Monthly Archives: February 2015

How vaccines change the way we think about disease

The Conversation

By Elena Conis, Emory University

The news on the current measles outbreak contains plenty of reminders that measles causes brain damage, pneumonia, hearing loss and death. A few lone voices have spoken up to say measles isn’t that serious, including an Arizona doctor who said it’s “really just a fever and a rash” – and soon found himself under investigation by his state’s medical board.

Back in the 1960s, it wasn’t controversial to call measles benign. Though the disease killed about 400-500 Americans a year, it was considered a normal part of childhood. It was so common, in fact, that to this day, people born in the pre-measles vaccine era are considered immune. But the introduction of the measles vaccine, and efforts to promote it, fundamentally changed things. In the five decades since we’ve been immunizing against it, measles has become increasingly known as a deadly killer.

This transformation in perception, from relatively benign to a serious disease, isn’t unique to measles. As I have discovered in my research, it’s a pattern that’s been repeated over and over again in the modern history of immunization. This is not to say that measles is now considered a mild infection, or to suggest that risk from the virus, or other vaccine-preventable diseases, is overestimated. The point I want to argue is that the introduction of a vaccine reframes our perception of the disease it prevents.

Vaccines change our perception of risk

How does this happen? New vaccines simultaneously drive down the number of people getting the disease and increase our awareness of the risks of the disease.

Vaccines shine a spotlight on their target infections and, in time, those infections — no matter how “common” or relatively unimportant they may have seemed before — become known for their rare and serious complications and defined by the urgency of their prevention.

A spotted vaccine delivery van labeled ‘Measles must go.’ Source: CDC

This certainly happened to measles, whose first vaccine was uneventfully released in 1963.

At the time, many parents saw measles as a common and relatively harmless part of childhood – even though it infected three to four million people a year and caused roughly 48,000 hospitalizations annually. Many doctors felt as parents did, especially when comparing measles to such worrisome disease threats as smallpox and polio. Even the head of the Centers for Disease Control described measles as a disease “of only mild severity” which caused “infrequent complications.”

But the very development of the vaccine focused new scientific attention on the disease. Within a few years, scientists had compared measles to polio — the previous decade’s public health priority — and found it a much more serious threat to children’s health. Inspired by this finding, and frustrated by the public’s lack of enthusiasm for the vaccine, federal health officials launched a national campaign to publicize measles’ dangers.

The campaign officially spread the word, for the first time, that measles was “a serious disease that sometimes causes pneumonia, deafness, encephalitis and even death.” Public figures ranging from the Surgeon General to Ann Landers announced that measles could leave children blind, deaf and mentally impaired. And the campaign employed a poster child — disabled ten-year-old Kim Fisher — to illustrate the idea that measles immunization was necessary because “one death, one brain-damaged child, or even one child who needs hospitalization is one too many,” as one campaign supporter put it.

A new picture of measles emerges

As the campaign wore on, scientists continued to study the disease more closely than ever. Doctors began to report measles cases to health departments at unprecedented rates. And together, doctors and scientists began to pay more attention to the disease’s risks than even before. As a result, a new picture of the disease began to form: it appeared to cause more deaths than previously thought, brain damage in even mild cases, even harm to fetuses.

As the public continued to respond to the national campaign with “general apathy,” however, health officials redoubled their efforts to publicize measles’ “dramatic aspects,” and states began passing laws requiring the vaccine for schoolchildren. Within just over a decade, the country saw an all-time low of measles cases — and the disease had solidly acquired its new reputation as a deadly infection worthy of prevention at any cost.

A measles immunization campaign poster display at the Eradicate Measles Exhibit in 1972. Source: CDC/Don Lovell

We used to think mumps and chickenpox were ‘mild’ too

In the decades that followed the introduction of the measles vaccine, vaccine makers and health officials duplicated this approach with one new vaccine after another.

Mumps, often the butt of jokes in its pre-vaccine days, was no laughing matter within a decade of its vaccine’s introduction in 1967. Hepatitis B was considered an obscure infection of little import to most Americans when its vaccine first came out in 1981, but soon after it evolved into a “cousin” of AIDS known for lurking in nail salons, piercing parlors and playgrounds.

Since the development of the chickenpox vaccine in the 1990s, the virus has been transformed in the public imagination from an innocuous if uncomfortable rite of childhood to a highly contagious infection that can cause pneumonia, sepsis and sometimes death. And in just the last decade, human papillomavirus (HPV) has morphed from a little-known sexually transmitted infection to a widely known cause of multiple forms of cancer. Each of these transformations in perception was triggered by a new vaccine.

Each new vaccine invited deliberation on how it should be used. That, in turn, focused increased scientific attention on the disease. Often, as federal health officials and other scientists accumulated new information about the disease’s risks and complications, the vaccine maker did its part to market its vaccine. As talk of each disease and its more dramatic aspects spread, public and scientific perception of the disease gradually transformed.

