News & Views - January 2003


DEST Releases Terms of Reference for National Science 'Stocktake'. (January 31, 2003)

        The Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, today announced that the Prime Minister, John Howard, has approved the terms of reference  for what Dr. Nelson refers to as, "a major initiative to map Australia's science and innovation activities across the public and private sectors. The project, an Australian first..."  Australia's Chief Scientist, Robin Batterham will chair a reference group the members of which are yet to be announced. Dr. Nelson goes on to say the group is to advise "a Taskforce established within my Department to coordinate the work and report by the end of this year."

    While the scope of the terms of reference are broad it is not clear how much additional information will be gathered beyond that detailed in previous reports, such as the Chief Scientist's Chance for Change, or the degree of objectivity in such data gathering, particularly in the light of the Department's handling of the "Anderson Report" (see immediately below), since the reference group will act only to advise a DEST departmental taskforce. It is also noteworthy that the study "will lay the groundwork for future policy development, but it will not include consideration of policy options." In any case it will be interesting to compare the promised report (an interim report is scheduled for May and the final report in late 2003) with those published by the UK last year dealing with Britain's scientific infrastructure and personnel which pulled few punches.



‘For DEST to [commission this report] resembles Yahweh enquiring into flood damage on Day 40’. (January 28, 2003)
    This is the comment made by one anonymous academic in response to being asked for his/her views regarding Changes in Academic Work, a report requested by the Department of Education, Science and Training from three eminent retired academics, Don Anderson, Richard Johnson and Lawrence Saha. The 178 page report was presented to DEST in June 2002. Dr Nelson's Department apparently determined that it would be best to release it via its web site somewhat subterraneanly (  without fanfare or a media release during the midst of the Christmas - New Year break. It's reminiscent of Sir Humphrey burying an undesirable document in the middle of the Right Honourable James Hacker, MP's third dispatch box. Incidentally the full title of the report is Changes in Academic Work: Implications for Universities of the Changing Age Distribution and Work Roles of Academic Staff. [And see Op-Ed II, The Change in Academic Work Picture Book].

    Why DEST decided to release the report at all is something of a mystery, though it mightn't be too far off the mark to suggest that its hand had been forced. The report observes that, "While some developments have been welcomed – for instance, greater attention to the quality of teaching, the greater access of students to university education, or the ease of modern electronic communications – the overall picture is of frustration and disillusionment, to the point where many respondents to a questionnaire said they would not recommend an academic career to anyone." and the authors conclude with,

A recent article describing the situation in the United States seems also to be describing Australia. A single paragraph sums it up:

The danger lies in the cumulative effect of the incremental changes, each one seemingly minor but collectively altering the nature of the enterprise. At some point, quantitative change yields to qualitative change. The quality of faculty life may slowly erode to the point that highly talented people are no longer attracted to the academic profession. The freedom to conduct meaningful research may be undermined by pressures to teach longer hours and more students. The constant search for new sources of revenue may irreducibly change the social role of higher-education institutions, as they become increasingly entrepreneurial enterprises. All of these changes are visible in today's colleges and universities; it remains to be seen whether their onward march will prove to be inexorable.

Breneman, David W. 2002 ‘For colleges, this is not just another recession’ Chronicle of Higher Education 14 June.

In a phrase, death of a thousand cuts – defined as "a slow death by the torture of many small wounds, none lethal in itself, but fatal in their cumulative effect." The torture was a form of execution in ancient China, reserved for the most heinous of crimes.


TFW concludes its January 28th editorial with, "There is great emphasis on the terror poised beyond our borders, little on the decay gnawing at our quality of life through neglect of our knowledge infrastructure. That neglect will cost our children, and theirs in turn, dearly." Clearly it's not an isolated viewpoint. However, the admonishment by Dr Nelson to the Members of the Australian Academy of Science last May mustn't be overlooked, "[To] those of you who argue from the higher education sector that there is a crisis, can I just say to you, please desist at that kind of language..." The Minister was handed the Anderson report the following month.

