Ten years ago, climate adaptation research was gaining steam. Today, it’s gutted


Rod Keenan, University of Melbourne

Ten years ago, on February 7, 2009, I sat down in my apartment in central Melbourne to write a job application. All of the blinds were down, and the windows tightly closed. Outside it was 47℃. We had no air conditioning. The heat seeped through the walls.

When I stepped outside, the air ripped at my nose and throat, like a fan-forced sauna. It felt ominous. With my forestry training, and some previous experience of bad fire weather in Tasmania, I knew any fires that day would be catastrophic. They were. Black Saturday became Australia’s worst-ever bushfire disaster.

I was applying for the position of Director of the Victorian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation Research (VCCCAR). I was successful and started the job later that year.




Read more:
We can build homes to survive bushfires, so why don’t we?


The climate in Victoria over the previous 12 years had been harsh. Between 1997 and 2009 the state suffered its worst drought on record, and major bushfires in 2003 and 2006-07 burned more than 2 million hectares of forest. Then came Black Saturday, and the year after that saw the start of Australia’s wettest two-year period on record, bringing major floods to the state’s north, as well as to vast swathes of the rest of the country.

In Victoria alone, hundreds of millions of dollars a year were being spent on response and recovery from climate-related events. In government, the view was that things couldn’t go on that way. As climate change accelerated, these costs would only rise.

We had to get better at preparing for, and avoiding, the future impacts of rapid climate change. This is what is what we mean by the term “climate adaptation”.

Facing up to disasters

A decade after Black Saturday, with record floods in Queensland, severe bushfires in Tasmania and Victoria, widespread heatwaves and drought, and a crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin, it is timely to reflect on the state of adaptation policy and practice in Australia.

In 2009 the Rudd Labor government had taken up the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. With Malcolm Turnbull as opposition leader, we seemed headed for a bipartisan national solution ahead of the Copenhagen climate summit in December. Governments, meanwhile, agreed that adaptation was more a state and local responsibility. Different parts of Australia faced different climate risks. Communities and industries in those regions had different vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities and needed locally driven initiatives.

Led by the Brumby government in Victoria, state governments developed an adaptation policy framework and sought federal financial support to implement it. This included research on climate adaptation. The federal government put A$50 million into a new National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, based in Queensland, alongside the CSIRO Adaptation Flagship which was set up in 2007.

The Victorian Government invested A$5 million in VCCCAR. The state faced local risks: more heatwaves, floods, storms, bushfires and rising sea levels, and my colleagues and I found there was plenty of information on climate impacts. The question was: what can policy-makers, communities, businesses and individuals do in practical terms to plan and prepare?

Getting to work

From 2009 until June 2014, researchers from across disciplines in four universities collaborated with state and local governments, industry and the community to lay the groundwork for better decisions in a changing climate.

We held 20 regional and metropolitan consultation events and hosted visiting international experts on urban design, flood, drought, and community planning. Annual forums brought together researchers, practitioners, consultants and industry to share knowledge and engage in collective discussion on adaptation options. We worked with eight government departments, driving the message that adapting to climate change wasn’t just an “environmental” problem and needed responses across government.

All involved considered the VCCCAR a success. It improved knowledge about climate adaptation options and confidence in making climate decisions. The results fed into Victoria’s 2013 Climate Change Adaptation Plan, as well as policies for urban design and natural resource management, and practices in the local government and community sectors. I hoped the centre would continue to provide a foundation for future adaptation policy and practice.

Funding cuts

In the 2014 state budget the Napthine government chose not to continue funding the VCCCAR. Soon after, the Abbott federal government reduced the funding and scope of its national counterpart, and funding ended last year.

Meanwhile, CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall argued that climate science was less important than the need for innovation and turning inventions into benefits for society. Along with other areas of climate science, the Adaptation Flagship was cut, its staff let go or redirected. From a strong presence in 2014, climate adaptation has become almost invisible in the national research landscape.

In the current chaos of climate policy, adaptation has been downgraded. There is a national strategy but little high-level policy attention. State governments have shifted their focus to energy, investing in renewables and energy security. Climate change was largely ignored in developing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Despite this lack of policy leadership, many organisations are adapting. Local governments with the resources are addressing their particular challenges, and building resilience. Our public transport now functions better in heatwaves, and climate change is being considered in new transport infrastructure. The public is more aware of heatwave risks, and there is investment in emergency management research, but this is primarily focused on disaster response.

