News & Views - February 2004
Is It a Hatchet Job Masquerading as a Balanced Assessment? (February 29, 2004)
Margaret Simons did an extensive profile, some 3,400 words, of the Man from DEST, Brendan Nelson in Saturday's (28/02/04) Melbourne Age under the heading "Selling it like it is". In it she sketches the man but attempts no assessment of the quality of the higher education legislation he developed and manoeuvred through the Senate.
"Brendan Nelson has several nicknames. One of them is Forrest Gump. Another is Rainman, because of his ability to spout endless statistics at the drop of a hat, like the autistic savant in the movie of the same name.
"A third is Braveheart, which would seem complimentary if it were not delivered with a sneer. Even Treasurer Peter Costello has been seen sniggering at some of Nelson's speeches."
However, Simons follows with, "But now the mockers have been put in their place. Nelson, the Minister for Education, Science and Training, has pulled off what everyone had thought impossible: negotiating the most dramatic changes to higher education in a decade through the Senate, including the partial deregulation of fees."
She goes on to tout the rise of Dr Nelson as a potential deputy leader to Peter Costello and even eventual leader with increasing credentials to best Tony Abbott in the Liberals' coming steeple chase.
So where's the hatchet job?
In the detail. Nelson appears to be an opportunist who spouts endless homilies yet whose principles are difficult to pin down. Simons says, "Nelson has been talking lately about the life cycle of the salmon. It is the transcendent moment that interests him - when the fish swims upstream and leaps waterfalls. Some young people, he says, are like salmon. They want to struggle and excel. Others just want to find a quiet pond. ...Salmon are born in fresh water and make their way to the sea. During the journey, their bodies alter in extraordinary ways to allow them to survive. They change their nature so they can live in the ocean. Politically, some say, Nelson has done the same." Somewhere in this simile the imminent, inventible death of the fish once it has spawned has escaped mention.
More to the point, Nelson's academic progress suggests an individual perhaps not entirely comfortable dealing with academe particularly on the level of the enabling sciences. According to Simons, "He was floundering at the local high school, failing physics and chemistry and challenged in maths. 'I thought if I can't meet these academic challenges, what is there for me in life?' he says." And after transferring to St. Ignatius College, Adelaide, "At first his results remained ordinary. But in year 12 he changed his topics to reflect his strengths - English and economics - and did more than well enough. But still he was lost. 'I was constantly wondering, what am I going to do?'
"At university he enrolled in economics, dropped out, and sold soft furnishings for a year. He considered the police force and the Jesuit priesthood before deciding, as a last resort, to become a doctor, which he was only able to do because the new Flinders Medical Centre in Adelaide had an innovative entry program that did not rely on science results."
Its well known that he switched from Labor to the Liberal Party, hardly the first individual to switch allegiances in order to further a career, but when Simons writes, "Nelson proudly claims the [higher education] reforms are all his own work. There was no push from cabinet. 'The PM's charter to me did not include reforming unis, but within weeks of taking over the portfolio it was clear to me reform was needed,'" that doesn't jibe with what he told his old alma mater when giving the Chalmers Oration at the Flinders Medical Centre on July 17th last year. "When you become a Cabinet Minister, the Prime Minister writes you ... a Charter Letter. It sets out the Prime Minister's expectations of what you will do and what will be the priorities for you in your portfolio. [I]n relation to Universities, [it] said that I should understand and enunciate the importance of higher education to the Australian community, and I should continue to progress workplace relations reform in the sector."
All in all Brendan Nelson comes across as a very ambitious individual of average intellect. How politically clever he is remains to be seen but to date there is little indication that his ambition extends to developing Australia's university sector to be able to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
But Simons should have the last word, "Perhaps the appropriate movie character [with which to compare him] is... Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Golightly is charismatic and adored, yet hungry and somehow lacking a centre. The recurring question in that movie is, 'Is she a phoney?' The answer comes from one of her best friends. 'Yes, she is a phoney. But she is a real phoney.'
Britain's Proposed Revamping of Its Research Assessment Exercise Gets Qualified Good Marks. (February 29, 2004)
Britain's Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) is an approach to assess the performance of university departments. Its findings are instrumental in determining the allocation of block grants that fund research and teaching at UK universities. While the approach is considered by many to have had a beneficial impact on British university research, there is now a strong push to revise the methodology. The last assessment in 2001 copped considerable flak. In the new proposals a more detailed profile of each department's output is to be undertaken. Work submitted for evaluation, e.g. a published book or paper, will be graded on a five point scale, the top two going to work judged to be of international significance. The profile will show what percentage of submissions achieved each ranking, and how many researchers entered work. The funding councils claim these profiles will provide a more subtle snapshot of performance, allowing money to be distributed more fairly among "pockets of excellence" within departments.
Meanwhile with the release of the Australian Government's 2003/04 budget in May the Minister for Education Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, announced the undertaking of several key reviews one of which is the Evaluation of the Knowledge and Innovation Reforms set up to evaluate "Australia’s Block Research Funding Schemes".
