News & Views - February 2003


The Elephant's Neighbour Continues on Its Way (February 28, 2003)
Pierre Trudeau was the colourful and charismatic Canadian Prime Minister from 1968 - 1984. Speaking to the US National Press Club in Washington in 1969 he commented, "Living next to you is like sleeping with an elephant; no matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt." Even so, current Canadian policies have shown that it can and does go its own way. It has been very canny in its post September 11 course of action and one result has been that in contrast to the budget deficits of many of its OECD cohort, it has a marked surplus in its treasury.
    Among the beneficiaries of the largess will be Canadian science and higher education. Included is a new Canada Graduate Scholarship program, to seduce elite students into becoming science Ph.D.s. 2000 of the fellowships will offer stipends of A$39,000 a year to Ph.D.s while an additional 2000 masters candidates will receive A$19,500 annually. This will effectively double the number of federally funded fellowships.  Governmental research spending, currently about A$8.4 billion, will be boosted by 20% to just over A$10 billion over the next five years.

    Not that all is milk and honey. The precarious financial condition of a number Canadian universities has been the subject of considerable discussion in Canada. Nevertheless Science reports, "The government's investment will have a ripple effect beyond Canada's borders, predicts David Strangway, president of the Canada Foundation for Innovation: 'You put all of these things together, and it gives Canadian universities a real capacity to compete on the international front.'"



The Cabinet, the Students, a Vice-Chancellor and the Minister in the Middle. (February 25, 2003)
    Over the past 15 months or so Brendan Nelson as Minister for Education, Science and Training has received Brownie points from university administrators largely for being significantly less abrasive than his two immediate predecessors. Having been away from the media's intense gaze over the Christmas/New Year's break he has now returned and is getting a fair share of attention.

    Dr. Nelson's department has now released further information regarding what the May budget may allocate. Allocate because much of the $1.5 billion alluded to will be provided in forward estimates. The score sheet: $83 million for the coming financial year, then $274 million for 2004-5, $500 million for 2005-6 and $700 million for 2006-7. By that time it'll be someone else's problem. But how much of this money is repackaged funds from January 2001's Backing Australia's Ability or other higher educational programs hasn't been detailed. Some of the package's stipulations: industrial reform, partial fee deregulation and the opening up of the system to the private sector, though just what these mean and how they are factored into the costing of the package isn't spelled out.

    It ought also to be remembered that university advocates have called for an immediate $1 billion increase in funds and that eventually funding should be set at 2% of GDP.


Then last Thursday Dr. Nelson had a scheduled meeting with representatives from the National Union of Students (the body represents 600,000 university students) from which he withdrew because of a poster which they had distributed to some 86 university campuses. The minister felt the poster promoted illegal activity, was irresponsible, and failed to point out that the Austudy subsidy for students who were living away from home was $310 a fortnight. National Union of Students president Daniel Kyriacou responded that student poverty had reached crisis levels and Government payments to students were 20 - 40% below the poverty line. He pointed out the poster was meant to be facetious and while, "This is a drastic poster, is about a drastic issue. It was meant to create a stir. Student welfare issues have been ignored for too long."

    Unfortunately Dr Nelson's riposte would appear ill advised if not irresponsible.


Finally, there's the University of Melbourne's Vice-Chancellor, Alan Gilbert, who has sent a right serve to Dr. Nelson's department. Annabel Crabb reported in today's Age, "Alan Gilbert, last night said he had retained the services of a leading Melbourne QC in an attempt to defy what he described as a 'bizarre' system of allocating research funding." Professor Gilbert believes the criteria for allocating funds through the Research Training Scheme (RTS) are not being followed and as a result  Melbourne University  is to receive $52.4 million in RTS funding this year -- $300,000 less than last year and $1.4 million less than the previous year while Sydney University and the Australian National University, which had lower RTS scores this year, were awarded increases of $2.3 million and $1.5 million respectively. Professor Gilbert regretted the need to seek legal representation but said, "we have exhausted all other mechanisms available to us."

