Researchers risk missing a berth in race for bionic brain

Keen for commercial exploitation: Bob Williamson, former secretary for science policy at the Australian Academy of Science.Australia must join the international race to build a bionic brain in order to share the health and economic benefits that will flow from such a prestigious global project.
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However, joining means committing, within the coming year, to the funding of long-term brain research projects, according to the Australian Academy of Science.

Without this, the nation will miss its chance to be at the forefront of work that has the potential to deliver results for some of the most common neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Launched on Tuesday, the Inspiring Smarter Brain Research in Australia report by the academy recommends the federal government take a long-term view and invest $250 million over 10 years to establish a co-ordinated research unit called AusBrain.

Using the skills from researchers across the country, AusBrain would allow collaboration between scientists not used to working together, including neuroscientists, geneticists and computer scientists. At the heart of their work will be the challenge of building a bionic brain.

It is a task that has fuelled the European Union’s decision to allocate more than €1 billion to a human brain project. Last year, the US joined the race when Barack Obama dedicated $US1 billion to a decade-long brain research project. China and Norway also have brain research projects.

”If we’re not there [in] the research, we’re not going to be there in the development and we’re not going to be there in the commercial exploitation,” said Bob Williamson, former secretary for science policy at the Australian Academy of Science.

The academy argues that funding a strategic brain research program would ensure Australia did not end up playing ”catch-up”, as was the case with Australia’s lack of participation in the human genome project.

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Customs may cut hundreds of jobs after minister says no to deficit

Federal politics: full coverage
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Hundreds of Australian Customs officers are facing the sack after the Abbott government refused to give the department permission to run a $30 million budget deficit.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann has told Customs and Border Protection chief Mike Pezzullo to save the money from his staffing budget rather than allow his agency to slip into the red.

The decision could cost the jobs of more than 350 mid-ranking officers around the nation or more than 450 junior customs workers.

Fairfax Media understands that Mr Pezzullo wrote to the minister in January, in accordance with protocols for public service bosses, asking for consent to run the budget deficit this financial year.

In a statement, Senator Cormann said he wanted departments to live within their means.

Customs refused to comment on the minister’s decision.

According to recent modelling by federal workplace authority the Public Service Commission, $30 million a year is the equivalent of about 350 mid-ranking officers or more than 450 junior officers.

Mr Pezzullo said late last year that federal government budget cuts had seen more than half a billion dollars and 740 staff cut from the service over the past five years. He told a conference in Melbourne there was no more fat to cut in his department and that he would soon ”be going through bone” if asked to reduce spending further.

But Senator Cormann was unmoved by Customs’ plea to run a deficit in 2013-14.

In response to questions from Fairfax Media about his decision, the minister said Customs already got more than $1 billion of taxpayers’ money and was expected to manage with that amount.

”All government departments are expected to manage within their budget allocations,” Senator Cormann said.

”Customs has a yearly budget allocation of more than $1 billion. Naturally, our preference is for Customs to manage within their budget allocation as we expect all other agencies to do,” Senator Cormann said.

”Contrary to the situation under the previous government, they now can access funding to pay for the voluntary redundancies caused by decisions made by the previous government.

”If despite their best efforts, as a result of the cuts imposed by Labor they can’t, we will address that in the budget in the normal way and not through a premature decision immediately after the release of the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook.”

The minister said the budget difficulties of federal departments and resulting job losses were the fault of the previous Labor government.

A Customs spokesman refused to comment.

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Australian wartime sex slave Jan Ruff-O’Hearne hits out at ‘hideous’ Japanese denials

Jan Ruff-O’Herne at her Adelaide home. Photo: David Mariuz Jan Ruff-O’Herne and the Korean comfort women visiting Japan circa 1993. Photo: David Mariuz
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When she was a 21-year-old young woman, Japanese soldiers raped and beat Jan Ruff-O’Herne so many times she lost count.

Along with thousands of other women across Asia she was forced to be a sex slave of the imperial army during World War II.

Now the conservative Japanese government has questioned the testimony of the ”comfort women” that led to the landmark apology won from Tokyo in 1993.

The move has placed a further pall over Japan’s already tense relationship with China as well as South Korea, countries the Japanese occupied and home to most of the estimated 200,000 sex slaves.

