Blame it on mum and dad: how genes influence what we eat

Tasters’ often dislike bitter green vegetables, such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

Tasters’ often dislike bitter green vegetables, such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Kevin O’Mara/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Nicholas Archer, CSIRO

Hate the taste of Brussels sprouts? Do you find coriander disgusting or perceive honey as too sweet? Your genes may be to blame.

Everybody’s food preferences vary and are shaped by their unique combination of three interacting factors: the environment (your health, diet and cultural influences); prior experience; and genes, which alter your sensory perception of foods.

The food we eat is sensed by specialised receptors located in the tongue and nose. The receptors work like a lock and are highly specific in the nutrients or aromas (the keys) they detect. Sweet receptors, for instance, detect only sweet molecules and will not detect bitterness.

When you eat, your brain combines the signals from these specialised taste (in the mouth) and olfactory (aroma in the nose) receptors to form a flavour. Flavour is further influenced by other perceived qualities, such as the burn of chilli, the cooling of mint, or the thickness of yogurt.

Our unique sensory worlds

Humans have about 35 receptors to detect sweet, salty, bitter, sour, umami and fat tastes. They have around 400 receptors to detect aroma. The receptor proteins are produced from instructions encoded in our DNA and there is significant variation in the DNA code between individuals.

In 2004, American researchers identified that olfactory receptors were located in mutational hotspots. These regions have higher than normal genetic variation. Any of these genetic variants may change the shape of the receptor (the lock) and result in a difference in perception of taste or aroma between people.

Chocoholic? Foodie Baker/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Another American study shows that any two individuals will have genetic differences that translate to differences in 30% to 40% of their aroma receptors. This suggests we all vary in our flavour perception for foods and that we all live in our own unique sensory world.

How much sugar do you add to your tea?

Our ability to perceive sweetness varies a lot and is partly controlled by our genes. A recent twin study found genetics accounts for about a third of the variation in sweet taste perception of sugar and low-calorie sweeteners. Researchers have identified specific gene variants in the receptors that detect sweetness: TAS1R2 and TAS1R3.

There is also high variation in the detection of bitterness. However, the story is more complicated than sweet taste, as we have 25 receptors that detect different bitter molecules. Bitter receptors evolved to detect and stop us from eating harmful toxins. That’s why bitterness is not widely liked.

One of these bitter taste receptors (TAS2R38) controls the ability to detect a bitter compound called PROP (propylthiouracil). Based on the ability to detect PROP, people can be split into two groups: “tasters” or “non-tasters”. Tasters often dislike bitter green vegetables, such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

PROP status has also been used as a marker of food preferences, with non-tasters shown to eat more fat and better tolerate chilli.

Genetics has also been linked to whole foods, such as coriander preference, coffee liking and many others. But genes have only a small influence on preference for these foods due to their sensory complexity and also the contribution of your environment and prior experiences.

Towards personalisation

Understanding the influence of genes on taste perception offers a way to personalise products tailored specifically to your needs. This could mean tailoring a diet to a person’s genetics to help them lose weight. Indeed, genetic testing companies already offer dietary advice based on your individual genes.

Foods could one day be formulated for genetically determined preferences.

Foods could one day be formulated for genetically determined preferences. Indiana Stan/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Foods could one day be formulated for genetically determined preferences.
Indiana Stan/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Personalised food products to suit your own genetic dietary preferences are another example. Food products based on personal tastes are already in supermarkets. Salsa can be bought in mild, medium and hot. What if you could purchase food products specifically formulated for your own genetically determined sensory preferences?

Personalisation can also apply at the population level. Food manufacturers could tailor their food products to different populations based on an understanding of how common a genetic variant is in each population.

We are just beginning to understand how genes alter our sense of taste and smell, and how this may affect food preferences. Further research is needed to understand how multiple genes may combine to influence sensory perception and dietary intake. This is no easy feat, as it will require studies with extremely large numbers of people.

Another important research area will be to understand if our taste genes can be modified. Imagine if you could alter your food preferences to consume healthier foods.