    Representatives of the Group of Eight, of which Melbourne University is a member,  have scheduled a meeting in Canberra next week to discuss the Research Training Scheme.


Welcome back from holidays, Minister.


Basic Research and the ARC; the CEO's Appraisal. (February 23, 2003)

   A few days ago TFW asked the CEO of the Australian Research Council, Professor Vicki Sara,

What amount of the ARC's budget is allocated to basic research, how is that determined and what percentage of the money available for research support (for example excluding money used for ARC administration and running expenses) is allocated to basic research, what to strategic research and what to applied research?

Here is Professor Sara's reply in full.

ARC CEO, Prof. Vicki SaraCommonwealth funding to the ARC is in 2 separate funding appropriations -- the Administered Budget (program budget -- which in 2002/3 is $363 M) and the Departmental Budget (operating budget which in 2002/3 is $12.5M). I believe that the distinctions between the research categories you raise have become blurred as the time from discovery to commercialisation has shortened and the networks in the process have expanded. If you consider the ARC programs, the split between Discovery and Linkage is 57% and 43% respectively but whilst the objectives of the programs vary, it would be difficult to divide these into research categories. Discovery would have a stronger emphasis at the basic/blue sky end whereas Linkage may tend to be more strategic. Over the last few years there has been a shift in industry interest from needing solutions to immediate problems to becoming partners in breakthrough discoveries.

The question wasn't an idle one. For some time now the Commonwealth Government has pointed to the Australian Bureau of Statistics' assessment that the Government's contribution to R&D as a proportion of GDP (0.70%) is significantly greater than that in either the UK (0.54%) or Canada (0.59%) even though overall support for R&D is low by OECD standards (1.54% vs 2.21% weighted average, the OECD's official figure). In Australia almost all basic research, apart from NH&MRC funding for biomedical research, stems from the ARC. The foundations of a nation's strategic and applied research, development and innovation has its roots in fundamental research. The fact the Commonwealth Government has made it incumbent on the ARC to fund "linkage" programs has had a pronounced effect on its support for basic research, although as Professor Sara points out it is difficult to assess how much. Nevertheless it is not before time that our nation's support for fundamental research is determined and compared to that of our OECD cohort. Such an assessment, apart from anything else, may impinge upon what incentives the Government might make available to the private sector to increase its support for R&D.



Committee for the Review of Teaching and Teacher Education. (February 20, 2003)
    The Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) today released the 67 page interim report on "Attracting and Retaining Teachers of Science, Technology and Mathematics" forwarded to the Minister, Brendan Nelson, by the Chairman of the Committee for the Review of Teaching and Teacher Education, Professor Kwong Lee Dow. The release carries the usual proviso, "The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Education, Science and Training."

    Below are excerpts of some of those views:

 Increasingly, the strength of our democratic institutions and our international success as a nation will hinge on the realisation of the potential of all Australians.

    In that context, the quality of our schools and, most importantly, our teachers is fundamental.

    For Australia to achieve its full potential as a highly successful knowledge-based economy and society, it will be necessary to raise the scientific literacy of Australians, to strengthen the foundations for world class scientists and innovators to emerge, and to support the development of a new generation of excellent teachers of science, technology and mathematics. Especially valuable will be the role played by high calibre teachers of science, technology and mathematics...

    Australia is likely to face significant losses of teachers through retirement, particularly at the secondary level, due to an ageing of the teaching workforce. ...more needs to be done to ensure that science, technology and mathematics is prioritised in primary schools and that primary teachers are effectively prepared...

    Declining school student participation in science is a cause for concern. Study of physics, chemistry and biology at the Year 12 level declined over the last decade.

    Of concern in the medium to longer term is the trend for a lower proportion of teacher education students to undertake studies in physics, chemistry and mathematics. ...there is no room for complacency in planning for a future supply of teachers.

    An increased number of highly talented and motivated people need to be attracted to teaching, with this imperative particularly pronounced in the fields of science, mathematics and technology.

