all three signs of Alzheimer’s disease can be potentially detected in cells from live donors. Though this requires a lot more research, it means we may be able to develop tests that identify which people are at higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease by looking at their cells.

This would allow us to detect the disease before it starts developing in a person’s brain, and could make it possible to design personalised preventative treatments. However, we are still a long way from reaching this goal.

Most importantly, our work shows that all three signs of Alzheimer’s disease detected using our model could be prevented by drugs known to inhibit the production of the toxic amyloid protein – and this can be detected in as little as six weeks in the lab. We hope our discovery could lead to the development of new drugs aimed at delaying or preventing Alzheimer’s disease, before it causes brain cell death.The Conversation

Dean Nizetic, Professor of Cellular and Molecular Biology, Queen Mary University of London

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.

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



Shutterstock

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.

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.