Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Top scientist referred to corruption watchdog over alleged research misconduct

It looks like he has "massaged" his data to produce a more significant result

One of Australia’s leading cancer scientists, who secured almost $40 million in taxpayer-funded research grants, has been referred to Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission by his institute over allegations of research misconduct.

The Brisbane-based QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute confirmed to The Age and Sydney Morning Herald on Monday it had referred Mark Smyth, until recently the institute’s head of immunology in cancer, to the commission following an external investigation into complaints about his research conduct.

The external investigation, headed by retired Appeal Court judge Robert Gotterson, found Professor Smyth had seriously breached codes of responsible research, the institute said in a statement. The findings of the investigation were referred to the Crime and Corruption Commission, it said.

The institute declined to detail the specific allegations made as the matter is now before the commission, but The Age understands they centre on data manipulation.

Professor Smyth could not be reached for comment.

A second independent review, to be headed by Bruce Lander, South Australia’s former Independent Commissioner Against Corruption, had also been commissioned into what the institute called a “broad range of issues” arising from the initial investigation, the institute said.

Professor Smyth is one of Australia’s foremost scientists and has received millions of dollars in government and commercial funding. The investigation is likely to have wide-ranging fallout across the research sector.

He is a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, which lists him as the “the most highly cited immunologist in Australia” whose “research has helped pave the way for effective immunotherapy of cancer, beginning with immune checkpoint inhibitor drugs”.

He had been awarded government research grants worth a total of $38.2 million as chief investigator, the National Health and Medical Research Council said.

The council confirmed it was considering taking action to recover the grant funds.

Professor Smyth is listed as a reviewing editor at Science, one of the world’s top scientific journals, and an honorary professor at the University of Queensland.

He was head of immunology at QIMR until recently. The institute said on Thursday he was now a former employee. He formerly headed the Cancer Immunology Program at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Victoria.

In 2006, a paper in Nature Immunology he co-authored was retracted because it contained “several errors, including duplications … and incorrect reporting of … values that in some cases weakens the statistical significance”.

In 2015, a paper Professor Smyth co-authored in the Journal of Clinical Investigation had a correction notice attached because it also contained several duplications and errors.

In a statement, QIMR director and chief executive Fabienne Mackay said: “QIMR Berghofer is introducing a new robust research integrity framework under which all staff will be expected to operate, in consultation with leading research integrity experts.

“Our researchers and community deserve only the highest standards, and that is what we are going to deliver.”

Professor David Vaux, former deputy director of science, integrity and ethics at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, said the case further reinforced the need for an office for research integrity in Australia.

“QIMR deserves kudos for handling this rigorously and properly,” he said. “Generally, things like this are swept under the rug in Australia because here, research integrity is self-regulated, which means conflicts of interest inevitably arise as people investigate their own colleagues.

“Twenty-three European countries, the US, Canada, Japan and China have national offices to handle research integrity. Australia is being left behind.”


The Victorian experience suggests that Queensland can reach a Covid victory

Victoria has emerged as the real-world example of living with Covid with a drop in hospitalisations despite high case numbers.

Just one fifth of Covid patients in the state’s hospitals are vaccinated, with more than 80 per cent requiring treatment unvaccinated.

Hospitalisation rates for Covid-19 in Victoria have more than halved in a month, despite the state dropping almost all lockdown restrictions.

There were 851 people in hospital with Covid in Victoria on October 18 and on Tuesday it was just 303.

Of those 97 in intensive care, including those who have recovered from Covid-19 but still need ongoing treatment.

That’s an overall drop of more than 64 per cent, as the state hits a sweet spot of high vaccination, strong immunity and warmer weather which has reduced cases across the globe.

Of those in hospital in Victoria on Tuesday, 77 per cent were not fully vaccinated – and 80 per cent of those in intensive care were not vaccinated.

Victorians aged 12 and over are 89.3 per cent fully vaccinated, with more than 93.5 per cent having one dose.

The state has continued to record the most Covid cases in the country with 827 in the community yesterday and on October 18 there were 1903 new local cases.

Leading epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely said Australia has no choice but to live with COVID-19, as Victoria becomes the testing ground of how to reopen with high case numbers.

Victoria had its “freedom day” last week even though it recorded 1,160 coronavirus cases on the same day.

During Melbourne’s lockdown the case numbers were a daily marker of the mood – with case numbers of more than 10 flattening the mood of the city.

But Premier Daniel Andrews, who had enforced the world’s longest lockdown on Melbourne, dropped his ambition for zero Covid-19 cases as vaccination rates improved.

Professor Blakely, of the University of Melbourne, said Victoria was in a sweet spot of high vaccination rates and immunity, but that was likely to wane as winter approached next year.