    Greater attention should be focused on nurturing an interest in teaching among the large proportion of undergraduate students enrolled in science, mathematics and technology subjects who tend towards careers in other fields.

    There is continuing discussion about the appropriate balance of deep subject knowledge and advanced pedagogical competence required by teachers at the different levels of schooling.

    Submissions saw greater HECS fees for prospective teachers of science, technology and mathematics as compared with teachers of other disciplines as disappointing.

    The provision of high quality and pertinent professional learning and development opportunities will serve to rejuvenate, motivate and retain good teachers

    The present widespread practice of offering employment to teachers on a short-term contract basis is counter to the aim of fostering longer term commitment to teaching... an essential part of the continuing professionalisation of teaching which must occur, avenues need be found to remunerate teachers who demonstrate ever more advanced competencies in the classroom.

    To meet the individual and social imperatives of tomorrow's Australia, the scientific, mathematical and technological knowledge, confidence and competence of our young people must be further enhanced.

    Recommendations around attracting and retaining teachers of science, technology and mathematics have been held over for the final report.

How much of this will windup in the "too-hard-too-costly basket" remains to be seen.



Federal Cabinet Approves Partial University Fee Deregulation, but Will Students (and the Nation) Get More for Their Money. (February 19, 2003)

Mr Holmes (Liberal Democrat MP for Chesterfield), asked whether universities expected money raised by top-up fees to be "clawed back by the government" or not.

    Professor Roderick Floud, president of Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors replied that governments did not give guarantees in that regard.

The Age: "[S]tudents will face higher fees for some courses, although the Government will cap rises."

    The Age goes on to suggest that the matter of introducing industrial relations changes including moving academics from tenured positions to individual employment contracts was viewed sympathetically by Cabinet as were scholarships to low-income students and loans for full-fee-paying students. On the other hand, "elements of the new package such as the merit-based scholarships are yet to be approved and will be finalised in the budget process." And as to the rumblings concerning the placement of academics on individual workplace contracts as a condition of receiving Government funding, "a move to such contracts would be strongly encouraged, Government sources said." No doubt about it, these changes should bring expats and top-class foreign academics pounding at the portcullis to get in.  

    If these are the directions of Dr. Nelson's reforms to improve the higher education sector after nearly a year of issues papers, over 700 submissions and reference group advice the phrase of the Latin poet Horace 2,000 years ago pretty well sums it up. The mountains went into labour but an absurd mouse was born.


Virginia Walsh, Executive Director Group of Eight, Speaks Out. (February 17, 2003)

    Rarely does the Group of Eight sandstone universities comment on media speculation but its Executive Director, Virginia Walsh, was outspoken today remarking, "The teaching and research conducted in Australian universities is integral to the nation's long term economic prosperity and must not be short-changed in this year's budget." She was responding to recent media speculation that there is little new money for the tertiary education sector in a higher education reform package expected to be considered by Federal cabinet this week.

    She followed up her plea, perhaps more in hope than belief, "Much has been made of the competing demands for funding in this year's budget. However, [we] remain confident that the Government understands the dividends that will flow to the Australian community from an added public investment in universities."

    Assessing Dr. Nelson's pronouncements since he took over the portfolios of Education, Science and Training we have seen no sign that he has either an increased empathy or sympathy for Australia's higher education system and raising it to standards comparable to the best of its OECD cohort. And perhaps the removal of Peter Shergold from the Department by transferring him to the Prime Minister's Department suggests a downgrading of DEST's importance.