”It’s just hideous to not acknowledge it, there are so many witnesses who have spoken out about this,” Mrs Ruff-O’Herne said from her home in Adelaide.

Supporters of the abused women fear an attempt to airbrush history after Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga last week indicated the government wanted to verify the authenticity of testimony from 16 South Korean women recorded in the lead-up to the 1993 apology.

No inquiry has been launched but ultra-conservatives in Japan’s parliament dismiss the stories and say there are no documents to prove Japanese soldiers forced women into sexual servitude.

But Mrs Ruff-O’Herne, now 91, said Japanese leaders must come to terms with the country’s history of war crimes. She was captured as a teenager with her Dutch parents on Java, Indonesia, and later forced into a brothel. She migrated to Australia in the 1960s.

For 50 years, she kept secret her abuse at the hands of Japanese soldiers, even from her family until speaking out in the early 1990s in support of Korean women seeking an apology from Japan.

”First it was only the Korean women, and nobody took any notice because ‘they were only Asian women’. But then when a European woman spoke out the world suddenly took notice,” Mrs Ruff-O’Herne said.

The pressure led to the Japanese government issuing a remarkable statement of ”apologies and remorse” for abused women, with a promise to teach people about what had taken place.

Tessa Morris-Suzuki, an expert on modern Japanese history at the Australian National University, said the ”comfort women” had become symbolic in the revisionist drive trying to argue Japan was as much a victim as the aggressor.

”From the point of view of people like Mr Abe and others in his government, it is something that makes Japan look very bad … they want to say this didn’t happen, or it didn’t happen the way people think it did – or if it did happen, everybody else did it as well,” she said.

A spokesman for the Japanese embassy said his government stood by past statements yet believed in more discussions from ”an academic stand point” on issues surrounding comfort women.

Mrs Ruff-O’Herne said the apology must stand. ”When such a terrible thing happens, you expect an apology. It was important for my healing process. It takes a lifetime to get over a thing like that.”

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Choice reveals snack ratings in website pulled by Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash

It’s a glimpse at the ratings the federal government didn’t want you to see.
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Consumer group Choice has used a new healthy food star-rating system – controversially pulled from a federal website by Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash – to uncover surprisingly large differences in the nutritional content of seemingly similar snack foods.

Choice Campaigns Manager Angela Cartwright said consumers would be shocked by the results, with a full 2½ stars out of five difference between similar products.

”It often comes down to whether they are cutting corners and using more saturated fat and sodium,” she said. ”These are products that kids are eating in playgrounds around Australia every day, and people have a right to know.”

Choice compared three products from food giant Mondelez with similar products, after Mondelez called the system ”ill-founded, unscientific and confusing”.

Choice found its Kraft Strip Cheese received only two out of five stars, compared with Bega’s Stringers, which got 4½ stars. Its Ritz Crackers got half a star, compared with Arnott’s Jatz Original, which got two stars.

Mondelez has been drawn into the controversy surrounding Senator Nash’s closure of the food star-rating website, after it was revealed her chief of staff was involved and was also a co-owner of a lobbying firm that worked for the brand.

Ms Cartwright said her group wanted to see what impact the rating would have on companies that had been critical of it. ”The health stars shot down the Mondelez product each time,” she said.

Senator Nash has said she intervened in the state and territory-controlled website because it would be confusing for consumers when the stars were still being rolled out. But she said she still plans for the system to begin in the middle of the year.

A spokeswoman for Mondelez International said the system would mislead consumers and make labels more confusing.

”Given the health star-rating shows that Philadelphia Cream Cheese is healthier than an apple, we believe that more work needs to be done,” she said.

”The algorithm which determines the number of stars on a product has changed numerous times and is expected to change again, so the results of this Choice test should be used with caution.”

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Shorten’s question and whimper time sees Libs pull out all the jocks

Federal politics: full coverageMorrison knew he was wrong on brawl death
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As Opposition leader, Prime Minister Tony Abbott famously reduced the complexities of the Syrian civil war to a contest between goodies and baddies.

Not content with the Batman-ification of foreign policy, our muscular Prime Minister has introduced a wimps-versus-jocks narrative to border protection.

It is a narrative reminiscent of an ’80s college frat house movie – a genre of film much neglected by critics, and one in which someone generally ends up with a wedgie.

