News & Views - October 2002 


For the Guy Who Has Everything an Analysed Genome for Christmas? (October 31, 2002)
    It's damn hard to remain unaware of Craig Venter for long. Having driven the publicly financed Human Genome Project to near distraction by goading them into putting the pedal to the metal in forcing them to publish a draft of the human nucleotide sequence years before they wanted to, he then jumped ship from his company Celera to form the J. Craig Venter Science Foundation. Among other projects he's working on developing organisms for useful hydrogen production.
    But he's also out drumming up donations for his foundation and he's got a gimmick. For a cool US half-million dollars (A$910,000) you can have the DNA of your choice analysed and recorded on a CD-ROM to take home. It might also get placed in a public database for posterity should you wish it.
    It remains to be seen whether there will be legal challenges, but if you can't afford a ticket to the International Space Station, perhaps this is the next best thing.

Can Research, Development and Higher Education Really Become a Pivotal Election Issue? (October 29, 2002)
   The Australian Labor Party's shadow minister for science and research, Senator Kim Carr today released the party's 38 page discussion paper Research: Engine Room of the Nation. Dr David Denham, Vice-President of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) made the observation that at first glance the paper contains some interesting new ideas and while, "It's a welcome statement of intent in a sense, much of it has been said before. There are not a lot of new ideas in science policy. What would be new would be a commitment to lift Australian investment in science and research to the levels of comparable countries. In many ways we know what the problem is, and where the solution lies." So far the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee has not commented on the discussion paper while the Department of Education, Science and Training issued a remarkably mild rebuke in its media release over the Minister's name although the Senator was accused of plagiarism.
    In contrast Professor John Hay, Chairman of the Group of Eight Australian research universities has welcomed Labor's discussion paper:

The Group of Eight particularly welcomes the ALP's recognition that Australia's research success is underpinned by the quality of our universities both as teaching and research institutions.
    Australia’s R&D performance continues to fall way below the OECD average and while the Government has started to bridge the gap with its Backing Australia’s Ability package, far more needs to be done if we are to keep pace with other nations.

The discussion paper opens by quoting Professor Chris Fell, FASTS' President:

The missing ingredient is a commitment to a long-term strategy for Australian science and technology, a vision that would allow it to serve its rightful place as a driver of the economy and solution to our environmental problems.

And goes on to say, "This applies to Australia's research effort more generally." And continues by saying that the nation "needs a long-term national research strategy," and lists what it considers to be six key areas: research priority setting, public investment in research, private sector investment, commercialisation, international implications for research and finally a commitment to consultations.
    Senator Carr makes the interesting observation that, "If the public in general is not aware of the importance of science and research, then it is difficult to have a public debate about research priorities, development and innovation and associated ethical and societal issues. This Policy Discussion Paper is intended to raise issues and encourage discussion about future policy options and directions." What the Senator does not say is that any "long-term research strategy" must be the product of bipartisan support. It's worth noting that such is the de facto case in the United States Congress.
    Although Dr. Denham points out that there is little in the discussion paper that is new, that's not surprising, the subject has become rather like the weather, often discussed with little useful action resulting. Whether or not that is to change and 1/ Labor will take the next 20 months or so to make it a pivotal election issue, which it ought to be, as well as 2/  being prepared to commit itself with regard to resources to back its rhetoric remains to be seen. But at least Senator Carr's paper does call attention to:

Universities are among our most important research sites, especially for basic research. The publicly funded higher education sector is the foundation on which any long-term national strategy must be built and it must be strengthened. (p.6)

Another concern of scientists and science administrators is the quality of the next generation of researchers. They fear the consequences of a documented 20-year downturn in physics, chemistry and advanced mathematics teaching in schools (The Australian, 21 September 2001), the uncompetitive academic salaries on offer here, and the lack of real incentives for young Australian scientists to return after getting postdoctoral experience overseas.  (p14)

The upshot of inadequate Government support is declining, outdated physical infrastructure and insufficient funds for research assistance, laboratory technicians and similar ancillary research staffing. A lack of support staff has direct consequences for the quality of education and training, as well as for research.
    Because Australian universities are broad in scope and active across a wide range of disciplines,
it is necessary, judiciously and carefully, to concentrate some significant research resources [emphasis ours] . In this way, a critical mass of researchers and infrastructure can be achieved in particular fields, enhancing output and improving financial efficiency.
    At the same time, research opportunities must be preserved throughout the system, and an active commitment to research and scholarship should be fostered among all academic staff. (p21)

