News & Views - August 2002 


An Addendum to Professor Peter Karmel's "Dialogue" with TFW. (August 29, 2002)
    Nearly two months ago (July 2nd) TFW  published A "Dialogue" with Peter Karmel Former Vice-Chancellor, ANU in which Professor Karmel set out his views on the sort of reforms that were required to bring Australia's higher education system up to the standard necessary to propel it into the 21st century as one of the world's high achievers. On August 9th he sent an "addendum" to his original submission to the Department of Education, Science and Training "Higher Education at the Crossroads" review. Below are some excerpts from Professor Karmel's "addendum":

The question of course duplication is bedevilled by terminological confusion. The Issues Paper refers to duplication and rationalisation in terms of fields of study, courses and units. The consequences of duplication differ according to which of these is referred to. Thus, that the field of "Business & Management" is offered at 37universities is neither surprising nor undesirable given the huge demand for business degrees. One would expect "popular" degrees to be offered in most institutions e.g. business, education, nursing.

The convergence of the past 15 years, which in my view is undesirable, relates not so much to course offerings, but rather to the aspirations of all universities to offer advanced studies and research training and to undertake research across all the disciplines in which they are involved. This is the main way in which the newer institutions have mimicked the older ones. Research and research training has been seen as prestigious and all universities have sought to increase research enrolments and research funding; and current funding arrangements have promoted this.

In my response to Crossroads (submission 14), I suggested that institutional research funding should be on a disciplinary basis (not an institutional one) and should take account of the volume and quality of the outputs of the relevant research groups (pp 13-14) and that the award of research training places should be made competitively to students not to institutions (p 12-13). These changes would achieve a significant rationalisation of advanced teaching, research training and research, discipline by discipline, among the universities.

[While] I am not in favour of a reinstatement of the [course] approval arrangements of earlier years... [n]evertheless, if the Commonwealth did decide to move towards a rationalisation of course offerings, it is very important that it do so through an independent, objective and well-informed statutory body of the kind suggested in my earlier response (pp 18-19). To give these responsibilities to a government department would be a grave mistake and would seriously endanger the quality of Australia’s system of higher education

Australian Academy of Science Appoints First Science Policy Advisor. (August 28, 2002)
The Australian Academy of Science (AAS) recently appointed Dr. Mark Matthews as its Science Policy Advisor. Dr. Matthews has a background in UK science and technology policy research and consulting and in the past has co-authored several science and innovation related policy reports for Australian government departments(1,2,3,4).
    Ten days ago the AAS made available Dr. Matthews' discussion paper, Providing the Machinery of Science with a request for comment by interested parties. It is the Academy's aim to define "a whole-of-government strategy for securing access to critical research facilities."

Flying High. You Never Know Where a Degree in an Enabling Science May Lead. (August 27, 2002)
[Peter Hall, ANU, contributes the following item]

What do the CEO's of British Airways and Singapore Airlines have in common, apart from leading rival companies in one of the world's most challenging industries? Both have doctorates in the physical sciences -- Rod Eddington, Chief Executive, British Airways (DPhil in physics, Oxford) and C.K. Cheong, Chief Executive Officer, Singapore Airlines (PhD in mathematics from the ANU). Eddington is Australian born (a Rhodes scholar from WA), and Cheong was born  in Malaysia.
    Rod Eddington's work was in nuclear physics, Cheong's in probability theory. He left the ANU in 1968 to return home.
    Cheong came to Australia as a Colombo Plan scholar, and graduated in 1964 from the University of Adelaide with an honours degree in mathematics. He then moved to the ANU, receiving his MSc and PhD in 1966 and 1968 respectively. He taught at the University of Malaya until, in 1974, he saw a newspaper advertisement for a position in Singapore Airlines.
    How much the landscape in Australia has changed since those days. Cheong's family would have to pay full fees at an Australian university today, at least for his undergraduate work. The spirit of inquiry which no doubt motivated both Eddington's and Cheong's graduate work is not vigorously encouraged now; the government repeatedly reminds us that higher salaries for graduates should motivate Australian students to pay ever increasing university fees.

