Archive for April, 2011

Medical research funding – worth fighting to protect

April 15, 2011

In an effort to balance an unbalanced budget the Federal Government are said to be planning major cuts to the funds available for National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) research grants. These grants are the major source of research funding in Australia for health and medicine, and any moves to cut this funding will severely damage vitally important Australian research.

Australia has a highly respected reputation worldwide for medical research, being recognised for high quality research and innovation. Despite only having around 1% of the total medical researchers worldwide, it is estimated around 3% of internationally renowned research papers are produced by Australian scientists. By cutting research funding we do put our international reputation at risk, as well as making a noticeable dent in the total research progress of the world. Suzanne Cory, President of the Australian Academy of Science suggests that these cuts, should they go ahead, will send a worrying message internationally that Australia doesn’t take medical research seriously. This is especially true in light of Barack Obama’s recent speeches about the state of the US budget when he reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to science, medical and technological research.

Despite Australia’s international reputation, even before these cuts Australia spends far less than other developed countries. As a proportion of our total national budget, Australia spends only 0.07% on medical research, placing us 8th in the world. As a point of comparison, the US spends 0.22% of their budget on medical research, while Singapore spends 0.23%. This suggests that rather than cuts, Australia should arguably be increasing medical research funding to maintain our international competitiveness. In fact, the cost of research increases by around 6% per year, so failing to at least match this increase already leads to the degradation of Australian research potential.

Speculation is that cuts of $400 million will be made over the next 3 years. While the annual NHMRC grant budget is around $750 million, around two-thirds of that is pre-allocated to maintain grants awarded in previous years. This leaves around $200-250 million each year for new grants, so these proposed cuts would result in around a halving of the money available for new grants to be awarded. At the moment, only around 1 in 5 applications to the NHMRC receive funding, they are extremely competitive and a process in which it is extremely tough to succeed, and reducing this success rate again will devastate Australian research. After a three year period, this has the potential to have reduced the amount of all medical research in Australia by nearly half.

If the government believes it can switch off and switch on research funding at will, it shows that they do not really understand that research just doesn’t work that way. It isn’t a matter of switching off a machine then restarting it a year later, research funding actually pays the salaries of the researchers. By cutting funding, researchers will lose their jobs. And research isn’t something which occurs over a six to 12 month period, a research project is an ongoing endeavour which requires several years of work to contribute to the body of knowledge.  This will particularly affect young emerging scientists who are applying for their first grants. Any delay to a young scientist by not being able to get a research grant will severely affect their career prospects, as time out of research is very damaging and an interrupted research program will stall their ability to make meaningful contributions to their field.

While other countries are showing a commitment to their medical research establishments and Australia is cutting its support, these young Australian researchers will seek opportunities overseas. We already face a brain-drain, which the government laments, where the best and brightest young professionals seek overseas opportunities. Faced with a potentially career damaging loss of funding and a loss of livelihood, young scientists will face no choice but to relocate overseas where they may be able to access greater support, and studies have shown that when researchers relocate overseas, the return rate is far lower. While complaining about the brain drain, cutting medical research funding will exacerbate the problem.

Cutting funding will not only be disastrous for young up-and-coming scientists, but also for established scientists. Projects can involve several years of investigation before bringing together several threads into one significant outcome. Projects which have been funded and building up to major outcomes over the past years may find their funding dry up right when they are about to enter this significant phase. This will reduce the impact that the last decade of funding will have, and sharply reduce the return on the investment the government has already made. This isn’t just about undermining research over the coming years, but also undermining research which has already been done by preventing it coming to its proper conclusion.

Medical research plays an important part of any country’s economy. As has already been pointed out, reducing funding for research will result in serious job losses and the damaging effects this has on the economy. But research itself does contribute to the economy. Barack Obama again likened the economy to an aeroplane, and research and innovation as the engines. The last thing you want to do to an overloaded plane is throw away the engines, and he described medical research as being a “core investment”. UK Chancellor George Osborne agrees, saying “Scientific research … is vital to our future economic success.” The results of medical research funnel back directly into the economy through the commercialisation of new techniques or therapies, with a couple of recent examples being the bionic ear Cochlear and Gardasil. Australia should in fact be moving in this direction and not away from it according to Cathy Foley, President of the Federation of Australian Science and Technological Societies. She points to low skilled manufacture moving away from Australia, and “where Australia is potentially competitive is in drug development, new health technologies where there’s real opportunities for us to reignite a real economic prosperity in health related manufacturing. So from an economic point of view we’re really potentially shooting ourselves in the foot by cutting off those opportunities of creating new industries.” In fact it has been estimated that government investment in medical research provides economic return second only to the mining and retail sectors. Medical research is not a cost, it is an investment, and the returns on the investment are substantial.

