Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Extreme weather the new normal in Australia's disaster-prone neighbourhood

As soon as I saw the headline above I smelled a rat.  I then deployed my pesky habit of going back to the raw data underlying the report.  I did not have to go far.  I read here

"In order for a disaster to be entered into the database at least one of the following criteria has to be fulfilled: - 10 or more people reported killed; - 100 people reported affected; - a call for international assistance; - declaration of a state of emergency"

So the finding is not about climate but about people. It does not list cyclones, hurricanes etc. but rather the number of people impacted.  And with growing populations in third world countries -- where most of the casualties occur -- one must expect more people to be impacted when severe weather strikes.  The data therefore tell us NOTHING about "climate change"

If it seems to you that major humanitarian emergencies are happening more often, you're right. Extreme weather events like the one that devastated Vanuatu on Saturday are on the rise. Since 2000, the average number of climate-related disasters each year has been 44 per cent higher than between 1994 and 2000 and well over twice the level during the 1980s, a data-based managed by Brussels-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters shows.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a disaster risk reduction conference in Japan on Saturday that climate change is making extreme weather events the new normal.

"Over the last two decades, more than four out of every five disasters were related to the climate change phenomenon," he said. "The economic toll is as high as $300 billion every year."

Developing countries are disproportionately affected – they account for about 95 per cent of all people killed by natural disasters – and once again small, vulnerable nations have been hit hardest. Cyclone Pam caused damage in Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands before tearing through Vanuatu.

Vanuatu President Baldwin Lonsdale has stressed the long-term consequences of the disaster.

"All I can say is that our hope for prospering in future have been sedated."

Australia's immediate neighbourhood is especially prone to extreme weather events. The latest World Risk Index, collated by the United Nations University, showed five of the 10 countries most vulnerable to disasters are near Australia. The index's rankings have proved alarmingly accurate. Vanuatu was ranked No.1 on the index, and the Philippines, which was shattered by Cyclone Haiyan only 16 months ago, was ranked No.2. Other Australian neighbours among the top 10 were Tonga, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

Australia is a significant contributor to the global humanitarian system and has a special responsibility in the Pacific region.

"As one of the biggest and strongest economies in the region, Australia really should be leading the way in helping our closest neighbours to prepare for and recover from disasters such as Cyclone Pam," said Paul Ronalds, the head Save the Children Australia.

Australia contributes about 60 per cent of all the aid given in the Pacific Islands and is best equipped to lead major humanitarian operations in the region. With the humanitarian system under strain across the globe, it is likely Australia will be called upon more often to provide assistance after extreme weather events in the Pacific.


Six ways Australia’s education system is failing

The article below is written from a Leftist viewpoint but most of it is accurate.  There is some sleight of hand in discussing immigration effects, though.  Just because East Asian immigrants -- mostly clustered in certain schools like James Ruse High in NSW -- do exceptionally well, it does not mean that Middle Eastern and African students clustered in low socio-economic areas are of no concern.  Such students do indeed produce lowest-common-denominator teaching and thus drag down standards throughout the schools concerned -- to the detriment of Anglo-Australian students also there.

It is also unfair to compare Anglo-Australian students with students in Northeast Asia -- who have markedly higher IQs than we do.  They will of course do well at school but that will reflect their greater individual abilities, not the quality of the education they receive.  Australian students can only usefully be compared with students in other European-origin populations

I am also not convinced that monolingual education is a bad thing.  We already speak the international language of science and business so where is the problem? As it happens, I have some academic qualifications in three foreign languages but that mainly reflects my cultural and academic interests.  For instance, I like to watch operas and operettas performed in the original German and I have found it useful to read Karl Marx in his original German.  I have in fact been the first person to put online translations of some of old Karl's more obnoxious utterances. But there are not exactly throngs of Australian students with that aim.

Amid debates about budget cuts and the rising costs of schools and degrees, there is one debate receiving alarmingly little attention in Australia. We’re facing a slow decline in most educational standards, and few are aware just how bad the situation is getting.

These are just six of the ways that Australia’s education system is seriously failing our kids.