The Conversation

Nicholas Archer, Research Scientist, Sensory, Flavour and Consumer Sciences, CSIRO

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


Healthcare’s technology revolution means a boost for jobs in IT

Eye testing in remote areas of Australia with the images stored and set via satellite to city-based specialists. CSIRO, CC BY-NC

Eye testing in remote areas of Australia with the images stored and set via satellite to city-based specialists. CSIRO, CC BY-NC

David Hansen, CSIRO

We tend to think about our healthcare sector as a leader in the development and use of advanced medical technology and biotechnology, such as expensive imaging machines or devices that we implant into patients.

But in many aspects of conducting the business of healthcare, our healthcare system is still in a pre-digital era. For example, healthcare may be the last sector where significant amounts of communication are still done via fax and regular post.

This is not to say that significant changes are not happening. Radiology is increasingly using digital technology but the interpretation of these images is still manual. Electronic health and medical records are also being introduced widely but there is little communication between collectors.

The digital revolution in healthcare that is currently slowly unfolding will use data and technology to improve the healthcare of patients. It will also increase safety and quality, and improve efficiency in the healthcare system.

The eyes have it… remotely

One example of how technology can be used to deliver better healthcare is a recent trial by CSIRO and our partners that provided screening for eye diseases among people in remote parts of Western Australia and Queensland.

Using the NBN’s satellite broadband service, we screened more than 1,200 people in their communities for diseases such as diabetic retinopathy. This disease often causes irreversible blindness, and it affects the Indigenous population at nearly four times the rate of the non-Indigenous population.

Captured: a typical high-resolution image of a patient’s retina. CSIRO, CC BY-NC

Local health workers were trained at capturing high-resolution images of a patient’s retina with a low-cost retinal camera. These images were stored then uploaded over the NBN satellite to ophthalmologists in Brisbane and Perth.

The screening program identified 68 patients who were at high risk of going blind, including those with macular edema. In the most case these patients received treatment locally. However, some patients needed transfer to major hospitals for immediate treatment.

Once patients were identified as being at risk of significant eye disease, they were provided with care plans that involved local follow up consultations and regular screening the tele-eye care screening program.

For diabetic patients this included advice on controlling their diabetes, which improves their overall health as well as reducing the risk of blindness.

We have the technology

Overall, the trial showed the effectiveness of providing a “store and forward” tele-ophthalmology service using satellite broadband. These types of services have previously been held back by unreliable broadband services and the lack of digital systems in our health services to interact with them.

Reliable broadband connectivity together with increased use of digital systems by health services means that these methods of health service delivery can now become the normal way healthcare is provided.

But for these tele-enabled models of care to really take off, patient data must be shared between providers. At the moment, different healthcare providers – GPs, specialist doctors and emergency departments at local hospitals – all separately collect information about the same patients.

This means that the services that a patient receives are generally uncoordinated. With the increase in chronic diseases, such as diabetes and eye-disease, coordinated care will lead to better health outcomes.

For providers to share data requires their computer systems to be able to send and receive data, and make sure that the data is added to the correct patient’s electronic record.

This is where the type of algorithms that power search engines such as Google – semantic web and information retrieval technologies – can be tailored for healthcare systems. Shared properly, the data can be used to make sure that patients receive appropriate services.

Sharing this data will also mean that there is a bigger volume of data about a patient with each healthcare provider. This will require computers to do more to analyse the data and alert patients, clinicians and health care providers when there should be follow up action.

More IT jobs needed in healthcare

The increase in the use of digital technologies will not only boost healthcare. This is a sector where there will be a significant boost in the number of IT professionals, including data scientists, needed to work.

Big data analytics will be required to analyse the large volumes of different types of data that are being collected at an increasing rate.

But it is not just about applying these new technologies in healthcare. There is also a need to work with clinicians and health service executives to understand what data is – or could be – collected. This may lead to a new way of providing clinical care, a new health service, or even make existing processes more efficient.

For data analysts and IT professionals working in healthcare, the opportunities to make a difference to patients are almost boundless.

The Conversation

David Hansen is CEO, Australian e-Health Research Centre at CSIRO.