Under Outcomes the Department
states, "The evaluation of Knowledge and Innovation reforms will enable the
Commonwealth to monitor progress to date, make adjustments where necessary and
ensure that any future changes to Government research policy are informed by an
analysis of the evaluation’s findings.
"It is envisaged that a Consultation Report will be produced from the information provided in the submissions and public consultations. This report will be delivered to Government in October 2003."
Although four months have now passed since the "Consultation Report" was due, there has been no public release of the findings and no public statements have been forthcoming from the Minister as to what effect the report will have on future funding allocations or if an assessment mechanism along the lines proposed in the UK is being considered, let alone implemented.
Media Release – "Piecemeal approach to ageing ignores productivity growth from science, technology and R&D": Snow Barlow, FASTS. (February 26, 2004)
Below we reprint in its entirety the statement made by the President of the Federation of Scientific and Technological Societies, Professor Snow Barlow, in response to the Federal Treasurer, Peter Costello's paper Australia's Demographic Challenges released yesterday.
It just might be worthwhile to draw the Treasurer's attention to the the fact that currently Australia's annual per capita GDP is some US$10,000 less than that of US citizens (based on purchasing power parity). Perhaps the Treasurer might like to determine the causes – comes the revolution.
“The best approach is to look for ways to increase the size of the economy so that we all have higher incomes and are better able to meet the costs associated with an ageing population”
Choice 4 – The Hon. Peter Costello, Australia’s Demographic Challenges.
The President of FASTS, Professor Snow Barlow said science, technology and R&D are the engine that will drive increased Australia’s productivity and economic growth.
The two key variables to increase the size of the economy are labour market participation and productivity.
Mr Costello’s paper discusses a range of proposals to enhance labour market participation but is essentially silent on increasing productivity.
Productivity growth does not come from nowhere. Uptake of new technologies and improvements on existing technological processes are estimated to comprise about 50% of productivity growth.
Increased investment in Australia’s science and technology knowledge base must be an essential component of a coherent national approach to demographic change.
Economic growth in the global economy is increasingly dependent on the quality and capacity of the science and technology knowledge base. Today’s research and innovation underpins the industries of the future, which in turn create wealth and jobs.
The Government characterized its’ 2001 innovation statement – Backing Australia’s Ability – as a ‘first step’ to place Australia on the path to joining the world’s new innovation economies.
Australia’s Demographic Challenges provides another reason why Australia must take the ‘second step’ when the Government announces the follow up to Backing Australia’s Ability in the budget.
Including the $2.9 billion of BAA, Australia’s gross expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP will have dropped below 1.4% by 2005/6, down from 1.69% in 1995/6. Over the same period, the weighted average of R&D investment in OECD countries will increase from about 2.1% to 2.5%.
These trends do matter. BAA only slowed Australia’s relative decline and did not begin to bridge the gap between us and the new knowledge economies.
[Note added March 4th: A fuller version of Professor Barlow's assessment is available in Today's Canberra Times, as: "We cannot skimp on investment in R&D"]
Is the Speed of Light in a Vacuum a Constant? And if not... So What? (February 23, 2004)
Collaborative work between the BNM-SYRTE Observatoire, Paris and the FSM research group at The University of Western Australia's School of Physics is examining the effect of the Earth's motion on the speed of light with exquisite accuracy following on the work of Michelson and Morley who in 1887 failed to obtain evidence for any variation of the speed of light regardless of their measurements relative to the Earth's motion, and with sufficient precision to effectively rule out the existence of the ether, the medium through which light waves were postulated to propagate. The Michelson-Morley experiment led Hendrik Lorentz to derive in 1904 the concept known as Lorentz invariance which states in essence that the laws of physics remain constant irrespective of our frame of reference. It's a fundamental feature of Einsteinian relativity but in the sense that it is the speed of light that is a constant regardless of our frame of reference.
So why now a reawakening of interest as to whether if we repeat the Michelson-Morley experiment with modern tools allowing orders of magnitude greater accuracy the relative motion of the experiment will detect differences in the speed of light and therefore contradict Lorentz invariance? Because as Philip Ball points out in his Nature news feature of February 5th, quoting Indiana theoretical physicist Alan Kostelecky, "The observation of Lorentz violation would be a sensitive signal for unconventional physics."
Both the French/Australian team led by Peter Wolf from the BNM-SYRTE Observatoire, Paris and Michael Tobar from the FSM research group at UWA, and a German group led by Stephan Schiller at the Heinrich-Heine-University of Düsseldorf and Achim Peters at the Humboldt University of Berlin are using similar but not identical approaches and the latest work published by the French/Australian team on February 10th reports a precision 70 times greater than previous results. Thus far there have been no observations of Lorentz violation, but it's hardly the end of the trail. As the French/Australian connection point out in the conclusion to their latest paper, "For the future we do not expect significant improvements using our present experimental setup... Significant improvements in the near future are more likely to come from new proposals, for example, using two orthogonal [right-angled] resonators or two orthogonal modes in the same sapphire resonator placed on a rotating platform [proposed by Tobar and colleagues at UWA in 2002]. Such a set-up is likely to improve the tests of [local Lorentz invariance] by several orders of magnitude." Tests on board an Earth orbiting satellite have also been proposed, which also has "the potential gain of several orders of magnitudes over current limits."