Queensland has a natural advantage because of it’s warmer weather and larger homes, which reduces the spread of Covid, Mr Blakely added.

“If people in Queensland are having parties outside on their verandas then that bodes well for them,” he said.

“We just have to brace ourselves for winter when everyone goes indoors (in Victoria).”

He said it was unclear if warmer weather reduced the spread of the virus, or if people spending more time outdoors contained outbreaks because Covid-19 spreads faster in confined spaces.

Either way, based on world evidence and the falling cases in Victoria and New South Wales, he said summer was a limiting factor on Covid-19.

There were 827 cases in Victoria on Tuesday, and sadly, 19 people died with the illness. Of those who died, only two were fully vaccinated.

The cases in Victoria are now overwhelmingly among younger, unvaccinated people, who generally do not need hospital treatment.

Britain’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health had “made clear” that “the overwhelming majority of children and young people still have no symptoms or very mild illness only.”

Australian Federal Health Department figures provided to the Courier Mail show that only 2.5 per cent of children who contracted Covid-19 attended hospital.

However, the Health Department cautioned that of those who were taken to hospital, some went only because they could not be looked after at home because their parents were sick.

Dr Nick Coatsworth, a former deputy chief medical officer who was the face of the Federal Government’s coronavirus advertising campaign, was critical of the Victorian Government’s approach.

He said the Victorian Government could have opened schools earlier than it did. “No, it’s not a fair system, Victoria is taking an overly cautious approach,” he said. “A study in the Journal Nature found there was no supporting evidence for shutting schools, based on research in late 2020.”

Prof Blakely said cases would be suppressed if primary school aged children were given the green light to get vaccinated in January.

Booster shots would be required at Easter to prevent another outbreak next winter, he added


Labor senator warns party about reacting to climate ‘extremists’

Victorian Labor senator Raff Ciccone has warned his colleagues against demonising regional industries, particularly forestry, as the federal opposition prepares to finalise its climate policy ahead of next year’s election.

In a speech to the Senate on Tuesday night, Senator Ciccone said “extremists” who sought to damage or disrupt the activities of timber workers were not only hurting the livelihoods of families but would make it harder for Australia to hit its climate goals.

The senator has been a vocal advocate for timber workers and has criticised his side of politics over the Victorian Labor government’s decision to phase out native forest harvesting from 2024, with a full shutdown by 2030.

The federal opposition is close to settling its climate policy, which is likely to include revised emissions reductions targets, but is wary of creating a blue-collar worker backlash after failing to convince voters over climate change during the past decade.

Senator Ciccone told the Senate on Tuesday evening the timber industry would prove critical to Australia’s hopes of hitting net zero by 2050, which the federal government officially signed up to at this month United Nations climate summit.

Labor climate policy poised to respond to PM scare tactics
“We cannot afford to be distracted by radicals more concerned with making themselves feel good than protecting our planet,” Senator Ciccone told the Senate.

“The real climate heroes are providing sustainable, green building materials to our construction industry. They are taking and storing carbon from our forests and re-growing the harvested trees to store even more carbon.”

He cited research from the Centre of Policy Studies at Victoria University, released earlier this month, which found the forestry industry would almost double as decarbonisation boosted tree planting to take advantage of bio-sequestration opportunities.

The report found a net-zero policy would lead to significant increases in forested land and increased sales of logs for processing and export as forest pulp.

Senator Ciccone said the paper showed the forestry industry was Australia’s greenest form of carbon capture and would need to grow to meet climate targets.

“Radical activists need to understand that attacking the timber industry is not going to prevent climate change. You are targeting an industry that needs to get bigger, not smaller, to protect our planet.”

He said the Coalition government also needed to show greater support for the industry by spruiking the role forestry would play in reaching emissions targets over the coming decades.

“The Morrison-Joyce government needs to understand that leadership isn’t just waving a brochure around at a press conference,” he said. “Leadership is assessing the impact of your decisions on the Australian economy, so we can help those who will need a leg-up and create the jobs of the future right here in Australia.”

The industry has argued Australia has untapped potential as a bioenergy powerhouse through industrial heat in the future renewable energy mix. The federal government’s road map forecast that bioenergy could make up a fifth of Australia’s resource potential.

Veteran CFMEU forestry union leader Michael O’Connor has criticised Victorian Labor’s “disgraceful” treatment of timber workers in the state and warned it was under­mining federal Labor’s pitch to voters that workers and communities reliant on transitioning industries would be looked after.

“Federal Labor’s task of convincing blue-collar workers and communities they will be looked after is threatened by the approach of the Andrews government toward timber workers and their communities. Because these workers are being thrown on the scrap heap,” Mr O’Connor said last month ahead of the Glasgow climate summit.