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


Reducing emissions alone won’t stop climate change: new research

Replanting forests

Replanting forests is one way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is a site in China. CIFOR/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Richard Matear, CSIRO and Andrew Lenton, CSIRO

Based on current greenhouse gas emissions, the world is on track for 4C warming by 2100 – well beyond the internationally agreed guardrail of 2C. To keep warming below 2C, we need to either reduce our emissions, or take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Two papers published today investigate our ability to limit global warming and reverse the impacts of climate change. The first, published in Nature Communications, shows that to limit warming below 2C we will have to remove some carbon from the atmosphere, no matter how strongly we reduce emissions.

The second, in Nature Climate Change, shows that even if we can remove enough CO2 to keep warming below 2C, it would not restore the oceans to the state they were in before we began altering the atmosphere.

How we’re tracking

Currently, we’re at 400 parts per million – rising from 280 ppm before the industrial revolution.

To project future climate change the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) uses a range of emissions scenarios called Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs), based on different economic and energy use assumptions.

In the high scenario, RCP8.5, emissions continue to grow from our present rate of 37 billion tonnes of CO2 per year to about 100 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2100, when atmospheric CO2 levels are projected to be 950 ppm. This scenario assumes little mitigation of our carbon emissions.

In the low scenario, RCP2.6, emissions rise slowly till the end of this decade to about 40 billion tonnes CO2 each year and then start to decline. Amongst the IPCC emission scenarios, only the RCP 2.6 appears capable of limiting warming to below 2C. With RCP 2.6 at the end of the century atmospheric concentrations is about 420 ppm, and only 20 ppm above the present value.

Present emissions are tracking close to the highest scenario (RCP8.5). If we want to keep warming below 2C it requires a substantial reduction in the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

What we have to do

We have two options by which to reduce emissions, the first through reducing the use of fossil fuel energy, and the second through Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR).

CDR refers to technologies that remove CO2, the primary greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere. Examples include Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), afforestation (planting trees), adding iron to the ocean, and directly capturing CO2 from the air.

For many CDR technologies the boundary between “climate intervention” (or “geoengineering”) and greenhouse gas mitigation is unclear. However, the goal is the same, enhancing the CO2 current taken up and sequestered by the land and ocean.

Can we just remove carbon?

The first study, led by Thomas Gasser, used results from 11 Earth System Models, in conjunction with a simple carbon-cycle models to simulate different emissions reductions scenarios associated with the low emissions pathway, RCP2.6.

They showed that under all emissions reductions scenarios, even slashing emissions to less than 4 billion tonnes CO2 each year, (greater than a 90% cut in current emissions) is insufficient to limit warming to 2C.

This means that some form of CDR will be required to keep warming at less than 2C. The exact level of CDR required depends very much on the emissions reduction achieved, from 2 billion to 10 billion tonnes of CO2 each year in the most optimistic scenario, to between 25-40 billion tonnes CO2 each year in the lowest emission reduction case. This is equivalent to current total global emissions.

The study also suggests that the requirements for CDR may indeed be even higher if unanticipated natural carbon cycle (positive) feedbacks were to occur. We may desire the ability to remove more carbon from the atmosphere to compensate for these.

The other study, led by Sabine Mathesius, explores whether CDR under high CO2 emissions can achieve a similar environmental outcome to a rapid transition to a low carbon energy use (RCP2.6).

It shows that aggressive CDR can only undo the effect of high emissions (RCP8.5) and return the marine environment to either pre-industrial values or the low emission scenario over thousands of years. The ability to undo the damage caused by high emissions reflects timescale of the ocean carbon cycle. While the upper ocean quickly reaches equilibrium with the atmosphere, the deeper ocean takes millennia to restabilise.

Such irreversibility of the system is an important consequence and the study provides valuable information to consider as we tackle rising CO2 levels. Both studies are theoretical but they provide an important perspective on the ability of mankind to engineer the climate system and undo the effects of high CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

No CDR or suite of CDR technologies exists capable of removing the levels of CO2 at the upper range of what maybe required. This means that, while CDR could aid in limiting global temperatures below 2C, in practice this is not even yet possible, and would not be without risks. This continues to be a very active area of research.

While the focus of both studies explore reversing the environmental changes of rising CO2, the climate system is complex and the possibility that mitigation options like CDR could produce unforeseen impacts is high. While reducing carbon emissions is the safest and preferred path for avoiding dangerous climate change and ocean acidification, it is likely that some CDR will be required to achieve this.


