Issues to be considered when designing a policy to measure university research impacts

The Australian government this year will pilot new ways to measure the impact of university research.

As recommended by the Watt Review, the Engagement and Impact Assessment will encourage universities to ensure academic research produces wider economic and social benefits.

This fits into the National Innovation and Science Agenda, in which Australian taxpayer funds are targeted at research that will have a beneficial future impact on society.

This policy is the subject of an article published on the Sciblogs guest blog (here).

The authors are Andrew Gunn, Researcher in Higher Education Policy, University of Leeds and Michael Mintrom, Professor of Public Sector Management, Monash University

Their article was originally published on The Conversation. The original article can be found here 

The questions they address are –

1. What should be the object of measurement?

2. What should be the timeframe?

3. Who should be the assessors?

4. What about controversial impacts?

5. When should impact evaluation occur?

Grasslands are shown to hold potential for increased meat and dairy production

About 40% of natural grasslands worldwide have the potential to support increased livestock grazing, according to a new study published in the journal Global Change Biology. 

This translates to a potential increase of 5% in milk production and 4% in meat production compared to the year 2000 or allow for  2.8 million square kilometers of grassland area to be released from production.

The research findings are reported (here) by Science Daily, which notes that global food production must be increased to feed the world’s growing population, but food production systems have impacts on the environment and climate.

Livestock products, including meat and milk, are a major food source for millions of people. Demand for these products is increasing but livestock and conversion of land for increased livestock production can lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions or soil erosion through overgrazing.

“Grasslands are generally regarded to play an important role in increasing food production to meet future food demand,” says Tamara Fetzel, a researcher at the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna (Alpen Adria University), who led the study as part of her participation in the 2015 Young Scientists Summer Program at IIASA.

“But to achieve this target in a sustainable manner, our study suggests that we should focus on making more efficient use of currently available land resources, instead of converting land from other uses.”

How much livestock grasslands can support depends on a number of variables including climatic, biological, and socio-economic factors such as management, storage systems, and biomass conservation.

In the new study, the researchers explored the impact of seasonal patterns of biomass supply on the potential dynamics of grass-based livestock systems, at a global scale. Fetzel and colleagues identified areas where additional biomass could potentially be extracted from the landscape, by comparing the current level of grazing intensity to the maximum levels supported in periods of minimum biomass supply, such as winter or dry periods.

The authors also discuss many socioeconomic and ecological constraints related to unlocking this potential, such as a lack of infrastructure, market access, knowledge, finance, and labor constraints or the impacts of droughts, and potential negative trade-offs  such as loss of biodiversity or soil degradation.

“Grassland productivity and intensification potential are some of the most uncertain parameters in global land-use assessments and are often used to estimate ambitious GHG mitigation targets, “says IIASA researcher Petr Havlík, a study coauthor who advised Tamara Fetzel during the YSSP together with Karl-Heinz Erb from the Institute of Social Ecology Vienna.

“Making estimates of potential maximum grazing intensity more realistic by considering seasonal constraints reveals a certain potential to increase grazing intensity in some places, yet shows that the actual grassland area available for other purposes remains limited,”

Fetzel T, Havlik P, Herrero M, Erb K-H (2017). Seasonality constraints to livestock grazing intensity. Global Change Biology,

Call for risk assessment methods around GM crops and herbicides to be revisited

Professor Jack Heinemann, writing at Guest Work, draws attention to new studies published by Nature’s journal, Scientific Reports, which question the basis of how to determine the safety of products used in agriculture and at home.

Guest Work is the Sciblogs guest blog which runs submissions from a wide range of contributors.

Professor Heinemann is a lecturer in genetics at the University of Canterbury.

The first of the featured reports to which he draws attention is on the application of ‘omics’ techniques to a long familiar GM maize line called NK603.

The second is on the application of omics to rats that eat Roundup, one of the glyphosate-based herbicides used on NK603.

Professor Heinemann addresses concerns about glyphosate-based herbicides and the typical counter to these with threats that their elimination would cause greater use of more toxic alternatives.