Large companies making long-term investments, such as Brisbane Airport, have improved their capacity to consider future climate risks. There are better planning tools and systems for business, and the finance and insurance sectors are seriously considering these risks in investment decisions. Smart rural producers are diversifying, using their resources differently, or shifting to different growing environments.

Struggling to cope

But much more is needed. Old buildings and cooling systems are not built to cope with our current temperatures. Small businesses are suffering, but few have capacity to analyse their vulnerabilities or assess responses. The power generation system is under increasing pressure. Warning systems have improved but there is still much to do to design warnings in a way that ensures an appropriate public reaction. Too many people still adopt a “she’ll be right” attitude and ignore warnings, or leave it until the last minute to evacuate.

In an internal submission to government in 2014 we proposed a Victorian Climate Resilience Program to provide information and tools for small businesses. Other parts of the program included frameworks for managing risks for local governments, urban greening, building community leadership for resilience, and new conservation approaches in landscapes undergoing rapid change.




Read more:
The 2017 budget has axed research to help Australia adapt to climate change


Investment in climate adaptation pays off. Small investments now can generate payoffs of 3-5:1 in reduced future impacts. A recent business round table report indicates that carefully targeted research and information provision could save state and federal governments A$12.2 billion and reduce the overall economic costs of natural disasters (which are projected to rise to A$23 billion a year by 2050) by more than 50%.

Ten years on from Black Saturday, climate change is accelerating. The 2030 climate forecasts made in 2009 have come true in half the time. Today we are living through more and hotter heatwaves, longer droughts, uncontrollable fires, intense downpours and significant shifts in seasonal rainfall patterns.

Yes, policy-makers need to focus on reducing greenhouse emissions, but we also need a similar focus on adaptation to maintain functioning and prosperous communities, economies and ecosystems under this rapid change. It is vital that we rebuild our research capacity and learn from our past experiences, to support the partnerships needed to make climate-smart decisions.The Conversation

Rod Keenan, Professor, University of Melbourne

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

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Can bees do maths? Yes – new research shows they can add and subtract



File 20181211 76962 cfh85r.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Can we have a count of all the honeycomb cells please?
from www.shutterstock.com

Scarlett Howard, RMIT University; Adrian Dyer, RMIT University, and Jair Garcia, RMIT University

The humble honeybee can use symbols to perform basic maths including addition and subtraction, shows new research published today in the journal Science Advances.

Bee have miniature brains – but they can learn basic arithmetic.

Despite having a brain containing less than one million neurons, the honeybee has recently shown it can manage complex problems – like understanding the concept of zero.

Honeybees are a high value model for exploring questions about neuroscience. In our latest study we decided to test if they could learn to perform simple arithmetical operations such as addition and subtraction.




Read more:
Which square is bigger? Honeybees see visual illusions like humans do


Addition and subtraction operations

As children, we learn that a plus symbol (+) means we have to add two or more quantities, while a minus symbol (-) means we have to subtract quantities from each other.

To solve these problems, we need both long-term and short-term memory. We use working (short-term) memory to manage the numerical values while performing the operation, and we store the rules for adding or subtracting in long-term memory.

Although the ability to perform arithmetic like adding and subtracting is not simple, it is vital in human societies. The Egyptians and Babylonians show evidence of using arithmetic around 2000BCE, which would have been useful – for example – to count live stock and calculate new numbers when cattle were sold off.

This scene depicts a cattle count (copied by the Egyptologist Lepsius). In the middle register we see 835 horned cattle on the left, right behind them are some 220 animals and on the right 2,235 goats. In the bottom register we see 760 donkeys on the left and 974 goats on the right.
Wikimedia commons, CC BY

But does the development of arithmetical thinking require a large primate brain, or do other animals face similar problems that enable them to process arithmetic operations? We explored this using the honeybee.

How to train a bee

Honeybees are central place foragers – which means that a forager bee will return to a place if the location provides a good source of food.

We provide bees with a high concentration of sugar water during experiments, so individual bees (all female) continue to return to the experiment to collect nutrition for the hive.