In this country, high vaccination rates rest on a consensus about the diseases prevented by vaccines. When doctors, health officials and, in particular, parents view a disease as serious, they view its vaccine as one worth getting.

The recent increase in the number of philosophical objectors to measles vaccine shows that historical consensus about the disease itself has eroded in recent years. But history also shows that one surefire route to consensus about a disease is fear of that disease. And fear often spreads like wildfire during disease outbreaks, much like what is happening once again now with measles.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission).  Read the original article.

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A call to arms: let’s get rid of all the jargon!

The Conversation

By Baden Eunson, Monash University

In this high-tech, gee-whiz world, more and more people seem to speak in jargon or, as I like to call it, gibberish. Whether it’s exclusive terms understandable by only a certain few, buzz-words intended to impress in meetings, or euphemisms to make something seem better than it is, the use of jargon really does little more than confuse the listener.

Jargon tends to go through three stages:

  1. Jargon starts out as a simple technical sublanguage: users devise abbreviations and acronyms that help speed up processes. It also helps reinforce group solidarity in that it becomes a semi-private language, but with clarity its main aim.
  2. Jargon can go over to the dark side when it is so dense that “outsiders” have difficulty understanding it. Euphemisms and deception may creep into the discourse of the in-crowd’s private language. Organisations may become less transparent, crisis-prone and unable to communicate with external people.
  3. Jargon becomes an object of ridicule in some quarters, with counter-jargon springing up as a defence mechanism used by the out-group (i.e. the majority). Jargon may prevail, however, as a means of maintaining organisational and social control.

Do people understand jargon?

George Orwell realised that one of the best ways to tackle jargon is via humour: this, for example, is from his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language:

Author provided

Unfortunately, anti-language like Orwell’s parody is heard in offices and boardrooms every day almost 70 years after he put typewriter to paper. The numbers in the table refer to readability.

Readability scores have been around for almost a century, but they are still a work in progress. Rudolph Flesch developed his Flesch reading ease score in the 1940s. Peter Kincaid modified it for the US Navy in the 1970s to produce what is probably the most widely used readability score, the Flesch-Kincaid score.

Flesch’s score could be applied to any text, with texts with perfect clarity scoring 100 and impenetrable gobbledegook scoring zero. Kincaid saw some difficulties with people understanding this, and took some of Flesch’s stats and turned them into school grade levels of understandability, based upon vocabulary awareness tests of students at different levels.

Thus the prophet in the desert scores 78.3 Flesch and 8.4 on Flesch-Kincaid (someone with 8.4 years of post-kindergarten English should be able to understand this). The parody would require 27.1 years of schooling to understand (that’s several PhDs beyond year 12).

Jargon in every day use

How often do we hear jargon like this parody? Try this one from former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd:

What you saw even prior to the end of the Cold War here, of course, was the evolution of a series of confidence and security-building measures coming off the back of CSCE, OSCE and the Helsinki accords. There has to be a greater synergy between, let’s call it our policy leadership in this, which has been focused so much, legitimately, on targets and global architecture, almost reverse-engineered back to the means by which you can quickly deliver outcomes, and on the demand side in our economy we’re looking at potential advances in terms of 20 to 25% range if you do this across the board. It all takes cost, but let me tell you it’s probably the quickest lever you can pull given the challenges we face.

Using the same readability checker, Rudd scores 15.9 on Flesch-Kincaid readability. Given that 46% of Australians aged 15 and over have a skill level for prose literacy less than what is seen as required to meet the demands of everyday life, most of the people who elected this prime minister would not have a clue what he was talking about.

Some jargon is invented to cover up an unpleasant truth, like getting the sack (coerced transition, decruitment, work force imbalance correction) or making your job sound more prestigious. Take these jargonistic euphemisms:

  • Automotive internists (car mechanics)
  • Vertical transportation corps (elevator operators)
  • Initiate a career enhancement program (lay off workers)
  • Negative patient care outcome (the patient died)
  • Rapid oxidation (fire in a nuclear power plant)
  • Pre-emptive counter attack (home forces attacked first)
  • Engaged the enemy on all sides (troops were ambushed)
  • Backloading of augmentation personnel (retreat by troops)
  • Pre-dawn vertical insertion (invasion)

How to avoid jargon

Orwell realised that word choice was often the source of jargon, or anti-plain English:

Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers.

We in the Anglosphere are fortunate in having had England invaded by French soldiers and Latin scholars, because it has dramatically enhanced our vocabulary (English has about one million words, while French and German only have about 200-300,000). So how do we stop falling prey to, or becoming perpetrators of, jargon?