Bill Clinton on Science. Richard Branson on... Science? (August 25, 2002)
     I wouldn't say I know nothing about [science] because my last three years in the White House I began to study it a little... I wish now that I knew more about the sciences than I do. [Former U.S. President Bill Clinton]

This year alone we have witnessed two scientific breakthroughs. First, a team of scientists claims to have teleported a particle of matter from one part of a laboratory to another, raising the possibility of creating a Star Trek-style transport or teleport device. And recently another team of scientists has raised the real possibility of defying gravity. [British Entrepreneur Richard Branson]

"The Prime Minister's Science Declaration" (August 23, 2002) 
    When the Prime Minister, John Howard, announced Professor Frank Fenner as winner of the Prime Minister's Science Prize he stated that his eyes had been opened "to the enduring relevance of science in our community." And the Minister for Science, Peter McGauran in today's media release goes on to tell us that the Prime Minister "said the Federal Government had placed a very high priority on scientific achievement in Australia, by Australians."
    Mr. Howard went on to tell his audience, "What I hope we have endeavoured to do in cooperation with the scientific community of Australia is to place the role of science at the centre of our existence, to accord it the respect and to accord its practitioners, its researchers, its brilliant men and women the respect that a modern and sophisticated nation should give to those people who contribute so much to who we are, to find what we stand for, and also making enormous contributions to the quality of lives that we enjoy." Furthermore, "I have to say that when I became Prime Minister, of all the bodies that I came into contact with, none has made (sic) a greater influence, or had a greater influence on me than the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council."

I'm reminded of a comment by a high steel worker while he was working on New York's Empire State Building, his foreman having just praised him to the heavens for his outstanding performance. "Just put it in the envelope."

Sir Gustav Nossal has a Cautionary Gentle Word Regarding Science and Higher Education. (August 22, 2002)
    Being National Science Week, the ABC's George Negus had the former Australian of the Year, former Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Sir Gustav Nossal in for a short chat on the August 21st New Dimensions  show. He told George, "The [current] stem cell debate highlights one thing and that is that in the biomedical arena, and in fact, in the life sciences generally, we are reasonably OK for funding... if you take an applied science, like medical science -- clearly an applied science which is going for a purpose -- all of that is underpinned by a corpus of knowledge about the nature of matter, the nature of chemical bonds, how cells are constructed -- and by the way, there's a surprising amount of mathematics in all of that...What is puzzling and disturbing... is that in the enabling sciences, in physics, chemistry and mathematics, we are not doing so well... we consider these, in a sense, the basic building blocks of science, the old, traditional building blocks. And this is where the universities are in a bit of trouble...  I believe there will always be a place for science for science's sake, a place for that searcher after the truth, that person fascinated by the actual problem. It may often be someone else that then takes the problem to the next stage and does the applied research and the development work."
    They then move on to education and Sir Gustav by implication seemed content as to science education in the secondary schools. However, with regard to higher education he seemed a bit perturbed. "[A]t the government level, I do have a worry about higher education. I have a great admiration, by the way, for Brendan Nelson, whom I've known for years, since he was president of the AMA, but I do actually and truly believe that the Government has got to pony up a little bit more for tertiary education. When you look at the figures on a per full-time equivalent student basis, they've gone down markedly. And when you look at the figures as a per cent of GDP for higher education, vis-a-vis the other OECD countries, we're lacking...  the starting point has to be what the vice chancellors themselves have concluded -- reform the system, but reform it with some extra boosting from the Government coffers."
    He spoke softly, whether or not Dr. Nelson and Mr. McGauran are persuaded remains to be seen.

Professor Frank Fenner Awarded the Prime Minister's Science Prize. (August 22, 2002)
He won the Japan Prize in 1988 for preventive medicine and was awarded the Royal Society's Copley Medal in 1996 for his research on human and animal poxviruses and the Prime Minister, John Howard this week awarded him Australia's top scientific award, the $300,000 Prime Minister's Prize for Science.
    During his directorship of ANU's John Curtin School of Medical Research, the now 87 year old brilliant and gentle intellectual gathered around him a remarkable group of medical researchers many of whom are included in the John Curtin's Honour Roll, including Australia Prize Winner, Graham Laver and Nobel Laureate, Peter Doherty.
   A highly readable and informative interview of Professor Fenner by Dr. Max Blythe, done some 14 years ago, has been made available online by the Australian Academy of Science.