Entries for the Australian Museum's 2003 Eureka Prizes are Now Invited. (January 24, 2003)
   Twenty-one prizes worth a total of $210,000 are on offer in 4 categories -- education, industry and innovation, research, and science communication. New prizes in 2003 are for inspiring science, for innovative grains research that improves the environmental sustainability of growing introduced grains, and for outstanding scientific research involving scientists in two or more disciplines. Complete information and entry forms are obtainable from the Eureka Prizes' website.

Australia's Bushfires Reach the Pages of Nature. (January 22, 2003)
    Credit: Nature (Reed/Reuters)In a "news feature" Carina Dennis, Nature's Australasian correspondent reports, "researchers are desperately trying to find out more about fire's behaviour," (Nature 16 January 2003). In talking to various researchers, Dennis highlights the modeling work being undertaken by Monash University mathematician Michael Reeder who told her, "Fire research needs to go from being a descriptive to a quantitative science." The newly setup Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre has a seven year $112 million program to determine better means of prevention and control. But the article also underlines the current disagreements by researchers as to the means to be adopted. Nevertheless Dennis concludes, "But the country's fire scientists agree that the interests of city dwellers and biodiversity alike require a much more comprehensive and quantitative approach to studying the blazes that have shaped the Australian landscape -- with the new cooperative research centre representing just the start."
    And although the Australian community and its representatives call on its scientists and engineers to "do something" concomitantly the nation's scientific infrastructure is allowed to deteriorate with our university based enabling sciences leading the descent into the maelstrom. The illogicality of it is nothing short of monumental.

Rebuilding and Reconstruction of Mt. Stromlo Observatory Following the Firestorm. (January 21, 2003)
    Credit: ANU media releaseThe Mt. Stromlo astronomical observatory, 30 kilometers west of Canberra, became engulfed by a raging bushfire on January 18th. The observatory together with the Angelo-Australian Observatory situated at Siding Springs New South Wales forms part of the Australian National University's Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics (RSAA). An announcement by ANU stated that the fires destroyed four telescopes, the equipment workshop, eight houses which had been occupied by staff and an administration building. Preliminary estimates have valued the losses at more than $20 million. ANU's Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ian Chubb was quick to announce that, "Plans are already being put in place to rebuild at Mount Stromlo and restore the research school to its full capacity," but the fact is that four of Mt. Stomlo's telescopes have been reduced to junk and its library and workshops destroyed. Sky and Telescope reports that, "the workshop contained a $5-million imaging spectrograph known as NIFS. The nearly completed instrument was just months away from being shipped to the 8-meter Gillett (Gemini North) telescope atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii."
    Depending on the vision of the RSAA, the ANU administration and the Federal Minister for Education Science and Training, the disaster could be transformed into a boon for Australian astronomy. The increasing light pollution from Canberra was reducing the utility of the optical instruments, but if now the authorities will take the opportunity to provide resources to have a much more powerful facility rise from the ashes remains to be seen, and if they will do so without reducing allocations elsewhere in the science budget is a moot question.
    Note:  The New York Times reports, "The first telescope was placed at Mount Stromlo in 1910. The observatory was established in 1924 as the Commonwealth Solar Observatory. It has 60 staff members and 20 students involved in research and teaching projects."

FASTS Lists Its 2003 Top Ten Issues With Regard to Science and Technology. (January 20, 2003)
    The Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) has released its 2003 issues for the year along with launching a campaign to eradicate the use of the term "boffin" which the Macquarie Dictionary (3rd ed) defines as "(often derogatory) ...a research scientist"

FASTS President, Chris Fell, among other matters is "proposing a new program to bring more science into Parliament, with scientists seconded to work for a year with Parliamentarians on crucial issues," and went on to comment that the Government's Innovation Statement was welcomed but, "It's time now to look at taking the second step, to announce the second stage of a long-term project to transform Australia into a competitive modern economy."
    A complete listing of the ten top issues is available on the FASTS website.

2002 Nobel Laureate John Sulston Talks About Genes, Genomes, Patenting and the Place of Public and Private Funding in the Scheme of Things. (January 19, 2003)
    Together with Sydney Brenner and Robert Horvitz, John Sulston was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death."  Sulston also became one of the prime movers in the publicly funded human genome sequencing program and has been an outspoken critic of what he sees as an improper attempt to obtain proprietary rights for genomic information. To discuss his views he was invited together with his co-author Georgina Ferry (The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics and the Human Genome) by the US National Academy of Sciences to give "a behind-the-scenes account of this controversial story. From the joy and exuberance of success to the stark disappointments posed by inevitable failures, [it is] a tale of science, politics, personalities, and ethics." To hear the forthright, highly accessible and entertaining dual act click here.