US Congress, 5 Months Late, Finalises 2003 Science Budget, NIH and NSF Score. (February 17, 2003)
    Although the US Congress was to finalise the the Federal budget last October it got preoccupied with matters such as Congressional elections. The good news, despite matters of homeland security, and preemptive measures against perceived international threats, was that the National Science Foundation receives an 11% budgetary boost to US$5.3 billion a good start for the agency's goal of doubling by 2007. From the point of view of scientists the news is even better; its research account rises nearly 13%. On the other hand President Bush's 2004 request is some $900 million below what NSF needs to stay on its doubling track.
    The National Institutes of Health has a similar story. It gets a 16% rise of  US$3.8 billion to US$27.2 billion, reaching the goal of  a 5-year budget doubling. Note, however, about a third of the new funds--$1.2 billion--will go mainly for bioterrorism research. Again, the White House's 2004 request is for a 1.8% increase in the NIH's budget, while biomedical spokespersons claim 10% is necessary to maintain current programs. How the now Republican dominated Congress will respond to the Republican White House remains to be seen.  



CSIRO's in the Gun Again, So it Must be Time for Senate Estimates Committees to do Their Stuff Once More. (February 14, 2003)

   Dr. Geoff Garrett Aban Contractor, the Sydney Morning Herald's reporter on matters higher educational and scientific Senator Kim Carrlooked on while Labor's shadow minister for science, Senator Kim Carr (Vic), engaged in one of his favourite sports, making Dr. Geoff Garrett, CSIRO's Chief Executive, very uncomfortable. Mind you it's pretty much variations on certain themes which preoccupy Senator Carr. What is interesting to compare is Aban Contractor's summary with CSIRO's media release the next day.

    Contractor reports that staff morale is in crisis. "The head of the CSIRO, Geoff Garrett, conceded another 63 positions had been axed in the last seven months, and that number could jump to 150 by the end of the financial year." In addition Dr. Garrett replied to Senator Carr's questions agreeing that two new business development managers would be employed with $100,000 plus salary packages. Senator Carr also got hold of an internal memo which noted that less than half (47%) of the staff had faith in the organisation's administration. Of course it may be that CSIRO's age structure is increasing and we do tend to become increasingly cynical as we "mature". The leaked document also suggested that CSIRO had few friends in cabinet because in the days when Malcolm McIntosh was Chief Executive the organisation was difficult, "There is something of a perception that the CSIRO organisation is resistant to change and had done the minimum necessary in order to meet the 30 per cent external earnings target."

    As expected Richard Alston the Government's spokesman for science in the Senate denied any hostility. While he was concerned as to whether CSIRO was moving with the times, "that doesn't mean I'm hostile to the CSIRO, I probably would have been if they hadn't changed."

    Oh, as to CSIRO's media release:

CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Garrett has rejected claims that the Organisation is "rapidly shedding staff" and that morale is low.
    "In fact overall staffing levels have increased since mid 2000 and since June last year there has been a NET increase in staff numbers of 146 with a significant proportion of these working in research ," says Dr Garrett.
    "Over recent years CSIRO retrenchments have been around 120 to 150 a year, but these represent only a small proportion of total staff movements. We continue our recruitment program of staff in priority research areas".
    "This is a large dynamic organisation which must regularly review its scientific and support activities to ensure staffing needs are aligned with strategic research priorities, " says Dr Garrett.
    CSIRO is one of the world's largest and most diverse scientific research organisations with approximately six and a half thousand staff in 20 research divisions and corporate units located in every state and territory. It has a highly specialised workforce.
    In terms of morale the CSIRO has, for the second year running, commissioned a independent survey to evaluate staff opinions on a wide range of work related issues.
    Levels of staff commitment are more favourable than that reported from other research and development organisations, with 59% of CSIRO staff reporting high morale which is 5% higher than the international norm.

Mind you phrases like "a significant proportion of these [are] working in research" does leave room for conjecture as does the impression of individuals being handled a bit as though the furniture were being moved.

    Reading between the lines it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Government wants Dr. Garrett to do all in his power to make CSIRO as independent as possible of Government funding as quickly as possible. The question isn't the quality of the organisation's research or its development of it per se but how much or little government funding the organisation consumes.