This threat rings hollow, both because excessive use is leading to resistant weeds that is already driving farmers to use other herbicides, and because it is a false choice.

Let’s not swap glyphosate-based herbicides for those that have different toxic effects, he argues. Rather, let’s use science to reduce the use of herbicides and the products of technology that are dependent upon them.

Maybe we missed their names – but it looks like scientists have been overlooked

Checking on what Paul Goldsmith has been doing since his appointment as Minister of Science and Innovation just before Christmas, we find he has issued four press statements.

But only one of them (see here) was issued in respect of his science portfolio. He issued the others in his job as Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister.

The most recent statement was issued jointly with Education Minister Hekia Parata under the headline “Educators congratulated on NY Honours”.

Seventeen New Zealanders received New Year Honours for services to education.

No similar statement was issued to congratulate New Zealanders for services to science.

The disappointing reason for this is that – according to our examination of the Honours List – scientists were overlooked for New Year honours this time.

But Ms Jacqueline Lindsay Bay, of Auckland, was honoured for services to science and education. She became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit)

Ms Bay is founding Director of LENScience, an innovative science education programme established in 2006 that creates opportunities for schools and scientists to work together to promote the development of scientific literacy and enable the translation of scientific knowledge into community understanding.

Long-distance survival: effects of storage time and environmental exposure on soil bugs

Contaminated soil, widely recognised as a vector for non-native species, is a biosecurity threat to agriculture and horticulture and to natural ecosystems.

But although soil is the target of management practices that aim to minimise the spread of invasive alien species, not much is known about the relative survival rates of transported soil organisms, nor about their establishment probabilities.

A recent study, led by Mark McNeill from AgResearch’s Biosecurity and Biocontrol team at Lincoln and published in the open access journal NeoBiota, shows that biosecurity risks from soil organisms are to increase with declining transport duration and increasing protection from environmental extremes.

The scientists had aimed to find out if soil organisms are still risky after a year in the sun.

To find out, the  team collected soil from both a native forest and an orchard and stored it on, in and under sea containers, as well as in cupboards. They tested it after three, six and twelve months for bacteria, fungi, nematodes and seeds.

“Soil can carry unwanted microbes, insects and plants, and this study showed that some died faster when exposed, than when protected in a cupboard. This work shows some of the risks presented by soil contamination,” Mark says.

“The results showed that viability of certain bacteria, nematodes and plants declined over 12 months, irrespective of soil source and where the soil was stored. But mortality of most organisms was higher when exposed to sunlight, moisture and desiccation than when protected,” he explains.

“However, bacterial and fungal numbers were higher in exposed environments, possibly due to ongoing colonisation of exposed soil by airborne propagules.”

The results were consistent with previous observations that organisms in soil intercepted from seaports tend to carry less bugs than soil found on footwear.

The research also raises wider questions, because some results were unexpected, including trying to understand why the microbe numbers went up and down like they did in the soil sitting on the sea containers when everything else died off.

Was it the circle of life or just new microbe migrants creating new populations?

The team hopes the work will be useful for plant quarantine authorities to assess the risk presented by transported soil based partly on where the soil is found and the age of the soil.

This would help authorities to optimally allocate management resources according to pathway-specific risks. Importantly, the study will assist in the development of recommendations for increasing management efficiency and efficacy at national borders.


Journal Reference:

Mark R. McNeill, Craig B. Phillips, Andrew P. Robinson, Lee Aalders, Nicky Richards, Sandra Young, Claire Dowsett, Trevor James, Nigel Bell. Defining the biosecurity risk posed by transported soil: Effects of storage time and environmental exposure on survival of soil biota. NeoBiota, 2017; 32: 65 DOI: 10.3897/neobiota.32.9784

How agrochemical giants raise issues for scientists through corporate funding of research

A New York Times examination of the experiences of three scientists reveals the ways agrochemical companies shape scientific thought.

