News & Views - October 2003



World Economic Forum Places Australia 10th on It's List of "Growth Competitiveness". (October 31, 2003)


*Applying the 2003 Formula. Source: World Economic Forum


The Global Competitiveness Report 2003-2004 is their latest edition. It assesses the comparative strengths and weaknesses of 102 industrialized and emerging economies. The survey attempts to quantify the impact of a number of key factors which contribute to sustained growth, "with particular focus on the macroeconomic environment, the quality of the country’s institutions, and the state of the country’s technology and supporting infrastructure," according to the October 30 media release.

    In addition "The Business Competitiveness Index (BCI), aims to identify the factors that underpin high current productivity and, hence, current economic performance measured by the level of GDP per person. It reflects microeconomic fundamentals, with one subindex that focuses on company sophistication and another on the quality of the business environment.

    The full report is available in hard copy from the Oxford University Press.



The National Research Infrastructure "Taskforce is Required to Provide the National Research Infrastructure Strategy to Dr Nelson by 31 October 2003." (October 30, 2003)

    Some ten days ago the National Research Infrastructure Task Force released a twenty page discussion paper commenting in its introduction, "In recognition of the importance of infrastructure to the research efforts of Australia, the Minister for Education, Science and Training, the Hon Dr Brendan Nelson MP, established the National Research Infrastructure Taskforce to develop a National Research Infrastructure Strategy. The Strategy will inform Government investment in research infrastructure for publicly funded higher education institutions and research agencies."

    The usual invitation for submissions from interested parties was issued who were asked to address:

1. Australia’s Future Research Infrastructure Needs

2. The Australian Government’s Research Infrastructure Funding System

3. The Acquisition, Development and Operation of Research Infrastructure

4. Processes for Domestic Research Infrastructure Collaboration

5. Processes for International Collaboration and Access.

Just over 100 submissions were obtained. However, no effort was made by the Department of Education, Science and Training nor, to our knowledge, was the taskforce empowered to enlist a critical independent assessment of Australia's current research infrastructure. Apart from any other considerations there would hardly have been any time to do so.


From its inception the undertaking had the stamp of a slapdash enterprise. In 19931 and again in 19982 assessments specific to the research infrastructure of higher education were obtained by the Minister for Employment, Education and Training, Kim Beazley and the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, David Kemp, respectively. In both cases external consultants were employed to assist in the assessments which were more tightly focused than the current effort, though the report handed in to Dr. Kemp was never published.

    What is clear is that compared to our cohort of nations Australia's position has continued to regress. Whether or not the current window dressing will effect a positive outcome on Australia's overall research infrastructure within the higher education sector remains to be seen, but the portents aren't good. The analysis by Gans and Stern is a recent hard headed assessment of Australia's place in the innovation steeplechase, a study which the government is at pains to avoid referencing.

1. National Board of Education, Science & Training (NBEET) 1993, Higher Education Research Infrastructure: report of the National Board of Employment, Education and Training, AGPS, Canberra.

2. Phillips Curran 1998, ‘Study of Higher Education Research Infrastructure’, prepared for the Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs and the Australian Research Council, unpublished.



US Public Universities' Tuition Shows an Average Rise of 14%. (October 30, 2003)

    Last week the New York Times wrote that the US College Board reported "tuition at public universities rose 14 percent to an average of $4,694 [A$6700] this year, the steepest increase in more than a quarter century," in order to offset state budget cuts engendered by the US economic downturn. Private university tuition rose an average of 6% to bring the mean annual fee to US$19,710 (A$28,000).

    Returning to the situation at the public universities, the College Board reported while grants did not keep pace with tuition increases they significantly reduced the impact. When scholarships and inflation were factored in, students ended up paying an average of US$343 (A$490) more at public universities last year than they did a decade earlier,  although officially tuition rose over US$1,100 (A$1550) in that period.

    Considering the Australian government's repeated assertions with regard to the nation's vibrant economy, the proposed increase in fees to be levied on individuals without significant improvements to the facilities to be provided, reinforces the perception of Federal cabinet's lack of interest as regards higher education. 



Science, Faith and The Muslim World. (October 28, 2003)

    The Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, had no intention of retiring from the world stage and moving into his "seventh age" quietly. And the western world took particular notice of a short paragraph two-thirds of the way through his address to ASEAN:

We are actually very strong. 1.3 billion people cannot be simply wiped out. The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.