As Ball points out in his Nature article, "neither lab-based experiments nor astrophysical observations have directly detected Lorentz violation," but certain variants of current "unconventional" physical theories can already be discarded. Ball continues, "Calculations from loop quantum gravity, for instance, already hint at contradictions with the observations. But that doesn't necessarily mean that every version of loop quantum gravity is wrong; the theory is still not well enough understood to place that much faith in the calculations. The same is true for other ideas, such as spin-foam and brane-world models: they seem to predict too much Lorentz violation, but we can't be sure." Astrophysicist David Mattingly concludes, "Theorists never used to have to revise their theories to be compatible with experiment, because there weren't any experiments." That's changing, and an innovative group of Western Australian researchers are contributing to the change big time .
"Science Engagement and Education: Equipping young Australians to lead us to the future", PMSEIC. (February 23, 2004)
The Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC) held its first meeting in May 1998. It meets twice a year in full session and independent working groups present reports and recommendations to the Council. Its most recent meeting was on 28 November 2003 and the the title quoted above introduced a 42 page paper whose impact on Australian Government initiatives remains to be seen, for example its influence on the Department of Education, Science and Training's budget for 2004/05 and the realisation of Backing Australia's Ability II should it eventuate.
The paper is available online and states as THE GOAL, "A science-literate society, through the engagement of young Australians in science, from primary school right through their educational years to their careers and lives." By way of amplification it adds in a footnote, "By science-literate we mean people who can think clearly, find accurate information, solve problems and make decisions based on factual evidence." The effect the fulfillment of such a goal on say future members of Federal Cabinet could be awesome.
The eight member working group chaired by Australian Academy of Science's President, Jim Peacock, introduced the subject saying:
Over the past 8 years Australia has performed well in international comparisons for student science literacy – but falling science enrolments in senior secondary school and university, concerns over professional conditions and the morale of science teachers, poor industry-science links, lack of national coordination and the accelerating global pace of change leave no room for complacency.
... We need an integrated campaign which addresses schools, vocational education institutions, universities, industry and local communities throughout the nation, especially in regional or disadvantaged areas.
Five recommendations are made by the working group (reprinted below), but it must be noted that the terms of reference did not stipulate that costings or timelines should be determined, nor was there a determination made of the competence of current teaching staff in maths and the sciences or the quality of the various programs tabulated in the appendices. In short the purpose of the effort is far from clear.
1. National framework – local action To support schools and their communities by nationally coordinating the outreach programs of science providers3 with sufficient resources to reach all Australian school students.
2. Science through literacy To introduce a collaborative national program in primary schools that links the teaching of science with the teaching of literacy.
3. Science by doing To develop and implement a national program in junior secondary schools to engage students in learning science through greater emphasis on investigation.
4. Science means business To strengthen links between business and science education institutions so as to increase the opportunities for science-based careers and improve the performance of both large and small Australian companies.
5. Teachers – the key to success To strengthen the professionalism and skills of Australian science teachers, providing them with the contacts, support and resources to keep pace with the advancements of knowledge in modern science
3 In this report the term ‘science provider’ means an organisation which provides scientific awareness, information and engagement to schools and the wider community. This covers the science centres and various outreach programs, but also includes universities, research agencies, industry organisations, professional bodies, etc.
There is no indication as yet that the government or the Labor opposition has taken any notice of the report.
ARC and NH&MRC Scheduled for Joint Funding Initiatives – What's the Next Step? (February 19, 2004)
The heading over the media release from the Minister for Education Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, reads, "PEAK FUNDING BODIES JOIN FORCES TO FUND CUTTING-EDGE RESEARCH". It goes on to explain that Dr Nelson together with the Minister for Health and Aging, Tony Abbott are announcing that, "For the first time, Australia’s peak research funding bodies will jointly fund projects targeting health and medical research in emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence. ...this will be the first time they have collaborated on this scale. Combining the resources of the NHMRC and the ARC will mean information, knowledge and expertise is shared on particular projects." We are then told, "[T]he first joint calls for research would be in the areas of Thinking Systems/Biological Programming and Ageing Well, Ageing Productively," and Dr. Nelson is quoted as saying, “These are two initiatives under the Government’s National Research Priorities of Frontier Technologies and Promoting and Maintaining Good Health."
There was no mention of any increase in funding for the two agencies so it is understandable that there maybe some angst with regard to the funds that will be available from the ARC for the enabling sciences in future. In addition the Australian's reports that a new national research council to co-ordinate all of Australia's research activities is under cabinet consideration together with a possible merger of the ARC and the NH&MRC which would come under the mooted national research council. Just what sort of hidden agenda may be associated with the manipulation of these "pawns on the Government's chess board" remains to be seen.