In our setup, when a bee chooses a correct number (see below) she receives a reward of sugar water. If she makes an incorrect choice, she will receive a bitter tasting quinine solution.

We use this method to teach individual bees to learn the task of addition or subtraction over four to seven hours. Each time the bee became full she returned to the hive, then came back to the experiment to continue learning.




Read more:
Are they watching you? The tiny brains of bees and wasps can recognise faces


Addition and subtraction in bees

Honeybees were individually trained to visit a Y-maze shaped apparatus.

The bee would fly into the entrance of the Y-maze and view an array of elements consisting of between one to five shapes. The shapes (for example: square shapes, but many shape options were employed in actual experiments) would be one of two colours. Blue meant the bee had to perform an addition operation (+ 1). If the shapes were yellow, the bee would have to perform a subtraction operation (- 1).

For the task of either plus or minus one, one side would contain an incorrect answer and the other side would contain the correct answer. The side of stimuli was changed randomly throughout the experiment, so that the bee would not learn to only visit one side of the Y-maze.

After viewing the initial number, each bee would fly through a hole into a decision chamber where it could either choose to fly to the left or right side of the Y-maze depending on operation to which she had been trained for.

The Y-maze apparatus used for training honeybees.
Scarlett Howard

At the beginning of the experiment, bees made random choices until they could work out how to solve the problem. Eventually, over 100 learning trials, bees learnt that blue meant +1 while yellow meant -1. Bees could then apply the rules to new numbers.

During testing with a novel number, bees were correct in addition and subtraction of one element 64-72% of the time. The bee’s performance on tests was significantly different than what we would expect if bees were choosing randomly, called chance level performance (50% correct/incorrect)

Thus, our “bee school” within the Y-maze allowed the bees to learn how to use arithmetic operators to add or subtract.

Why is this a complex question for bees?

Numerical operations such as addition and subtraction are complex questions because they require two levels of processing. The first level requires a bee to comprehend the value of numerical attributes. The second level requires the bee to mentally manipulate numerical attributes in working memory.

In addition to these two processes, bees also had to perform the arithmetic operations in working memory – the number “one” to be added or subtracted was not visually present. Rather, the idea of plus one or minus “one” was an abstract concept which bees had to resolve over the course of the training.

Showing that a bee can combine simple arithmetic and symbolic learning has identified numerous areas of research to expand into, such as whether other animals can add and subtract.




Read more:
Bees get stressed at work too (and it might be causing colony collapse)


Implications for AI and neurobiology

There is a lot of interest in AI, and how well computers can enable self learning of novel problems.

Our new findings show that learning symbolic arithmetic operators to enable addition and subtraction is possible with a miniature brain. This suggests there may be new ways to incorporate interactions of both long-term rules and working memory into designs to improve rapid AI learning of new problems.

Also, our findings show that the understanding of maths symbols as a language with operators is something that many brains can probably achieve, and helps explain how many human cultures independently developed numeracy skills.


This article has been published simultaneously in Spanish on The Conversation Espana.The Conversation

Scarlett Howard, PhD candidate, RMIT University; Adrian Dyer, Associate Professor, RMIT University, and Jair Garcia, Research fellow, RMIT University

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

Our survey found ‘questionable research practices’ by ecologists and biologists – here’s what that means



File 20180405 189821 oqdb0h.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Negative results are still useful, and should not be hidden.
from www.shutterstock.com

Fiona Fidler, University of Melbourne and Hannah Fraser, University of Melbourne

Cherry picking or hiding results, excluding data to meet statistical thresholds and presenting unexpected findings as though they were predicted all along – these are just some of the “questionable research practices” implicated in the replication crisis psychology and medicine have faced over the last half a decade or so.




Read more:
Science is in a reproducibility crisis – how do we resolve it?


We recently surveyed more than 800 ecologists and evolutionary biologists and found high rates of many of these practices. We believe this to be first documentation of these behaviours in these fields of science.

Our pre-print results have certain shock value, and their release attracted a lot of attention on social media.

  • 64% of surveyed researchers reported they had at least once failed to report results because they were not statistically significant (cherry picking)

  • 42% had collected more data after inspecting whether results were statistically significant (a form of “p hacking”)

  • 51% reported an unexpected finding as though it had been hypothesised from the start (known as “HARKing”, or Hypothesising After Results are Known).

