News & Views - April 2003


Debunking Superstar James Randi Sprung by Aussie Psychic. (April 26, 2003)

    Bob Park, the American Physical Society's man about town in Washington and founding perpetrator of What's New has the following item in his April 25th Column:

HOMEOPATHY: JAMES RANDI FLAUNTS HIS PSYCHIC POWERS. The BBC program Horizon did a thorough job of debunking homeopathy last year, with legendary debunker James Randi devising a simple test, which of course the homeopathists failed miserably. However, an Australian psychic saw right through it. Randi, she explained, is a secret psychic who used his awesome power to either alter the test results or the perception of the results. "Damn!" Randi replied, "You got me, Marylou." He warned her he would "make your hair fall out," and if she persisted, "give you a rash all over your body." Whew! You don't want to mess around with psychics. Meanwhile, according to the Daily Mail, the UK is dumping more than a million pounds into research on alternative medicine, including homeopathy, at the urging of Prince Charles.

Uri Geller knew enough not to cast such stones in Randi's direction otherwise there's no telling what those spoons might have got up to.

    [Note: the ABC has placed online the full transcripts of the two-part BBC series on homeopathy1, 2].



A Short but Thoughtful Assessment of the Iraqi "Tribal", Religious and Territorial  Demarcations from National Geographic. (April 25, 2003)

    Brian Handwerk opens his online article, "Constructing a representative government from the ashes of Saddam Hussein's totalitarian regime is a daunting challenge for Iraq. 'If you look at an ethnic map, you'd say that Iraq's political geography is at odds with its cultural geography,'" and concludes with another quote from Harm De Blij, Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University, "The talking heads we see on TV have maps but they only seem to show tanks, planes, roads, and forts. I don't see many of them talking about the cultural, social geography of Iraq -- and I hope somebody somewhere is looking at it that way."



Fostering Scientific, Mathematics and ICT Skills and Innovation in Government Schools. (April 21, 2003)

    The Australian Senate Committee which issued its report Universities in Crisis in September 2001 is now in the process of inquiring into Australia's "Current and Future Skills Needs". It received sixty-four submissions, less than a fifth those received for its inquiry into the adequacy of universities to do their job. The Department of Education, Science and Training's submission is No. 57.

    One particular section, "Fostering scientific, mathematics and ICT skills and innovation in Government schools" (p.40) seemed of particular interest.

 Don Marquis' friend archy the cockroachThe enabling sciences - physics, chemistry and mathematics - underpin science and technology more broadly and are fundamental to emerging fields such as bioinformatics, genomics, and nanotechnology. Australia's future growth and prosperity are likely to depend significantly on having a highly skilled workforce many of whom have a good foundation in the enabling sciences.

This requires quality teaching of science and science related subjects throughout the education and training system - not only by the universities and vocational education and training providers, but also in the important formative years of primary and secondary education. (emphasis ours)

    Recently, concerns have been expressed about the teaching of the enabling sciences in Australia and the levels of student participation. In his report The Chance to Change27, the Chief Scientist, Dr Batterham, expressed concern at the number of children losing interest in science and mathematics, and falling enrolments in science and mathematics in the senior years at secondary school. Between 1992 and 2000, the number of students in secondary teacher education courses undertaking science subjects declined by 29%. This situation is likely to be compounded as between now and 2010, the retirement of mathematics and science teachers is expected to lead to staffing pressures.

    The Commonwealth is responding to these concerns through a range of initiatives announced in its $3b innovation statement, Backing Australia's Ability28. These initiatives include the funding of an additional 2000 university places annually for five years, with priority given to mathematics, science and ICT; the National Innovation Awareness Strategy; a $130m initiative for Fostering Scientific, Mathematical and Technological Skills and Innovation in Government Schools, and a commitment to review teaching and teacher education, especially in the fields of science and technology education.

27 August 2000, Department of Industry, Science and Resources, The Chance to Change
28 2001, Commonwealth, Backing Australia's Ability, a whole of Government innovation action plan

    As a concerned response to the problems, it's pretty feeble, and indications are it's not going to get better, "toujours gay, archy, toujours gay."

    Putting it simply, who is to teach the teachers and what is needed to attract the best of those available to our universities and keep them there? But of course there is the remark attributed recently to the Education, Science and Training Minister that what's needed is to 'promote teaching excellence' and correct an over-emphasis on research. With the sort of over emphasis the Federal Government currently places on research, and an apparent profound lack of comprehension of the nexus between research excellence and higher education, accelerated strangulation might come as a relief.



