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Queensland govt scores top marks in bioscience

Queensland govt scores top marks in bioscience

Victoria trails Queensland among state governments that are energetically supporting bioscience and needs to fine-tune its Bio 21 initiative, according to one of the bioIT industry's most unusual executives, Michael Armitage.

A medical doctor and former South Australian cabinet minister for both health and the information economy, Armitage now oversees high-performance computer maker SGI Australia's bid to sell its wares in the bioIT market.

On a scale of one to 10, Armitage gives Queensland an eight in terms of the effort and energy Premier Peter Beattie's government is expending on support for bioscience.

Victoria rates "a six or seven" on the Armitage scale, but he warns that a centrepiece of its program, the Bio 21 Australia project, needs more attention.

He said his feedback from some in the science community was of growing concern among scientists that Victoria is "building an edifice" with Bio 21 but neglecting staffing and operational issues.

NSW's efforts rate only a four on Armitage's scale while South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania are hampered by a common lack of critical mass and rank even lower.

Headhunted as director of SGI Australia's Sciences division by SGI chairman Bob Bishop in May, Armitage said his brief is to "engage SGI with people who can do first-class science".

From talking with scientists, he said, "It is distressing to hear how many of them say they have to spend up to 25 per cent of their time twiddling [with their computer infrastructure] rather than concentrating on the specialties."

Armitage argues that SGI's shared memory computer architecture requires less tweaking than the cluster architecture favoured by most computational biologists these days.

His argument may be valid but the relative cheapness of the cluster option has won market support.

Armitage acknowledges that is a "real issue" for SGI, but claims the total cost of ownership for clusters, including interconnection efforts, reverses their advantage in costs.

To address the cost issue further, SGI has turned to cheaper open source operating systems and commodity processors and is about to launch a commodity graphics card, he said.

"We are also looking at creative leasing packages and trying to co-invest with institutions where we think first-class science is being done."

"If a scientist comes to us and says he wants to crunch major numbers, we will make every effort to help him."

Armitage sees promising expansion in each of the major bioIT areas in which SGI operates - processors, storage and visualisation.

The scheduled release in the next few weeks of SGI's lower-cost graphics system, codenamed Voyageur within the company, could have a significant impact on growth of the bioIT visualisation market, Armitage hopes.

Despite bioIT's need for visualisation to analyse huge data sets, spending one to two million dollars on specialised, high-performance visualisation systems is too rich for the blood of most research institutes, he agrees.

However, that situation should change if systems capable of similar performance become available at a tenth of that price, he says.

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