Although these results are very similar to those that have been found in psychology, reactions suggest that they are surprising – at least to some ecology and evolution researchers.

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There are many possible interpretations of our results. We expect there will also be many misconceptions about them and unjustified extrapolations. We talk though some of these below.




Read more:
How we edit science part 2: significance testing, p-hacking and peer review


It’s fraud!

It’s not fraud. Scientific fraud involves fabricating data and carries heavy criminal penalties. The questionable research practices we focus on are by definition questionable: they sit in a grey area between acceptable practices and scientific misconduct.

Not crazy. Not kooky. Scientists are just humans.
from www.shutterstock.com

We did ask one question about fabricating data and the answer to that offered further evidence that it is very rare, consistent with findings from other fields.




Read more:
Research fraud: the temptation to lie – and the challenges of regulation


Scientists lack integrity and we shouldn’t trust them

There are a few reasons why this should not be the take home message of our paper.

First, reactions to our results so far suggest an engaged, mature scientific community, ready to acknowledge and address these problems.

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If anything, this sort of engagement should increase our trust in these scientists and their commitment to research integrity.

Second, the results tell us much more about structured incentives and institutions than they tell us about individuals and their personal integrity.




Read more:
Publish or perish culture encourages scientists to cut corners


For example, these results tell us about the institution of scientific publishing, where negative (non statistically significant results) are all but banished from most journals in most fields of science, and where replication studies are virtually never published because of relentless focus on novel, “ground breaking” results.

The survey results tells us about scientific funding, again where “novel” (meaning positive, significant) findings are valued more than careful, cautious procedures and replication. They also tell us about universities, about the hiring and promotion practices within academic science that focus on publication metrics and overvalue quantity at the expense of quality.

So what do they mean, these questionable research practices admitted by the scientists in our survey? We think they’re best understood as the inevitable outcome of publication bias, funding protocols and an ever increasing pressure to publish.




Read more:
Novelty in science – real necessity or distracting obsession?


We can’t base important decisions on current scientific evidence

There’s a risk our results will feed into a view that our science is not policy ready. In many areas, such as health and the environment, this could be very damaging, even disastrous.

One reason it’s unwarranted is that climate science is a model based science, and there have been many independent replications of these models. Similarly with immunisation trials.

We know that any criticism of scientific practice runs a risk in the context of anti-science sentiment, but such criticism is fundamental to the success of science.

Remaining open to criticism is science’s most powerful self-correction mechanism, and ultimately what makes the scientific evidence base trustworthy.

Transparency can build trust in science and scientists.
from www.shutterstock.com

Scientists are human and we need safeguards

This is an interpretation we wholeheartedly endorse. Scientists are human and subject to the same suite of cognitive biases – like confirmation bias – as the rest of us.

As we learn more about cognitive biases and how best to mitigate them in different circumstances, we need to feed this back into the norms of scientific practice.




Read more:
Confirmation bias: A psychological phenomenon that helps explain why pundits got it wrong


The same is true of our knowledge about how people function under different incentive structures and conditions. This is the basis of many of the initiatives designed to make science more open and transparent.

The open science movement is about developing initiatives to protect against the influence of cognitive bias, and alter the incentive structures so that research using these questionable research practices stops being rewarded.

Some of these initiatives have been enthusiastically adopted by many scientists and journal editors. For example, many journals now publish analysis code and data along with their articles, and many have signed up to Transparency and Openness Promotion (TOP) guidelines.

Other initiatives offer great promise too. For example, registered report formats are now offered by some journals, mostly in psychology and medical fields. In a registered report, articles are reviewed on the strength of their underlying premise and approach, before data is collected. This removes the temptation to select only positive results or to apply different standards of rigour to negative results. In short, it thwarts publication bias.

The ConversationWe hope that by drawing attention to the prevalence of questionable research practices, our research will encourage support of these initiatives, and importantly, encourage institutions to support researchers in their own efforts to align their practice with their scientific values.