Diversity, Accessibility, Quality and Sustainability Gives the Acronym DAQS a Nice Ring -- Much Else? (April 21, 2003)

    According to the rumours flying around higher education circles, as exemplified by Aban Contractor's report in Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald, probably not much else.

    DAQS would seem to be Education, Science and Traning Minister Bredan Nelson's equivalent to CSIRO's Chief Executive, Geoff Garrett's BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) both are looking increasingly barren. In Dr. Nelson's case DAQS refers to his promises with regard to his higher education reform "product", cobbled together at an estimated $0.5 million cost to taxpayers. Unfortunately there is every indication that the shoe will pinch a foot already badly deformed. The $1.5 billion package which, as proposed, was to deliver a sumptuous $100 million for the 2003/04 financial year, may have $300 million knocked off it by the Budget Expenditure Review Committee. And much of the remaining allocation could be pushed back some three years. There is also no current indication from where the $1.2 billion remaining is to be carved.

    The plea for an immediate $1 billion for the sector, voiced by the Group of  Eight well over a year ago to help "stop the rot - the overflowing classrooms, the culling of journals that helped with cutting-edge research, the brain drain" as well as the decaying of the research infrastructure, continues to be shrugged off as an academic pipedream.

    All of this will have little affect on the next federal election if past experiences are indicative but will continue the decline of Australia's place as a leading small nation. It's like a home infested with white ants, little overt damage is seen until the structure collapses.



A Small Follow-up on the Go8 Meets the AAU (April 20, 2003)

    Early in March representatives from the Group of Eight met with the President of the Association of American Universities (AAU) President, Nils Hasselmo. In response to a request  for additional information the Go8 said that the 63 North American research universities making up the AAU, "account for approximately 55 percent of the total research and development performed by all American colleges and universities each year, and they receive 58 percent of federal funds for academic R&D. It is not surprising that the coincidence of interests between the Go8 and AAU should lead to a willingness to forge a closer relationship [and] a number of opportunities for collaboration were discussed including the expansion of academic/research links and student exchange programs."

    Finally, and not unexpectedly, a meeting scheduled for late March with members of the UK's Russell Group of research universities in Hong Kong was cancelled because of the Iraqi war and the SARS outbreak. It may be rescheduled later in the year.

    No mention was made of any possible future involvement of our Education, Science and Training minister, Brendan Nelson.



Collateral Damage? Well, What's an Inanimate Object  Here or There. (April 19, 2003)

    Science (April 18) opens its account straightforwardly, "Not since the Spanish conquistadors ravaged theCredit (Science): MARIO TAMA/GETTY IMAGES Aztec and Inca cultures has so much been lost so quickly. Scholars are calling last week's looting of Baghdad's Iraq Museum, the chief repository for all archaeological research in the country since 1933, the most severe single blow to cultural heritage in modern history. 'This is like destroying all the museums on the Washington Mall all at once,' says Eleanor Robson, an Assyriologist at the University of Oxford, U.K. 'It's an unparalleled collection of the world's earliest and greatest civilizations.'

    "...archaeologists met in January with Joseph Collins, U.S. Department of Defense deputy assistant secretary for stability operations, to discuss the importance of protecting sites from bombing and from looting... Senior military officials called for the site to be secured, but that directive was apparently ignored.

    "Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, speaking 13 April, sharply dismissed critics who blame the U.S. military. 'We didn't allow it. It happened,' he said, adding that looting takes place anywhere there is disorder."

    To quote Mandy Rice-Davies, "Well, he would [say that] wouldn't he."



"Education Minister Brendan Nelson has secured new funds to help universities 'promote teaching excellence' and correct what he believes has been an over-emphasis on research." (April 14, 2003)

    The quote comes from today's Australian article by Steve Lewis and Dennis Shanahan titled "$200m bid to improve uni teachers". If in fact the paragraph correctly reflects Dr. Nelson's attitude, and despite the Australian abridging his ministry to Education, Science is also part of his portfolio, Australian universities as true institutions of learning are being subjected to the vandalising of their most treasured resources. While the rape is exemplified by their staffing declines in the enabling sciences, the neglect of the humanities is equally dramatic.  Considering the fact that outside the universities there is almost no basic research being undertaken in Australia, the viewpoint attributed to Dr. Nelson is breathtaking if not downright awe-inspiring.

