News & Views - November 2002 


A Freudian Slip? Uncorrected. (November 28, 2002)
    Brendan Nelson, Federal Minister for Education, Science and Training was interviewed by Leon Byner, of Adelaide radio station 5AA. The focus was principally on retention of secondary school pupils through year 12 and the possible over emphasis on preparation for university enrolment. Toward the end of the interview:

BYNER: So what do you propose to do as the Federal Education and Training and Employment Minister? To try and make year 12 relevant not only to those who go to university but those who want a trade?

Who needs science anyway?  ---  Dr. Nelson ignored the blunder.

An "Update": Dr. Nelson and Higher Education Reform. (November 28, 2002)
    The Federal Minster for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, has been making the rounds lately. In addition to having given the 43rd Chapman Oration to the Victorian engineering fraternity, he spoke last week to the Business Higher Education Round Table in Melbourne.
    According to the Melbourne Age's higher education reporter, Misha Ketchell, (Update, Nov. 27, Education, p.3) the final draft of Dr. Nelson's proposal's for higher education reform is completed, and the "product" according to Ketchell (he was after all speaking before businessmen as well as academic administrators) "has been incorporated in the planning process for next years budget." Just what that's supposed to mean is anyone's guess. Ketchell also reports, "the the vice-chancellors have been lobbying extra hard over the past few weeks ...[and] target[ing]  four key members of cabinet: Treasurer Peter Costello, Finance Minister Nick Minchin, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Defence Minister Robert Hill," all of whom are considered to have matters other than the problems of higher education foremost on their agendas.
        [As of Nov. 28th the talk to BHERT has not been made available on the Minister's Website]

When Rivals Club Together: New York's Group of Nine. (November 27, 2002)
    When it comes to structural biology and biotechnology New York has been an also ran compared to centres such as Boston and San Francisco. Richard A. Rifkind, the then dean of science at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center told the New York Times, "My structural biology group was desperate for new instruments, and I didn't have the space or the bucks." With a view to pooling resources he suggested at an inter-institutional meeting of fellow deans that they should pool resources for a center. "The real experiment was to get the schools to do something in common and stop fighting with each other."
    This peaked the interest of the New York Partnership, a business lobby group interested in challenging the dominance of Boston and San Francisco in biotech. The partnership viewed the structural biology centre as a helpful element in its biotechnology plans and seconded Willa Appel to be the embryonic centre's chief operations officer. With a bit of arm twisting she got the City University of New York to donate a building for the centre and eight New York institutions to kick in with A$16 million: Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Columbia University, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York University, Rockefeller University, the Wadsworth Center of the Department of Health, and the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. Things snowballed from there and state and federal sources have contributed another A$57 million. The centre will officially open on December 12th and has as centre pieces three near state of the art NMR spectrometers  for protein structure determinations, with a fourth, a  900 MHz, A$9 million giant under construction.
    Goes to show what can be accomplished if you really want to play with the grown ups.

European Commission's Framework Research Program: Version 6. (November 26, 2002)
    Having now come round for the sixth time, you'd think that by now they'd have gotten it right. Maybe.  They're having a think about it. In recent weeks both Science (Nov. 8th) and Nature (Nov. 14th) have commented on the response of the scientific community to the European's latest promulgation of its proposed five-year research program. The Science article quotes University of Bern Climate and Environmental Physicist Thomas Stocker, "They are always changing rules, forms, emphasis, [moving from] networks to I-don't-know-what." A recurring complaint is that "applying for and running projects impose huge administrative burdens, that the required multinational collaborations are unwieldy and inefficient, that funding decisions are distorted by political pressures, and that large swaths of basic research are ignored." There is a growing demand to be judged through a process that prizes scientific merit above all else and a drive for a new pan-European organization, run by scientists, that would support basic research without political interference. That "interference" is seen as significantly distorting granting decisions and has led to scientific review panels feeling increasingly impotent. So, for example, University of Geneva molecular biologist Susan Gasser refuses now to sit E.U. review panels, and she is not alone. The NSF and NIH are seen as examples of the approach that ought to be followed. Over the past months the E.U. has got a bag full of submissions as to what should be done "for and with" Framework 6. Among other matters there is a growing view that there is an over emphasis on mega-projects.  What influence the submissions will have... As Nature has written, "How exactly this exercise in consultation translates into formal calls for proposals, scheduled for 17 December, remains to be seen," for example," is not too late for the European Commission to adapt its vision, and accept that, in some cases, thinking small is the best approach."
    For the record the proposed five-year budget for Framework 6 is A$31 billion.