”You don’t want a wimp running border protection,” Mr Abbott told reporters on Sunday, following an admission from Immigration Minister Scott Morrison that he had been mistaken on a crucial detail of earlier media briefings.

Morrison had led the public to believe that a 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker had been killed outside the Manus Island detention centre, and therefore not on his watch. Turns out the man was killed inside the centre, when he was very much under the care of the Australian government.

No matter. A real man faces up to his mistakes. Okay, so he might face up to them via press release, issued late on a Saturday night when most journalists have retired to bed or to the pub. But no one can say Morrison did not man up! He just manned up really late when scrutiny was at its lowest ebb.

Following the Immigration Minister’s witching-hour confession, the Greens, who have something of a reputation for political milk-soppery, came over surprisingly macho. They demanded Morrison’s resignation.

Eyes swivelled to the Opposition leader Bill Shorten in question time yesterday. A minister with a dead man on his watch, a minister who seemed to have misled the public over the circumstances of that man’s death – it was just a matter of lining up the skittles and bowling a strong ball. What use would Shorten make of this great political gotcha? What mighty evisceration were we to witness? Would it be a knock-out punch or more of a frog-in-saucepan broil?

But when Shorten rose, his spine seemed not to come with him. The Opposition leader’s first question was on jobs, as was his second.

He left the handling of Morrison’s mistake to the mild-mannered shadow Immigration Minister Richard Marles. Morrison responded with a tsunami of verbiage, which revealed precisely no detail on what had happened, but reminded us all that his government was simply discharging a Manus Island security contract that had been signed by the previous, Labor one.

To say that Labor is on weak ground on this issue would be to put it far too wimpishly.

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Local sharemarket upbeat despite Wall Street gloom

The mostly upbeat tone of domestic company reporting season overcame a shaky lead from the US and concerns about liquidity in China as local shares edged higher.
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The benchmark S&P/ASX 200 Index eked out a gain of 1.5 points, or 0.03 per cent, on Monday to 5440.2, closing higher for the seventh-straight session. The broader All Ordinaries Index added less than one point to 5450.1.

Local shares had a weak lead from Wall Street, which closed lower on Friday after a National Association of Realtors report showed sales of previously owned properties in the US fell by 5.1 per cent in January, against expectations for a 4.1 per cent fall.

Falls in big Asian markets applied further pressure on the local index in the afternoon. China’s Shanghai Composite Index lost more than 2 per cent following reports Chinese banks were tightening property lending.

Sentiment got a boost that world financial leaders gathered at the G20 summit in Sydney at the weekend had agreed on a target to lift global economic growth – as measured by combined domestic product – from 3 per cent to 5 per cent over the next five years.

”Generally speaking, so far reporting season has been slightly better than expected,” said Jamie Nicol, the chief investment officer at Dalton Nicol Reid.

”We are likely to see some decent earnings growth this year for the first time in a number of years, which is a real positive.”

Transfield Services was the best-performing stock in the ASX 200 on Monday, climbing 24.5 per cent to 99¢ on the news it had won a $1.2 billion contract to build asylum seeker offshore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

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Avatar actor Sam Worthington arrested for assaulting photographer

Australian actor Sam Worthington asked police if they were familiar with “that movie Avatar?” before they bundled him into a police car in New York.
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Worthington, 37, who starred in Avatar, was arrested for allegedly assaulting photographer Sheng Li on Monday outside Cubbyhole Bar in West Village, after the photographer allegedly kicked model Lara Bingle in the shin as he tried to photograph them.

Bingle, Worthington’s girlfriend, alleges that the photographer had trailed her “on a public street for approximately four hours” before the confrontation occurred, according to court papers seen by the New York Daily News.

Footage of the scuffle obtained by Channel Nine shows Bingle, whom Worthington refers to as his “wife”, attempting to grab the photographer’s camera before Worthington intervenes.

“You f—ing kicked my wife,” Worthington is recorded as yelling.

He is alleged to have punched the photographer in the face. Police said that Bingle had a bruise on her leg, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

Later, to other photographers and onlookers, Worthington yelled: “He kicked the girl, man, he kicked the girl.”

Bingle is seen to yell at the photographers, calling them “parasites” and begging them to leave her alone.

As he spoke to officers, Worthington appears to reveal his fame.

“You know that movie called Avatar?” Worthington is captured in the the footage as saying.