    The Australian's article also revisits previous information released by DEST. "Details of the package -- to cost between $1.2 and $1.5 billion -- will be finalised at tomorrow's special cabinet meeting focusing on the May 13 Budget. ...[but] less than $100 million of the university package will be available in 2003-04, the bulk of new funding not flowing through to the sector until 2005-06."

    That $100 million will be less than the amount eroded by inflation this year, i.e. the 2001-02 total government grant to universities was $4.5 billion (44% of the $10.2 billion total) and put simply $100 million divided by $4,500 million equals ~2.2%. It seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that as an advocate Dr. Nelson leaves something to be desired, being perhaps upsides with the depiction by Sir John Mortimer of the barrister, Morgenhall, in The Dock Brief. On the other hand as it turned out, it was only through Morganhall's dazzling ineptitude that his client avoided the death penalty. So perhaps there is yet hope for our nation's university system.



When Science Met the Office of Science and Technology Policy. (April 11, 2003)

    In Australia it's Science Meets Parliament but last week in the US scientists came to Washington to meet with the OSTP and lobby for increased federal governmental research funds. Senior policy analyst Michael Holland, representing the White House's OSTP gave them a succinct piece of advice with regard to how much of the budget goes to health-related and mandatory spending programs, how much to defence and how little is left for everything else -- including research, "It helps to think of the government as an insurance company with an army."

    Paraphrasing Bill Gates, "how you define helps?"



It's That Vision Thing Again. (April 11, 2003)

    In February Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair unveiled a plan to curb carbon dioxide output by 60% over the next 50 years by boosting renewable-energy supplies. It called for abandoning nuclear energy as well. But he's now copped one in a House of Commons report which concludes that both public funding and current incentives for private investment are "wholly insufficient" to meet the goal. The report also points out that fossil fuels would be needed to fill the gap created by closing nuclear power stations. Science reports that government spokespersons were unavailable for comment. Well, there is a war on you know.



India's Approach to Fostering Research and Development Seen Through an Indian's Eyes. (April 10, 2003)

    Ashok Parthasarathi is at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, India. In the two page Nature "Commentary" of March 6th he gives a good report card overall to the Indian Government as "A champion of new technologies".

    A few excerpts:

Domestically developed technologies must be internationally competitive. But India has a barrier: the legendary reluctance of large-scale Indian industry -- both public and private -- to invest in and undertake R&D and innovation on a substantial and sustained basis. Government initiatives in the development of human resources, fiscal and financial policies, the building of institutional capacities and direct funding of R&D institutions and industry, provide hope that such objectives will be increasingly achieved over the next decade.


Industry's reluctance to invest adequately in R&D is a problem facing many 'intermediate' countries, including China. But developments in the 1990s seemed to suggest that India was pulling ahead.


This improvement is a result of an investment initiative begun by the government four years ago. It selected strategic areas of indigenous technologies for development, including biotechnology, vaccines against prevalent communicable diseases, microelectronics, advanced batteries and technologies in atomic energy, space and defence.


Over the same four years, the government provided incentives for industry to invest in R&D. These included tax concessions; excise duty waivers on products covered by patents taken out in North America, the European Union or Japan; and an incentive scheme for 'R&D companies' undertaking in-house R&D and licensing the resultant technology.


There are, [however], areas in which India has failed to develop and commercialize high technology, notably microelectronics, instrumentation and materials technology. The main challenge for the future is to achieve successes of the kind discussed above, [solar energy, telecommunications, supercomputers, computer software] on a much larger scale and in many more sectors. Without a doubt, the champion technologies already developed and commercialized must be maintained at such levels and kept internationally competitive.

TFW has commented on several previous occasions on the Indian Government's commitment to expand India's total R&D spending from 1.1% of gross national product to 2% by 2007.



Australia's 15 Major National Research Facilities 20 Months On. (April 9, 2003)

    In August 2001 the then Minister for Industry, Science and Resources, Nick Minchin announced the allocation of $155 million for fifteen programs under the Commonwealth Government's Major National Research Facilities (MNRF).