UK Government's White Paper on Higher Education Under Discussion. (February 13, 2003)
    Published on January 22nd the UK Government's white paper on The Future of Higher Education is now being subjected to review by House of Commons education and skills select committee. As was to be expected, considerable discussion has centred around the white paper's inclusion of plans to allow universities to set their own fees of up to £3,000 (A$8,400) per annum for individual courses. In Wednesday's Guardian (12/02/03) Alice Tarleton reports,

Paul Holmes, Liberal Democrat MP for Chesterfield, said in Australia government funding of universities fell substantially when fees were introduced. He pointed out the same pattern was emerging here, with government funding falling in line with the introduction of tuition fees in 1997. Mr Holmes asked whether universities expected money raised by top-up fees to be "clawed back by the government"

The question was directed to Professor Roderick Floud, president of Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors. His circumlocution -- "We are aware that governments do not make promises of that kind and we know that each spending review is treated separately."

    While the UK higher education sector stands to gain £3.7 (A$10.2) billion Universities UK has pointed out that this figure falls somewhat short of the £9.94 (A$27.3) billion that it estimates is needed to maintain standards in the sector and cater for the increasing number of students. Professor Floud was blunt in saying that while the funding increase is "substantial", it's insufficient. "The money is only going towards the closing of the gap."  and Ms Tarleton reports, "The committee was told that if all universities charged the maximum top-up fee of £3,000 permitted in this parliament, the extra income generated would only be £1.8bn."

    The select committee's chairman, Government MP Barry Sheerman, described the situation as "quite depressing". The committee is to submit detailed comments on the white paper to the Department for Education and Skills toward the end of the month.



University Resourcing: Australia in an International Context. (February 11, 2003)
    At the beginning of October last year the Productivity Commission issued its 286 page draft report on university resourcing in Australia. That draft has now metamorphosed into the 432 page final version.

    TFW published two News and Views pieces when the draft was released, the first showing the relative proportion of GDP apportioned to "tertiary education" by different nations and the second a comparison of different values arrived at for Australia's statistic. Some of the figures have been altered but the overall assessment remains much the same. For example the Commission decided to compare 1995 with 1999 in its final graphs whereas in the draft it compared 1993 with 2000 which places Australia 4th (1999) in the group rather than equal 5th (2000). A sentence on the page following the revised charts (p.29) does state, "The Commission estimated that expenditure on tertiary education had been 1.4 per cent of GDP in 2000. The Department of Education, Science and Training estimated 1.5 per cent of GDP for the same year." In dollar terms the difference of 0.1% GDP amounts to about $750 million. On the other hand it's not clear how seriously any of the assessments can be taken when even the most cursory examination of the charts shows the US missing from the 1995 chart though present in all the rest while New Zealand, missing in 1999, is set at 2.5% of GDP in 2000. As Lady Bracknell might observe, it "Looks like carelessness."


Click for enlarged image


An interesting comparison provided by the Commission is its chart of government versus private funding for higher education. If nothing else, it should dispel the notion that higher education in the United States is strictly a private matter. In 1999 US Government expenditure was 46% of the total compared to 53% for Australia. Canada clocked in at 61%.

Note: The contributions by Australian students through the Government's Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) are included as a private source for Australia under OECD definitions. HECS provides the option of an income contingent loan to undergraduate students to cover tuition fees. Treating HECS as private expenditure may under-represent the expenditure on tertiary institutions by government.
Data source: OECD (2002a).


The Productivity Commission restricted its analysis. Comparisons of the tertiary education sector and government involvement are reported on a countrywide basis. Financial resourcing comparisons were made at the individual university level for a selection of 11 Australian universities and 26 universities from 9 other countries. No comparison is made of the planned changes in resourcing tertiary education in the 10 countries. So for example the recent white paper published in the UK on January 22nd or the initiatives being undertaken in Canada are uncommented upon.



Reference Group Named to Oversee  Mapping of Australia's Science and Innovation Activities. (February 11, 2003; updated Feb. 22)
    According to the media release from the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, "The Reference Group ...will play an important advisory role on the mapping's scope and methodology and will be responsible for guiding the development of the draft and final reports."