Already we’ve discussed several reasons why cutting research funding will weaken Australia without even mentioning the detrimental effects on Australian health. Australian medical research has developed the bionic ear, is making strides toward bionic eyes, developed a vaccine against cervical cancer and resulted in several Nobel prizes – and that is only in recent years. While those are the high profile outcomes from Australian medical research, other results have improved the way doctors treat patients, reduced adverse effects from drugs, reduced wastage in the national pharmaceutical drug subsidy scheme, improved nutrition, helped prevent heart attacks and brain degeneration, and furthered development of anti-cancer drugs, including drugs against skin cancer, prostate cancer and breast cancer. Every single one of these projects (and untold others) have improved the health outcomes of Australians, and research being carried out now will have a role in improving the health of Australians into the future.

Not every research project will directly produce a stunning breakthrough – that is obvious. However, every project provides pieces of the puzzle. Understanding how a cancer cell grows may provide information on how to stop them, or working out how a brain cell integrates signals may help understand mental health disorders or degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s. Every piece of information found through research can add to the global knowledge, and may provide the spark for a researcher elsewhere to make that final discovery. Australia has an obligation to the global community to continue to carry out medical research for this reason. Preliminary work carried out in Australia will help researchers overseas, which will then feed back to benefit the Australian population. With an aging population, the health challenges faced by Australia are only going to increase into the future, and it is research now which will help reduce the impact of these challenges. Money spent on research now will save money in the future.

The government is being extremely short sighted if it goes ahead with these cuts. Medical research is vital for not only the health of the Australian population, but for our economy and for our international standing. Reductions to NHMRC funding will cost significant numbers of jobs, and a 3 year cut will continue to affect Australian medical research for a long time into the future. Medical research isn’t a cost; it is an investment, with the outcomes far outweighing what the government puts in. Protecting medical research is something that is worth fighting for, not only by scientists, but the population as a whole. The Discoveries Need Dollars campaign was started by scientists and built amongst scientists, but is a cause which should be supported by everyone.

Support Australia’s valuable medical research, support Discoveries Need Dollars. Visit the website and facebook

Thanks to Doug Hilton, Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Suzanne Cory, President of the Australian Academy of Science, and Cathy Foley, President of the Federation of Australian Science and Technological Societies. 

Sexual attraction – Part 2

April 7, 2011

Last post talked about the effects that the sex hormones oestrogen (females) and testosterone (males) have on attractiveness to the opposite sex. While the do have a major role in assisting our search for appropriate mates, there are other factors.


Physical features

The effects of sex hormones on facial features has already been described, however it was believed for a long time that the waist-hip ratio was a prime determining factor for measuring attractiveness of women. Body fat is an indicator of fertility – too little or too much reduces fertility, possibly explaining why very thin or overweight people are not considered generally attractive. A ratio between waist and hip size of 70% has been thought of as optimal. However, waist-hip ratio is an overly simplistic way of determining physical attractiveness, and it is now considered to be a combination of 25 measures which describe physical attractiveness, one example being leg length.


This idea of physical measurements determining attractiveness is not confined to humans. The female widow bird for example will preferentially seek a male with a longer tail. In fact if the male birds’ tail is artificially shortened, they will then be less attractive to females.  So while there are thought to be around 25 measurements that define human attractiveness, the widow bird’s tail is the major determinants of their attractiveness.


Gene matching

In nature there are instances where animals will preferentially seek out animals which have similar genes. The Gouldian finch is found with one of a number of head colours, and when it comes to mating will prefer to partner with another animal of the same head colour. In fact, if it mates with an animal of different colour, the bird will get rather stressed out about it. This mechanism exists to maintain a proper balance in the gender of the offspring, mating with a different head-colour bird will produce more male offspring, so this distaste for mating with different coloured birds has evolved to maintain proper population size and gender ratios.


In humans it is somewhat similar; we tend to look for someone who is similar and not too different from ourselves as that means our genes will be a good match. However, we also look for someone who isn’t exactly the same, there is a balancing act involved, and there are several mechanisms to help that. For example, part of the immune system is called the major histocompatibility complex, or MHC, which is slightly different from person to person. Women can actually (subconsciously) detect the MHC-type of a male, and will preferentially choose a male who has a slightly different MHC than their own. This is for two reasons, firstly some similarity means the two people are genetically similar, and secondly, a slightly different MHC will mean their immune system is slightly different, giving offspring a potentially greater variety in their immune system. Strangely however, women on the pill are unable to pick up a male’s MHC.


These features which are attractive between men and women are also present between homosexual couples. What straight men look for in women, gay men look for in men. Similarly, gay men actually prefer the smell of gay men over the smell of a straight man, so there does appear to be a difference in pheromones.