Labor, in developing a national research strategy, also recognises the important role philanthropy must play. Options being considered by Labor to encourage philanthropy include:
    the establishment of a national endowment scheme;
    offering tax incentives for research, educational and cultural expenditure, in conjunction with existing schemes;
    and encouraging international alumni to promote philanthropy among former international students of Australian universities. This may dovetail with the government's approach to promoting the "brand Australia" in international education (p33)

The paper's worth reading and the Senator gives contact details should you wish to share your opinions with him; it is not revealed if he has already gone through the 1000+ submissions engendered by the Senate Committee investigation into higher education plus Dr. Nelson's Higher Education at the Crossroads and the Minister for Science's National Research Priorities determination.

The Impact of Philanthropic Donations on Higher Education. (October 29, 2002)
    The American Association of Fundraising Counsel (AAFRC) has released its 2002 report Giving USA. It presents some interesting statistics indicating the importance of charitable donations to US higher education.
    The US population gave US$212 billion to charity in 2001. Just over US$35 billion went to US universities and colleges. Were Australians to show comparable generosity toward their tertiary institutions, what might have been last years donations?

Ratio  Aust. / USA
19.55 million
280.6 million
Per Capita GDP* US$24,000 US$36,300 0.66

Allowing a current exchange rate of A1$ = US$0.55  on a per capita basis we might have expected that A$4.43 billion would have been donated to Australian institutions of higher education last year. If the figure were calculated on per capita GDP, that would reduce to A$2.9 billion, still a sizable amount.
    One of the matters that ought to be addressed by all political parties, as well as our tertiary institutions, is just what incentives can be designed to achieve such a goal.
*Purchasing Power Parity

White House Stalls on NSF Funding. (October 26, 2002)
    The two houses of the U.S. Congress thought they had worked out a deal to authorize a 5-year doubling of the National Science Foundation (NSF) budget but a last-minute objection from the White House just prior to the mid-term election recess left matters unresolved. Congressional Republicans as well as Democrats weren't amused. The House of Representatives passed its version of the NSF authorization bill  in June, a 3-year blueprint with annual increases intended to put NSF's current budget on a doubling track. Last month two Senate panels approved a different version that provided for a full doubling, to nearly US$10 billion, by 2007. On 10 October House and Senate negotiators resolved their remaining differences and prepared for a pro forma vote on identical bills. It didn't happen because Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) at the instigation of the White House raised a parliamentary objection, blocking a vote in the Senate.
    The matter remains in limbo until the lame duck Congress meets following the November 5th election.

A First Step for Mathematics -- Will it be Transformed Into a Smoother Journey for the Enabling Sciences? (October 24, 2002)
    While many of the Department of Science, Education and Training (DEST) media releases consist of potshots at the State governments or are narrowly self-congratulatory, here is one with a welcome difference:

24 October 2002 MIN 219/02

[The Commonwealth will contribute] $181,000 to support the recently established Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI), in Melbourne.
    The Institute is a national collaborative venture that aims to improve maths standards in Australia.
    The funding will enable a maths summer school to be held over January to February 2003. Honours level and graduate students can undertake courses for credit or simply for interest and development [and is to become an annual event].
    Scholarships will also be offered to students to carry out projects with a research mathematician over the summer. Lectures will be video-recorded and made available on the internet.
    AMSI is a joint venture on behalf of four Australian universities; The University of Melbourne, Monash University, The Australian National University and The University of New South Wales.
    The Commonwealth funding has been provided from the Higher Education Innovation Programme.

Certainly, it's not a great sum and the money comes from existing Departmental allocations, nevertheless the grant recognizes that mathematics requires assistance. Whether or not this will be translated into powerful DEST support for the enabling sciences in the foreseeable future remains to be seen.

Professor Righi, Mr. Marconi, Basic Research and Why Both. (October 21, 2002)
    Nature in its 9th of October issue 1902 published the following observation:

...On the occasion of Mr. Marconi's return to his native [Bologna], Prof. Augusto Righi, in congratulating his former pupil in his successes, spoke to the following effect: -- Perhaps no one can appreciate better than I his exceptional inventive power and his unusual intellectual gifts. I remember ...his passion for applied science always stood out. The system of wireless telegraphy which he derived from Hertz's classical experiments ... is the most pleasing transference to the field of practical industry of those instruments and principles which might have seemed to be relegated to the domain of natural philosophy. ...he has once more proved how much those are in error who regard with disdainful or indifferent eyes the work carried on continuously in the silence of the laboratory by the modest and disinterested scientific students, and who only appreciate science in proportion to the immediate uses that can be obtained from it.