    "The mapping exercise will cover key elements of the innovation process including:

        -Australia's ability to generate ideas and undertake science and related research and development;

        -the commercial application and utilisation of research and the frameworks which support it; and

        -the development and retention of relevant skills for science, innovation and enterprise."


It should be recalled that in announcing the terms of reference "to map Australia's research and innovation activities ...a Taskforce [will be] established within my Department to coordinate the work and report by the end of this year."  The reference group will act only to advise the DEST departmental taskforce which "will not include consideration of policy options." How thorough and effective this exercise will be in steering Australia to make up the ground it has lost over nearly a decade, remains to be seen.

According to a media release from Dr. Nelson,

"The first meeting of the Reference Group, chaired by Dr Robin Batterham, took place on Monday 17 February, and was considered a success by all involved. The Group is expected to meet formally at least two more times with a view to a report being completed by the end of this year."


The 20 Member Mapping Taskforce Reference Group

Dr Robin Batterham,

Chief Scientist (CHAIR) (Vic)

Mr Peter Wills AC,

former Chairman, Australian Research Council (NSW)

Ms Catherine Livingstone,

Chair of CSIRO Board, Chair of Australian Business Foundation (NSW)

Ms Heather Ridout,

Deputy Chief Executive and Executive Director, Public Policy and Communications, Australian Industry Group (NSW)

Greg Maddock,

CEO of Energex (Qld)

Roger Allen,

Executive Director, Allen and Buckeridge (NSW)

Mr Tim Besley AC,

Chair, Australian Research Council, ex-officio Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council member (NSW)

Professor Nick Saunders,

Chair, National Health and Medical Research Council, ex-officio Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council member (VIC)

Mr Anthony Bates,

Chair Rural R&D Chairs Committee (NSW)

Dr John Zillman AO,

President, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences & Engineering and represents ATSE on PMSEIC (VIC)

Professor Wyatt R (Rory) Hume,

Vice-Chancellor UNSW (NSW)

Dr Jim Peacock AC,

President, Australian Academy of Science, ex-officio Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council member (ACT)

Professor Suzanne Cory AC,

Director, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, also CSIRO Board member (VIC)

Professor Stephen Hall,

Director, Australian Institute of Marine Science (QLD)

Professor Paul Haddad,

Deputy Head of Chemistry, University of Tasmania, ATSE Fellow (Tas)

Dr Sandra Eades,

Member of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Council (NT)

Professor Graham Farquhar,
Group Leader, Research School of Biological Sciences, ANU (ACT)
Dr Bruce Hobbs,
Chief Scientist of Western Australia
Dr Patricia Crook AO,
Managing Director of Dynek Pty Ltd and President of Business SA
Professor Beverley Ronalds,
currently Director, School of Oil and Gas Engineering, UWA



Basic Research - Always a Hard Sell. (February 10, 2003)

    The Following is quoted without comment from George Johnson's New York Times article of February 9th.

Basic research, without obviously profitable applications, has always been a hard sell. Several decades ago when the physicist Robert R. Wilson [Fermilab's first director] was soliciting money for a high-energy particle accelerator at Fermilab, he was asked at a Senate hearing how the project would contribute to national defense. "It has nothing to do with defending our country," Wilson famously conceded, "except to make it worth defending."

    What he promised has turned out to be true a million fold, as Fermilab and other accelerators explore the tiniest pieces of matter and even probe the possibilities of extra dimensions and creating miniature black holes.

    Don't ask about practical spin-offs (though you can be sure that laboratory lobbyists could come up with a few). Like the Hubble Space Telescope and the automated space probes sent beyond the solar system, the real value comes not from any new consumer products or military technologies. The projects are priceless because they are opening up deeper layers of human understanding.