Scant attention was paid to what else he said. But Paul Krugman of the New York Times did as did David Dickson, editor of SciDev. Dickson titled his October 27th editorial "Science and Faith in the Muslim World".


The Mahathir also blasted the World Trade Organisation for seeking to impose a new era of "neo-colonialism" on the developing world, and accused both the United States and Israel of engaging in "state terrorism".


Krugman, a professor of economics and international relations at Princeton, as did Dickson, actually read the address and opined in his October 21st column that "Mr. Mahathir, though guilty of serious abuses of power, is in many ways about as forward-looking a Muslim leader as we're likely to find. And Malaysia is the kind of success story we wish we saw more of: an impressive record of economic growth, rising education levels and general modernization in a nation with a Muslim majority."


The principal thrust of the good doctor's valedictory was that the Muslim world cannot prosper or compete with the West through political or military confrontation but that prosperity can only be achieved through brains not brawn. It must find ways of embracing modern science and technology, but with the caveat that it is to reinforce not undermine the religious and cultural values of Islam.

    That said he also complained that one consequence of the substitution of religious dogma for Muslim science and learning was eventually to deprive Muslim states of the military technology they now require to face up to "aggression from Western powers".


Dickson in his editorial also calls attention to the latest edition of the Arab Human Development Report, Building a Knowledge Society; it stresses the importance of modern science within Islamic culture, but points to the low level of investment by many Arab states to research and development, about 0.2% of GDP, compared to 2.3% in the OECD countries.

    Of course the report also stresses the importance of creating an open social and cultural environment in which the ready interchange of ideas, scientific and otherwise, are encouraged.


One final point made by Krugman needs attention:

[W]atching Mr. Mahathir [during the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98] his strident rhetoric was actually part of a delicate balancing act aimed at domestic politics. Malaysia has a Muslim, ethnically Malay, majority, but its business drive comes mainly from an ethnic Chinese minority. To keep the economy growing, Mr. Mahathir must allow the Chinese minority to prosper, but to ward off ethnic tensions he must throw favors, real and rhetorical, to the Malays. ...And that's what he was doing last week. Not long ago Washington was talking about Malaysia as an important partner in the war on terror. Now Mr. Mahathir thinks that to cover his domestic flank, he must insert hateful words into a speech mainly about Muslim reform.



NSW Residency Expatriate Scientist Awards Project to Enter Second Year. (October 26,2003)

    The University of Sydney is undertaking a pilot program, in which expatriate researchers are given the opportunity to return to Sydney University for a few months per year in order to build collaborative links and pass on some of their overseas experience.

    The first such program, just concluded, was described by TFW this past July, and is reported to have been highly successful.  The program's second year has now been announced and is soliciting researchers in all fields covered by the University.  Click here for application details.


The Universities and Academics According to the Nelson /Abbott-Andrews Spin. (October 25, 2003)

    "Why for example are your listeners, Alan, paying for places in a course like the 'application of make-up to drag queens', surf board riding, aromatherapy, a whole range of courses in golf course management. You can even do a degree in the paranormal. At the same time, Alan, we are bleeding in physics, chemistry, maths, literature, philosophy and sociology. We need to be starting to focus our resources on the things we need as a society and we to improve the quality of what is provided in education."

    The minister for Education Science and Training, Brendan Nelson Chatting with Alan Jones, radio 2GB's morning talkback jock.


"[He] is a lecturer who has been teaching at the same university since he got his post in his late 20s. He's never been promoted because he doesn't publish and he's a lousy teacher. The head of department is loath to let him near junior students because he's an arrogant bully and postgraduate students are no longer interested in his obscure area of expertise."

    Catherine Lumby in her October 8th Bulletin article "Mad Professors" drawing a caricature of the academic suggested by Dr. Nelson and the former and current ministers for Employment and Workplace relations, Tony Abbott and Kevin Andrews.

    Lumby concludes, "The problem is that Abbott and co. are still busily fighting phantoms from their own university days. They seem to have no clue of how far things have moved on campus these days. Sure, there's a handful of academics out there who are content to sit back and expect the money and students to come to them. But the great majority have been in the water learning to swim with the sharks for many years now."


Whatever the reasons, John Howard's government has taken an adversarial stance as regards Australia's universities and academics ever since it assumed office. It doesn't make for good nation building, quite the contrary. Whether after close to eight years it still makes for good politics will be up to the voters.