Maths' Tribulations Get 800 Words in the Age. (August 19, 2002)
    Last Wednesday the education section of the Melbourne Age devoted 827 words to the predicament of mathematics in Australia's higher education system. Rebecca Scott reported on "Why Australia can't count on its math brains." The Age didn't consider it worthy of its front page but it did make page 16. Scott writes, "the executive officer of the Australian Mathematical Society, Jan Thomas, reports that since 1995, dozens of senior mathematical and statistical researchers have left and not been replaced." The Head of Mathematics and Statistics at Melbourne University, Hyam Rubinstein, pointed out that 10 of the 16 professors of mathematics at Victoria's three leading universities have left. Only three will be replaced. Professor Rubinstein summed up the situation, "[M]ore of the potential leaders of our profession are emigrating. I would estimate there are about 30 such people remaining." He went on the say he expected a further 12 would leave over the next two years. And just in case the Age's readers didn't get the message, Scott reports that Rubinstein believes, "Unless something serious is done to make the mathematical sciences a national priority, I believe we do not have a future."
    And of course there is the trickle down syndrome. The number of inadequately trained secondary school teachers required to teach maths continues to increase. According to Scott, Peter Hall, Director of the Centre for Mathematics and its Applications at ANU told her. "I was told recently by a university deputy vice-chancellor that enrolments in the arts are standing up quite well, partly because students coming out of our secondary schools simply don't have the prerequisites to do maths and statistics at university level any more."
    Mind you it's been rumored that Professor Hall was overheard recently muttering to colleagues, "Things could be worse we might be physicists."
    No, Rebecca Scott's story didn't make page 1, but it damn well should have.

Genome@home: Would You Like to Take Part in Genomic Research? (August 18, 2002)
    The stated goal of the Stanford University project is "understanding genomes." More specifically it is "to design new genes that can form working proteins in the cell. Genome@home uses a computer algorithm (SPA), based on the physical and biochemical rules by which genes and proteins behave, to design new proteins (and hence new genes) that have not been found in nature. By comparing these "virtual genomes" to those found in nature, we can gain a much better understanding of how natural genomes have evolved and how natural genes and proteins work."
    To learn more about the project and to download the software that will allow you and your PC to take part in it click on the logo above.

Science Minister Announces Research Priorities Selection Committee. (August 16, 2002)
    The Federal Minister for Science, Peter McGauran, yesterday announced the 12 member committee to advise the Federal Government on the selection of national research priorities. According to the minister, "The key role of this committee will be to assess the written submissions for national research priorities and prepare a shortlist of these priorities for the Government's consideration." The extraordinary makeup of the committee and its omissions speak volumes:

Dr Jim Peacock (Chair): Chief of CSIRO Plant Industry and President of the Australian Academy of Science -- molecular genetics.

Dr Robin Batterham: Australian Chief Scientist and Chief Technologist, Rio Tinto -- engineering, technology.

Mr John Boshier: Chief Executive of The Institution of Engineers, Australia -- electrical engineering.

Ms Sharon Brown: Strategic Business Manager at Alphawest, WA -- information technology.

Professor Suzanne Cory: Director of The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research -- molecular genetics.

Professor Chris Fell: President, Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) -- engineering processes, environmental science and technology. 

Professor Malcolm Gillies: Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) Australian National University -- humanities and social sciences.

Professor Terry Hughes: Director Centre for Coral Reef Biodiversity, James Cook University -- ecology, sustainable management, climate change.

Professor Leon Mann: Pratt Family Chair of Leadership and Decision Making, Melbourne Business School, The University of Melbourne -- longitudinal studies of leadership.

Professor Sue O'Reilly: personal chair in Geology, Director of the ARC National Key Centre for Geochemical Evolution and Metallogeny of Continents (GEMOC) -- earth sciences. 

Mr Helmut Pekarek: chairman of the Board and Managing Director, Siemens Ltd -- electrical engineering,, information technology. 

Associate Professor Michelle Simmons: Director, Atomic Fabrication Facility University of New South Wales, Sydney -- quantum electronics.

Mr. McGauran's media release is available in full online.
                                             Anyone for mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy?   Just a passing thought.