NYPD officers charged him with assault, and released him on bail. He is due to face court on February 26.

The photographer was also charged with assault, reckless endangerment and harassment.

Li spent the night in custody before appearing in Manhattan Criminal Court overnight.

According to the criminal complaint, Bingle told police that Li “kept getting in her way as she was walking down the street and was trying to trip her”, the New York Daily News reports.

But Li’s lawyer, Ronald Kuby, claimed that Li was attacked by Bingle and that he did not retaliate.

“He was there taking pictures – that’s his job,” Mr Kuby said, according to the New York Daily News.

“I recognise that’s annoying but that’s the price of celebrity.

“He wasn’t chasing her through moving traffic. He was just stagnant here taking pictures of her and Worthington.”

Li declined to comment after he was released from custody. He is due back in court on April 1.

This is the second time Worthington has been arrested. He was charged with disorderly conduct when he was denied entry to a restaurant in Atlanta in 2012, but charges were later dismissed.

Several reports this year suggested Worthington and Bingle had married secretly in Western Australia, and they have since been seen wearing matching rings on their wedding fingers.

But they have not publicly confirmed any marriage.

Several people who saw the attack on Sunday afternoon described the scene on Twitter.

“Pretty sure I just saw Sam Worthington getting arrested in Greenwich Village. Definitely in a cop car. Ok. #nyc #samworthington @OmiScott,” wrote @MiriamEliseMP.

“Just saw Sam worthington and Sara (sic) bingle get in physical fight with paparazzi outside cubby hole… Cops just got here,” tweeted @[email protected] wrote: “Just saw Sam Worthington get arrested. Hashtag New York moment.”

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Transfield Services shares soar after it wins offshore detention centre contract

Tents at the detention centre on Manus Island. Photo: Jason SouthInvestors in Transfield Services have turned a blind eye to political risk attached to a $1.22 billion immigration detention centre contract, sending shares in the facilities management group soaring.
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Transfield shares climbed 24.5 per cent to 99¢ in heavy trade on Monday after the company said the Abbott government had granted it a 20-month contract to operate a centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea that has been beset by deadly violence.

The new deal expands on Transfield’s existing contract to run the government’s other offshore detention centre, on Nauru, and increases the amount the government will pay to run the two centres from about $39 million a month to about $61 million a month.

Transfield, which was until October chaired by Tony Shepherd, who is heading the government’s Commission of Audit, replaces UK-listed G4S. Violence at the centre last week claimed the life of one detainee and forced the Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, to admit he had initially provided incorrect information about the fracas.

G4S is to be investigated by the Immigration Department over its role in the deadly violence. It faces a separate criminal investigation in the UK for allegedly overcharging the British government.

Simon Fitzgerald, an analyst at Moelis & Company, said the Manus Island contract was ”very politically sensitive and controversial”.

”This is where companies can get into a lot of trouble, because there’ll be a lot of scrutiny of how smoothly it operates,” he said.

But he pointed to Transfield’s work cleaning up the government’s troubled pink batts program as evidence it had experience working on politically sensitive projects.

Transfield said the increased cost of the contract was due to higher security costs, more complex travel needs and tax rates in PNG being higher than in Nauru.

Spokesman David Jamieson said Mr Shepherd’s role at Transfield had nothing to do with it winning the contract. ”We believe our success on this bid was due to our ability to rapidly mobilise for Nauru and our ability to manage that facility to the department’s satisfaction.”

The company will subcontract security on Manus to Wilson Security, as it already does on Nauru.

It will continue to use some PNG locals as security, even though G4S local staff have been accused of perpetrating some of last week’s violence.

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‘No Wimp’ Morrison a man of few words in Manus death climb-down

Federal politics: full coverageMark Kenny: Plain speaking on Morrison becomes nonsensePolitics Live: Judith Ireland from Parliament
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The measure of a modern minister is the number of words he or she expends in the effort to avoid revealing anything of substance.

Minister No Wimp Morrison was able to get away – Scott free, you might say – with the daily double on Monday: offering few words and almost no insight on his amazing slow-motion reversal last week on the matter of who did what within or without the Manus Island detention centre on the night one man died and scores were injured.

Mr Morrison’s great good fortune was that his inquisitor – Richard Marles of the Labor Party – didn’t seem to have his heart in it.