In 1992 Commonwealth funding for university research amounted to 66% of the total. = $301.6 million

    = 0.072% of GDP

In 2001 Commonwealth funding for university research amounted to 49% of the total. = $569.9 million

    = 0.078% of GDP

Not exactly a paradigm shift in support by a government espousing a knowledge economy.


    Less than a week ago The Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, told 2GB talk back jock Alan Jones, "[W]e are bleeding in physics, chemistry, maths, literature, philosophy and sociology. We need to be starting to focus our resources on the things we need as a society." Well he'd better get on with it; the "focus" over the past decade would seem to have an aberration comparable to the Hubble Space Telescope's before it got its corrective spectacles.

    Significant remedial action for the university sector is becoming more improbable with each passing year particularly when compared with our cohort nations' efforts.



Dr. Nelson Takes an Opportunity to Get off Some Cheap Shots. (October 20, 2003)

    Last Thursday (October 16th) the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, took the opportunity when talking with Alan Jones on his 2 GB talk show to take some cheap shots at the universities, presenting himself as the champion of the people who will keep the universities to the mark.

    Some excerpts

NELSON: Yep. Let’s say for example, for argument's sake, a university is fully funded to enroll 1,000 students. A university when it hits the 1,000 mark can say, right, we’ll take in another 100 students. But those extra 100 students who will be ‘over-enrolled’, instead of attracting an average of $10,000 -$12,000, under the current arrangements they get only $2,700. But the universities are grabbing the extra kids, grabbing the extra money, even though it’s less, and that is reducing the quality of what finally comes out the other end of the university.


JONES: But surely it must mean that the universities have got some problem with finances. Because 8 of the 40 of them are in deficit. Another 4 on the brink. I see that Newcastle University’s in debt to the tune of $3.7 million. Western Sydney $1.2 million, the Royal Institute of Technology in Melbourne $17.2, ANU $11.8. But the old fashion universities, Sydney, Queensland, Melbourne and Monash have got surpluses of $494 million.


NELSON: You’re absolutely right Alan. And, again, this is one of the reasons why we are trying to undertake reform. We’ve got to get more money into the universities. But on behalf of the tax payers, many of whom have never seen the inside of a university but respect what happens inside them, on behalf of them, we are saying look, before we actually handover another $10 billion extra public money in the next 10 years and $1.5 billion in the first 4 years, we are saying, look, there are things we want to happen. We want to see they are better regulated, better managed. We want rationalisation of courses. Why for example are your listeners, Alan, paying for places in a course like the ‘application of make-up to drag queens’, surf board riding, aromatherapy, a whole range of courses in golf course management. You can even do a degree in the paranormal. At the same time Alan we are bleeding in physics, chemistry, maths, literature, philosophy and sociology. We need to be starting to focus our resources on the things we need as a society and we to improve the quality of what is provided in education. [Our emphasis]

Dr Nelson's accounting is decidedly suspect as the National Tertiary Education Union, for one, has pointed out. But putting that aside, it's worth recalling a view espoused to the Senate committee looking into the matter of the Australian university system's competence to do its job by Michael Gallagher, then first assistant secretary, higher education division of Dr David Kemp's old Ministry later to join DEST.

Senator Carr (Labor)-- Professor Chubb [ANU Vice-Chancellor who previously told the committee that the university system was in crisis] says that... when your infrastructure is eroding and when you see all your equipment and your capacity to provide the resources you need for the staff to do the work that they want to be able to do slowly but surely degrading, then that does not make you very happy at all. How do you respond to that proposition? Is it an exaggeration?


Mr Gallagher--  ...I do not think it is surprising that a committee set up like this one to review the higher education system will draw disaffected submissions from various parts of the sector, including--


Senator Carr-- We are talking here about the vice-chancellors.  At Sydney, there were five vice-chancellors putting this position, representing some of the most prestigious institutions in this country. They are hardly what you would call a disaffected group or disaffected individuals. These are not your normal run-of-the-mill agitators--heaven help us.


Mr Gallagher-- They are making up for lost time, by the looks of it.


Senator Carr-- But is it not, therefore, a concern to the department that we should have such a widespread collection of opinion coming to us saying that the system is in deep crisis?


Mr Gallagher-- I put it back to you again that the people who are advocating that position to you are possibly looking for an easy way out rather than fronting up to their management responsibilities.

            [Monday, 13 August 2001, Canberra. Senate Committee—References EWRSBE 1350-51]

Apparently Michael Gallagher's influence on Dr Nelson's view of the academic world has remained long after his departure to become Director, Policy and Planning, Office of the Vice-Chancellor, The Australian National University.