    Four months ago the Australian Academy of Science brought together for a workshop in Canberra the MNRF directors or their representatives to meet with members of the Academy's steering group on research infrastructure. Some of the problems encountered by the MNRFs were the management challenges they face, including changes in government funding guidelines and overly complex partnership arrangements.
    They also singled out for comment that the main source of the difficulties encountered in the last bidding round was the ad hoc nature of the Major National Research Facilities Program, which might be taken as code for "government departmental slipshod preparation." To redress the problems they suggested "the onus is now on the research community to work with government officials to build a shared understanding of the impediments and opportunities associated with building and maintaining major facilities in Australia." What, if any, progress had been made to implement a rapprochement
with DEST hasn't been disclosed. However, the Academy intends to hold more workshops "in order for participants to identify ways in which the major facilities can cooperate, and how the image and profile of the facilities can be improved so that they can become a key part of Australia's research infrastructure."
    It would appear that it's not only the wheels of the Gods which "grind exceeding slow".



The U.S. President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) Talk Policy. (April 8, 2003)

    Last year the 24 member council was asked by US President George W. Bush to assess the U.S. investment in research and development. This group is not dissimilar in size to the 20 person Reference1, 2 group the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson has designated for "Mapping Australia's Science and Innovation System." but whereas Dr. Nelson's reference group exists only to fill an advisory role to the DEST functionaries who will formulate the report which, "While it will lay the groundwork for future policy development, ...will not include consideration of policy options." In addition to obtain an "objective and independent" evaluation PCAST employed the services of the Rand Science and Technology Policy Institute3, 4 to assist it in drawing up its report, partially comparable to the U.K.'s Office of Science and Technology using JM Consulting in assessing university science infrastructure. DEST has eschewed such an approach.

    In the case of PCAST's report it makes specific recommendations. Whether or not the Bush administration in the currant circumstances chooses to take any notice is of course open to question. In passing it's of interest to point out that for the 2003 financial year the United States federal government has allocated $US100 billion. That does not include contributions by the fifty state governments. On a per capita basis the Australian government would ante up A$11.7 billion for R&D or A$7.7 billion on the basis of per capita GDP.


PCAST's three overall recommendations are:

  • ...improve funding levels for physical sciences and engineering. Continuation of present patterns will lead to an inability to sustain our nationís technical and scientific leadership. ...beginning with the FY04 budget and carrying through the next four fiscal years, funding for physical sciences and engineering across the relevant agencies be adjusted upward to bring them collectively to parity with the life sciences.

  • A major program of fellowships should be established to attract and support the advanced graduate studies of U.S. citizens in fields of science and engineering that support critical national needs.

  • [The Office of Science and Technology Policy] in cooperation with the appropriate agencies and organizations, should assess and analyze the adequacy of federal R&D investments in light of national interests, international competition, and human resource needs.

It goes on to make six critical observations:

  • R&D investment from the federal government has fallen to its lowest point as a percentage of the GDP in over 25 years.

  • While strong support of R&D by private industry is to be commended, this source of funding cycles with business patterns and focuses on short term results by emphasizing development of existing technology rather than establishing new frontiers.

  • Federal funding for physical sciences and engineering benefits all scientific disciplines.

  • Federal support for science and engineering students enhances economic growth.

  • Complex [governmental] management structure prevents a focused R&D vision.

  • International competition is stronger than ever: Foreign governments are investing strongly in R&D, and overseas R&D capability is growing.

PCAST also observes that "a major revolution is occurring in the biosciences requiring a major build-up of infrastructure and other resources. [While at the same time] facilities and infrastructure in general for the physical sciences are becoming less than adequate for the needs of today's research."



President of the American Association of Universities (AAU) Drops in on the Group of Eight for a Chat. (April 7, 2003)

    The AAU consists of 35 public and 26 private US universities plus Canada's McGill University and theAAU President Nils Hasselmo University of Toronto. It describes itself as "An association of 62 leading research universities in the United States and Canada." Early last month the President of the AAU, Nils Hasselmo, who retired from the presidency of the University of Minnesota in 1997, visited Canberra and exchanged views with a number of the Group of Eight vice-chancellors or their representatives about such matters as how research universities can maintain top quality teaching, scholarship and research. Nothing public has been released with regard to the substance of the discussions, however, TFW understands that while in Canberra neither the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson nor the Minister for Science, Peter McGauran took the opportunity to meet with Professor Hasselmo.

    The Executive Director of the Group of Eight, Virginia Walsh says that there will be a follow-up meeting between the Go8 and the AAU later this year.