This may have something to do with the fact that Mr Marles is the immigration spokesman of the party that, in its desperate dying days of government last year, tried to save itself by re-establishing Manus Island as a detention centre. Prime minister Kevin Rudd, it might be recalled, reportedly wanted at the time to create ”an island from hell”.

It’s difficult to climb on to a high horse when you have chosen the slippery slope and come a gutser.

Nevertheless, Mr Morrison had managed to draw a bullseye on his own head by declaring within hours of an Iranian man dying at Manus Island that it appeared the death had occurred outside the centre. The unmistakeable sub-text was that the man had escaped and thus, somehow, had contributed to his own tragedy.

Bit by bit, Mr Morrison was required to inch away from his initial declaration. But how did it take almost five days to perform the full climb-down; the admission that the deceased died in the centre and presumably had not escaped at all?

Despite four questions on Monday from Mr Marles, we still do not know how Mr Morrison got his first and subsequent information, who he might have spoken to during that time or how a minister of the Commonwealth could have been so spectacularly misled for so long.

Having failed to get anything useful out of Mr Morrison, Mr Marles wanted to know who was in charge of the Manus Island centre, and how often Mr Morrison had spoken to him before and after the asylum seeker’s death.

Mr Morrison, possibly sensing this was getting close to the nub of the matter, employed the avoidance skill of a stunt driver and the guile of a conjurer.

The operations manager, he said, was an appointee of the chief migration officer of the Papua New Guinean government.

He had met this (unnamed) operations manager when he had visited the centre from opposition ”and I met him personally when I was there and visiting that centre in September of last year and on a regular basis my offices and my department regularly engage with that operations manager and I maintain that contact through the department …”

And then the minister veered from the question altogether.

”This centre is run by the government of Papua New Guinea,” he declared a touch triumphantly. ”The Australian government supports the government of Papua New Guinea in running that centre through the arrangements which were established under the former government and we work within those arrangements.”

With that, he sat down.

And Mr Marles couldn’t, apparently, think of another thing to ask. Nothing at all.

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Choice lifts veil on snack food star ratings

Food ratings revealed: Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash. Source: Choice.
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PM stands firm on Nash quit call

It’s a glimpse at the ratings the government didn’t want you to see.

Consumer group Choice has used a new healthy food star rating system – controversially pulled from a federal website by Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash – to uncover surprisingly large differences in the nutritional content of seemingly similar snack foods.

Choice campaigns manager Angela Cartwright said consumers would be shocked by the results, with a full 2½ stars out of five difference between similar products.

“It often comes down to whether they are cutting corners and using more saturated fat and sodium,” she said. “These are products that kids are eating in playgrounds around Australia every day, and people have a right to know.”

Choice compared three products from multinational snack foods company Mondelez with similar products, after it called the system “ill-founded, unscientific and confusing”.

Choice found Mondelez’s Kraft Strip Cheese received only two out of five stars, compared to Bega’s Stringers, which got 4½ stars. Mondelez’s Ritz Crackers got half a star, compared to Arnott’s Jatz Original, which got two.

Mondelez has been drawn into the controversy surrounding Senator Nash’s closure of the food star rating website, after it was revealed her chief of staff was involved and was also a co-owner of a lobbying firm that worked for the brand.

Ms Cartwright said Choice wanted to see what impact the ratings would have on companies that had criticised the ratings.

“The health stars shot down the Mondelez product each time,” she said.

Ms Cartwright said she was able to use publicly available information to do the ratings, and would consider doing more product analysis if the website was not put back up.

Senator Nash has said she intervened in the state and territory controlled website because it would be confusing for consumers when the stars were still being introduced. But she said she still planned for the system to begin in the middle of the year.

A spokeswoman for Mondelez International said the system would mislead consumers and make labels more confusing.

”Given the health star rating shows that Philadelphia Cream Cheese is healthier than an apple, we believe that more work needs to be done,” the spokeswoman said. ”The 100gram serving size adds another level of complexity. Even the most fervent Vegemite consumer would only use 10 grams.”

She said the Choice review unfairly compared Sanitarium peanut butter with no added salt and sugar to the normal Kraft peanut butter, when it should have been compared to Kraft with no added sugar or salt.

”The algorithm which determines the number of stars on a product has changed numerous times and is expected to change again, so the results of this Choice test should be used with caution,” the spokeswoman said.

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