Brazil's Incoming President Pledges to Double Science Budget. (November 26, 2002)
    President-elect Luiz Inácio 'Lula' da Silva has pledged to double spending on science and technology to 2% of GDP by the end of his government's term. He gave particular emphasis to increasing financial support for basic research; he also promises to improve science education.
    While gratified by the prospect of a monumental increase of resources, the science community was also apprehensive by a separate announcement to transfer control of the country's 53 federal universities from the Ministry of Education to the Ministry of Science and Technology. It could, they suggest, fragment Brazil's education policy, and sidetrack the government from the problems faced by the scientific community. In addition the process of shifting universities to another ministry could cause excessive bureaucracy.
    Physicist José Simões from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro puts it this way, "Merely removing the universities from one ministry and transferring them to another will not solve anything, but it could detonate a series of bureaucratic restraints. First of all, we need a diagnosis of the general state of the country's universities, and then a clear government proposal for such institutions and for the whole area of science."
    It will be interesting to watch Australia's Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson's progress as he negotiates his portfolio. So far he has demonstrated a marked avoidance to following what our cohort nations are working toward in the course of this decade. Their support for research and development is accelerating at a rate which is leaving us increasingly behind. All Dr. Nelson's posturing and his Department's spin doctoring will not alter that fact.

Dr. Nelson and the Day After -- Did He Really Say That? (November 25, 2002)
    The day following Prime Minister John Howard's address to the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia* in Sydney the Minister for Education, Science and Training delivered the 43rd Chapman Oration to the Institution of Engineers, Australia, Victoria Division.
    It was to be expected that in his recurring theme of denial the crisis in higher education remains a myth. He cited the familiar obfuscations. Also not unexpected was a number of pointed indications as to his views regarding the sorts of reforms to higher education that were being seriously considered.

 [I]t is not a question of what will happen in universities this year or next year. It is what sort of Australia will we live in twenty years from now.

There are complex and significant community service obligations on non-research intensive universities in the regions of this country which are not recognised nor funded. At the same time, [for example] Melbourne University, Monash University, QUT ...are competing with the rest of the world and yet we are forcing them into [the same] funding and  policy framework.

The Vice Chancellors have said we should have a world class centre for research in each university. The reason for even thinking about a world class university in our country – we already have parts of universities that are world class – not top fifty not top ten but top five or higher. The reason is if we want a world class university it will never be delivered under the current policy and financing framework.

I ...attended a dinner with the executive of the Australian Vice Chancellor’s Committee and said to my then Chief of Staff, as we drove back to Parliament House late that evening,  "I think we are going to have to do something for our future and it is going to be hard but we are going to have to reform Australian higher education".

However, just as a you're feeling as though you were listening to an extended Verdi aria -- you've heard the refrain at least three times before -- something shocks you wide awake.

What I am going to take to offer to my [Cabinet] colleagues is a small number of broad thematic [research] priorities. Do we, for example, want Australia to be an environmentally sustainable continent? If we do what sort of research might we need? We’d need engineering technologies. We’d need environmental engineering. We’d need geosciences, engineering fuel technologies, maths and physics and social sciences to influence and inform human behaviour. That is the kind of priority setting process that I am putting to my colleagues...[T]he Germans in 1973 said "let’s be a world leader in pharmaceuticals."  Twenty years later their international share of the pharmaceutical industry had declined from 17% to 8%. In contrast you look at the US where investment in knowledge for its own sake in a strong and deregulated economy draws knowledge out of the university sector. That is the kind of thing we need to be looking at - although we do need to prioritise what we are doing. ...That is the general basis upon which I am trying to build our future.

And while you're making sure that you've read what's before you correctly, though perhaps wondering how pushing Australia's research university vice-chancellors around dovetails with lauding the US approach,  Dr Nelson sneaks in the punch line,

Our war against terrorism has not only got to be fought with sniffer dogs and high tech surveillance and military hardware. It is also a war against what Socrates described as the root of all evil and that is ignorance. So one of the things I am trying to do is to persuade our country and to persuade my colleagues to not lose sight of what in the end is at the basis of all of that which drives the uncertainty in our world of fundamentalist intolerance and that is ignorance.