• Install a readability checker on your word processor and use it to see how your text is going (bearing in mind that they are rough-and-ready figures)

• Use shorter words where longer words can be replaced

• Use shorter sentences

• Remember your audience: will they be able to understand your communication?

• If you must use complex words or acronyms, provide a glossary

• Stay in Phase One of jargon development – don’t let insecurity, contempt for others or a need for control get in the way of good communication

• Use humour to ridicule jargon junkies: look at Dack’s Bullshit Generator – a table that allows you to combine verb, adjective and noun to form completely meaningless jargon like “facilitating holistic mindshare”!

• Learn and practise Plain English.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Flawed study overstates link between fluoride and ill health: experts

The Conversation

By Reema Rattan, The Conversation

Researchers have widely criticised a new study that questions the safety of water fluoridation, arguing the findings were overstated and the study poorly designed.

The paper, published in the Journal of Epidemiological & Community Health, links fluoridated water to increased rates of hypothyroidism, which occurs when the thyroid gland is under active, causing weight gain, hair loss, fatigue and depression, among other symptoms.

The study authors question the safety of water fluoridation as a public health measure.

“It’s simplistic and it’s extremely overreaching in its conclusions,” said Mike Morgan, chair of population oral health at the University of Melbourne.

“To do a study like this and say there’s an association without taking into account other factors, and then say, we should reduce the levels of fluoride, well it beggars belief that they should be able to say that in a reputable publication,” he added.

The study looked at 2012 levels of fluoride in drinking water in the United Kingdom and the national prevalence of underactive thyroid diagnosed by family doctors across the country. They then compared an area that had fluoridated water supply with another that did not and found an association between rates of hypothyroidism and fluoridated water.

“The main problem with this particular study is that it’s not only observational, it’s ecological,” said John Attia, professor of medicine and clinical epidemiology at the University of Newcastle. “That means you’re making correlations between variables at a geographic level, not an individual level, so the link between cause and effect is very distal.

“The reason this kind of observational epidemiology is the lowest grade of evidence is because there are, as in any relationship between two variables, many potential confounders,” he said. “You can never know whether the variable you have chosen is causing the effect or if it is one of an infinity of potential other variables that are associated with it that is actually driving the effect.”

Professor Morgan said the paper failed to take these confounding factors into account, despite the existence of statistical tools for doing this, and there were many things that hypothyroidism may be related to that the study was not picking up on.

In an email interview, study author Stephen Peckham, professor of health policy at the Centre for Health Services Studies at the University of Kent said since the study was conducted at the GP level, the data was fine-grained enough to not require statistical analyses that could take some of these confounders into account.

“While this is the first study to look at fluoride and hypothyroidism in a large population, and cannot prove that fluoride causes hypothyroidism,” he said, “it is a comprehensive and methodologically solid study and should be an important red flag.”

The study authors noted that fluoride was used in the 1950s to help reduce the activity of an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), but such evidence is out of date, said Creswell Eastman, who is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Sydney and an endocrinologist specialising in thyroid disorders.

Professor Attia said the discussion about fluoride’s purported use to treat an overactive thyroid gland was particularly misleading.

“What they didn’t mention is that all this effect on the thyroid takes very large doses, and occurs because both fluorine and iodine are in the same chemical family – small bits of iodine stimulate the thyroid but large doses inhibit it,” he said. “Those studies in the 1950s, I’m sure used huge doses of fluoride, not the milligram doses that we’re talking about here.”

The only time you see hypothyroidism is when you’ve got extremely high concentrations of fluoride, Professor Eastman added. “We’re talking about 10 to 100 times the amount added to the water.”

He explained that fluoride had very little physiological function in the body but in really large amounts, could block the uptake of iodine by the thyroid gland, which needs it to make thyroxine.

“It’s only in situations of iodine deficiency that you’ve got a problem with fluoride excess,” Professor Eastman said, taking issue with the paper’s discussion of iodine levels in the UK population.

The study authors note:

In the UK, while iodine intake levels have been considered adequate since the middle of the 20th century, concern has been expressed about iodine deficiency in pregnant women and teenage girls.

“That sentence is an incorrect spin in my view,” said Professor Eastman. “What they’ve done is played down the iodine deficiency component in their interpretation, when it could be the reason for hypothyroidism.”

He added that mothers who are iodine deficient have children who are slower, and have low IQ, and this has recently been shown in research in the United Kingdom.

“I would have thought it’s far more important to get on and save the brains of the generation that’s currently in utero than start pulling the fluoride out of the water,” Professor Eastman said.

Professor Peckham said the study looked carefully looked at the issue of iodine, most of which comes from nutritional sources in the United Kingdom.

“In the post-war period iodine intake has been seen as adequate. However, recent studies of teenagers and young pregnant women have suggested that levels are decreasing,” he said. “Given we focused on a 40+ years population it is likely that iodine levels were sufficient.”

