Sydney researchers backed to test new ideas

3 February 2017

A real-time bullsh*t detector, a unique pathogen discovery centre and a new way to combat untreatable blindness are among the 21 projects funded under a new Sydney funding scheme.

The Sydney Research Excellence Initiative - SREI 2020 is a new program to help Sydney researchers test new ideas, push disciplinary boundaries and identify ways to scale up their research.

In its first year, just over $3M was awarded to 21 projects across the University.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Duncan Ivison said SREI 2020, a key new program in the 2016-2020 Strategic Plan, supports researchers to be creative and build a ‘proof-of-concept’ before applying for external category one funding, such as from the ARC or NHMRC.

“We know it can be incredibly difficult to secure research funding, so we’re giving researchers a helping hand to take risks and be ambitious,” he said.

“We were overwhelmed by the number and quality of the applications we received for this first round of funding. These projects have the potential to develop into world-leading research that advances the boundaries of knowledge and can be applied to the benefit of the societies we serve.”

Professor Ivison said SREI 2020 is part of the wider Sydney Research Excellence Initiative, which by 2020 will provide $150 million per annum for research; a tripling of our current investment.

“Sydney is one of the best research universities in Australia and SREI 2020 will enable us to build research excellence in new and existing areas of expertise. I look forward to seeing the projects in our first round take shape over the next year.”

Creating a real-time bullsh*t detector

Professor Nick Enfield, Arts and Social Sciences

A bullsh*t detector that can detect ‘post-truth’ (the 2016 Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year) discourse in real-time? Linguist Professor Nick Enfield will lead an interdisciplinary team that includes top researchers in physics, philosophy, data science, government and international relations, media and communications, and software engineering, to create a sophisticated artificial intelligence program that can pick up on speech that is devoid of logic or evidence.

“Rational discourse exists but is lacking where it would seem to matter most,” Professor Enfield said.

“Evidence and logic often count for little, whether the issue is carbon footprints or food supply, city planning or campaign debates, health policy or anti-terrorism.”

“This is post-truth discourse: the disregard for evidence in decision-making, and a deep suspicion of experts. The problem is worsening, and the stakes are increasingly high, as we see from the spectacles of Brexit and Trump to the world’s stunning inaction on climate change.”

A new way to combat untreatable blindness 

Professor Robyn Jamieson (pictured), Medicine

Genetic retinal disease, which destroys the ability to sense light, affects about 1 in 3,000 people, or more than two million people worldwide. It’s now more common than diabetes as a cause of blindness in working-age people. Devastatingly for those affected, there are currently no treatments or preventions.

Professor Jamieson will assemble some of Sydney’s best geneticists, ophthalmologists, molecular biologists and basic scientists to find new treatments for these conditions, using newly available technologies such as genome sequencing, genome engineering and stem cell therapies.

“It’s really difficult to see people, especially children, with problems with their vision. So this project presents a really great opportunity to use new technologies to work towards treatment for those people so that we can potentially restore sight.

“To be able to give people that hope is a fantastic thing.”

All SREI 2020 projects funded in 2017:

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