All well and good but why should Australia foster home grown basic research when we can just wait for others to do it and then follow along afterwards; a suggestion attributed, perhaps apocryphally, to certain members of the Federal Cabinet. The Australian Academy of Science's recent policy document The funding of research and research training in Australian universities makes the point succinctly, "As a recent UK analysis of the economic benefits of publicly funded research concluded: 'No nation can "free-ride" on the world scientific system…A nation needs the capability to understand the knowledge produced by others and that understanding can only be developed through performing research.'"

Swords into Plowshares 21st Century Style. (October 21, 2002)
    Detecting ultra-high-energy neutrinos doesn't come easy. They could have the energy of  a cricket ball bowled by Brett Lee or Shoaib Akhtar but if they exist, they interact with matter so seldom they have gone undetected -- so far. While theoretical physicists are in no doubt, it would be nice to have some hard data to back up their calculations. What's needed is a REALLY BIG detector, and that costs. The several experiments that are planned are some years away. But according to Science (October 4, 2002; p 43) "using data from sources such as a submarine-listening facility and an aging spy satellite, a handful of The FORTE Satelliteshoestring projects are quietly paving the way for higher profile efforts soon to come--and could well beat them to the punch." Stanford physicist, Giorgio Gratta, talked the U.S. Navy into allowing his team and a team from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography access to a 250 km2 array of hydrophones in the Atlantic Ocean near the Bahamas used by the Navy as a submarine detector. Gratta feels that using that part of the Atlantic ought to be a large enough detector to do the job if they can discriminate the effect of ultra-high-energy neutrinos from underwater background noise.
    In the meantime the FORTÉ satellite designed to help enforce the nuclear test ban by detecting electromagnetic pulses, such as those created when a nuclear weapon detonates gained the interest of  Nikolai Lehtinen and Peter Gorham of the University of Hawaii, Manoa. They obtained access to data from September 1997 through December 1999 and are looking through some 4 million events to see if any have the predicted characteristics expected from an ultra-high-energy neutrino interacting with the Greenland ice shelf.

Columbia University Thinks About Getting Tough About Science for Their Students. (October 19, 2002)
     Columbia University wants to determine if science should become part of the school's core curriculum, a graduation requirement at the school for over eighty years. Columbia astronomer David Helfand, points out "Most students, when they come to Columbia, don't have well-developed scientific habits of mind," while Austin Quigley, dean of Columbia College says emphatically, "we're going to knock down the barrier between the two cultures" of science and humanities.
    So from a practical viewpoint what's up? Helfand has just given the inaugural talk in an open-to-all six-lecture pilot course. His subject? 20th century cosmology; with a subplot concerned with a respect for numbers. He told the attendees, "If Marco Polo had started to count the 100 billion stars in the Milky Way and his descendents took over after he died, they wouldn't be done yet." Helfand wants "to expose students to the tremendous excitement of what's happening in science today ... [combined with] fundamental scientific concepts and techniques."
    Whether or not Helfand's and Quigley's initiative is followed up by the university's administration remains to be seen, but apart from upping the scientific literacy of the general public it would be a start at upping that of a nation's leaders since most are university students with no or little science in their courses. Perhaps the Group of Eight might have a look at Columbia's initiative.

's OpenCourseWare Debuts. (October 18, 2002)
    Last year the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that nearly all of its course materials would be made available free online. As good as its word, the first sets of material for more than 30 undergraduate and graduate classes in 17 departments have been made available in time of the beginning of North American universities' first term.  While you can't take courses through the project per se, lecturers at other universities can adapt the materials for their own use, and students can use them to augment what they get in their courses. Perhaps the material might also be of interest to parliamentarians prior to this year's "Science Meets Parliament" due next month.

Nuffield Council on Bioethics Publishes CD-ROM. (October 17, 2002)
    All recipients of the October 10th issue of Nature received as a "bonus" the CD-ROM published by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Nicola Perrin, the Council's Public Liaison Officer advises that anyone who would like a personal copy of the CD can obtain it free of charge by emailing her and asking for it. A complete listing of the Council's 7 reports and 3 discussion papers as well as ordering information is available on their publications page. The topics covered on the CD and the dates of their publication are given below.