Professor Attia said it was irresponsible for the paper’s peer reviewers to not have asked the authors to tone down their conclusions.

“To make such sweeping statements about this research having implications for fluoridation generally when it’s the lowest level of evidence within the lowest band of study types, that should have been picked up at the peer reviewer level,” he said.

“Water fluoridation has been with us for over 50 years and no existing evidence suggests the levels used in Australia has any health impact apart from reducing dental caries,” said Professor Morgan.

“The only risk when you have it in this low dosage is very mild fluorosis, which is a white flecking on the tooth surface that everyone seems to be keen on these days anyway.”

The head of the National Health and Medical Research Council has issued a statement reaffirming that “fluoridation of drinking water remains the most effective and socially equitable means of achieving community-wide exposure to the caries prevention effects of fluoride”. The Council says evidence for such position statements are regularly reviewed and the current review is expected to endorse water fluoridation’s safety again.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Secret to health benefits of sunshine is more than vitamin D

The Conversation

By Peter Robert Ebeling, Monash University

Summer sunshine makes most of us feel better, but there may be more to the benefits than just feeling good. A growing body of evidence suggests sunlight itself – with adequate protection, of course – may actually be good for health.

Sunlight comprises two types of solar radiation: UVA, which causes reddening and burning of the skin, and UVB. The latter increases the production of an inactive form or precursor of vitamin D by the skin, which is then activated by the liver and kidneys.

Unfortunately, both UVA and UVB also increase the risk of skin cancer, including the most deadly type, melanoma, which is why you should always take a balanced approach to sunlight exposure.

Only a few foods, such as fatty fish and mushrooms, contain vitamin D, so we get most of it from sunlight. This means not enough sun exposure, or pigmentation of the skin (which diminishes the production of vitamin D precursors), often results in low vitamin D levels.

Vitamin D deficiency is associated with many signs of ill health and diseases. These include low bone density and broken bones due to osteoporosis, muscle weakness, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cardiovascular disease, colon cancer and an overall increased risk of dying prematurely. But studies of supplementation with this vitamin have not always shown beneficial effects on treating these conditions.

This raises an important question about the actual source of vitamin D deficiency: could low vitamin D levels actually result from an unidentified underlying disease process (such as inflammation) leading to ill health? In other words, could low vitamin D levels be the symptom rather than the cause of illness?

An intriguing prospect

My colleagues and I previously found support for this theory when we discovered an association between low vitamin D levels and the development of type 2 diabetes. For every ten-unit decrease in blood vitamin D levels, we found a 10% increased risk of developing this form of diabetes over the following five years.

Everyone loves sunshine. Source: Matt/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

But when we gave supplements of vitamin D to patients with low vitamin D levels who were already at risk of developing diabetes, there was no overall improvement in their sensitivity to insulin. Nor was there a change in their blood glucose levels compared with those given inactive tablets.

This disconnect between low vitamin D levels increasing the risk of disease, and the failure of consuming more vitamin D (by increased sun exposure or supplementation) to reduce risk, could mean sunshine has unknown effects on health. These could include the impact of sunlight on daily biological rhythms, such as the one governing our sleep cycle (circadian rhythms), on reducing physical stresses on the body’s cells and by increasing heat production.

Another important potential effect of sunlight is UV-induced suppression of the body’s immune system. Solar radiation does this by altering the activity of the white cells involved in turning on the body’s defence mechanisms.

At first glance, this may seem to be a bad thing because it could increase the risk of infections and skin cancer. But it can also have a protective role in reducing inflammation and therefore help against some inflammatory diseases.

Finding the balance

People who don’t get enough sunlight have altered cellular defence mechanisms that predispose them to excessive inflammation, which can result in autoimmune diseases.

It’s important to get the right balance between too much or not enough sunlight. Source: Dmytro/Flickr, CC BY-NC

These diseases involve the body mistakenly attacking its own tissues, and include multiple sclerosis, lupus, type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel diseases, asthma and skin disorders such as psoriasis and atopic dermatitis. A little sunlight can reduce the numbers of the activated cells that lead to inflammation, and so the risk of getting these diseases.

UVA has also been shown to lower blood pressure, increase blood flow and heart rate, all of which are beneficial to the heart and blood vessels. This is probably the result of UVA causing the release of nitric oxide from skin stores, which promotes widening of blood vessels. It also acts as an antioxidant to prevent damage to cells.

Future research will try to determine whether increasing vitamin D by UVB, or other sunlight-induced mechanisms such as altering the body’s immune defence mechanisms, are better for improving health outcomes, but at least a little sunshine definitely appears to be a good thing for health.

Still, it’s important to get the right balance between too much or not enough sunlight. Guidelines try to minimise the risk of skin cancer while ensuring people can still harvest the health benefits of sunshine.