Fiona Fidler, Associate Professor, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne and Hannah Fraser, Postdoctoral Researcher , University of Melbourne

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

Now you see us: how casting an eerie glow on fish can help count and conserve them



File 20180215 124899 101fonp.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Biofluorescence makes researching cryptic species such as this Lizardfish easier and less harmful.
Maarten De Brauwer, Author provided

Maarten De Brauwer, Curtin University

News stories about fish often focus either on large fish like sharks, or on tasty seafood. So it might come as a surprise that more than half of the fish on coral reefs are tiny and well camouflaged.

This naturally makes them hard to find, and as a result we know very little about these so-called “cryptic” species.

Now my colleagues and I have developed a new method to make it easier to study these fish. As we report in the journal Conservation Biology, many of these species are “biofluorescent” – if you shine blue light on them they will reflect it back in a different colour. This makes them a whole lot easier to spot.

Cryptic fish such as the Moray species are easily detectible using this new method.
Maarten De Brauwer, Author provided



Read more:
Dazzling or deceptive? The markings of coral reef fish


Marine biologists try to collect essential information about species so as to help protect them. One of the most important pieces of information is estimating how many of these cryptic species are out there.

Now you ‘sea’ them.

These cryptic fishes are more important for us than people realise. They are highly diverse and hugely important to coral reef health. They are also food for the fish we like to eat, and provide incomes for thousands of people through scuba diving tourism.

These small fishes live fast and die young, reproducing quickly and being eaten by bigger fish almost as quickly. We do know that some species are dwindling in number. The Knsyna seahorse in South Africa is in danger of extinction, while many cryptic goby species in the Caribbean were being eaten by invasive lionfish before they had even been described, let alone counted.

Some cryptic species, such as this thorny seahorse (Hippocampus histrix) are more popular than other species in aquaria, for divers and as the subjects in movies.
Maarten De Brauwer, Author provided

Because cryptic fishes are so easy to miss, their total abundance is likely to be underestimated. When attempting to survey their populations, scientists generally had to resort to using chemicals to stun or kill the fish, after which they are collected and counted. This method is efficient, but it is not ideal to kill members of species that might be endangered.

Developing an efficient, non-destructive way to survey fish would benefit researchers and conservationists, and this is where biofluorescence comes in.

Biofluorescence or bioluminescence?

Biofluorescence is very different to bioluminescence, the chemical process by which animals such as deep-sea fish or fireflies produce their own light. In contrast, biofluorescent animals absorb light and reflect it as a different colour, so this process needs an external source of light.

Biofluorescence is most easily observed in corals, where it has been used to find small juveniles. In the ocean, biofluorescence can be observed by using a strong blue light source, combined with a diving mask fitted with a yellow filter.

Before… a scorpionfish captured without showing its biofluorescence, camouflaged against the rocks.
Maarten De Brauwer, Author provided
And after… the same scorpionfish in an image that captures its biofluorescence.
Maarten De Brauwer, Author provided

Recent research showed that biofluorescence is more common among fish than we previously realised. This prompted us to investigate whether biofluorescence can be used to detect cryptic fishes.

On the glow

We tested 230 fish species through the Coral Triangle to Australia’s north, and found that biofluorescence is indeed widespread in cryptic fish species.

It is so common, in fact, that the probability of a fish being biofluorescent is 70.9 times greater for cryptic species than for highly visible species.

But can this actually be used to improve our detection of cryptic fish species? The answer is yes.

Biofluorescence makes these seahorses much easier to spot.
Maarten De Brauwer, Author provided

We compared normal visual surveys to surveys using biofluorescence on one rare (Bargibant’s pygmy seahorse) and two common cryptic species (Largemouth triplefin and Highfin triplefin). Using biofluorescence we found twice as many pygmy seahorses, and three times the number of triplefins than with normal methods.

This method, which we have dubbed the “underwater biofluorescence census” makes detecting cryptic fishes easier, and counting them more accurate. While it might not detect all the animals in the way that surveys with chemicals do, it has the big benefit of not killing the species you’re counting.

A closer look at three large cryptic fish families (Gobies, Scorpionfishes, and Seahorses and Pipefishes) will tell you that they contain more than 2,000 species globally. The extinction risk of more than half of these species has not yet been evaluated. Many species that have been assessed are nevertheless classed as “data deficient” – a euphemistic way of saying that we don’t know enough to decide if they are endangered or not.