Well, it will be interesting to see, once Dr. Nelson joins his colleagues in Cabinet, just how persuasive he is when it comes to providing adequate resources to overcome the crisis in higher education. For example, can anyone look objectively at the current trajectory of staffing numbers in the enabling sciences or the decline in secondary school student interest, and claim there's no crisis? You're kidding.
    Of course he did say, "[I]t is not a question of what will happen in universities this year or next year. It is what sort of Australia will we live in twenty years from now." So we just may have to wait a while.

The Web Journal Online Opinion Has Published, "Higher education reform: a student's perspective." (November 25, 2002)
    The increasingly influential Online Opinion today published an assessment by six Melbourne University students. They open their assessment with,

Higher education in Australia today increasingly fails to meet government and international criteria for quality, equity and cost efficiency. A clear gap between expectation and reality exists for students, academics and industry.  Inadequate resources and poor working conditions are undermining attempts to make Australian universities internationally competitive. We offer a number of short and long-term proposals that we believe will, in part, rectify the declining standards in Australian higher education.

Among other changes they suggest "Implementing an Academic Teaching Course" to improve the quality of presentations, but they go on to stress,

After completing a foundation degree, students could choose to enter a graduate university that offers specialised courses. Each university would offer a small number of graduate degrees. They would focus their resources (equipment, staff, research capability) in a specialised field or fields to improve the quality of higher education and establish world-renowned research and learning sectors in their particular niche market. Accordingly, Australian graduates would be well trained to compete in the global knowledge economy, being essential contributors to international research.

Perhaps, those in Government or the Opposition might like to respond to these proposals in the spirit in which they have been made.

Address to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, November 20th -- Prime Minister John Howard. (November 22, 2002)
    On Wednesday evening the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, spoke to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) on "Strategic Leadership for Australia - Policy Directions in a Complex World." In the 5,400 word speech by his own assessment a long one he highlighted nine strategic policy areas and emphasised that "most importantly, a key requirement of strategic management is flexibility, particularly the ability, and the courage, to move resources to where they are most needed." The nine areas delineated were:

national security and defence

science and innovation


balancing work and family life


rural and regional affairs

the demography of Australia

sustainable environment

and transport

"I have not presented these in any particular order. Clearly, national security is a more fundamental than any of the others, but there is no pecking order, they all have a special importance of their own."
    It will remain for the coming budget to clarify just how the nation's resources will be allocated to to see just what the "pecking order" will be. With regard to "strategic policy areas" of science and innovation, and education, the Prime Minister had this to say:

Let me turn to an equally vital area of Government strategic policy interest, and that is science and innovation. Investment in science and innovation is an investment in Australia's economic and social prosperity. New knowledge and new ways of doing science enable us to push the boundary of what is possible with our resources and help build solutions to issues in areas such as health, the environment and industrial development. This is why, at the beginning of last year, we put in place a $3 billion, five year strategy called Backing Australia's Ability, the largest commitment to science and innovation by any Australian government. Shortly I will announce the Government's first set of national research priorities. These will integrate Australia's science and research effort even more closely with the community's economic, social and environmental goals. This is the first time an Australian government has implemented a national, coordinated and strategic approach to setting research priorities. [Emphasis ours]

It would be expected that previous reductions in direct government resourcing for the nation's research and development together with a reduction of incentives for private sector investment in R&D weren't commented on, but they oughtn't to be forgotten when assessing our position in regard to science and innovation against the top half of the OECD nations or members of the European Union.
    Mr. Howard went on to say:

The next step is to take stock of the state of Australian science. And I announce tonight that I've asked the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Dr Nelson, to undertake a major initiative in mapping Australia's science and innovation activities across the public and private sectors. Such a comprehensive picture of Australian science surprisingly for the year 2002 does not exist. Yet it will be fundamental in planning the future strategic direction for science in this country. Dr Nelson will conduct this exercise in cooperation with state and territory governments, industry and the research community and other interested parties.