Genetic Screening
Human Tissue: Ethical and Legal Issues
Mental Disorders and Genetics
Genetically Modified Crops
Stem Cells
Research in Developing Countries
Patenting DNA
Behavioral Genetics (currently only by download)
December 1993
April 1995
March 1996
September 1998
May 1999
April 2000
April 2002
July 2002
October 2002

Scientific Fraud: the Case of J. Hendrick Shöne. (October 16, 2002)
    A  feature article by Kenneth Chang in yesterday's New Times Times science section discusses in some detail the case of data faking by J. Hendrick Shöne the brilliant protégée of Bertram Batlogg at Bell Laboratories. Dr. Batlogg, then Bell Labs head of solid state physics research (since September Professor, and Head of the Laboratory for Solid State Physics at ETH, Zürich) hired Dr. Shöne on the basis of his outstanding Ph.D thesis work at the University of Konstanz. Dr. Batlogg gave Schön the project of using strong electric fields to alter the electronic behavior of organic crystals and in particular to look for the effect the procedure would have on the crystals' superconductivity, a subject of great interest in microelectronics and solid state physics.
    Stanford's 1998 physics Nobel Laureate Robert Laughlin points out,  "[Dr. Batlogg's] done excellent and reputable work in the past so most people felt it was unthinkable that [Schön's] work could not be true. He put his personal stamp of approval on these experiments." The principal thrust of Chang's article is that although, "An investigatory panel cleared Dr. Batlogg, and all other co-authors, of knowledge of the deception. [However] without Dr. Batlogg's imprimatur, the remarkable findings in superconductivity and organic electronics, now discredited, would have been scrutinized more skeptically sooner." Malcolm Beasley, professor of applied physics at Stanford Chaired the investigation. In its report the committee raised the question of whether Dr. Batlogg had fulfilled his "professional responsibility" in examining Dr. Schön's reported findings and went on to ask, "Should Batlogg have insisted on an exceptional degree of validation of the data in anticipation of the scrutiny that a senior scientist knows such extraordinary results would surely receive?"
    Currently that's a subject of considerable debate in the scientific community as attested to by the recent write-up in Science's October 4th issue: 298 (2002) 30-31 by Robert Service. In addition the case of the false announcement of the discovery of element 118 at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has also had extensive media attention. George Johnson's extensive write-up in the New York Times gives a good overall report of the events. As in the case at Bell Labs, the lack of constructive skepticism by coauthors has been the subject of criticism.
    [Note added 18/10/02: Donald Kennedy devotes his editorial in Science, October 18, 2002 to "Next Steps in the Schön Affair"]

Japan's Minister for Science and Technology Sacked. (October 14, 2002)
    In a reshuffling of Japanese cabinet posts Koji Omi, Minister for Science and Technology, is to be replaced by Hiroyuki Hosoda, from the economics ministry. The outgoing Omi had upset researchers through what they saw as his over emphasis on industry–university collaborations. In particular it was felt his approach was such as to cause significant degradation to Japanese basic research. It would appear that Japan's Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, may have taken heed.

U.S. Congress Moving Toward Large Funding Boost for Science. (October 13, 2002)
    NSF LogoThis past Wednesday the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee recommended a A$1.12 billion increase in the 2003 budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF), an increase of 13% approaching the scientific community's hope for a 5-year doubling of the current $A9.1 billion allocated to the agency which is the principal public funder of basic research. This recommendation is A$127 million more than recommended to the Senate in July and A$716 million more than requested by President Bush. It remains for the appropriation bills to reach the floors of the two chambers and for the bills as they are passed to be "merged" for presentation to the President. The U.S. fiscal year began October 1st and it is not yet clear just when they will be debated. In addition legislators want an outside group of management experts to report on how NSF does its business. "We're not criticizing them, but we want to be sure they can handle the growth," a congressional aide advised. The law makers, as have some members of the scientific community, have also voiced concern  if NSF has overemphasised in recent years top-down cross-disciplinary initiatives in information technology, nanotechnology, and biocomplexity while under resourcing individual fields, in particular physics, chemistry and astronomy.