Read more:
Why you should never put a goldfish in a park pond … or down the toilet


As the majority of these cryptic species are likely to be biofluorescent, our new technique could be used to help figure out the conservation status of hundreds or even thousands of species. Our method is relatively cheap and easy to learn, and could potentially be used by citizen scientists all over the world.

The ConversationUltimately, the goal of scientists and conservationists alike is protecting marine ecosystems so we can have our seafood, enjoy our dives, and people can make a sustainable living off the ocean. Small cryptic fishes are essential in making all of this possible, and biofluorescent fish surveys can play a role in studying these understudied critters.

Maarten De Brauwer, PhD-candidate in Marine Ecology, Curtin University

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

New research suggests common herbicides are linked to antibiotic resistance



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New Zealand researchers have found that the active ingredients in commonly-used weed killers like Round-up and Kamba can cause bacteria to become less susceptible to antibiotics.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Jack Heinemann

Antibiotics are losing their ability to kill bacteria.

One of the main reasons for the rise in antibiotic resistance is the improper use of antibiotics, but our latest research shows that the ingredients in commonly-used weed killers like Round-up and Kamba can also cause bacteria to become less susceptible to antibiotics.

Herbicides induce gene activity

Already, about 700,000 deaths are attributable each year to infections by drug-resistant bacteria. A recent report projected that by 2050, 10 million people a year will die from previously treatable bacterial infections, with a cumulative cost to the world economy of $US100 trillion.

The bacteria we study are potential human pathogens. Seventy years ago pathogens were uniformly susceptible to antibiotics used in medicine and agriculture. That has changed. Now some are resistant to all but one or two remaining antibiotics. Some strains are resistant to all.


Read more: Drug resistance: how we keep track of whether antibiotics are being used responsibly


When bacteria were exposed to commercial herbicide formulations based
on 2,4-D, dicamba or glyphosate, the lethal concentration of various antibiotics
changed. Often it took more antibiotic to kill them, but sometimes it took less.
We showed that one effect of the herbicides was to induce certain genes that they all carry, but don’t always use.

These genes are part of the so-called “adaptive response”. The main elements of this response are proteins that “pump” toxins out of the cell, keeping intracellular concentrations sublethal. We knew this because the addition of a chemical inhibitor of the pumps eliminated the protective effect of the herbicide.

In our latest work, we tested this by using gene “knockout” bacteria, which had been engineered to lose just one pump gene. We found that most of the effect of the herbicide was explained by these pumps.

Reduced antibiotic use may not fix the problem

For decades we have put our faith in inventing new antibiotics above the wisdom
of preserving the effectiveness of existing ones. We have applied the same invention incentives to the commercialisation of antibiotics as those used with mobile phones. Those incentives maximise the rate of product sales. They have saturated the market with phones, and they saturate the earth with antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Improper use of antibiotics is a powerful driver of the widespread resistance.
Knowing this naturally leads to the hypothesis that proper and lower use will make the world right again. Unfortunately, the science is not fully on the side of that hypothesis.

Studies following rates of resistance do generally find a decrease in resistance to specific drugs when their use is banned or decreased. However, the effect is not a restoration of a pre-antibiotic susceptibility, characterised by multi-year effectiveness of the antibiotic. Instead, resistance returns rapidly when the drug is used again.

This tells us that once resistance has stablised in populations of bacteria, suspended use may change the ratio of resistant to susceptible but it does not eliminate resistant types. Very small numbers of resistant bacteria can undermine the antibiotic when it is used again.

Herbicides and other pollutants mimic antibiotics

What keeps these resistant minorities around? Recall that bacteria are very
small, but there are lots of them; you carry 100 trillion of them. They are also found deep underground to high up in the atmosphere.

Because antibiotics are so powerful, they eliminate bacteria that are susceptible and leave the few resistant ones to repopulate. Having done so, we now have lots of bacteria, and lots of resistance genes, to get rid of, and that takes a lot of time.

As our work suggests, the story is even more complicated. We are inclined to think of antibiotics as medicine and agrichemicals, hand soaps, bug sprays and preservatives as different. Bacteria don’t do this. To them, they are all toxic.

Some are really toxic (antibiotics) and some not so much (herbicides). Bacteria are among the longest lived organisms on earth. Nearly four billion years of survival has taught them how to deal with toxins.