The authors will be one hand for an Author Q&A on Tuesday, August 4 – Andrew between 3 and 4pm AEST and Richard between 5 and 6pm AEST. Post your questions in the comments section below.

The Conversation

Richard Matear is Senior Research Scientist, Marine and Atmospheric Research at CSIRO.
Andrew Lenton is Senior Research Scientist, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship at CSIRO.

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


Historic collections could be lost to ‘digital dinosaurs’

An image of Australian shearers taken on glass plate negative is now preserved in a digital collection. Powerhouse Museum Collection/Flickr

An image of Australian shearers taken on glass plate negative is now preserved in a digital collection. Powerhouse Museum Collection/Flickr

By Michael Brünig, CSIRO

Australian’s museums, galleries and other cultural institutions must adopt more of a digital strategy with their collections if they are to remain relevant with audiences.

Only about a quarter of the collections held by the sector have been digitised so far and a study out today says more needs to be done to protect and preserve the material, and make it available to people online.

Challenges and Opportunities for Australia’s Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums is a joint study by CSIRO and the Smart Services CRC.

It notes that Australia’s galleries, libraries, archives and museums (the GLAM sector) represent our accumulated achievements and experiences, inspire creativity and provide a place for us to connect with our heritage.

They are also crucial to our economy with the GLAM sector estimated to have a revenue of about A$2.5 billion each year. That’s not only a lot of paintings and artifacts, but a lot of jobs as well.

But despite its size and scope, we found that digital innovation in the sector has been inconsistent and isolated. If these cultural institutions don’t increase their use of digital technologies and services, they risk losing their relevance.

So what changes do they need to make in order to thrive in the digital economy?

Opening doors and minds

With Australia’s rapid uptake of online and mobile platforms, people are now choosing to access and share information in very different ways.

It’s safe to say that the only constant in this space is change. Research suggests that expectations for more personalised, better and faster services and more well-designed experiences will continue to increase.

Virtual tours are now possible at the National Museum of Australia.

Virtual tours are now possible at the National Museum of Australia.

This is why our cultural institutions need to review the kind of visitor experience they are providing. We found only a few organisations had made fundamental changes to their operations that would allow them to place digital services at their core, rather than as an add-on activity.

This is in contrast to the dramatic changes we’ve seen when it comes to adopting digital technologies in our daily lives.

In order to be successful, digital experiences need to be an integrated and cohesive part of an institution’s offering.

Take what is happening at the National Museum of Australia. It’s now possible to take a tour of the museum via a telepresence-enabled robot.

This means school students – particularly those in rural and regional Australia – can explore exhibits virtually, without even leaving the classroom. Interestingly, we hear that this actually increases their desire to visit the museum in person.

Digital-savvy innovations such as this need to be at the fore of our institutions’ thinking if they want to engage with the community and break down barriers to participation.

Engaging with the public

To be successful in this new era, institutions need to meet people on their own (digital) terms. We can no longer expect visitors to queue at the turnstiles waiting for opening time. Organisations need to bring experiences to the user so that they can access them wherever and however they prefer.

Some of Australia’s cultural institutions are starting to get this.

Another image available freely online as part of the Powerhouse Museum Collection. Powerhouse Museum/Flickr

Another image available freely online as part of the Powerhouse Museum Collection. Powerhouse Museum/Flickr

The NSW State Library has appointed a Wikipedian-In-Residence to contribute expertise and train the public in publishing information online.

The National Library of Australia has attracted a large online user base with its online Trove service attracting almost 70,000 unique users each day.

The Powerhouse Museum has made parts of their photographic collections available on Flickr via Creative Commons licensing. This has caused a surge in the level of use and allowed the public to contribute information, adding value to the collection.

While these examples provide a lot of hope for the sector, the unfortunate reality is that they are few and far between. Most of Australia’s cultural institutions have not kept pace with this change and are missing the opportunity to better connect and actually increase their revenue.

Digitise this!