Basically, avoid sunlight when the UV index is three or higher. Take all protective measures if you have to be outside at these times. And seven minutes of sun exposure to the face, arms and hands at or before 11 am, or after 3 pm on most days in summer is adequate for getting enough sun for health benefits, especially when combined with exercise.

So, remember, get outside for a little bit of sunshine whenever you can do so safely.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Health Check: four key ways to improve your brain health

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By Anthony Hannan, The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health

The human brain is the most extraordinary and complex object in the known universe, a kilogram and a half of soft tissue that, at its peak, leaves computers behind with its endless capacity for problem solving, innovation and invention.

So it’s a little surprising that only recently has the concept of brain health begun to emerge. After all, if the body is a “temple”, then surely the brain must be the “high altar” as it generates all our thoughts, feelings and movements. Indeed, it is fundamental to all of our conscious experience.

Brain diseases such as Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia demonstrate how devastating it is when the brain degenerates, dragging the mind and its many wonderful capacities down with it. Clearly, it’s time we all focused more on this most important organ, to improve both the quality and quantity of brain health across the lifespan.

The good news is that many of the lifestyle choices that are good for the body are also good for the brain. But we need to be mindful that other factors may be particularly beneficial for brain. Here’s a distillation of some of the current evidence supporting beneficial lifestyle factors into four pillars of brain health.

First: stay physically active

This is a somewhat obvious lifestyle recommendation, as everyone now knows that physical activity is good for the body. But not everyone yet realises the extent to which physical activity boosts brain health.

There are many ways this may happen as the brain and body are in constant dynamic bidirectional communication. Physical activity can cause muscles to release beneficial molecules that reach the brain, as well as increasing blood circulation to the brain and inducing the formation of new brain cells (neurons) and connections (synapses) between them.

People who maintain higher levels of physical activity may help protect themselves from brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of brain degeneration. There is also evidence that physical activity may help protect against depression and other brain disorders.

Second: stay mentally active

Two of the cardinal rules of brain plasticity (changes in the brain) appear to be “use it or lose it” and “neurons that fire together wire together”. There’s also some evidence that people who maintain higher levels of cognitive (mental) activity may be protected from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

Along with physical activity, cognitive stimulation may help build in a “brain reserve” to protect from, and functionally compensate for, the wear and tear of brain ageing. We don’t know exactly what lifestyle choices are the most important. But spending a lot of time watching television, for example, may involve the double whammy of reduced physical and mental activity, and could be one risk factor.

Many lifestyle choices that are good for the body are also good for the brain. Source: Hey Paul Studios/Flickr, CC BY

So what mentally stimulating activities should you do more of? This is a very personal choice, as it will need to be something you can continue to do not just for days and weeks, but for months and years, in order to have long-term benefits.

Third: eat a healthy diet

Yes, you no doubt know this is good for your body, but did you realise a balanced nutritious diet (such as the one recommended here) is also good for your brain?

Most of the nutrients from food circulate through your brain via the bloodstream. So a healthy diet can directly improve the health of brain cells and may even slow down brain ageing.

What’s more, by improving body health, the brain may benefit via the heart and cardiovascular system, the immune system and other physiological systems that impact on the nervous system.

Fourth: don’t stress too much!

The human body, including of course the brain, has evolved over many thousands of years. When we were cave-dwellers and hunter-gatherers, the stress response (“fight or flight”) served a very useful purpose in evading predators, obtaining food and other aspects of survival.

But busy 21st-century lifestyles mean many of us suffer from excessive chronic stress. This may eventually be toxic for the body. It’s especially bad for the brain because parts of it are absolutely loaded with sensitive “stress receptors”.

What’s more, some people are more genetically vulnerable to stress, while others are naturally more resilient. These innate factors also impact our stress responses.

Many lifestyle choices can help us better deal with excessive chronic stress. Stress-reducing strategies such as “mindfulness” and meditation are becoming increasingly popular, often being taught in schools and prescribed by health professionals.

Physical exercise can also help people deal with stress; everyone may have their own approach to “de-stressing” and “chilling out”. Another positive side effect of avoiding excessive chronic stress is healthy sleep patterns. Adequate and regular sleep patterns are known to be beneficial for both brain and body.

To conclude, I think it was Woody Allen who famously said: “The brain is my second favourite organ!” Considering how fundamental it is to everything we think, feel and do, perhaps we should all be more mindful to look after this most fantastic and plastic of organs, the human brain.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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The census matters – making it less frequent is a risky idea

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By Nicholas Biddle, Australian National University

If reports are to be believed, both the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and the federal government are strongly considering moving from a five-year to a ten-year census cycle.

This move has been on the cards for a little while, given major changes to the census in comparable countries (such as the UK, Canada, New Zealand and the US) over recent years. Australia is a bit of an outlier in how often we conduct a census.

So, what might Australia gain from such a change? And what would it lose?