European Young Investigator Awards -- Will They Eventuate? (October 13, 2002)
    If it gets legs its motto may be, Only the best and the brightest from around the world need apply. "The award [program] will be the first of its kind, guided by scientific excellence, originality, and potential," according to Finland's Lea Ryynänen-Karjalainen, Senior Adviser for the Director General of the Academy of Finland and who serves as scientific secretary to the European Union's Heads of Research Councils (EUROHORC), the organization introducing the program.  At least five of the EU's member nations will have to come to the party for the awards to become reality. According to Lea Ryynänen-Karjalainen, "EUROHORC's General Assembly will make its decision about launching the programme and about the administration of the programme on October 21st in Athens, funding organisations will give their commitments before December 1st." The talent competition, part of a growing move to bolster European science across national boundaries, will offer grants each totaling roughly A$2.75 million over 5 years. The contest will be open to researchers in any discipline--provided that they agree to work in one of the participating countries. Applicants must be under the age of 35 or have completed a postdoctoral appointment within the last 2 to 5 years. The awards will cover salary, overhead, and personnel. Participating countries hope to fund between 30 to 50 awards in the first round, with the number rising as more countries join in. The purpose of the scheme? To attract the best young scientists from any country to come to or to remain in the EU and establish themselves.

Mathematics: The Bulletin's October 9th Cover Story. (October 11, 2002)
    Andrew Wiles, developer of the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, told competitors at the International Mathematics Olympiad last year that maths has entered "a golden age". Diana Bagnall, in her October 9th cover story for The Bulletin "The not-so-clever country" reports that NSW professor of mathematics, Garth Gaudry, agrees it is indeed widely considered a golden age in mathematics. Bagnall reports, "'The progress is phenomenal and new fields are opening up in response to fresh ideas.' How bitter then to contemplate Australia forfeiting a share of the spoils..."
    That The Bulletin considers the matter of such significance to feature the problem of mathematics' decline in Australia as its cover story suggests perhaps for the first time an increasing public awareness that our common wealth rides increasingly with the utilisation of our intellect.

2002 Nobel Prize for Chemistry Honours Work Fundamental for Biomedical Research. (October 10, 2002)
    The Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2002 has been awarded  "for the development of methods for identification and structure analyses of biological macromolecules" with one half going jointly to John B. Fenn (US) and Koichi Tanaka (Japan) for their independent development of ionisation methods for mass spectrometric analyses of biological macromolecules. The other half was awarded to Kurt Wüthrich, (Switzerland) "for his development of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy for determining the three-dimensional structure of biological macromolecules in solution" which allows such determinations when X-ray crystallography is either inappropriate or impossible. Without these contributions serious work on the sequel to the "Human Genome Project", the analyses of the tens of thousands of proteins that go to make up organisms from bacteria to man, an organism's proteome would be dead in the water.

Physics Nobel Prize For Changing Our View of the Cosmos. (October 9, 2002)
    This year's Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded for the development of two new fields of research. For their pioneering work in neutrino astronomy one half of the prize goes to Raymond Davis Jr, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA, and Masatoshi Koshiba, International Center for Elementary Particle Physics, University of Tokyo, Japan. The second half of the physics prize has been awarded to Riccardo Giacconi, Associated Universities, Inc., Washington, DC, USA, "for pioneering contributions to astrophysics, which have led to the discovery of cosmic X-ray sources".
    Raymond Davis developed a detector which for the first time proved the existence of solar neutrinos. The detector, placed in a gold  mine, was a tank 14.6 metres long with a diameter of 6.1 metres  contains more than 600 tonnes of tetrachloroethylene.
    Masatoshi Koshiba and his team constructed another detector, which consisted of an enormous tank filled with water and surrounded by photomultipliers. When neutrinos pass through this tank, they may interact with atomic nuclei in the water. By adjusting the sensitivity of the detectors the presence of neutrinos could be proved and Davis's result was confirmed. In addition Koshiba's experiments were designed to register the time of events as well as the direction of the particles.  Therefore, for the first time it was proved that neutrinos come from the Sun.
    Riccardo Giacconi worked out principles for how an X-ray telescope should be constructed. In a rocket flight of one of the early models a surprisingly strong X-ray source was  was recorded as the rocket was rotating and its detectors swept the sky. This eventually was shown to be a distant ultraviolet star. In addition, a background of X-radiation was discovered evenly distributed across the sky. Giacconi went on to construct more X-ray telescopes with increasing sensitivity and resolution culminating in the Chandra, named for the astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, which flew in 1999 and continues to contribute extraordinarily detailed images of celestial bodies in X-radiation. Giacconi is now president of Associated Universities Incorporated, a Washington-based consortium that runs the National Radio Astronomy Observatory for the US National Science Foundation.