According to Illing, Vicki Sara, the Chief Executive of the ARC, said regarding the arrangements for joint agency funding, "It's an open question as to whether those would be more effective if there was an over-arching council. However, the nature of research has changed and research is now addressing global and national issues which require enhanced collaboration and sharing of resources. A national research council could address these issues."
NH&MRC chief executive, Alan Pettigrew, seemed to sum up the situation as he "understood" it, "In the context of not having any information about this proposal ... anything which helps to bring the research effort of the country into a co-ordinated framework should be seriously considered."
Whether or not all this has anything to do with improving the lot of Australian research, particularly basic research, or improving universities' research infrastructure is at best debatable and at worst still a non-starter.
US Scientists Protest Bush Administration's Misuse of Science.
(February 19, 2004)
The Union of Concerned Scientists today published a statement by over 60 Nobel Laureates, National Medal of Science recipients, and other leading US researchers calling for end to scientific abuses by the administration of President George W. Bush. A extensive report is available online.
The scientists call for regulatory and legislative action to restore scientific integrity to federal policymaking. They claim the Bush administration has, among other abuses, suppressed and distorted scientific analysis from federal agencies, and taken actions that have undermined the quality of scientific advisory panels.
Neal Lane, a former director of the National Science Foundation and a former Presidential Science Advisor made the point, “We are not simply raising warning flags about an academic subject of interest only to scientists and doctors, in case after case, scientific input to policymaking is being censored and distorted. This will have serious consequences for public health.” While Dr Kurt Gottfried, emeritus professor of physics at Cornell University and Chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists says, “Across a broad range of issues, the administration has undermined the quality of the scientific advisory system and the morale of the government’s outstanding scientific personnel; whether the issue is lead paint, clean air or climate change, this behaviour has serious consequences for all Americans.”
The signatories leave nothing to the imagination. “[The] distortion of scientific knowledge for partisan political ends must cease” and call for Congressional oversight hearings, guaranteed public access to government scientific studies and other measures to prevent such abuses in the future. But the signatories also call on the US scientific, engineering and medical communities to work together to re-establish scientific integrity in the policymaking process.
Among the signatories:
Philip W. Anderson*†, David Baltimore*†, Paul Berg*†, Lewis Branscomb, Thomas Eisner*, Jerome Friedman†, Richard Garwin*, Walter Kohn*†, Neal Lane, Leon Lederman*†, Mario Molina†, W.H.K. Panofsky*, F. Sherwood Rowland†, J. Robert Schrieffer*†, Richard Smalley†, Harold E. Varmus†, Steven Weinberg*† and E.O Wilson*
(†Nobel laureate, *US National Medal of Science)
A recent case in point is the National Healthcare Disparities Report:
After Secretary Tommy Thompson's Department of Health and Human Services was shown to have "bowdlerised" the National Healthcare Disparities Report, issued in December, which describes inequalities in health care and outcomes among the disadvantaged he has apologized and will release the original version. Henry Waxman's (D-CA) got hold of a draft that contained striking differences to the version released by HHS. For example words describing inequalities as "national problems" were expunged. Thompson has promised the draft will be posted shortly.
Australian Scientists "March" Quietly to Save Research. (February 17, 2004)
Massed French research scientists marched through Paris streets and 42,000 have signed a partition to "Save Research" (see N&V Feb. 13, 2004). Now Australian researchers in their way have struck a quiet protest.
The Sydney Morning Herald reports, "senior scientists, who asked not to be named fearing they would lose funding, said yesterday that the Government was sitting on at least three major reports which showed that laboratories, libraries and staffing levels in universities and other research facilities were in dire need of funds to keep pace with advances in medicine and science." When the SMH inquired of the regulation anonymous spokesman for the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, when those reports would be made public he replied that he was not in a position to specify. However, never fear, "'The Government remains committed to science and research and is continuing discussions with stakeholders,' the spokesman said."
Kim Carr, Labor's spokesman for science and research told the Herald, "The facts remain that Australia is losing the international race in science and research and this will have a devastating impact on jobs for Australians." However, Labor has still to publish its policy on research although it was promised months ago.
Previously two reviews were carried out on research infrastructure in Australian universities. The first with Labor's Kim Beazley as minister, the second requested by the Liberal's, David Kemp:
National Board of Education, Science & Training (NBEET) 1993, Higher Education Research Infrastructure: report of the National Board of Employment, Education and Training, AGPS, Canberra.
Phillips Curran 1998, ‘Study of Higher Education Research Infrastructure’, prepared for the Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs and the Australian Research Council, unpublished.
Note that the second was never published, and while the 1993 report detailed the necessity for a massive upgrading of universities' research infrastructures, it's recommendations remain to be realised.
Has a Statistical Rubber Chicken Come Home to Roost. (February 16, 2004)
We've noted previously that the Chair of Melbourne University's Department of Mathematics and Statistics in his submission to the government’s "Crossroads" review pointed out "the Mathematical Sciences are in steep decline in Australia... There are now  as many vacant professorships of statistics in the major universities as filled positions."