1. Australian teens are falling behind, as others race ahead

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey tests the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in more than 70 economies worldwide. And it shows that Australian 15-year-olds’ scores on reading, maths and scientific literacy have recorded statistically significant declines since 2000, while other countries have shown improvement.

Although there has been much media attention on falling international ranks, it is actually this decline in real scores that should hit the headlines. That’s because it means that students in 2000 answered substantially more questions correctly than students in 2012. The decline is equivalent to more than half a year of schooling.

Our students are falling behind: three years behind students from Shanghai in maths and 1½ years behind in reading.

In maths and science, an average Australian 15-year-old student has the problem-solving abilities equivalent to an average 12-year-old Korean pupil.

An international assessment of school years 4 and 8 shows that Australian students’ average performance is now below that of England and the USA: countries that we used to classify as educationally inferior.

The declining education standards are across all ability levels. Analysis of PISA and NAPLAN suggests that stagnation and decline are occurring among high performing students as well as low performers.

2. Declining participation in science and maths

It has been estimated that 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations require science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills and knowledge.

The importance of STEM is acknowledged by industry and business. Yet there are national declines in Australian participation and attainment in these subjects. We are also among the bottom of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) 34 nations on translation of education investment to innovation, which is highly dependent upon STEM.

Fewer than one in ten Australian students studied advanced maths in year 12 in 2013. In particular, there has been a collapse in girls studying maths and science.

A national gender breakdown shows that just 6.6 per cent of girls sat for advanced mathematics in 2013; that’s half the rate for boys, and represents a 23 per cent decline since 2004. In New South Wales, a tiny 1.5 per cent of girls take the trio of advanced maths, physics and chemistry.

Maths is not a requirement at senior secondary level in NSW, Victoria and Western Australia, although it is compulsory in South Australia, and to a small extent in Queensland and the Northern Territory. In NSW, the requirement for Higher School Certificate (HSC) maths or science study was removed in 2001. The national curriculum also makes no requirement for maths or science study after Year 10.

Australia is just about the only developed nation that does not make it compulsory to study maths in order to graduate from high school.

A recent report by the Productivity Commission found almost one-quarter of Australians are capable of only basic mathematics, such as counting. Many universities now have to offer basic (school level) maths and literacy development courses to support students in their study. These outcomes look extremely concerning when we review participation and achievement in maths and science internationally.

3. Australian education is monolingual

In 2013, the proportion of students studying a foreign language is at historic lows. For example in NSW, only 8 per cent studied a foreign language for their HSC, the lowest percentage ever recorded.

In NSW, the number of HSC students studying Chinese in 2014 was just 798 (635 of which were students with a Chinese background), whereas a decade ago it was almost double that number, with 1,591.

The most popular beginner language in NSW was French, with 663 HSC students taking French as a beginner in 2013. These numbers are extremely small when you consider that the total number of HSC students in NSW: more than 75,000.

These declines, which are typical of what has happened around the country, have occurred at a time when most other industrialised countries have been strengthening their students’ knowledge of other cultures and languages, in particular learning English.

English language skills are becoming a basic skill around the world. Monolingual Australians are increasingly competing for jobs with people who are just as competent in English as they are in their own native language – and possibly one or two more.

4. International and migrant students are actually raising standards, not lowering them

There are many who believe that Australian education is being held back by our multicultural composition and high proportion of migrant students. This could not be further from the truth. In the most recent PISA assessment of 15 year olds, Australian-born students’ average English literacy score was significantly lower than the average first-generation migrant students’ score, and not significantly different from foreign-born students.

The proportion of top performers was higher for foreign-born (14 per cent) and first-generation students (15 per cent) than for Australian-born students (10 per cent).

Students from Chinese, Korean and Sri Lankan backgrounds are the highest performers in the NSW HSC. The top performing selective secondary schools in NSW now have more than 80 per cent of students coming from non-English speaking backgrounds.