While the corporate use of academia has been documented in fields like soft drinks and pharmaceuticals, the newspaper notes, it is rare for an academic to provide an insider’s view of the relationships being forged with corporations and the expectations that accompany them.

One of the three is James Cresswell, a professor at the University of Exeter in England and an expert in flowers and bees. He was commissioned by the pesticide giant, Syngenta, to study why many of the world’s bee colonies were dying.

Dr Cresswell’s experience fits in with practices used by American competitors like Monsanto and across the agrochemical industry.

In Britain, Syngenta has built a network of academics and regulators, even recruiting the leading government scientist on the bee issue, the New York Times says.

In the United States, the company pays academics like James W. Simpkins of West Virginia University, whose work has helped validate the safety of its products.

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Study of 74,000 bottles looks into whether organic wines taste better

Britain’s Daily Telegraph says a new study of wines shows it really is worth going natural.

The researchers from the University of California trawled through the expert reviews for more than 74,000 wines which appeared in the three of the world’s best wine-rating magazines, the newspaper reports.

They discovered that organic wines – which are labelled as ‘ecocertified’ in the US – scored an average of 4.1 points higher than their non-organic counterparts, our of a score of 100.

The academics speculate that adopting organic practices and banishing pesticides allows microbes in the soil to flourish, which enhances the flavour of grapes and give a truer representation of the ‘terroir’ or the natural environment of the vine.

Growing grapes without fertilisers also reduces yield, which may improve quality because the vine needs to ripen a smaller amount of fruit, and so the juice becomes more concentrated, and tastier.

To determine the quality of organic versus non-organic wines, the team studied 74,148 wines from California, which were of vintages between 1998 and 2004, from 3,482 vineyards.

They examined reviews from three respected publications; the Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator.

The study looked at more than 30 grape varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Semillon and Zinfandel.

The Daily Telegraph headline says “Study of 74,000 bottles shows organic wine really does taste better”.

The study and the title of the report – “Does Organic Wine Taste Better? An Analysis of Experts’ Ratings” – are somewhat less emphatic.

The abstract says:

Our results indicate that ecocertification is associated with a statistically significant increase in wine quality rating. Being ecocertified increases the scaled score of the wine by 4.1 points on average.

The researchers acknowledges their study “is not without limitations”.

First, they focused on the California wine industry. Perceptions about ecocertification may vary according to the institutional context in which they are implemented and the specific standards of ecocertification.

Second, although they were able to gather a comprehensive database of wine ratings from the major wine experts, there is still some uncertainty about the evaluation process and how much the wine experts actually know about the wine before tasting it. Further research involving blind wine tasting to better isolate the effect of organic certification is suggested.

Third, because of the limited number of ecocertified wines, the researchers classified all types of ecocertified wines together. There might be quality differences among the three different types they did not account for, and future research could investigate such differences.

The Daily Telegraph quotes lead author Professor Magali Delmas, of the UCLA Institute of the Environment.

She said there is littler consensus as to whether ecocertified (or organic) wines are associated with worse, similar or better quality than their traditional counterparts.

“Our results indicated that the adoption of wine ecocertification has a significant and positive effect on wine ratings.

“The results are interesting because they contradict a general sentiment that ecolabeled wines are of lower quality.”

Susy Atkins, the wine columnist for the Sunday Telegraph’s Stella magazine said drinkers should consider looking out for the organic label.

“There will always be good and bad organic wines, but generally it implies good use of the land and a viticulturist who really cares about their vines,” she said.

“The problem can be that it often pushes the price up because organic growing is quite labour intensive.

“But it is very good for the land. You visit an organic vineyard and there are insects flying around, and birds singing and it feels like an entirely different experience.”

Several recent reviews suggest organic food is neither tastier nor more nutritious than traditionally farmed produce.

In 2012 Stanford University’s Centre for Health Policy did the biggest comparison of organic and conventional foods and found no robust evidence for organics being healthier.

A follow-up review by The Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety similarly reported that organic food was not more nutritious.