Pesticides as antibiotic vaccines

Our hypothesis is that herbicides immunise the bacteria from more toxic
toxins like antibiotics. Since all bacteria have these protections, the use of widely used products to which they are exposed is particularly problematic. So these products, among others, might keep bacteria ready for antibiotics whether or not we are using them.

We found that both the purified active ingredients and potential inert ingredients in weed killers caused a change in antibiotic response. Those inert ingredients are also found in processed foods and common household products. Resistance was caused below legally allowed food concentrations.

What does this all mean? Well for starters we may have to think more carefully about how to regulate chemical commerce. With approximately eight million manufactured chemicals in commerce, 140,000 new since 1950, and limited knowledge of their combination effects and breakdown products, this won’t be easy.

The ConversationBut neither is it easy to watch someone die from an infection we lost the power to cure.

Jack Heinemann, Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics

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

The 2017 budget has axed research to help Australia adapt to climate change


Tayanah O’Donnell, University of Canberra and Josephine Mummery, University of Canberra

The 2017 federal budget has axed funding for the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF), an agency that provides information to decision-makers on how best to manage the risks of climate change and sea level rise. The Conversation

The NCCARF received A$50 million in 2008 to coordinate Australia’s national research effort into climate adaptation measures. That was reduced in 2014 to just under A$9 million. For 2017-18, a mere A$600,000 will be spread between CSIRO and NCCARF to support existing online platforms only. From 2018, funding is axed entirely.

This decision follows on from the 2014 streamlining of CSIRO’s Climate Adaptation Flagship, and comes at a time when a national review of Australia’s climate policies is still underway.

Despite a growing global impetus to address the risks of climate change, there is evidence that Australia is being hampered by policy inertia. A review of 79 submissions to the Productivity Commission’s inquiry on Barriers to Effective Climate Change Adaptation, published in 2014, found that:

adaptation first and foremost requires clear governance, and appropriate policy and legislation to implement change.

Earlier this year the World Economic Forum listed “failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation” as one of the top five risks to the world, in terms of its potential impact. Meanwhile, in Australia, local governments, professionals and community groups have consistently called for more national policy guidance on how best to adapt to climate risks.

The government’s decision to slash funding for climate adaptation research is therefore at odds with the growing urgency of the problem. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its most recent major assessment report, pointed out that Australia can benefit significantly from taking adaptation action in highly vulnerable sectors.

These areas of vulnerability include: the risk of more frequent and intense floods; water shortages in southern regions; deaths and infrastructure damage caused by heatwaves; bushfires; and impacts on low-lying coastal communities.

To put it simply, lives and money will be saved by strong climate adaptation measures.

Australia needs a coherent policy approach that goes beyond the current focus on energy policy, although climate adaptation is indeed an important issue for our electricity grid as well as for many other elements of our infrastructure. A coherent, whole-of-government, approach to climate risk is the economical and sensible approach in the long term.

Like it or not, the federal government has to take a leading role in climate adaptation. This includes the ongoing need to address existing knowledge gaps through well-funded research.

The federal government is the major funder of leading research in Australia, delivered through CSIRO, the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Cooperative Reserach Centres, the Australian Research Council and universities. This role should not be divested. Without climate adaptation research, Australia can expect significantly higher infrastructure damage and repair costs, more death and disease, and more frequent disruption to services – much of which would be avoidable with the right knowledge and preparation.

The damage bill from the 2010-11 Queensland floods alone exceeded A$6 billion. Since 2009, natural disasters have cost the Australian government more than A$12 billion, and the private sector has begun trying in earnest to reduce its risk exposure.

In response to these known risks, there is demand for robust policy guidance. Effective partnerships between government, industry and the community are crucial. One such example led by the NCCARF is CoastAdapt, an online tool that collates details of climate risks and potential costs in coastal areas.

For projects like this, success hinges on full engagement with all relevant spheres of government, industry, research, and the community. There is more to be done, and it needs leadership at the highest level.