Religious Australians to get protection to make ‘statements of belief’

Australians will be able to make statements of religious belief under the protection of federal law in draft changes to a bill that sparked a warning about the risk to people who lose their jobs or suffer hurt because their sexuality is at odds with someone’s faith.

The federal government ended months of uncertainty by releasing a draft law to shield people who make a statement of belief as long as it is made in good faith, is in line with the teachings of their religion, is not malicious and does not vilify or harass.

Australians will be able to make statements of religious belief under the protection of federal law in draft changes to the Religious Discrimination Bill.
Australians will be able to make statements of religious belief under the protection of federal law in draft changes to the Religious Discrimination Bill.CREDIT:GETTY

Prime Minister Scott Morrison plans to introduce the Religious Discrimination Bill to Parliament personally within days to deliver on a pledge three years ago to protect religious freedom, but he faces major barriers in the Senate after LGBTQI activists called for a halt to the plan.

The revised bill includes a new provision to protect the right of religious schools to positively discriminate in their employment practices, with a clear intention to override state laws, including those being pursued by the Victorian government.

Equality Australia chief Anna Brown said the statement of belief provision would license “new forms of discrimination” by overriding state and territory laws and allowing remarks that would currently breach those laws.

Liberal MPs express concern over religious freedom bill
“All of the attempts to override state and territory and federal discrimination laws are extraordinarily unprecedented and extraordinarily dangerous in a democratic society like Australia,” Ms Brown said.

The stronger protections against discrimination being considered in Victoria are expected to be made to the state’s Equal Opportunity Act, one of the laws explicitly named in the new federal bill to be overridden.

The final draft confirms the removal of a clause that would have stopped employers acting against workers who make statements of faith that offend others, a case that arose when Rugby Australia terminated its contract with Israel Folau after he said homosexuals would go to hell.

The draft includes broader safeguards, however, that will intensify arguments about faith and sexuality while a Senate inquiry considers the details before a final vote next year.

The bill says a statement of belief does not constitute discrimination under other federal law and a list of equal opportunity and anti-discrimination laws already in place in every state and territory.

The statement of belief has to be one of religious belief that is genuinely held and made in good faith and part of religious doctrine, although it could also be the statement of an atheist.

The new safeguard does not apply if the statement is malicious or something that a reasonable person would consider a threat, or would intimidate, harass or vilify a person or group.

A note to the draft bill says a “moderately expressed religious view that does not incite hatred or violence” would not constitute vilification.

A separate section protects religious bodies such as schools from claims of discrimination if they make decisions to hire or fire workers such as teachers.

“A religious body does not discriminate against a person... by engaging, in good faith, in conduct that a person of the same religion as the religious body could reasonably consider to be in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of that religion,” the draft says.

“Religious educational institutions must have a publicly available policy in relation to conduct in the context of employment.”

A note to the draft says the conduct might still breach the Sex Discrimination Act. While the government said teachers could not be sacked on the grounds of their sexual identity, Equality Australia disputed this and warned that LGBTQI teachers could be removed on religious grounds.

The draft also says this protection for religious bodies does not cover religious hospitals, aged care facilities, accommodation providers and disability service providers.

Liberal MPs spoke up in a tense meeting of the Coalition party room on Tuesday to warn against any move to rush the Religious Discrimination Bill through Parliament when the changes have split church and gender equality advocates.

The meeting ended with Coalition MPs expecting the bill to be introduced in the next few days before it is debated by Labor and decided in the lower house next week, clearing the way for a Senate inquiry over summer and a final vote next year.

The Liberal MP for Leichhardt in northern Queensland, Warren Entsch, said he did not see the need for the bill and questioned provisions including the defence for statements of faith.

Fellow Liberals Bridget Archer, Angie Bell, Andrew Bragg, Fiona Martin, Dave Sharma and Trent Zimmerman also expressed their concern.

Mr Zimmerman told the meeting it would be better to refer the bill to an inquiry led by a joint committee so MPs had a say in the outcome rather than Senators alone, and he warned against putting the bill to a vote in the House of Representatives before the review.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash told the meeting the effect of the bill was to allow freedom of speech but not discrimination, arguing that a Catholic could tell someone he or she did not believe in divorce but could not act on that by using it as grounds to sack someone.

In another example, Liberals who were briefed on the bill said atheists would be protected if they told people of faith they would not go to heaven.

However, a nurse who told a patient that he or she would go to hell because of their sexuality would not be protected because this would involve a breach of professional standards, according to the briefing. This was a change on earlier drafts sought by Liberals MP including Katie Allen, a pediatrician.




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