What is the census used for?

Ultimately, Australia uses the census for the allocation of seats in the lower house of federal parliament. We need to make sure that each MP represents roughly the same number of people. For that, we need population estimates.

But the census is also used to determine how the Commonwealth distributes funds to state and territory governments. For example, the number of Indigenous Australians in a given jurisdiction is used to allocate GST revenue. We can do this because the census provides reliable information about small population groups. The most recent Closing the Gap report relies heavily on census data to understand Indigenous employment and early childhood education.

The census is a vital resource for research purposes. For example, the ABS has recently developed the Australian Census Longitudinal Dataset by linking censuses through time. This is a resource that is only just starting to be utilised and can shed light on dynamics and trends that aren’t available in smaller sample surveys.

The census is also great for marketing and planning purposes for businesses. Where is the market for a new café, or a new car cleaning service? The census can help with that.

One of the census’ key advantages is that it provides information about the population and their characteristics for very small geographic areas. This means that census data can be used by state/territory and local governments to plan for and deliver services. Is the population in an area ageing, or is it turning into a nappy valley? Do we need more aged care places, more childcare services or more primary schools?

We can get some of this information from administrative data – but not the detailed demographic and socioeconomic information. 10 years is a long time to have to wait.

Why Australia might consider changing the census

The census is expensive – very expensive. The 2011 Census cost about A$440 million to complete. While it would appear that the ABS has pushed for legislative change, it is also true that this is in the context of reduced ABS budgets. More needs to be done with less.

The census also imposes a burden on the population. It has been argued that the census is coercive and involves the collection of personal data. In part, this motivated the decision in Canada to make the census optional, though that move has been highly controversial.

It is also true that the census isn’t great at collecting information on all population groups. Mobile populations and those who live in gated apartments are notoriously hard to get information on. Also, because of its sheer scale, processing and publishing the census data takes time and results may be out of date by the time they are released.

There is also the growth in alternative sources of data. The UK considered dropping its census as it thought its administrative data combined with household surveys could do a good enough job. However, it announced in 2014 that it would proceed with a national census (it is ten-yearly) in 2021 after reviewing its options.

Is there scope to make other sensible changes?

I have argued in other contexts that Australia’s current data needs for Indigenous policy aren’t being met in the current statistical environment. The same is true undoubtedly in other policy domains. The census isn’t the only game in town, or even always the best one. So, are there other ways to redirect scarce resources?

The census is currently undergoing one of the greatest revamps in its 100-year history. From pen and paper for most of its history, in 2016 it is anticipated that nearly two-thirds of Australians will fill in the census online. To support this, the ABS will take advantage of recent technological developments.

Questions can also be relatively easy and painless to get put onto the census, but then are very hard to take off. There is certainly scope to trim the census back a bit to its core purposes and save money and people’s time.

On balance, is it worth keeping?

The census is a very rich source of information. Everyone knows the census counts people, but it yields information about other types of statistical units, including families and dwellings. It covers a wide range of topics including some that are very infrequently covered by surveys such as unpaid work.

Alternatives such as the use of administrative data from population registers, possibly supplemented by sample surveys, are also expensive. Issues such as the public acceptability of alternatives like population registers would need to be considered.

Ultimately, one positive is that the news is out there way before the budget or any legislative changes. Australians can have a debate about whether we are willing to give up such a resource, and what it means for our democracy to have less rather than more information.

This article was prepared with assistance by Heather Crawford at the ANU.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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If copyright’s a dud, what business models do work for creatives?

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By Nicholas Sheppard, Victoria University

Much of the creative work we value – whether it’s films, music, novels, or TV shows – requires a significant input of time and resources. The established method for raising the resources to fund such work is copyright – which gives creators an exclusive right to communicate their work to the public (with some small limitations). In its most familiar use, creators raise resources by selling copies of their work.

The spread of computer technology that makes copying very cheap and easy has led, however, to a lot of angst. Copyright owners complain that widespread infringement threatens their ability to fund new creative works. On the other hand, apologists for infringement insist that copyright owners have it too good already, that they use the quasi-monopoly created by copyright to enrich themselves at the expense of users.

Over my career as a researcher in copyright protection technology, one of the most common pieces of advice to copyright owners that I heard was to “get a new business model”.

But what might that business model be?

In this article, I’ll restrict myself to the music industry, which has one of the longest and loudest experiences with online copyright infringement. As we’ll see, online music retailers and individual musicians have trialed quite a few models over the years.

Subscription services and bundling

Legal scholar Terry Fisher and recording company executive Jim Griffin, among others, have proposed “flat-fee” models in which users pay a subscription in order to access a pool of music.

Griffin’s own venture, Choruss, shut down in 2010 – though subscription services such as Rhapsody have been operating for many years. Subscription services are also on the march in the video industry.