5. You can’t have quality education without quality teachers

The entry scores of people studying teaching in Australia are lower now than in the past. Photo: ShutterStock
While there are many factors that may contribute to teacher quality, the overall academic attainment of those entering teaching degrees is an obvious and measurable component, which has been the focus of rigorous standards in many countries.

An international benchmarking study indicates that Australia’s teacher education policies are currently falling well short of high-achieving countries where future teachers are recruited from the top 30 per cent of the age cohort.

In Australia between 1983 and 2003, the standard intake was from the top 26 per cent to 39 per cent. By 2012/2013, less than half of Year 12 students receiving offers for places in undergraduate teacher education courses had ATAR scores in the top 50 per cent of their age cohort.

Teacher education degrees also had the highest percentage of students entering with
low ATAR scores, and the proportion of teacher education entrants with an ATAR of less than 50 nearly doubled over the past three years. We cannot expect above-average education with below-average teachers.

6. Early learning participation is amongst the lowest in the developed world

While Australia has recently lifted levels of investment in early childhood education, this investment has not been reflected in high levels of early childhood participation. In Australia, just 18 per cent of three-year-olds participated in early childhood education, compared with 70 per cent on average across the OECD. In this respect, we rank at 34 out of 36 OECD and partner countries.

Australia also ranks at 22 out of 37 on the OECD league table that measures the total investment across education as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product.

While low levels of expenditure and participation curtail any system, there is more negative impact from a lack of investment in early childhood than there would be from a lack of funding further up the educational chain. Nobel prize winner James Heckmann has shown how investment in early childhood produces the greatest returns to society.


Academy welcomes research infrastructure funding decision

The Australian Academy of Science today welcomed the Government’s decision to guarantee a further 12 months of funding to Australia’s major national research facilities.

This funding for 2015-16 will allow the continued operation of 27 facilities established under the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) that support fundamental and applied research in everything from astronomy to deep-ocean measurement to medical research.

These facilities are used by more than 35,000 researchers in Australia and overseas and directly employ 1,700 highly trained staff.

The Academy’s President Professor Andrew Holmes welcomed the announcement to fund this vital program for the next 12 months, saying it was an important first step towards establishing a viable future for Australia’s research infrastructure.

“This decision will mean researchers can get on with the job of developing the new technology and innovative ideas that Australia needs for the future,”

“It means they are back from the brink of closure. Now what we need to see is long-term funding for this essential infrastructure that gives researchers and industry in Australia the certainty they need,”

This decision follows numerous approaches to Government from across the science community and business, including an open letter from the Academy of Science and other members of the National Research Alliance. These warned that the uncertainty over funding from 1 July meant that over $2 billion of public investment was at risk and several NCRIS facilities were about to shut down.

The Academy urges the Government to carefully consider the recommendations of its review of research infrastructure, currently underway, and ensure a sustainable and secure funding model for NCRIS into the future.

Press release

Hidden water: Why isn't Australia tapping into its vast underground water reserves?

Probably because Australia has some history of bores running dry

The National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training (NCGRT) is worried the Federal Government is overlooking Australia's vast reserves of underground fresh water, when developing its new national water policy.

Director of NCGRT, Professor Craig Simmons, said the government's Dam and Water Taskforce had been focussing too heavily on building new dams.

"Groundwater constitutes more than 95 per cent of Australia's available fresh water, but the current policy discussion focuses almost entirely on building more surface dams, mainly in the north [of Australia]," he said.

"Surface water dams are costly to build, economically questionable, involve destroying local ecosystems, cause social and political acrimony and worst of all, in our hot climate, they evaporate.

"In the north of Australia, they lose metres of water per year into the sky. These losses may increase as the climate warms.

"We've got be looking at not just surface water and not just groundwater, but the whole of the water cycle in what we call conjunctive water management."

Professor Simmons said iron ore billionaire Andrew Forrest's plan to harvest underground water to drought-proof Australian agriculture was on the right track.

"I really am highly supportive of Andrew Forrest's plan to be looking into this," he said.

"It's an absolutely critical question and it's thoroughly worthy of investigation.

"There's a lot of devil in the detail we'd need to sort through, but we've got to ask these questions and look for the answers."


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