Australia’s eight national, state and territory art organisations hold archives that, if laid out flat end-to-end, would span 629km. This is on top of a staggering 100,000 million artworks, books and audio-visual items in Australia.

But only a quarter of these items are digitised, with some of Australia’s collections still being managed through “old school” mechanisms such as log books and card indices.

Imagine if there was a fire at one of our great institutions? We would risk losing cultural and heritage material of significance. Parts of our history could be completely lost. Even without such a devastating event, if we don’t make our collections more accessible, in a sense they’ll be lost to many of us anyway.

As a country, not only do we need to get moving when it comes to digitising our collections, we also need to explore new and innovative ways to do this. Traditionally, digitisation has meant scanning flat documents, photographing objects or creating electronic versions of catalogue data.

But what if we could do so much more? Researchers are now focused on the next challenge: digitising objects and spaces in three dimensions.

Researchers from the University of Wollongong with support from the Smart Services CRC are focusing on capturing 3D models and the textures of surfaces using low-cost equipment such as a Kinect camera from an Xbox.

3D map of The Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne

3D map of The Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne

At CSIRO, we’ve even used our own handheld scanner Zebedee to map culturally and environmentally significant sites suchb as the Jenolan Caves, Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance and even a semi-submerged wreckage of the HMQS Gayundah.

We’re also creating high-quality 2D and 3D image libraries based on the National Biological Collections, letting us document biodiversity in the digital era.

Embracing the digital economy

While our study reveals that Australia’s cultural institutions are certainly at risk of becoming “digital dinosaurs”, it also demonstrated how those organisations that are embracing digital are reaping the benefits.

It provides recommendations for the GLAM industry in order for it to maximise its digital potential, including:

  • shifting to open access models and greater collaboration with the public
  • exploring new approaches to copyright management that stimulate creativity and support creators
  • building on aggregation initiatives such as the Atlas of Living Australia
  • standardising preservation of “born digital” material to avoid losing access to digital heritage
  • exploiting the potential of Australia’s Academic and Research Network (AARNet) and the National Broadband Network (NBN) for collection and collaboration.

By adopting these recommendations and building on some innovative examples in the sector, Australia’s GLAM industry will be well placed to embrace digital, rather than be engulfed by it.

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


Spring forth and eat dung

A male Onthophagus vacca dung beetle

Onthophagus vacca – getting into it in WA

There are about 28.5 million head of cattle in Australia. Each one produces between ten and 12 cowpats a day, at an average 2.5kg each. Over a 14-day period, that’s about 14 million tonnes of dung. And every one of those cowflops can generate about 3000 flies in that time. But you may have noticed that Australia hasn’t been buried in manure or completely blanketed in flies. That’s because, for more than 40 years, we’ve been working to make sure cow dung doesn’t hang around, polluting pastures and waterways and providing the ideal breeding ground for flies.

This is a special week for us. One of our two new species of European dung beetle is ready for field release. The other is planned for release in 2015.

Our scientist, Dr Jane Wright, personally carried her shy but important companions, Onthophagus vacca, (a native of France and Spain) from Canberra to Western Australia. The spring-active dung beetles will be burrowing into new homes at field sites around Kojonup in Western Australia. These sites were chosen because they are home to numerous large herds of cattle, which means a lot of cow dung is available.

Here they are, making themselves at home.

Up until now, there has been a gap between one species of beetle settling down for a well-earned break and the next gearing up for action. These new beetles have been carefully selected to fill the seasonal break in activity in early spring across southern and western Australia. By introducing the spring-active beetle, the long term goal is to ensure dung is buried in early spring, getting the nutrients into the ground and accessible to the plant roots. The result is increased pasture productivity and reduced runoff of nutrients into waterways.  Another benefit is that the beetles will compete with bush flies for the dung, thus slowing the buildup of fly numbers over spring, enabling the existing beetles to have a greater impact on fly populations over summer.

With financial support from Meat and Livestock Australia and WA Agriculture and Food, we imported two new species of dung beetle in 2012. These were placed in quarantine and set up to breed. Then their eggs were surface-sterilised following AQIS protocols. Following that the eggs were taken into the laboratory outside quarantine and transferred to artificial brood balls. These beetles were the start of a laboratory colony that has allowed us to produce sufficient beetles for field releases, like this one.