An article in the February 10th Melbourne Age "Demand for statistical knowledge" by Eric Wilson asks:
Could a flaw in computer science degrees have contributed to the risk-management situation with currency traders at the National Australia Bank?
Jim Franklin, associate professor at the University of NSW school of mathematics, says the universal lack of statistical analysis skills in IT departments means that telltale signs of fraud, or the reasons behind customer churn, often go unnoticed.
"Looking for unusual patterns is a way banks could check for rogue traders," Franklin says. "It's a danger for a bank to rely on one or two people who understand mathematics. It means boards have to trust their risk officer. That's a bit of a worry. If the board consists of people who don't understand mathematics, they don't understand the risks."
And while Dr Franklin goes on to tell Wilson that the University of NSW is offering a master's degree in statistics with subjects such as "data-mining, categorical data and multivariate analysis", it is not unreasonable to ask how well equipped his department, or indeed others in the Group of Eight let alone the rest of our public universities, are to attract, educate and train the number of competent graduates required by business and government. And as hardly an afterthought, how well are they equipped to educate, attract and retain academics of the quality and numbers required, not forgetting to allow them the facilities required to carry out the research essential to the wellbeing of departments of mathematics and statistics.
Perhaps John Stewart, the new CEO of the NAB, would like to have a chat with the Minister for Education, Science and Training concerning the matter. An NAB Chair in Analytical Statistics appropriately endowed could be a good start.
CSIRO Trumpets "Billion Dollar Benefit from Research Investment". (February 15, 2004)
But the organisation's media release of last week doesn't emphasise that the major part of that money was derived from work undertaken and completed between 1981 – 1995. And is it worth pointing out to those in government who may have the short-sighted view of a market economy and economic rationalism that most of benefit to the nation was through research the former Chief of CSIRO's Division of Entomology Max Whitten (1981-95) says, "generated no intellectual property, indeed no one knew there was even a problem."
It's interesting to compare the following statement released by CSIRO's Chief Executive Officer, Geoff Garrett with an October 22nd TFW opinion piece by Dr. Whitten – A Commercialised CSIRO at Any Price?
From CSIRO's media release of February 10, 2004:
Dr Geoff Garrett, CSIRO's Chief Executive Officer, describes the partnership between CSIRO Entomology and the Australian grain industry as one of the most productive associations with industry in the history of CSIRO. The recent independent benefit cost analysis estimated that CSIRO's partnership with the grain storage industry has returned benefits, since the 1970s to date, valued at over $759 million.
From Dr. Whitten's October 22nd opinion piece:
In the late 1980’s [Jim] DesMarchellier, a researcher in CSIRO’s Stored Grain Research Laboratory (SGRL) – a section of the Division of Entomology – convinced me as the then Chief of the Division that the Wheat Board had a policy that was costing farmers tens of millions of dollars each year. Farmers were not allowed to deliver grain to bulk handling silos unless its moisture content was less than 11.5%. There was a sound scientific basis for this figure as fungi and insects have difficulty surviving at lower moisture levels. But Jim was able to show that, as farmers wait for ripe wheat to fall to the 11.5% moisture target, certain unrecognized costs were incurred:
The crop could lose one percentage point of protein each day;
summer rain could cause significant losses; and
farmers required expensive harvesting equipment to collect the grain at the ‘optimal’ time – a significant opportunity cost.
By insisting on the 11.5% target, some growers delivered wheat that was well below this level; and by the time it was all mixed in the bulk storage, the percentage was unnecessarily below the threshold. Many countries harvest wheat at higher moisture contents and then lower it to the desired level by various means. All in all, farmers would save tens of millions of dollars if a more flexible policy was put in place.
Eventually a more flexible policy was put into place to the cost benefit of the sector. And as Whitten points out, "There is room in CSIRO for both the creative scientist like DesMarchellier and the entrepreneurial Baghai [Mehrdad Baghai, CSIRO Executive Director of Business Development and Commercialisation]. But the real CSIRO should be more about the DesMarchelliers, and less about the Baghais . Yet there is little room in CEO Geoff Garrett’s CSIRO for the creative geniuses like DesMarchellier who create real economic and social wealth for Australia."
Could it Ever Happen Here? French Scientists March to Save Research. (February 13, 2004)
French cynicism came to the fore in a Le Monde editorial a couple of weeks ago about the government's response to its scientists' fury, "[they gambled that] the scientific community would tire itself out [and television] would devote only 1 minute of its news programs to the affair." The editorial concluded: "Gamble lost."