If Dr. Nelson follows the lead of the UK government in its critical assessment and publication of the recent reports on the  Study of Science Research Infrastructure  and scientific personnel,  SET for success: The supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills but for the larger set of parameters he has been assigned, it will be a remarkable achievement. If it is then meaningfully acted upon, it will have the impact that the Menzies' government had on Australian science and higher education following the end of the second world war.
    Turning to education per se the Prime Minister continued:

Education, more broadly, is naturally one of the Government's highest national priorities. No issue could be more important to Australia's future than creating the best learning and development opportunities for people of all ages. Responsibility for education is, as you know, divided between the States and Federal Government and there are many different options for primary, secondary and tertiary education. We expect this conglomerate system to produce people with the right mix of skills, values and trained abilities that Australia needs for the future. ...This is a very critical sector for Australia, and one that produces the skills, talent and capacity for innovation the country needs to sustain economic growth and build a better society into the future. We are determined to provide an environment in which universities can deliver superb teaching, engage in scholarship and undertake world class research. As reforms are developed, we will be guided by four key principles - diversity, quality, equity and sustainability. We need a higher education system that is diverse in its specialisations and objectives, is characterised by exceptional quality and high standards, that provides all Australians with the opportunity of a higher education experience, and is sustainable not just three or four years on, but for the next 20 to 30 years. I'm very encouraged by the quality of the ideas that are coming forward from Dr Nelson's review, which the Government will consider in detail in the context of the next budget. [Emphasis ours.]

The Chief Executive of CSIRO, Dr. Geoffrey Garrett, is fond of speaking of BHAGS, big hairy audacious goals. If the Prime Minister really means what he appears to be saying, he's got one by the tail. The question is, is it extant or extinct.

Another Step Toward Doubling of the NSF Budget. (November 16, 2002)
    Bob Park, the American Physical Society's man in Washington reports:

NSF: THE DOUBLING BILL IS ON ITS WAY TO THE PRESIDENT. Last night [November 14th], both the House and the Senate passed a bill authorizing a doubling of funding for the National Science Foundation over a five year period. However, funding for the final two years was made contingent on whether the Foundation has made progress toward meeting certain management goals. These contingencies were apparently added to satisfy the White House Office of Management and Budget. It is now up to the President.

As both the Republicans and Democrats strongly support the bill, and the basic scientific research supported by the NSF is seen to be a necessary foundation for "homeland security", it seems unlikely that it will be killed by a Presidential veto.

Unexpected Support for Maths, Physic and Chemistry: SMH Sounds a Call. (November 14, 2002)
  The lead editorial in today's Sydney Morning Herald has put its readers on notice, "Science locked in a spiral" and it does mean downward. It opens with:

If medical specialist numbers collapsed to near Third World levels, most Australians would take some comfort from the expectation that Government would be shaken into action. ...The test of whether a situation deserves prompt and intelligent application of resources is whether public health is jeopardised ...and whether public comfort is otherwise sacrificed.

Such a situation, scoring high on both criteria, has come to attention through the joint efforts of the Australian Institute of Physics, the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, the Australian Mathematical Sciences Council and the Institution of Engineers Australia. Their campaign, however, seems to have done little to capture the attention of officialdom, let alone giving it a sense of urgency about the need for finding a solution.

The "enabling sciences" - the foundations of all scientific discovery and technological advancement - are locked in a despairingly downward spiral in Australia.

There's more, but you get the drift, the engineers, chemists, physicists and mathematicians have, at least for a day, gotten the attention of the editor of Sydney's morning broadsheet. Whether or not it is a first in the history of the venerable paper is uncertain, but don't bet against it. When matters get to this stage in the mass media, something ought to be seen to be rotten in the way the government exercises its responsibilities to the nation or as it likes to keep harping, its "MANDATE."

Representatives for the Enabling Sciences Meet a Minister. (November 9, 2002)
    A couple of months back the President of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS), the President of the Australian Institute of Physics, the President of the Australian Mathematical Society, and the President of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute received invitations from the Department of Education, Science and Training which said in part, "Brendan is keen to meet you all for a discussion about the situation we currently  face in the enabling sciences."  The meeting was scheduled for October 21st. As it turned out, Dr. Nelson must have determined that he wasn't really all that "keen", because on the day he found that other commitments precluded his attending the meeting. Instead he sent his able deputy the Minister for Science, Peter McGauran. There is no indication that the enabling sciences are to receive a significant boost in resources from Dr. Nelson's department; in fact there was no indication that they were to receive much attention of any sort from DEST. Perhaps benign neglect is the best that might have been realistically expected. The inwardness of scheduling the meeting in the first place?...  It's a mystery.