UK Secondary School Science Curriculum Under Discussion. (January 16, 2003)
    Last July a British governmental parliamentary committee reported that secondary school pupils aged 14 to 16 are bored stiff by the way science is being taught in the state secondary schools. Now Nature (Juanuary 16, 2003) reports that "the British government is considering reforms that would see many teenagers abandon traditional school lessons in physics, chemistry and biology in favour of studies of contemporary scientific issues." However, the more rigorous traditional approach would by retained as supplementary courses for those intending to study science at university. The object is to interest the coming generation of the general public in scientific issues and allow them to form informed opinions for example on media reportage of scientific topics. While there is criticism from some educational groups who consider the approach to be a further dumbing down of secondary teaching others see it as an avenue to reawaken public interest in science. If in addition it raises the quality of instruction for those students who are interested in perusing science at university it would seem an approach well worth trialling.

Royal Mint to Strike £2 Coin to Honour 50th Anniversary of the DNA Double Helix. (January 13, 2003)
    The Royal Mint is marking the anniversary of James Watson and Francis Crick's discovery by inscribing the double-helix configuration on a new £2 coin which will be issued throughout 2003. Well heeled molecular biologists (and others) can opt for the gold and silver commemorative version. The announcement made no mention as to whose DNA was being represented.

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Chides U.K. Chemists. (January 13, 2002)
    The EPSRC council has issued a report, Chemistry at the Centre, on the current state of British chemistry and concludes that it is not only "relatively conservative" by international standards, it is so relative to past achievements. George Whitesides, Harvard's Mallinckrodt Professor of Chemistry chaired the panel which brought down the finding. Overall Whitesides' panel concluded that the quality of British scholarship is world class, and facilities at the top universities are of high quality, but British chemists have yet to significantly undertake multidisciplinary research, such as materials science and work at the chemistry-biology interface. Currently UK chemistry is suffering a sharp decline in undergraduates majoring in chemistry and its "stodgy" image is exacerbating the situation.
    A finding of particular concern is that one reason many British academic chemists are less concerned with innovation is that they tend to have close ties with the mature chemical industry; the current funding system just does not support long-term, focused programmes. The EPSRC, which funds most public supported chemical research in British universities, will discuss the report at an open meeting on January 27th, with the intention of developing an action plan to update its strategy for supporting chemistry.
    It might be well for Brendan Nelson, as Minister for Education, Science and Training and his advisors to note Harvard's Mallinckrodt Professor of Chemistry's point regarding the stultifying effect on British academic chemistry by being overly dependent on industry resourcing.

32 U.S. Scientific Societies Urge President Bush to Increase Research Funding in His Budget Which will be Released on  February 4th. (January 13, 2003)
    The societies are worried the weak economic outlook and possibility of war could mean a disappointing year for US science agencies. In a letter addressed to Bush they wrote, "We strongly urge you to increase support for science programmes," and went on to cite a string of statements from administration officials and advisers pledging improved science funding.  However,  all the indications are that next month's budget won't deliver on these pledges. And despite President Bush signing into law on December 19th an act authorizing a doubling of the budget for the National Science Foundation over five years, that authorisation doesn't automatically provide funding. Furthermore, the National Institutes of Health may get only 0.3% added to its US$27-billion budget while  laboratories in the defence department are hard pressed to maintain their fundamental research budgets what with the massive expenditure in deploying forces around Iraq.
     "People have yet to believe that the administration is committed to increasing science funding", Samuel Rankin, head of government relations at the American Mathematical Society told Nature (9Jan03). "It's sort of like 'the cheque's in the mail'."