Following on TFW's N&V of Feb. 9 – in 1994 France had a civilian R&D budget of ~2.4% of GDP, it's now down to 2.2%. Australia's - about 1.6%, US and Japan - just under 3%. Also during the past decade in France there have been six different ministers for science and promises made went out the revolving door as fast as the ministers. It's now come to the stage according to Science that, "hundreds of lab directors, including more than half the chiefs at France's main biomedical research agency, INSERM, have threatened to stop doing administrative duties en masse on 9 March if the government doesn't fork over nearly €200 million posthaste from the 2002 budget that is owed to INSERM and CNRS, France's basic research agency. They've also demanded that the government reinstate 550 permanent research jobs abolished in favor of short-term contract positions."
It remains to be seen if Le Monde is right.
Shortage of Maths and Science Teachers Highlighted by FASTS on Darwin's Birth Date Anniversary. (February 12, 2004)
The bane of creationists and advocates of "intelligent design", Charles Darwin, was born February 12, 1809. The president of the Federation of Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS), Snow Barlow, notes on this 195th anniversary that Australia's "Knowledge Economy" is under a far greater threat from the growing shortage of competent secondary school teachers in science and mathematics than the purveyors of creationism.
Professor Barlow makes the point, "Australia faces a significant loss of experienced teachers through retirement over the next few years, peaking between 2006 - 2008. It is estimated the shortage will be in the order of 20,000 - 30,000 teachers primarily in science, mathematics and technology. If the burgeoning demand for science, mathematics and technology teachers is not met, Australia risks a more insidious wave of ignorance than 'creationism' could ever deliver."
While he wasn't specific as to detail, Professor Barlow said FASTS expects at a minimum, more funded places for teacher training, removal of disincentives, including differential HECS for science, funding to ensure all schools, have the capacity to attract and retain expert teachers, ongoing professional development to allow teachers to remain up to date with scientific and technological developments and enhanced career pathways -- and as a parting shot -- "The reviews are complete. In an election year we need real commitments to address the looming teacher shortage."
We live in hope.
Leading French Geneticist and Bioethicist Threatens to Resign if his Government Doesn't "take immediate and significant steps to boost French research". (February, 9, 2004)
He may be smiling, but he's not happy. Axel Kahn, the 59 year old director of the Paris based Cochin Institute is one of the 42,000 signatories to a the petition SAUVONS LA RECHERCHE! presented to the French government on January 7th. In fact his is one of the first three names on the petition. Kahn's institute, which ranks among France's best in its field and is one of the best resourced, got a 10% cut in its budget this year. It has had to retrench nearly 10% of its staff as a result. Kahn told Nature, "we are one of the top labs in France, just imagine the situation elsewhere."
Because of large budget deficits, the finance ministry has chosen to withhold hundreds of millions of Euros from research agencies, bringing them to the point of being unable to meet there financial obligations. France's national research agency (CNRS) was until the middle of last month owed €172 million. It was only able to avoid going broke after the government freed up €103 million and promised to repay the rest in 2005.
The short sightedness of the cut backs is emphasised by the lack of interest by young scientists in the new three- to five-year contracts, paying €1,900 a month (A$37,500 p/a); understandable because if you're on a short term contract, leasing a flat or getting a bank loan is all but beyond reach.
Kahn, being among the most notable of
signatories says of his intention to resign. "I can't allow myself to make
threats that are not credible."
Last weekend, science minister Claudie Haigneré received Alain Trautmann, co-head of the biology department at the Kahn's Institute and spokesman for the Save Research movement. She now promises an inter-ministerial meeting to discuss the demands.
The main points of the petition are:
At the dawn of the 21st century, France needs dynamic research.
To hold that it is possible to limit research to a few priority areas is to start down a road towards underdevelopment.
In France, fundamental research is currently being abandoned by the State.
Despite official statements claiming that research is a national priority, the French government is in the process of shutting down the public research sector without considering that there is nothing to replace it.
The central guidelines of scientific policy should be publicly controlled. But the government cannot at the same time disengage the State and guide research with methods that may paralyze it.
There is no example of scientific research that is exclusively orchestrated and controlled by a Ministry. It is a scientific and bureaucratic illusion to believe in such a scenario...
The petitioners consider it their responsibility to act collectively against the planned destruction of France's research capacity.
The full petition is available in French and English.
Former Age Editor Taken to Task for Misleading Statistics on Higher Education. (February 9, 2004)
Gregory Hywood is a former editor-in-chief of The Age. In an opinion piece published by the paper on February 5th he takes issue with the former Premier of Victoria John Cain (see TFW News and Views January 31, 2004) and co-author John Hewitt, regarding the demise of Australian universities in general but the University of Melbourne in particular for becoming distorted through economic rationalism and bowing to short-sighted market forces. Hywood makes the claim "But the fact is the forces for change were too great and the universities took the view that to preserve the components of the Menzies vision [for universities] beloved by Cain they had to manage themselves better and find additional sources of revenue." Hywood continues:
According to the OECD, most developed countries spend about 1 per cent of gross domestic product on tertiary education from public sources. The huge private funding in the US lifts total spending in that country to 3.75 per cent. But, coming in second at 1.5 per cent (two-thirds public, one-third private), is Australia, considerably ahead of Japan, Britain and the rest of Europe.