French R&D Budget Could be in For a Cut. (August 11 and 17, 2002)
 Science Minister Claudie HaigneréNow that the French elections are past the French media have reported that the new Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, is considering a 7.6% cut to French government support for research and development, currently at $A16.8 billion per annum. The slowing French economy together with a promised tax cut seem to be the motivation. Minister of Research and New Technologies Claudie Haigneré appears to be bucking the party line pointing out that an election promise was made to boost overall spending on research and development to 3% of GDP by 2010. Currently it's 2.17% of GDP (Australia's is 1.38%). Budget proposals are due for debate by the French cabinet on September 18th and will then be sent to parliament for final approval.
    The science weekly Nature points out in its August 15th lead editorial, Claudie Haigneré "has done the calculations. To reach 3% by 2010, and taking the most optimistic scenario, whereby private-sector spending on research would increase three times faster than the public spend, the former would need to climb by 8.6% every year until the end of the decade, and public spending by 4.2% annually. The government, with the industry ministry in the driving seat, hopes to encourage such incredible growth in research spending, in particular in the life sciences, by subsidies and tax breaks. But by failing to boost the public sector, the government risks a dangerous imbalance."
    Australian researchers might feel they'd like to have their French counterparts' financial tribulations, and in this context it's interesting to note Nature's comment, "almost all the key science indicators show France lagging behind most of its European neighbours." Where it might place Australia almost defies imagination. But not to worry, as far as any encouragement for increasing support for Australian research and development, neither Mr. McGauran nor Dr. Nelson shows any overt inclination to emulate Claudie Haigneré. Which leads to the question, are their current reviews of research priorities and higher education respectively, illustrations of deck chair maneuvering on a foundering hulk?

Swiss Scientists Fear Their Country is Losing Its Grip on 1st Place. (August 9, 2002)
    Over half of the 4000 Swiss scientists questioned  by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), the main Swiss research funding agency, fear that the country is losing ground in international competition. The 4000 constitute 50% of the nation's scientific cohort. The analysis was published in a report at the end of last month by the SNSF. The August 8th issue of  Nature reported, "Markus von Ins of the Centre for Science and Technology Studies in Bern says Swiss dominance in the National Science Indicator (NSI) rankings, which measure the average scientific impact of papers produced by a particular country, is waning [while]  that of the United States, in second place, has increased by 6%, with Britain and the Netherlands also closing the gap."
    The government's short-term economic strategy is partly to blame according to the nation's scientists. For example funding for Swiss basic research rose only 15% between 1991 - 2001 (215 to 248 million Swiss francs).  On the other hand, applied research tripled to 321 million Swiss francs.
The SNSF, which spends most of its money on basic research, has called for a billion Swiss francs in extra funding between 2003 and 2007 and the Swiss Science and Technology Council which advises the government on science-policy, promises support.
    In this context a table released in January by the US National Science Board  reflects the NSI rankings and is relevant to Australia's position.  As is shown in the table below, between 1990 and 1999 the relative prominence of cited scientific literature for Switzerland (1) declined almost 8% while the US (2) declined marginally ~1% i.e. a net gain of 7%.  Australia has dropped from a three way tie for 9th position to 14th with a decline of 7.5%. Perhaps the Department of Education, Science and Technology in formulating policy based on the reviews that are currently being conducted will note the sort of concern expressed in Switzerland.
    It must be emphasised that countries are ranked according to the world scientific citations adjusted to the countries share of scientific publications (see "Notes" in the table). It is seen as an indicator of the relative importance of a nation's scientific papers.


The Blair Government Releases Its Strategy For Science, Engineering and Technology. (August 3, 2002)
    On July 23rd the British Government published its 120 page paper Investing in Innovation: A strategy for science, engineering and technology. It sets out how the additional £1¼ billion investment in science and technology from the 2002 Spending Review will be used to boost the UK's economic performance and raise levels of innovation and growth. Overall the Office of Science and Technology's budget will increase by 10% per year from A$5.75 billion to A$8.5 billion per annum by the 2006-06 financial year. Robert May, President of the Royal Society and immediate past Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government said simply, "These increases in funding are a clear signal that the government is prepared to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to science." How the funds will be apportioned between the UK's six research granting agencies and central government laboratories will be finalised in October.
    The main points emphasised by the "strategy" are its intention to:

move the research base onto a more sustainable long term footing, by providing a dedicated capital funding stream, increasing to £500 million a year by 2004-05 for universities' science research infrastructure, and providing an additional £120 million a year from 2005-06 to the Research Councils to increase their contribution to the costs of research projects undertaken in universities;