It's the Worm's Turn: 2002 Nobel for Physiology or Medicine Announced. (October 7, 2002)
    "The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet has today decided to award The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2002 jointly to Sydney Brenner, H. Robert Horvitz and John E. Sulston for their discoveries concerning 'genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death'." The announcement goes on to say, "[They]  have made seminal discoveries concerning the genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death. By establishing and using the nematode [worm] Caenorhabditis elegans as an experimental model system, possibilities were opened to follow cell division and differentiation from the fertilized egg to the adult."

French Scientists Vent Their Displeasure Regarding Proposed Budget Cuts. (October 5, 2002)
    Science's Parisian freelance, Barbara Casassus opened her account (Oct. 4) with, "If the phrase 'lies, damn lies, and statistics' hadn't already been coined, French researchers might have been tempted to do so last week when the government unveiled competing versions of its civil R&D budget for 2003."  According to the Finance Ministry, the 2003 budget will drop 0.8%  from € 8.72 billion to € 8.65 billion. According to Research Minister Claudie Haigneré's  it will rise by 1.4% to € 8.84 billion. According to Casassus, former astronaut Haigneré is indulging in a bit of creative accounting, "as her ministry intended to carry over 'very probably more than' € 720 million in unspent cash from 2002, thus raising the budget by 5.3%." Dr. Haigneré budgetary razzle dazzle left her media audience understandably bemused since much of the funds that she intends to carry over are not under her control. At least so says Jacques Fossey secretary-general of SNCS a leading researchers' union "More than half belongs to the laboratories; the public research institutes merely act as bankers."
    France's new Prime Minister,Jean-Pierre Raffarin in a TV interview, perhaps was reassuring -- if vague, "You will see that we will invest more in research in 2003 than in 2002." But by SNCS's calculations, the 2003 figure is a 1.3% drop, or about 3% after inflation. Whether Dr. Haigneré has plans for booking a place on the International Space Station hasn't been revealed.

Group of Eight Comments on Two Day PowWow with Dr. Nelson. (October 5, 2002)
    Perhaps bordering on servility the Chairman of the Group of Eight, John Hay, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland issued a statement zealously praising the Minister for Education, Science and Training's review Higher Education at the Crossroads.

There can be little argument that the consultative process Dr Nelson embarked upon this year has been thorough and wide-reaching.
    The process has yielded a large amount of useful data from a diverse number of parties that will help ensure that the final policy reform package is substantial and well-informed. The Minister is to be congratulated on the considerable effort that has been made by his department in this regard.
     Just as the government has demonstrated an awareness of the financial pressures and challenges that universities were facing, so too did the Go8 appreciate the tremendous and conflicting demands on the public purse at this time

In fairness, Professor Hay concluded by saying,  "Nonetheless, in the process of weighing up the interests of all Australians and providing a fair and equitable distribution of funding, it is to be hoped that the government will recognise the vital role that universities play in the global economy." We shall see what the New Year and its budget bring but the lack of an exhaustive, independent and competent comparative assessment of the higher education sector, its infrastructure and staffing calls into question the notion that the review "has been thorough and wide-reaching."

It's That Time of Year Again -- 2002 Ig Nobel Prizes Awarded. (October 5, 2002)
    Major awards were presented to researchers from India, Germany, Britain and Australia in Harvard's Sanders Theater before a 1,000 plus house where a supporting cast of Nobel Laureates performed in the Oscar envelope opening spot.   
    This year's biology prize was awarded to British researchers Norma Bubier, Charles Paxton, Phil Bowers, and D. Charles Deeming, for their work on courtship behavior of ostriches toward humans under farming conditions.
    K. P. Sreekumar of  India's Kerala Agricultural University received the mathematics gong for his work on estimating the surface area of elephants. The physics award went to Munich University's Arnd Leike for demonstrating that beer froth obeys the mathematical "Law of Exponential Decay".
    Recognizing the increasing weight being placed on interdisciplinary research, Karl Kruszelnicki of The University of Sydney received the interdisciplinary prize for his survey of belly button lint.

Marc Abrahams, master of ceremonies and editor of the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) closed the ceremony with his traditional remark: "If you didn't win an Ig Nobel Prize tonight--and especially if you did--better luck next year."