Choruss targeted the US college market by offering a blanket licence to access music from the college network. PlayLouder MSP (Media Service Provider) tried bundling music and internet access in the UK back in 2003 – but the last news I found from the company was back in 2010 and the company’s website no longer functions.

Nokia also tried bundling music and mobile phones under the name Comes with Music, but withdrew the system from most markets in 2011.


Established radio and television broadcasters have supported themselves through advertising for decades.

Streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify bought ad-supported music to the internet, with additional features such as recommendations and playlists. Spotify got some listeners excited but many artists complain that Spotify and others like it only pay a pittance.

Viral models

Experimental systems PotatoSystem (in German) and Weed tried a “viral” model in which songs can be transmitted from user to user.

In some versions, sharers may receive a credit when a downstream user buys the song. Microsoft also tried a viral strategy called Squirt via its Zune player – but ceased manufacturing the device in 2011.


Radiohead famously offered its 2007 album In Rainbows in return for donations rather than a fixed price. The band never published the financial results of the experiment, but they haven’t returned to the strategy for later releases.

Nine Inch Nails even gave its albums away for free for a time, but it has also ceased this generous policy.

Some have pointed out that such generosity might be feasible for bands who have established large followings (and, presumably, bank accounts) through the major label system, but wonder how unknown bands could ever attract donations.

Some bands do allow fans to set a price through Bandcamp – though most ask for a minimum price.


Some musicians – most famously, Amanda Palmer – have recently turned to crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter to fund the recording of albums. In return, backers receive a copy of the completed album or other rewards.

David Bowie actually tried something like this back in 1997, when he raised US$55 million by issuing “Bowie bonds” backed by future sales of his music, but other artists have been slow to follow.

What works?

For all of the above experimentation, iTunes remains the most popular retailer, using the old buy-a-copy model.

The subscription model, in the form of Rhapsody and Netflix, has shown similar longevity, but other models have struggled to attract the interest of major labels and/ or listeners, or have been abandoned by their creators. Others haven’t been around long enough to say.

Of course, factors other than the business model contribute to the success or failure of individual services. A great business model might fail due to pricing, the mix of music available, market conditions, the quality of the implementation, or other factors. All of this contributes to new business models being easier said than done.

What’s more, copyright plays a role in many alternative business models as well: without it, subscription services could not demand subscriptions, internet radio would not have to pay at all, artists could not extract payment from viral distribution – and Bowie bonds would be worthless.

Read other articles in our Creativity series here.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Seven myths about scientists debunked

The Conversation

By Jeffrey Craig, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and Marguerite Evans-Galea, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute

As scientific researchers, we are often surprised by some of the assumptions made about us by those outside our profession. So we put together a list of common myths we and our colleagues have heard anecdotally regarding scientific researchers.

Myth 1: Researchers are paid by their research institutes

A research-focused academic will be provided with excellent colleagues, space, core technical support and often some money for lab maintenance. But not always a salary. Tenure is rare and is more likely to occur in universities but usually with teaching commitments.

The requirement for most researchers is to attract their own salary and research funding from outside their institute. This is typically in the form of competitive government grants, philanthropy and/or industry collaborations.

Scientific researchers are finding it harder to fund themselves due to reduced competitive grant funding. Luckily, some research organisations have a “safety net”, offering subsidies for limited amounts of time to top-performing researchers who have not funded their own salaries.

Myth 2: Researchers are paid to publish in journals

Surprisingly, unlike contributors to off-the-shelf journals and magazines, researchers have to pay the journals to publish their papers after they have been accepted for publication.

This is because, unlike mainstream publications, scientific journals generally do not receive money from advertisers. Costs can range up to A$2,000 per article, and up to US$5,700 (A$7,359) for “open access” journals, which do not charge a subscription fee. With most researchers publishing between five and ten papers a year, this can quickly add up.

Myth 3: Researchers are paid for working long hours

Scientific researchers are typically paid for between 37 and 39 hours per week.

However, due to a combination of healthy obsession, the increasing cost of experiments and the pressure to compete for an ever-shrinking pool of funds, many put in up to twice these hours, often working evenings and weekends.

In contrast to those in the legal and accounting professions, for example, no overtime is paid to scientific researchers.

Myth 4: Worthy research always gets funded

In 1937, the success rate for medical research grants was 49%, with a total of 63 applications made.

Through to 2000, success rates hovered around 30%, meaning one in three grants were funded. This sustained research careers and allowed growth in the research workforce. Today, around 7,000 PhD students graduate each year, with more than half in science, technology, engineering and maths.

In 2014, however, the success rate for most Australian government funded research grants hit a 30-year low of 15%, with another drop predicted for 2015. With 4,800 grant applications every year, there is a lot of excellent research – and researchers – missing out.