These olfactory mechanisms play an important part in maintaining genetic variability by acting as an incest avoidance system. There are several mechanisms which exist, not only in humans, to maintain genetic variability by effectively finding someone closely related ‘unattractive’, including the MHC-type detection. Again, humans look for someone who is similar but not the same, and different but not wildly different, so these mechanisms exist to maintain that divergence.


Love and sexual attraction can be hard to define and quantify, and a large reason comes down to the physiological mechanisms which have evolved over many generations and have become ingrained. Cues such as hormonal cycles which subtly change the appearance and attractiveness of someone, subconsciously assessing someone’s fertility, or detecting the MHC-type of a partner play a role which we never notice and never consider. But nevertheless they’re there and while other factors such as personality play a role, inevitably it’s these unconscious reasons which will determine whether or not we find someone attractive and an ideal mate.


Thanks go to Bill von Hippel from the University of Queensland and Rob Brooks from the University of New South Wales

Sexual attraction – Part 1

April 6, 2011

Apologies for the late posting of this fortnight’s articles, I needed to wait for an embargo to lift prior to publishing.

Finding a mate is one of the most important tasks for every organism which reproduces sexually. While people say they have different ‘tastes’ in an ideal mate, in fact there is a large amount of commonality between what humans define as attractive, and at the risk of taking the ‘fun’ out of finding a mate, there are specific physiological reasons for sexual attraction.


Attractiveness may have hormonal reasons

One of the major hormones in the reproductive system of women is oestrogen, with the male equivalent testosterone. As well as having vital roles in regulating the reproductive system, they also affect the attractiveness of a person.


A female with high oestrogen levels will usually have a rounded face and large eyes, two factors which are generally regarded to increase attractiveness. When an audience is shown 2 computer generated faces with one having these features but otherwise identical to the first, nearly 70% of people find the “high-oestrogen” face more attractive, with the proportion of women and men who find it attractive being around equal.


Humans aren’t the only animals to have facial features altered depending on fertility state. The face of female rhesus macaques (a type of monkey) darkens when they are fertile, with the changes similarly linked to hormonal cycles. Interestingly, males can actually recognise the fertility states of female partners from these features. The more familiar a male is with a particular female increased their knowledge of fertility states from these cues.


Similarly, a male with high-testosterone will usually have the attractive square jaw and angular face, and when an audience is shown computer generated faces and asked to choose which is more attractive, the “high-testosterone” face comes out as the preferred face, again by nearly 70% of the people. Interestingly however, while the same number of men and women found the “high-oestrogen” face attractive, men were less likely to find the “high-testosterone” face more attractive than the “low-testosterone.”


There is an evolutionary reason for an increased attractiveness as a result of high levels of sex hormones. Women with high oestrogen have high fertility levels, and so are desirable mates due to an increased ability to produce offspring. Similarly, testosterone levels in men are a sign of high quality genes, which are sought after to increase the chances of offspring survival (remember all these processes evolved long ago when living conditions were much harsher). Testosterone in men actually acts as an immunosuppressant – it reduces the activity of the immune system. While this may seem a disadvantage, the ability of the male to have survived to procreation age shows that they must be genetically strong to have been able to overcome any infections with the reduced immune system. For these reasons, high sex hormone levels are considered to be desirable traits in a mate.


Supporting this idea that high testosterone is a sign of genetic strength, when women ovulate they tend to become even more attracted to the high-testosterone males, showing there is an evolutionary mechanism to try to choose mates with ideal genetic characteristics.


Although testosterone is a sign of genetic strength, it does however also increase some undesirable traits when choosing a mate. High testosterone does increase aggressiveness, making the male less nurturing towards offspring, and also increases the male’s desire for what is called sexual novelty; in effect the male will be more likely to be unfaithful as they tend to seek different sexual partners. So for women there is a trade-off to be made between high and low testosterone, to balance the advantages and disadvantages, and it may also explain why some women in particular seem to like “bad boys”, they would like have high testosterone levels. For men however, there is no trade-off, they will generally just seek high-oestrogen (and hence fertile) females.


For these reasons, women may tend towards a lower testosterone male for the reasons of producing offspring as although the offspring may be of lower genetic quality, they may be more likely to be provided for by the father. However, often testosterone levels in men will drop after producing offspring – a mechanism to reduce aggressiveness, promote nurturing behaviour, and increase faithfulness to a single partner. Women’s preferences also tend to change slightly with age, with older females more likely to prefer lower testosterone males.


As these effects have been developed due to evolutionary pressures and are linked to genetics and hormones, they are consistent across cultures. No matter where people come from, they tend to look for the same features in a mate.


Thanks go to Bill von Hippel from the University of Queensland and Rob Brooks from the University of New South Wales