Not so says Simon Marginson, director, Monash centre for research in international education, Monash University, in a letter to the editor in the February 9th Age.
We are not second in the world. The OECD's Education at a glance 2003 (page 208) notes that Australian spending is equalled or exceeded by the US (2.7 per cent), Canada (2.6 per cent ), Korea (2.6 per cent), Sweden, Finland and Denmark. And Australia's public spending at 0.8 per cent of GDP is clearly below the OECD average (1 per cent) and the US.
Australia derives almost half of its tertiary funding from private sources (0.7 per cent of GDP), way above the OECD average (0.3 per cent). And that's before the Nelson reforms in 2005, which will boost private fees.
Our approach to funding reduces social access to institutions such as Melbourne University, and shapes the nature of the tertiary "product".
Increasingly, we treat university and secondary schooling as private commodities. Most other nations see it differently, focusing on the common and public benefits. This is also the point made by John Cain and John Hewitt.
Marginson gives his source precisely, Hywood does not.
Germany Set to Allocate A$2 Billion to Upgrade Five of its Research Universities. (February 5, 2004)
While Australia's conservative Coalition continues to reduce its commitment to our universities and disguises the fact by neglecting to publish its programmed expenditures relative to GDP or as a percentage of annual tax revenue, and while Brendan Nelson suggests that if we can induce the likes of Harvard to set up branch offices in Australia (no tax dollars involved of course, this is an election year) we could gee up the locals' acts no end, Germany appears to be prepared to put its money where its rhetoric is starting in 2006.
Last week TFW reported that the head of Germany's state bank put forward a plan to sell off about 15% of its gold reserves to set up a fund to earn some €250 million per annum. By what is unlikely to be coincidence the German science minister, Edelgard Bulmahn, has called for the nation's ~100 research universities to put forward proposals for significantly upgrading their research and teaching facilities and commitment. The five winning institutions will each get extra funding of €50 million (A$82.3 million) every year for five years from 2006, to help them become competitive with the Stanfords and Oxbridges of the world. Applications are due this northern summer. It totals to a cool A$2.06 billion for the prospective top five. Ian Chubb as Chairman of the Group of Eight must be shaking his head in disbelief. [Germany's population = 82 million; per capita GDP = US$26,200; Australia's population = 20 million; per capita GDP = US$26,900].
And Nature reports in its February 5, 2004 issue, "'Fresh money is always welcome,' says DFG [Germany's principal research funding agency] president Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker. 'But it takes more than that. German university laws still promote equality, rather than competition for the best students and young scientists.'
"[State bank head] Winnacker, [president of the German Conference of University Rectors] Gaehtgens and the heads of several other research organizations meet with Bulmahn later this month to hammer out the details of the competition, and to discuss further steps that could be taken to modernize Germany's universities."
With all of that Germany's economy is in straits – our treasurer continues to brag of surpluses. And while the German government is troubled by the quality of its universities and shows strong signs of proactively, our media, and the Labor opposition have tunnelled vision fixed on student places and student fees to the exclusion of universities' quality. It doesn't bode well.
Norman Swan Calls UNSW's Vice-Chancellor to Account Over the Hall Affair, Science Notes Case. (February 4, 2004)
"[W]hat would you think of an institution which allows a researcher found potentially guilty of misconduct to get off because they weren’t well, had a doctor’s line, were very busy with other things; important stuff got lost, and in any event the data either didn’t matter or you produced them later? All helped if the boss of the institution chooses to ignore some of the most serious allegations altogether."
Those were the rhetorical questions the ABC's soft-spoken Scot, Norman Swan, asked his Health Report audience on Monday (February 2nd). He was referring of course to the allegations brought against Professor Bruce Hall of the University of New South Wales and the findings of various reviews concerning those allegations. The transcript of the broadcast is available online as is the audio file. They make riveting reading/listening. Dr Swan summarises the events that have taken place so far. The alligations by Professor Hall's staff of questionable practices. The initial UNSW findings clearing the immunologist, the dissatisfaction by the university's council of the procedures followed and its demand "that management conduct an external independent inquiry", and the machinations that followed the external independent inquiry's forwarding of its report to the university which have resulted in the report sill not being made public. Dr Swan emphasised that, the inquiry's membership as well as consisting of a former High Court chief justice and three competent and qualified scientists sought "expert opinion [when they considered it] was required; they consulted some of the most eminent experts in the field of transplantation immunology and general immunology both in Australia and overseas. People like Sir Peter Morris of Oxford University, another Fellow of the Royal Society and arguably in the top two or three in the world in transplantation. Professor Tony d’Apice was another, a former President of the Transplantation Society of Australia and New Zealand who works at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne. Many would argue Professor d’Apice is the best transplantation immunologist in Australia. The Committee also consulted Professor Ian McKenzie, another former head of the Transplantation Society, and an immunologist, Professor Chris Parish of the Australian National University."