Spain's Science and Technology Minister Presses for Immediate Relevance. (February 10, 2003)

    Before being replaced last July by economist and former Foreign Minister Josep Piqué as Minister of Science and Technology, Anna Birulés was credited with significantly increasing Prime Minister Aznar's Government's support for science. The 2003 science budget is set to A$6.8 billion, an increase of 28.7% in 3 years. In contrast it is Piqué's desire to focus on telecommunications and other industrial areas of his portfolio. In fact his avowed top priorities are to boost innovation, telecommunications, and information technology. In its January 31st issue Science published excerpts of a recent non-confrontational interview science writer Xavier Bosch had with the Minister in Barcelona. Some of the Minister's points were, "It's logical that [telecommunications] receives the ministry's attention, particularly as it gets a lot of media attention. Conversely, basic science doesn't generate so much media attention."

    When Piqué was asked if he favoured "the creation of a European Research Council to boost basic science." He replied, "...research must be useful for society... We have to strive to link the support of basic science to future applications. Logically, there is a problem of time: We cannot ask immediate results from basic science, and thus we have to find an equilibrium. I do not think that a European Research Council is necessary."  As to the question of Spain having a brain drain, "This is not currently true. Now there are many more scientists from abroad working in Spain than there are Spanish scientists abroad." The question as to the quality and positions occupied by those that left compared to those who have come? It was not addressed. It's also an area the Australian Government subjects to obfuscation.



Garry Kasparov and Computer Deep Junior Draw After Six Game Man vs Machine Credit: Associated Press"Test" Series. (February 10, 2003)
    The final match of the series ended in a draw giving each contestant one win with the remaining four matches drawn. This event differed in a number of ways from the 1997 "test" series when Garry Kasparov, considered to be the Bradman of chess, lost to the specialised IBM super computer Deep Blue. Deep Junior's PC-based hardware is much less powerful than was Deep Blue's. On the other hand its software is considered to be significantly more sophisticated. In addition Kasparov was allowed to analyse Deep Junior's approach to chess prior to the contest just as Deep Junior's and Deep Blue's programmers were able to analyse their opponent's previous matches. Kasparov had no advanced knowledge of Deep Blue's approach.

    CNN has published an interview with Kasparov in which he compares man vs man to man vs machine matches and explains why he accepted a draw for the last match when observers felt he held the advantage.



'He who sups with the devil should use a long spoon' (February 7, 2003)

    Chaucer's counsel is implied in David Ritson's Commentary "Fuel for Thought" in Nature's February 6th issue. Ritson, emeritus professor of physics at Stanford, takes issue with the University's handling of the 10-year US$225 million Global Climate and Energy Project bankrolled by a consortium of ExxonMobil and friends. Stanford's administration describes the project as "one of the grand challenges of this century", increasing energy supplies "while substantially decreasing greenhouse emissions". What appears to perturb Professor Ritson is that the negotiations between Stanford and the consortium were carried out such that "the deal slid through the approval process, virtually unnoticed." In short, few members of Stanford's faculty were aware of the deal, and in addition ExxonMobil, the major contributor at US$100 million, is a company "committed to expanding the use of fossil fuel." Nevertheless on the face of it the project is set up to be independent of the sponsors with the Stanford appointed director having "full control of day to day management" and who is responsible to an advisory board whose members are independent of both the University and the consortium members. So what's the problem. Well, originally the agreement was setup to run the full ten years but later a clause was inserted into the contract that allows the consortium to pull out of the agreement with three years notice. As Professor Ritson points out, this gives them significant de facto leverage. In addition the sponsors are to appoint the members of the management committee even though Sanford appoints the director. The committee will have the power to accept or reject proposals put by the University effectively setting the projects agenda.

    He concludes his commentary by emphasising that this isn't just a matter of a one off. "Funding of universities by industry is rapidly increasing in the United States. The concessions that Stanford has made were not needed, and could potentially compromise its academic independence." Stanford is a very big-time player regarded as one of the world's top research universities. For the lesser lights compromising concessions have the potential of being significantly more threatening to university independence and increasing pressure by Governments, as is the case in Australia, to obtain an ever increasing percentage of private sector funding exacerbates the problem.