If you’d like to learn more about these little scuttling wonders, there’s a more in-depth article over at The Conversation.


Should we be preparing for an El Niño in 2014?

El Niño could stoke more extreme bushfire weather. Image: James975/Flickr

El Niño could stoke more extreme bushfire weather. Image: James975/Flickr

By Wenju Cai, Principal Research Scientist, Wealth from Oceans Flagship

Recently speculation has been rife that the end of 2014 will see an El Niño event — the change in Pacific ocean and atmosphere circulation that is known to produce drought, extreme heat, and fire in Australia. The Bureau of Meteorology’s latest statement predicts that Pacific Ocean temperatures may approach El Niño levels by early winter, but the jury is out beyond the end of this year.

Given the catastrophic effects El Niño can have, should we be getting prepared anyway?

An El Niño for 2014?

A small number of models have predicted an El Niño later in the year. But these models generally suffer from what scientists call an “autumn predictability barrier”. During the southern hemisphere autumn it is hard to distinguish the development of an El Niño from background variability.

But a recent high-profile paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences adamantly predicted an El Niño later this year, using a new framework that explores how ocean temperatures are connected between the equatorial Pacific and other regions. The paper claims to overcome the autumn predictability barrier, quoting a 70% success rate in simulating prediction of historical El Niño events.

Preparing for the worst

To better ready ourselves for an El Niño event, we need to know what the impact might be. El Niño affects our lives in many ways.

One important consideration is Murray River, which supports economic activities estimated at tens of billions of dollars each year, including our irrigated agriculture and water supply in regional areas.

El Niño can also happen in conjunction with other climate cycles. When an El Niño coincides with the positive phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole, there is usually a dramatic reduction in annual inflow.

A prediction of an El Niño will trigger consideration of water allocation by our water managers, taking into account of the need for environmental flow to ensure the long-term health of the river.

Another consideration is drought, which has a direct impact on our ecosystems and farming communities. Our farmers are very skilled in using El Niño prediction information. They use the information to decide what crops to plant and level of cropping activities. Sometimes it is better not to grow anything, to limit losses.

An incorrect prediction can be costly too. So our farmers make ongoing decisions using updated information (normally on a monthly basis). From time to time they will need help to get through tough times, and so our federal government needs to budget for drought relief.

A further consideration is extreme weather. More heatwaves, bushfires and dust storms will have an impact of human health, infrastructure, and emergency services. For example, our senior citizens are most affected by heat stress.

In the week of the recent January heatwave in Victoria, the number of deaths more than doubled. It’s a common-sense matter of getting well prepared to ensure relief is available when needed. If a cooler is needed, it is too late to install it after you hear the weather forecast.

Global warming: loading the dice

This year, and in summer 2013, southeast Australia experienced significant and unprecedented heatwaves, both associated with bushfires. These kinds of events usually take place in an El Niño year.

In fact, an average El Niño increases the global mean temperature by 0.1C. One example is the extreme El Niño of 1982-83, in which a string of heatwaves preceded the Ash Wednesday bushfires, amid severe drought conditions.

But 2013 and the summer just past were not a result of El Niño. In fact these record-breaking heatwaves occurred at a time when the increase of global surface temperatures has slowed, although regionally temperatures continue to increase. Inland Australia — the source of heat in south east Australian heatwaves — continues to warm.

The reason for the slowdown in the rising global surface temperatures is another ocean and atmosphere cycle: the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). Currently in a negative phase, the PDO is encouraging heat to be stored in the ocean thanks to changes in trade winds. Likewise, during a positive PDO, less heat is stored in the ocean, which can enhance the effect of El Niño as in the 1982-83 event.

So there are a range of scenarios depending on a number of different climate cycles. Imagine this one: global warming continues unmitigated by a “hiatus”, and then an El Niño or extreme El Niño occurs. Such an alignment of warming, positive PDO and El Niño is likely to occur several times over the next 20 years. While we can’t predict exactly when the PDO might shift to a positive phase, we might expect the current negative phase to last another four to five years.