Egyptian Chemistry Nobel Laureate Slams Third World Bureaucracy. Is it Relevant to Australia? (November 9, 2002)
    Ahmed Zewail, professor of physics at the Californian Institute of Technology won the Nobel Prize in 1999 for his work on the use of ultra-fast lasers to study the internal dynamics of atoms.  Recently he told a meeting in New Delhi that it was time for developing countries to put their houses in order if they wanted to reap the benefits that modern science and technology have to offer. Specifically he pointed out that a "major rethinking" of science education is required in many parts of the world. "There are tremendous resources in many parts of the world, as I have myself seen in countries such as China, India and Egypt; it is a question of making the best possible use of such resources. I am very disturbed when I go to many parts of the developing world and find promotion systems still based primarily on age and seniority" in contrast to the environment in the United States where he has excelled. And excessive bureaucracy came in for a swift serve, “Everything is centralised; everything needs approval. If there is one thing that I have witnessed in many of my travels in developing countries, it has been the enormous bureaucracy."

Cutting Edge Cosmology Meets New York High Schools and Beyond. (November 9, 2002)
    Glennys Farrar, B.A. 1968, University of California (Berkeley); Ph.D. 1971, Princeton University; Major Interests: Theoretical Particle Physics, Astrophysics and Cosmology; Current Position: Professor of Physics, New York University.
    Early this week the New York Times reported "Students Build a System to Solve a Cosmic Puzzle."Professor Glennys Farrar Together with colleagues from Columbia, Barnard and City University of New York this past northern hemisphere summer Professor Farrar conducted a two week "boot camp" to introduce students from ten of New York Cities high schools to the wonders of cosmology. And for hands-on practice the "recruits" built and tested cheap cosmic particle detectors. With the coming of the Autumn term the tyro cosmologists are taking their detectors back to school, building additional ones and by using the internet for connectivity together with joining students in California, Nebraska, Canada and England they are setting up a far flung network to detect high energy cosmic particles. To obtain high precision data a high concentration of detectors is required and New York City provides just such an environment. Professor Farrar says simply, "If we had detectors covering New York City, we would see huge showers from ultra-high-energy particles maybe 50 times a year. Many of the detectors would get hit at the same time, and students could analyze that and do their own experiments."
    Including the computers the particle detectors cost about A$3,600 each. The project is supported by N.Y.U., Columbia, Barnard, the National Science Foundation and Wolfram Research Inc. In the current pilot phase, there are only 10 detectors in New York, but there's no denying the enthusiasm of the teenage participants, and their mentors are gearing up to give the A$180 million dollar project being built in the Argentine desert (1,600 detectors over 2,600 km2)  good competition.
    It will be no surprise if this project produces some of the US' next generation of high fliers in cosmology and astrophysics and there will be places for them when they "come of age". It's just that sort of combination that's needed in Australia, could be effected in Australia, and obviously, not only in cosmology. But the resourced will has to be there from the state and federal governments as well as university academics and high school science teachers.
    Perhaps, Dr. Nelson, it's time to put some substantial resources behind the much hyped reviewing of higher education, teachers and teacher and education, and research priorities you and Mr. McGauran have fostered.

"Reform by Stealth" (November 8, 2002)
    That's the headline for Nature's secondary editorial in its November 7th issue. It refers to the restructuring of Italian science by the Berlusconi government, which appears uninterested in consultation. The appointment twenty months ago by our Coalition government of Dr. Geoff Garrett to be Chief Executive of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) bears a resemblance to Nature's observation that, "Italian science has long been plagued by a system that appoints the heads of research agencies according to political allegiance, rather than competence," but in the case of Dr. Garrett's appointment it would appear to be more the case that Prime Minister Howard's government had taken the decision to force the organisation into a position where applied, contracted research rather than research "for the public good" is to dominate CSIRO's raison d'être. This view appears reinforced by Dr. Garrett telling his National Press Club audience this past Wednesday, "In CSIRO we're pushing a new maxim. If the old one, in the research business, was 'publish or perish' the new one is 'partner or perish'." There are of course other maxim's with regard to scientific research but even adopting Dr. Garrett's approach CSIRO has a hard road. In 1997-98 CSIRO earned $74.6 million from the Australian private sector. In 2001-02 it was $68.6 million, which when adjusted back to 1997-98 dollars reduces to $59.6 million, a fall of 20%. When viewed in the light of an organisation that has almost completely forsaken basic research, is looking toward doubling its income by 2006 where most if not all of that increase will have to come from external earnings, whose seven Flagship Programs have yet to be enunciated in detail, and whose chief executive behaves more like an exalting evangelist than the head of a nation's premier research establishment, the efficacy of allocating to it $640 million per annum of public money ought to be seriously considered. In short if the organisation is now being broken, stop the damage and start repairing it before it's too late.