What is the Total Expenditure on Tertiary Education as a Percentage of GDP? (October 2, 2002)
    Here is the way TFW calculates it based on figures taken entirely from Australian Government documents.

  1. The Australian Government's National Investment Agency as of November 2001 quotes our GDP as US$394 billion and gives the then exchange rate at US$1 = A$1.96. That would set our GDP at A$772 billion.

  2. According to the figures DEST published in its set of selected statistics accompanying the issues papers making up Higher Education at the Crossroads the total university income for 2000 was $9.3 billion.

  3. The Productivity Commission's report released two days ago states that total expenditure on tertiary education institutions in Australia in 2000 was 1.4% of GDP.

  4. The report states (p3), "For the purposes of this study, higher education is defined to cover the teaching of bachelor and higher degree courses and research activities at universities and other higher education institutions."

  5. In Australia bachelor and higher degrees are awarded only at universities; therefore, 1.4% of GDP is 1.4% of $772 billion = $10.8 billion.

  6. There appears to be a discrepancy of  $1.5 billion dollars.

  7. On the dollar figures it would appear that Australia allotted 1.2% of its GDP to university education (i.e. higher education as defined above).

  8. The Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee stipulates that 2% of GDP should be expended on university education by 2020, i.e. $15.4 billion. That would be an average annual increment over the next 17 years of $360 million based on current GDP.

The Commonwealth's Productivity Commission has issued -- University Resourcing: Australia in an International Context. (October 1, 2002)
    The 286 page draft report commissioned earlier this year by the Minister for Education. Science and Training, Brendan Nelson in conjunction with his review of the nation's higher education system was released yesterday. The media release from Dr. Nelson's Department works hard at finding something to enthuse about but sounds just a bit hollow. Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, the statement neglects to give the URL from which the report can be downloaded. And it is worth downloading; just looking at the charts says an awful lot. We appear pretty average, and since 1993 things have gone down hill markedly. Figure 3.2 of the report gives a good indication; it shows:

 Total expenditure on tertiary education institutions as a per cent of GDP -- selected countries, 2000 and 1993

In reading the report it is essential to take into consideration the restricted "Terms of Reference" for the report and the choice of universities that the Productivity Commission chose to audit.

The Group of Eight wasted no time publishing their opinion, "Mediocre aspirations are letting Australia down." Their media release over the name of the current chair, John Hay, V-C University of Queensland makes the point that while, "There is no easy way to rank the performance of Australian universities within a cohort of international institutions and the Productivity Commission Report must, on its own admission, be treated with caution."

Nonetheless Australia's performance across a range of indicators suggests cause for concern. Student-staff ratios, academic salaries and government investment in higher education all fall below the levels required to sustain a quality higher education system in Australia.
    Mediocre aspirations for Australia's higher education system will be insufficient in the global information economy.
    We need mechanisms to encourage greater business investment and private benefaction. But importantly we must invest, as a community, in our universities and ensure we are at the top of international rankings in the quality of our teaching, scholarship and research.

Professor Hay continued that the Go8 " keen to see a policy reform agenda developed by government
that will:"

It's a nice thought but the government mustn't be seduced from the set of "real priorities" it has determined for the nation. As Dr. Nelson has previously reprimanded, "[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."

Science Meets Parliament -- November 12-13, 2002. (October 1, 2002)
    The Federation of Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) announced today that this year's annual Science Meets Parliament gathering will take place Tuesday and Wednesday, November 12th and 13th. Complete information is available on-line.
    Three keynote speakers will take part - Dr Keith Williams, CEO of Proteome Systems Ltd; Bob Herbert, CEO of the Australian Industry Group; and Lord Robert May, President of the Royal Society and former Chief Scientific Advisor to the British Government. Among Professor May's many achievements is his seminal 1976 paper in Nature (264: 16-17 (1976)) on The ecology of dragons in which he observed that historical documents are clear on several aspects of dragon behaviour one of which is, "the tendency exhibited by most dragons of record to be obsessive custodians of  hordes of gold." Professor May went on to say,  "I conclude with the time-worn call for further research, modified by the highly contemporary remark that (if the above speculation is correct) such research may yield the literally golden fruits."
    Dr. Nelson, Mr Costello, Mr Howard might take note.
    Perhaps the Minister for Science, Peter McGauran, might take it into consideration when determining national research priorities.