    Presumably, therefore, any ANU courses in "the 'application of make-up to drag queens', surf board riding, aromatherapy, a whole range of courses in golf course management [or] a degree in the paranormal." have been dealt a terminal blow.



Will Australia's Public Universities Call the Minister's Bluff? (October 16, 2003)

    "...after eight months of hard but constructive enterprise bargaining we found that our agreement with the Unions violates many clauses suddenly imposed by the government one day before its signing." So wrote Gavin Brown, Sydney University's Vice-Chancellor in the University's newspaper. He went on, "...just before our bargain was due to be sealed, we were issued with a long list of prescriptive requirements, none of which we sought and any one of which can cost $24m over three years."

    However, staff at the Australian National University voted on a new enterprise agreement offered by the University that does not comply with the Government's requirements for additional funding. The ANU is the first institution to signal it will ignore the threat of funding reductions by the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson.

    The ABC quotes Dr Nelson as saying the ANU faces the prospect of losing millions of dollars in funding but that ANU vice-chancellor Ian Chubb is perfectly entitled to negotiate whatever arrangement he feels is appropriate. Dr Nelson pointed out that as he understands it the proposed agreement "is not currently consistent with what the Government is proposing to do. If the legislation is passed in its current form through the Senate, then clearly the ANU will need to reopen the arrangement which it's apparently reached," and emphasised that ANU would not be eligible to its share of the $404 million linked to the legislation the Minister for Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews is shortly to introduce to the House.

    And with all that the Australian Financial Review quotes Dr. Nelson as saying Australian universities are "teetering on the edge" and there is "already evidence of mediocrity."

    In addition Aban Contractor reports in today's Sydney Morning Herald that Dr Nelson, has conceded in private meetings with vice-chancellors that his higher education package is unlikely to be passed this year while anonymous vice-chancellors told Ms Contractor that as the proposed legislation stands, it would allow the minister unprecedented interference in how universities are run and deciding what courses are taught. As such is was unacceptable to the sector.

    If our universities are "teetering on the edge", Dr. Nelson's prescriptions show every sign of giving them a not too gentle shove. There are clear indications of the Minister being out of his depth.


    [Added October 17:  800 Australian National University staff looked on yesterday as its Vice-Chancellor, Ian Chubb, signed a new agreement which gave them a 17.4 per cent pay rise over three years and 26.5 weeks paid maternity leave. Professor Chubb said, "I think the [new workplace] guidelines are too intrusive and I couldn't see anything in them that could actually improve the ANU." ]



New Minister for Workplace Relations Wants to Plays Hardball with a Rubber Bat. (October 15, 2003)

    Kevin Andrews having just taken over from the Government's hard man Tony Abbott as Minister for Work Place Relations apparently wants to demonstrate that he's tough as well. He has informed the media that he would shortly introduce legislation broadening the powers of the Industrial Relations Commission whereby the commission would be required "to take particular account of the welfare of particular classes of people" such as those using hospitals, schools, universities. In short to preclude teachers, university academics, nurses and staff physicians from taking strike action. With  the nation's 38 publicly funded universities to shut down tomorrow while staff members strike for the first time in five years over government attempts to force universities to offer workplace agreements the timing appears deliberate.

    The mindset of the Government in continuing its bullying tactics is a remarkable demonstration of incomprehension of the precarious situation of the nation's healthcare and education sectors. Mr. Abbott having moved over to the heath portfolio has found that when visiting specialists got him by the throat with one hand and pointed a bodkin at his jugular with the other flailing elbows don't get you very far. The education sector hasn't got the sort of weapons of immediate destruction that the doctors can wield but when a joint statement is issued by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, and the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, that they are setting in motion a major international marketing push to "sustain Australia's future through education" to the accompaniment of Mr. Andrews flaring his nostrils that future doesn't bode well.

    Following are excepts from a media interview given by Dr Nelson today.

Question: You mentioned reducing industrial turmoil. As part of that would you welcome this plan that we’ve seen today, to ban teachers from striking, and lecturers?


Dr. Nelson: What we’re trying to do, as a part of it, is to bring reasonable working conditions into universities, in line with community standards and one of the initiatives of the Government is to expand the powers of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to allow, if it chooses to, to ban any industrial action after the expiration of an enterprise agreement where innocent third parties are being held hostage. One of the things that happens in universities, which is one of the reasons why the union has such tight control over what happens inside them, is that students are held hostage.