Israeli Academics and Students Rally to Protest Alterations of Governance at Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan. The University's Board of Governors Voted Against the Proposed Changes. (January 7, 2003)
    The move by Bar Ilan University's government appointed president and the chair of Bar Ilan's executive committee to change the University's bylaws so as to greatly diminish the powers of the University's Rector and Senate over academic decisions was defeated by the Board of Governors. Prior to the vote a rally organised by the universities' Inter-Senate Committee for Academic Freedom was staged outside Bar Ilan's Senate building. Several hundred professors, graduate and undergraduate students of Bar Ilan as well as representatives from all Israeli universities with the exception of the TECHNION were present. Senior faculty from several of the universities spoke and Israel's media took note.

Finland, "They Really Have Pushed." Hans Wigzell, President of Sweden's Karolinska Institute. (January 7, 2003)

    Finland - population, 5.2 million;  per capita GDP, A$46,000;  R&D, 3.4% of GDP in 2000.
    Australia - population, 19.5 million;  per capita GDP, A$43,000; R&D, 1.54% of GDP in 2001.

Paul Smaglik reports in Nature's December 12th supplement on Scandinavian science and technology on the envy that Finland's progress has generated in the rest of Scandinavia. For example many members of the faculty at the Karolinska Institute for Medical Research in Stockholm are Finnish but the times may be a changing. Why? A matter of resources.
    The Finnish recession in the 1980s gave the government a wakeup call. To transform the economy it began to invest heavily in science and technology. In 1994 the budget for R&D was 2.3% of Finland's GDP in 2000 it had risen to 3.4%.
    The  Karolinska's President sees Finland's approach as a prod  to rally the Swedish government to increase funding for basic rather than applied research while in Norway Nature's Smaglik reports that many scientists are saying privately that their government's  aim to raise R&D investment from 1.7% of GDP to 2.2% by 2005 is not sufficiently ambitious. And Kalervo Väänänen, director of the anatomy department at the University of Turku points out, "We are now starting to get Swedish researchers in Finland, which was very uncommon 10 years ago."

India's Prime Minister Talks Up Science Support. (January 5, 2003)
    On Friday Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee addressed the 6000 delegates gathered for the annual meeting of the Indian Science Congress (ISC). Some of the reforms promised the delegates: double the country's spending on research over 5 years, improve training, and streamline bureaucracy, a new funding mechanism for basic research that appears similar to that of the U.S. National Science Foundation. The basis for Mr. Vajpayee's address to the ISC is the 28 page report resulting from  a 2-year dialogue with the scientific community on how India can become a bigger presence in the international research community. While short on detail, the report does form a coherent basis on which to build.
    The Indian Prime Minister also took the opportunity to admonish Indian scientists to curb the large number of advanced degrees "of indifferent quality" awarded by Indian universities and to avoid "becoming afflicted with the [bureaucratic] culture of our government agencies." He didn't spell out how that might be accomplished. And he would like the Indian private sector to become more involved in R&D.
    However, the honorary president of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore, C.N.R. Rao, points out that real change will require considerably more than a few supportive words from the prime minister. While he welcomes any increase in spending, he cautions that the country's notorious bureaucracy may well resist any permanent reform effort. Nevertheless, according to V.S. Ramamurthy, the nuclear physicist given the task to clothe the new policy, the chances of success have improved now that "a succinct, undisputed, and generalized road map has been made available by the government."

Science Scores Well in Tight Japanese Budget. (January 5, 2003)
    Tight budget constraints will hold total growth in Japanese government spending to 0.7% in the financial year beginning April 1st, but the budget approved by Cabinet on Christmas Eve includes a 3.9% rise, to A$18.4 billion, for science. A separate appropriation for January through March 2003 will provide significant additional funds to upgrade research facilities. It includes A$3.2 billion for upgrading university research equipment and facilities.
    Funding for peer-reviewed grants for scientific research, the largest source of support for individual academic researchers and small groups, will rise 3.6% to A$2.7 billion.  And the publicity engendered by the award of a share of last year's Nobel Prize in physics to Masatoshi Koshiba for his work on neutrinos didn't hurt support for research.
    Nevertheless a caveat worth heeding is quoted in the January 3rd issue of Science, "Finance Minister Masajuro Shiokawa emphasizes that the government gave priority to science and technology, among other fields, because it is expected to help revitalize the economy. Those expectations make some researchers nervous. One institute head, who asked to remain anonymous, says there is 'too much of an emphasis on short-term results rather than long-term benefits.'"