If we didn’t like what we experienced in 2013 and early 2014, we’re unlikely to enjoy this worst-case scenario. Heatwaves will be not only more frequent, but hotter too. The associated drought would eventually break, but it will be longer and more severe. Are we ready?

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


Women can help bridge the ‘valley of death’ in science innovation

Cathy Foley reflects on her time as Woman of the Year.

Cathy Foley reflects on her time as Woman of the Year.

By Cathy Foley, President of Science and Technology Australia

As International Women’s Day approaches on March 8 and my time as NSW Premier’s Woman of the Year draws to a close, I have been thinking about diversity in the workplace, and in particular, the relationship between diversity and innovation.

Science and technology that lead to innovation are critical for the changes that lead to a better quality of life, greater business opportunities and a happier, healthier and more equitable society.

We don’t have to look far from our own backyard to see examples of this. The rapid global expansion of wireless communications is in part possible because of the now widely acknowledged work by John O’Sullivan and his team at the CSIRO. Wi-Fi is now estimated to be used in more than 3 billion devices worldwide.

Given the huge benefits that innovation can bring – economically and socially – we should be doing everything we can to encourage environments where this type of thinking and practice can thrive. One of the most effective ways to do this would be achieve gender balance in our innovation system.

The gender balance

There is strong evidence that companies operating with a gender-balance actually enhance their innovation quotient and gain a competitive advantage.

Reports also suggest that advances in gender equality correlate positively with higher Gross National Product (GNP) and that increasing women’s labour force participation and earnings generates greater economic benefits for a family’s health and education. Surely this can only be a good thing.

So where exactly are we at? As a nation we have achieved great things. Last year Australia was named the country with the highest quality of life in the world, according to the OECD better life index.

The gender gap

But we still have considerable work to do in many ways, including closing the gender gap in the workplace. The World Economic Forum has reported that in 2013 Australia continues to sit at 24th in closing this gap – just above Ecuador and Mozambique.

Australia still has only 17.6% representation of women on ASX 200 boards (as of 14 February 2014), and almost a quarter of boards of the ASX 200 still do not have any females at all.

Women working in science remain hugely underrepresented in leadership roles and some areas of physics and engineering have as little as 5% female participation.

The Australian Businesswomen’s Network says that women are starting small businesses at twice the rate of men. Despite this, a US study has found that female-owned companies are less likely to attract private investment compared to male-owned companies.

The recipe for success

If the nexus of women, science and business is the recipe for success in innovation, then how do women, science and business meet?

Equity, diversity and the lost opportunity of not capturing the full human potential are important arguments for having more women involved in science, technology and business.

But I have a new reason. As the traditional “social organisers” women bring a lot to the table. Business and science success is all about relationships and networking. You have to meet to do business.

Take the science world as an example. On average it takes about 20 years for a discovery to develop into a product. This has been an international rule of thumb. Everyone wants this to happen faster.

When you look at the reason for the delay, it is often when the development gets caught up in what is often called the “valley of death” or a black hole in the commercialisation process which can add years to transitioning time. Translating a discovery in the science lab to the engineering and development, then finally securing industry adoption can be a tortuous process.

What women can do

Women can offer a great deal in making that link as years of social conditioning means that it comes naturally to us.

Could the gender gap be a factor holding back the transition of science to industry, leading to missed opportunities? The diversity that women bring as scientists, technologists, engineers and nascent entrepreneurs might be the answer.

If women’s participation is a demonstrated element for business success and innovation is the essential ingredient for businesses to flourish, then why have we not embraced the opportunity to boost the role of women in science and business? Perhaps if we did we would witness greater translation of research to industry and our economic success would grow even more.

So at the end of a year thinking about what needs to change if we are to grow our economic and social prosperity, I think that increasing the participation of women in science, technology and business (big and small) is critical if Australia is to continue to have world leading quality of life, close the gender gap and have internationally competitive businesses.

Economic and social prosperity depends on change. This is one change we need to make now.

Cathy Foley is one of the keynote speakers at the Open Space free event today at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, Melbourne, 11:30 am to 2:30 pm 20/2/14.

Cathy Foley is affiliated with CSIRO. She is Chief of the Division of Materials Science and Engineering where she has worked for 29 years.

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