Question: Can you just clarify who you think the application of the legislation does apply for? Is it just nurses and educators working within the university system under those Awards, or is there some wider application in the legislation as the unions are trying to suggest?


Dr: Nelson: From the university perspective, our intention is that the Australian Industrial Relations Commission should have the power to determine whether a strike is doing unfair and unreasonable damage to innocent people; in this case, of course, students who are desperately waiting for their examination results.

Finally, it is interesting to note the position of the Vice-Chancellor of Sydney University, Gavin Brown, on the matter. He made his view that he felt gazumped quite clear, "Dr Nelson, once the recipient of a standing ovation from the vice-chancellors, has contrived the magical transformation from prince to frog and thrown us into industrial chaos." A short assessment he wrote for the University of Sydney's newspaper is reprinted in full in In TFW's October Viewpoint.  

    According to a media release from Dr. Nelson, "Claims that AWAs [Australian Workplace Agreements] will be forced on university staff are not, and have never been, correct. The Government remains committed to the view that genuine choice should be available for all Australians, including university staff."  Perhaps it hinges on how you define "forced". Threatening to withhold millions in funding would appear to be a good start.

    However, it must be noted that Professor Brown pointed out when defending his decision not to sign off on the agreement with the unions, "...we gave generous maternity leave provision and an undertaking not to increase casual staff. Out of a blue sky, the new rules prohibit these explicitly."

Professor Brown along with a number of other university staff and students are not "happy Vegemites."



45 European Nobel Laureates Plea for More Support for Basic Research. (October 12, 2003)

    Last week 45 European Nobel laureates handed the European research commissioner, Philippe Busquin, a letter requesting he give the highest priority to establishing a European Research Council, to fund fundamental research across all disciplines.

    Current European research programmes are not suited to basic science argue the Nobellists, and that a 'bottom-up' agency, driven by researchers rather than administrators, and admonish that it's an essential component that is missing from the commissioner's vision of pan-European research.

   Nature was told by 1991 Nobel Laureate Erwin Neher, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute of Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany, "There is an overwhelming level of support for the European Research Council among Europe's Nobel community."

    It remains to be seen how receptive Busquin and his fellow commissioners will be to the plea, but the realisation that basic research is an essential part of the infrastructure necessary for a community's innovation and applied research appears to gaining wider recognition in the world's more advanced nations.



Baghdad University Staff Protest. (October 12, 2003)

    Baghdad University biochemist Sami al-Mudhafar was elected president by its faculty this past May. Late last month he was removed by higher education minister Zayad Abdul-Razzaq Mohammed Aswad previously professor of engineering at the university. The reason given, al-Mudhafar was too slow in removing members of the Baath Party. According to al-Mudhafar's supporters, who took to the streets to protest, he was democratically chosen and should remain as president. At present the is no indication of what comes next.



Is There a Spanish Connection? (October 10, 2003)

    The October 10th issue of  Science contains the following brief item.

It will take a century for the Spanish government to reach recommended science spending levels unless it dramatically revamps budget priorities, concludes a new report.
    European science leaders say nations should aim to spend 3% of their gross domestic product on fundamental science by 2010 to sustain innovation. But a study released late last month by a group of 3000 Spanish scientists says their nation is heading in the wrong direction. Basic researchers have seen their budgets shrink by nearly a third since 1990, they found, while government support for applied technology work in business and the military has soared.
    A government spokesperson, however, disputes the 100-year estimate for increasing the science budget, saying researchers downplayed recent trends. For instance, he notes that basic research spending has soared more than 60%, to about $260 million, since 2000, thanks largely to European Union assistance.

Right, any chance of our joining the EU?



Australia's Teachers: Australia's Future is Subtitled Advancing Innovation, Science, Technology and Mathematics. (October 9, 2003)

    A Committee, with representatives from school, university and industry sectors, was established by the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, on August 8th last year to oversee a "Review of Teaching and Teacher Education" chaired by Professor Kwong Lee Dow Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Students & Staff), University of Melbourne. The full report is available on the DEST website, in three pdf files. The 19 principal findings and recommendations a given below:

  1. a declining proportion of students who complete Year 12 studies in physics, chemistry, biology and advanced mathematics;

  2. insufficient numbers of highly trained teachers in science, technology and mathematics;

  3. present uncertainty among primary school teachers about how best to teach science, accompanied by primary teachers’ relatively low levels of interest and academic attainment in science and mathematics;

  4.  teaching which does too little to stimulate curiosity, problem solving, depth of understanding and continued interest in learning among students, or to thus encourage them to undertake advanced study in science and mathematics at school and beyond; and

  5.  some students who do not do well at school, including too many Indigenous
    students, and may leave at the minimum permitted age with low attainments
    and poor motivation for continuing learning.

