good news - australian science awards

  1. 130 Posts.
    From the Age:--

    By Morag Fraser

    On Wednesday, an Australian-Iranian scientist stood up to receive a major Australian award - for diagnosing the cause, and developing treatments for, concrete cancer. His name is Ahmad Shayan. He was one of the recipients of the 2003 Clunies Ross national awards for science and technology.

    You might not have read about him - other technologies have been monopolising the media of late. You can probably cite, as I can, the comparative firing range and penetration power of US tanks and the Russian models the Iraqis are using. Maybe you too know more than you ever wished to know about the wingspan, maximum takeoff weight and crew composition of a B-52.

    Yet most of us are much more likely to benefit directly over time from a technology that cures concrete cancer. So there was real pleasure to be had in applauding the man who figured out that it wasn't shrinkage that caused the cracks in bridges, but rather the pesky aggregate in concrete that reacted with the pesky alkali derived from cement.

    It was not political applause - this was a scrupulously apolitical evening, addressed by Nobel prize-winning immunologist Peter Doherty and hosted with gentlemanly panache by Hugh Morgan. Ahmad Shayan was there as a successful scientist, not as an Iranian who migrated to Australia in the 1980s. Nonetheless, in the current political climate, with "axis of evil" reverberations and persistent anxieties about migration, it's not surprising that there should have been a ripple throughout the black-tied and evening-gowned audience when Ahmad Shayan strode to the platform to accept his award and to thank his Australian colleagues and family. Some things don't need to be said.

    Of course, much else was said. Ron Grey, managing director of GBC Scientific Equipment, received his award for leading an Australian company that develops, manufactures and markets precision scientific instruments. When he says "precision", he means it: in 10 seconds, Ron Grey can identify every element and isotope in a sample, to parts per trillion.

    His company has recently exported a mass spectrometer to Iran, where it is used in cancer diagnosis. It did, however, take 18 months to get government approval from Canberra. In the competitive environment we are so encouraged to enter, that is a very long time.

    The Iranians liked Ron Grey's machine a lot. Now they want another to use in agricultural analysis. No go. Defence has vetoed the arrangement. Enter fears about weapons of mass destruction. Independent scientists have told Ron Grey that almost all scientific instruments can be so implicated. That suggests to me that this is an area where precise and informed scientific judgement, not political or bureaucratic pre-emption, should be determining our research and development and export policies.

    The science seems to be on Ron Grey's side but that's scant comfort. He wants - and needs - more than intellectual satisfaction and a sense of aggrieved righteousness: he would like to be able to keep operating in Australia, keep his hard-won and profitable ($250 million worth of instruments exported) business at home rather than move it overseas. Australia, indeed the southern hemisphere, is not over-supplied with this combination of scientific and commercial expertise.

    There were seven Clunies Ross award recipients. Their research ranged from gravity waves (Professor David Blair) to blood-sugar management (Professor Jennie Brand-Miller). Details on the website:

    Do look - it's fascinating material in itself, but also refreshing in that it provides a way of thinking that goes beyond war.

    Water quality was another focus for the evening, and the basis of Stephen Elliott's award. Elliott, who began his engineering degree at 35, and did time in sewerage, has now invented an elegant device that, by stirring reservoir water, improves its quality and stops algal blooms. I know, because in addition to reading his citation I have my program notes with Elliott's wildly enthusiastic explanatory drawing spread over every bit of blank space. It looks like a suspended propeller inverted over an ice-cream cone - with notes. Blue-green algae like a temperature comfort zone. Stir the water round, change the temperature and zap the algae. So simple. So comparatively cheap. Why didn't anyone think of it before? But that's what we always say about good inventions.

    At our table were managers of Queensland's Midcoast water operations who have used Elliott's solution - and have seen its bottom-line as well as environmental benefits. You couldn't have scrubbed the smiles from their faces with Solvol.

    Water is so much more important than oil. And how good it is, at the moment, to have something - anything - to smile about.

    Morag Fraser is editor of Eureka Street.
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