increase resources for science and engineering research programmes by £400 million a year by 2005-06
(compared to 2002-03), an average rise of 5 per cent per year in real terms;

increase resources for knowledge transfer from the science base (including funding from OST and DfES), with £90m per year by 2005-06 for a newly enlarged Higher Education Innovation Fund. This will be complemented by rising resources (an extra £50m by 2005-06) for DTI's programmes to stimulate business innovation; and

provide for an additional investment by the Office of Science and Technology of £100 million a year by 2005-06 (in addition to significant extra resources for DfES) to ensure a strong future supply of skilled scientists and engineers by taking forward the recommendations of Sir Gareth Roberts' Review.

A 25 page appendix included in the paper gives a detailed response to the report brought down by Sir Gareth Roberts  Set for Success: The supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills which detailed the shortages of human resources for SET but gave no detailed costing for its recommendations.
    The UK Government's response to the 140 page report resulting from the review commissioned by the Office of Science and Technology (JM Consulting (2002),Study of science research infrastructure) was much shorter.  It finds the £3.5 billion estimated requirement for upgrading a large pill to swallow. However, the report not only was commissioned by the UK Government it has been made public and the fact that university infrastructure is in urgent need of renovation is not in dispute.

The poor state of infrastructure in UK universities featured in Lord Dearing's report on higher education in 1997 and, more recently in Sir Gareth Roberts' report on the supply of scientists and engineers (see chapter 4).There have been estimates of the extent of the investment needed to bring the research capital stock in UK universities up to the required level to compete internationally. One, in the run-up to the 2002 Spending Review, estimated a required spend of £3.5 billion on infrastructure (including equipment). Such estimates depend on the assumptions made. And, of course, the backlog cannot always be distinguished from forward looking investment needs and priorities. Nevertheless, there is a clear need for significant investment, particularly given how much of the estate comprises buildings erected in the 1960s,which are now reaching the end of their useful lives.

Nothing comparable to the "science research infrastructure" review has been undertaken in Australia. Perhaps the 20 person reference group that Dr. Nelson has co-opted to advise on the "Higher Education at the Crossroads" review will read the three reports hyperlinked above in addition to the issues papers written by the DEST staff and the several hundred submissions that the review has engendered. For example, the serious attempt by the consultants to determine the upgrading required for UK research infrastructure is worth close examination.

Royal Medals for 2002 Awarded to Susanne Cory, Raymond Freeman and Sir Richard Peto. (August 3, 2002)
    The Royal Society awards three Royal medals annually, two for outstanding contributions to the advancement of "Natural Knowledge" (one each to the life and physical sciences) and the third for distinguished contributions to applied science.
   Professor Suzanne Cory, Director of The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, has been recognized for her work on the molecular basis of cancer, particularly her use of transgenic mice to establish the role of specific oncogenes in lymphoma and leukemia.
    Raymond Freeman, currently John Humphrey Plummer Professor of Magnetic Resonance at Cambridge University receives his medal for work on nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) a critical tool for molecular analysis, with applications in chemistry and material science as well as in biomedicine.
    Sir Richard Peto's award recognizes his work on the epidemiology of smoking and chronic disease.

    Professor Cory is the sixth Australian to have been award the Royal Medal in its 177 year history. The most recent previous Australian winner (1995) is  Professor Donald Metcalf, a colleague and mentor of Professor Cory's at WEHI.

Nobel Centennial Symposium "Beyond the Gene" Online. (August 2, 2002)
    Last year the Nobel Prizes were awarded for the 100th time. The Nobel Foundation has published a website commemorating the occasion which features all 21 speakers at December's three day centennial symposium on how genomics is revolutionizing fields from developmental biology to medicine to evolution. The streaming videos of the lectures provide scientists, students and perhaps even ministers and shadow ministers of science as well as an appropriate Cabinet minister with a glimpse at the future of these fields as discussed by some of the world's most eminent biomedical scientists. You can see and hear Bertil Daneholt welcoming the participants, James Watson giving the introductory off the cuff lecture and former head of the NIH, Harold Varmus', concluding lecture on biomedicine in the 21st century, or go directly to the symposium website for the table of contents and order the lectures a la carte.