This issue was highlighted recently by four Australian Nobel Laureates. Unfunded research is often terminated, leading to a loss of valuable resources, such as specialised disease models and highly skilled research staff.

Myth 5: Researchers can claim costs of journal subscriptions and society memberships

Subscribing to leading journals is essential for staying up to date with discoveries in one’s research area research as soon as they are published. A typical subscription will be a few hundred dollars each year.

Although many journals are available free via university libraries, many make their articles available only to personal subscribers in the first year after they’re published.

It is also important that researchers keep in contact with colleagues via societies, and a researcher will often hold two to five different memberships. Generally, grant funding bodies do not allow budgets to include such items, and most research institutes will not provide funding either.

The best a typical researcher can do is to claim part of these expenses back as a tax deduction.

Myth 6: Researchers are trained to write and to manage budgets

In general, there are no compulsory courses in science communication, grant writing or budget management. These are usually picked up from mentors and from trial and error.

Progressive research institutes and university departments may offer some training in these areas, but again, this is not systematic.

Myth 7: Researchers have a career for life

Gone are the days of “once a researcher, always a researcher”. This is partly due to the “casualisation” of Australia’s research workforce and higher education sector, but also the high turnover of research personnel.

Most researchers sign a 12 month contract – sometimes less. Senior investigators with Fellowships may receive a contract for the duration of their fellowship, but few, if any, are considered “permanent employees”.

This is not unique to scientific research, but this short-term, high-risk career path has serious consequences for all researchers, particularly women in science.

Young investigators are being encouraged to consider careers beyond research and some of our best and brightest are choosing to stay abroad.

The truth

It’s also a myth that all scientists wear white coats and work in labs. Source: woodleywonderworks/Flickr, CC BY

Scientists are passionate about their research and readily do overtime and work pro bono (minus the executive assistant and company car), all while seeking funds for their salary, and for those in their team.

This is after more than a decade of higher education enabling the researcher to become an international specialist in their field. A huge investment for the individual, the government and society. Few researchers complain though because of the joys of research, the thrill of discovery and the desire to help others.

We hope this has helped shed some light on the life of a scientific researcher, and dispelled a few myths that are floating around about how and why we do what we do.

Scientists want you to “get” what we do. After all, our science impacts you too, and much of it is funded through your tax dollars. Increased investment in Australian science, together with diversified training of the research workforce, will secure the future of Australian research and researchers – and every Australian.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Is the medical marijuana debate even worth having?

The Conversation

By Michael Vagg, Barwon Health

Given the recent thawing in political attitudes in New South Wales and Victoria towards so-called medical marijuana, one could be forgiven for assuming that the medical care of certain individuals is being disadvantaged by the lack of access to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) products. One of the most frequently cited reasons for legalising marijuana for medical use is its efficacy for chronic pain.

By way of background, there is no dispute scientifically that molecules derived from marijuana (cannabinoids) are involved in pain signalling. The class of biological molecules that activate this system are called endocannabinoids and their biological activity is very complex. The sheer complexity of these actions is essentially the problem with finding suitably safe and effective medications for pain. There is an enormous amount of crossover from pain regulation into other brain functions such as motivation, memory, appetite and thermoregulation (body temperature control). The basic science is complex, and clinical trials to date have been disappointing. This usually suggests we have more to learn before a treatment is ready for adoption. When we have the clinical pharmacology of a drug nailed down, the results in trials are usually clear cut successes.

If you want a slightly technical but very accurate and balanced view of the current state of the evidence regarding the risks and benefits of cannabinoids in pain, you can read these lecture notes. If you don’t have the time or inclination, the summary of the serious literature is as follows:

  • The evidence supporting efficacy in neuropathic pain or any type of chronic pain is mixed, and the basic question of whether it really works is a long way from settled.
  • The most generous estimate of the effect size for THC-derived products in clinical trials to date is small. Simply put, THC-derived products are about as useful as paracetamol for pain.
  • There are significant concerns that lifetime consequences can occur from periods of exposure to THC-derived products, particularly in adolescence and young adulthood.
  • Currently available prescription products such as Sativex do not have evidence supporting their efficacy in pain conditions that would qualify them for serious consideration. They do have evidence of side effects and potential harm, like all prescription drugs.

The situation regarding hemp oil and other “cottage industry” products is even less encouraging. There is no compelling evidence that stronger preparations are better for pain relief than the relatively less potent ones available on prescription. The quality and safety of such products is unregulated and does not deserve any sober consideration as a useful treatment for pain. They may be highly regarded by connoisseurs but they don’t even approach the benchmarks for ethical prescribing.

Is more research needed? Yes, I think much more research is needed into endocannabinoids to identify more promising targets for new drugs. Do we need any more trials looking at hemp oil or other currently available forms of cannabinoids? Not really. We would probably get better value for increasingly scarce research dollars by looking at other more promising treatments.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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