Tayanah O’Donnell, Research Fellow, University of Canberra and Josephine Mummery, Research Fellow and PhD Candidate, climate change policy, University of Canberra

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

The good, the bad and the ugly: research funding flows to big and beautiful mammals in Australia


Susan Lawler, La Trobe University

You might think that scientists are rational, logical creatures, but it turns out we are biased and lazy. A recent publication by Trish Fleming and Phil Bateman in Mammal Review has analysed how research on Australian mammals is distributed, and the results are not pretty.

What is being reported in the media is that ugly animals are at greater risk of extinction because research funding is more often directed towards species that are considered cute and cuddly. Having read their publication, I will argue this is not entirely true, but the researchers did find that Australian mammals fell into three broad categories that they called the good, the bad and the ugly.

The researchers used a tool called a species h-index: basically they compared research on various species by assessing how often they are mentioned in publications and how often those papers were cited by other scientists.

The Good: Monotremes and marsupials

Australia is well known for its unusual and unique mammalian fauna, and of course the stars of the show either lay eggs or have pouches. Echidnas and platypus are of great interest biologically because they are the only extant monotremes: they lay eggs and feed their babies with milk. There is nothing like them anywhere else on the planet, so it makes sense that even though they are only 0.6% of the mammal species in Australia, they are in 4% of publications.

Our native marsupials are also well researched. Kangaroos, koalas, Tasmanian devils, possums and their relatives constitute 49% of Australian mammals. They are also well researched, as they are in 73% of the publications assessed.

The Bad: Introduced eutherians

Eutherians are the placental mammals like ourselves. No pouches, no eggs, and relatively common outside of Australia. Most of our feral pests fall into this category and they attract a lot of research interest and funding because of their disproportionate economic impacts. Rabbits, house mice, foxes, cats and deer fall into the category of “bad” mammals. They represent 6% of mammal species in Australia and are mentioned in 12% of the publications.

Controversially, the authors decided to categorise the dingo as an introduced mammal, even though many of us consider it to be an important component of a healthy ecosystem. Other research shows that when dingo numbers are healthy, foxes and cats have less of an impact on small native mammals.

The Ugly: Native eutherians

Many people do not realise that we have a large number of native mammals that are not marsupials. These species found their way to our continent millions of years ago and have adapted to conditions here. Unfortunately, these are the rodents and bats, which have a bad reputation even though in most cases they are not interested in infesting your home or your hair.

The native eutherians represent no less than 45% of Australian mammals, but they are only in 11% of publications, which is less than the introduced ferals. The researchers put them in the “ugly” category despite the fact that many of these are quite cute.

For example, we keep Mitchell’s hopping mice as pets and I can assure you that they are adorable. Everyone who is lucky enough to visit after dark (they are nocturnal so only come out at night) has agreed. They jump, they play, they have personalities. So nobody is going to convince me that they belong in the ugly category.

What they are is small and cryptic. Given the difficulty of finding them in their cage during the day, I can only imagine how difficult it would be to observe them in the wild. Bats are even more difficult as their sleeping quarters are high up in trees or deep in rocky crevices.

Most research on big animals with large ranges

Unsurprisingly, given the challenges, the animals that attract the most research attention are large and are distributed over a large geographic range. This may be in part because these are the species that are of more interest to the public and therefore attract more funding, but it also makes scientists look lazy.

It is far easier to survey koalas than it is to survey microbats, but when we consider that the microbats are eating insects for us, while koalas are more likely to kill trees, there may be good reason to shift our focus. (By the way, you can build a microbat roosting box to attract them to your house, see here).

Where should the funding go?

Of most concern is that there was no correlation between a species’ IUCN status (endangered, threatened, etc.) and the amount of research interest. Given the large number of species that are data deficient, this means that vulnerable species are not getting enough attention.

Australia has suffered the greatest loss of native mammals globally and many of us want that to change. Unfortunately, good intentions are not enough. We need research funding, and this is not evenly distributed. Australia belongs to the 40 most underfunded countries for conservation. One researcher has suggested the shortfall is over $350 million AUD, and yet we do not receive international biodiversity funding aid.

Here’s hoping the ugly mammals of Australia are not made to suffer the ultimate fate of extinction, just because we are unable to take a step back and set priorities based on evidence rather than emotion.

Perhaps we need to start an Ugly Animal Preservation Society, like they have in the UK.

The Conversation

Susan Lawler, Senior Lecturer, Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution, La Trobe University

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