Norman Swan leaves his listener in no doubt that he is thoroughly dissatisfied with how the the "Hall Affair" as been dealt with by Rory Hume, UNSW's vice-chancellor, and we are told, "It’s hard to read Professor Hume’s own report without the Brennan Inquiry available because you don't really know what he’s talking about." Swan then pulls out the rabbit, "Fortunately though, The Health Report has been able to obtain a copy of the independent Inquiry’s findings. And many disparities emerge when you compare it with Professor Hume’s report. ...He [Hume] says he took his own expert advice and had eight expert opinions available to him, six of which though were actually people Bruce Hall himself had contacted. We don’t know what these experts were given, what questions they were asked to answer, what evidence they had before them, whether they saw the full transcripts and raw data available to the Brennan Committee [external independent inquiry], whether they had a chance to interview the complainants (we know they didn’t in fact speak to them)..."
By this time you may feel it's just as well that Dr Swan doesn't have a claymore available to him, he concludes, "The result is that any researcher at the UNSW from now on can use Hume's findings as a precedent and if they're accused of bodgying data, they can say they were ill and here’s my doctor’s line, the data weren’t important, I knew I was right and subsequent experiments proved it, it was only a conference or a grant application, so it doesn’t matter, and finally, I lost my data and I can prove it. Not a way to run a world-class research university."
As matters stand, Professor Hume has agreed to front the The Health Report on March 1st. What transpires between now and then remains to be seen.
But prior to Norman Swan going to air the international weekly Science published a brief note in its January 16. 2004 issue; "Hall Found Guilty of Lesser Misconduct" heads Leigh Dayton's report. Dayton concludes, "Some leading academics have also criticized Hume's decision... . Ian Lowe, a policy analyst at Griffith University in Queensland, calls it a 'blatant' case of favoring 'the powerful over the weak.' Some academic members of the UNSW council, who wish to remain anonymous, agree with Lowe. They also share his fear that Hume's actions will 'tarnish' the reputation of Australian universities. Meanwhile, three government bodies are pursuing separate investigations into Hall's alleged financial mismanagement of his grants and the university's handling of the whistleblowers' complaints."
Higher Education Fees: Labor Here, Labour There. (February 4, 2003)
Articles today in the New York Times and the Melbourne Age make interesting comparative reading they are headed respectively, "Opposition Grows in Europe at Plans to Raise College Tuition" and "Labor vows to undo uni changes immediately".
Katherine Zoepf writes in the NYT, "Carrying crude effigies of Prime Minister Tony Blair, about 500 students marched down to Parliament Square last Tuesday to protest the Blair government's proposal to allow British universities to raise tuition to the equivalent of more than US$5,500 beginning in 2006." Here the Age's Orietta Guerrera reports, "Opposition education spokeswoman Jenny Macklin said the party has legislation written up waiting to be introduced in Parliament before the end of the year if it gets into power." which will "stop the fee increase and abolish the full-fee system altogether".
The students' disquiet in Britain and the Continent are not identical. The British Labour Party wants to move to a system similar to Australia's Higher Education Contributions Scheme and in summery that constitutes pretty well the whole of the debate, i.e. the proposed increase of the proportion that users or their parents pay for higher education. On the Continent higher education in a number of countries is free, comparable to the system Whitlam introduced in Australia in 1973, and has been deemed to be in the public interest. In addition, Zoepf points out, "In Germany and France, ...where getting a high school degree guarantees a student a place at the state university of his or her choice, student groups have protested not just the prospect of tuition fees, but also government proposals to introduce academic selectiveness at certain universities."
On January 11th TFW reported in a News and Views item that Germany's Social Democratic government has floated the concept of building one or more elitist universities comparable for example to Harvard or MIT. The suggestion has met with criticism by both German universities and students who find the concept of selectivity abhorrent according to Harald Pittel, a literature student at Aachen University of Technology in Germany, and a leader of the F.Z.S. umbrella student union.
Meanwhile in Australia, where the questions of paying fees and countenancing selectivity are no longer issues, the Age reports, "A spokesman for Dr Nelson said the Opposition would have a lot to answer for. 'The Labor Party would need to explain to the university sector - who argued for fee flexibility - what their plans would mean and the uncertainty it would create.'" while the "Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee chief executive John Mullarvey said universities cannot postpone decisions beyond mid-year. 'They'll need to publish their course information for 2005 in the middle of the year, so it can go in the (admissions centre) handbooks.'"
If in fact Labor does unseat the Coalition toward the end of the year and makes good on Ms Macklin's promises, the universities better follow common newspaper practice and have two sets of handbooks ready to meet contingencies.
Australian Museum's 2004 Eureka Prize Competition Opens. (February 2, 2004)
The annual competition run by the Australian Museum for the Eureka Prizes was launched today. This year 22 prizes will be awarded totalling $220,000. The prizes cover four broad categories within science: education, industry and innovation, research and science communication.
Prospective competitors may enter themselves or be nominated by others. Full details and entry forms are available at www.amonline.net.au/eureka and entries in most prizes close Friday 14 May 2004, with winners to be announced on August 10th.