Britain Publishes White Paper on Higher Education Reforms. (February 2, 2003)

    Included in the 105 page document is the UK government's trial balloon to determine just how much flak will be drawn in proposing a system of graded tuition fees commensurate with the cost of provision. The white paper published on January 22nd on The Future of Higher Education, deals primarily with England rather than the United Kingdom as a whole. The document includes plans to allow universities to set their own fees of up to £3,000 (A$8,400) per year for individual courses. Students currently pay  £1,100 (A$3,100) a year for all courses. Because of the higher cost of science courses the fear arises, as has been expressed here, that this will be an added disincentive for students to do science. On the other hand Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College, London claims the real cost of educating a student at Imperial is closer to £10,500 (A$29,400) a year. Therefore, Imperial has said it will charge the maximum for all courses, as none costs less than £3,000 per year.

    Overall the white paper addresses such questions as increasing research funding, research and teaching infrastructure, rewarding good teaching, and assisting financially disadvantaged students. How the specific funding proposals as well as those for reorganisation will be received remains to be seen, but it is up front in detailing the dilapidated state of Britain's higher education system both as to infrastructure and attracting and retaining outstanding personnel in the light of the competition it faces from its international peers. Incidentally, Canada is one of the nations it singled out as exemplary.

    The UK Department for Education and Skills has asked for commentary on the proposals, and Parliament is expected to vote on legislation later this year.
    The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee has issued an eight page analysis of the White Paper.



CNR (Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche), the Italian National Research Council, is Under the Restructuring Gun. (February 2, 2003)

     On January 24th, the Italian Ministry of  Education, Universities and Research published a decree  that it would acquire the power to appoint key individuals within CNR, Italy's leading basic-research organization. It also announced that the organisation would be restructured to focus on applications of research. The researchers, who were not consulted previously, have now been given two months to comment on the decree. The Ministry's plan would divide CNR, which runs some 100 institutes, into groups of discipline-related departments whose heads would be appointed directly by the ministry and who in turn would appoint section heads.

    Nature reports, " 'Scientists see this as an attack on the autonomy of research,' says Rino Falcone, of the CNR Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technology in Rome, who has organized protests against the decree." In addition Lucio Bianco, president of the CNR, has suggested that the January 24th decree may be illegal under the Italian constitution and intends to see if a legal challenge can be mounted, if the terms of the decree aren't suitably modified. From the look of it the CNR researchers are anything but wimps. But rather more to the point, it appears that the Italian government when it comes to understanding the importance of underpinning applied research and development with sustainable, sound basic research has its horizons set little beyond the fringe of the carpet. But then, rhetoric aside, it's hardly alone.



What Sort of Assessments Would You Like, Mr. President. (February 2, 2003)
    Recent complaints regarding what is perceived to be flagrant politicisation when individuals are vetted to serve on various bodies to advise the US government on scientific matters or to assess grant applications for example has aroused increasing criticism from the scientific community. It has gotten to the point where Nature and Science have addressed the matter in their editorials of January 30 and 31 respectively.

    Donald Kennedy in his Science editorial relates the example, "A distinguished professor of psychiatry and psychology receives a call from the White House about his nomination to serve on the National Council on Drug Abuse." A number of questions follow to determine if the individual holds views compatible with those of Mr. Bush, and "[the interrogator] then asks whether the candidate had voted for Bush, and on being informed that he had not, asked: 'Why didn't you support the president?'" The Chief Editor of Science and former Stanford University president then fires his salvo,

This stuff would be prime material for a Robin Williams comedy shtick, but it really isn't funny. The purpose of advisory committees is to provide balanced, thoughtful advice to the policy process; it is better not to put the policy up front. As for study sections, deciding which research projects to support has always been a matter for objective peer review.

Nature is more circumspect pointing out that, "The degree of transparency in the formulation of science-led policy in the United States has few parallels in the rest of the world." But adds that the scientific community mustn't relax its vigilance, "Scientists should fight undue attempts by the Bush administration to politicize the advisory process, and extend the same scrutiny to future administrations, whatever their political persuasion."