With regard to a knowledge society and economy the report states:

  1. it is through continuing systematic inquiry, research and well analysed practice that knowledge for practical application is generated;

  2.  it is increasingly through the systematic application of new knowledge and creative ideas that innovations of practical value are generated; and

  3. it is those ‘new knowledge’ innovations that will in future underpin employment, economic growth, social development and people’s well-being.

With regard to forecasting future requirements the reviewers found that, limited data and inadequate analyses make forecasting supply and demand difficult. However, several priorities stand out:

  1.  ensuring an adequate supply of highly talented, well-educated teachers to meet the need for a more extensive provision of science, technology and mathematics in primary as well as secondary schooling;

  2. understanding demand by region and specialisation and developing broader strategies to attract, recruit and retain quality teachers of all subjects and at all levels;

  3.  ensuring that all schools regardless of location are well staffed with appropriately qualified teachers; and

  4. achieving a more diverse population of teachers more representative of the cultural, social and ethnic diversity of the Australian community.

The report also places emphasis on requirements to meet a fully functioning system of professional learning for Australia’s teachers are:

  1.  recognition and reward for teachers who demonstrate advanced competencies and continued professional development; and

  2. greatly improved teacher access to and use of new knowledge and the communication and information technologies pertinent to teaching and learning.

Finally the Committee sums up its take home messages to the Government saying that among the key factors in bringing about school improvement are:

  1.  outstanding leadership, from formally designated staff, notably the school principal, and from the teaching staff and students;

  2. a clear vision and sense of purpose together with the capability to manage and orchestrate institutional change;

  3. a commitment by the whole school community, including parents, to this vision and to sustain it in all facets of school life;

  4. highly competent teachers dedicated to achieving excellent learning outcomes for all students and to maintaining the highest standards of professionalism and professional learning; and

  5. strong system and employer-led strategic planning, resourcing and support.

Just what outcomes will derive from the 470 page document remains to be seen, but in his public comments so far Dr Nelson indicated that in his opinion the Federal Government had done all that it should and it was the states that were dragging the chain. It would seem that there is more certainty in this world than just death and taxes.



Sauce for the Goose but not the Gander. (October 9, 2003)

    The vice-chancellors of Australia's thirty-eight  public universities must be utterly bemused by a reply made by the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, in his doorstop interview this afternoon with regard to the possible controversial nature of the report Australia's Teachers: Australia's Future released today.

[S]ome of the things that will be considered to be controversial by some people, but which the average Australian will think is unremarkable, is that school principals and school communities should have more freedom to run their own affairs. As one principal said to me last year, he said I couldn’t even begin to offer a quality education to children if I had no say over the teachers who teach in this school. There are people who will be opposed to schools having more freedom to run their own affairs, instead of having an education bureaucracy telling them what to do.

However, the Minister went on to assure us that as guarding of public funding he would not countenance  vice-chancellors degrading the quality of university instruction by following a "Gresham's Law of Instruction." in pursuit of filthy lucre.

The Government is not prepared to create a situation where universities are able to think that they can get out of high cost courses and jump into low cost courses. We don’t want universities making decisions to say they are going to reduce the number of nurses or teachers they train and start training more lawyers. Similarly, it is time that the Government started to have a greater say over some of the courses that are offered in universities. At a time when we’re bleeding in universities in physics and chemistry and maths, enabling sciences, in literature, philosophy, humanities and history - we’ve got courses and degrees emerging in the paranormal, golf course management, surf board riding and aromatherapy. What’s critically important on behalf of the Australian taxpayers who pay for three quarters of what happens in universities, is that the Minister of the day, whether it is me or my successor, has the ability on behalf of the Australian taxpayer to actually direct resources where this society most needs them.

Leaving aside Dr. Nelson's rubbery figure for the percentage of public funding for public universities, the picture of him championing the cause of learning against the philistines occupying our university vice-chancellorships is nothing short of ludicrous.



2003 Nobel Laureates  Announced. (October 9, 2003)

    The announcement today of the 2003 Nobel Prize winners in chemistry and economics rounds out the announcement of the science prizes for this year.

    It's noteworthy that the award for Physiology or Medicine went to fundamental contributions in the utilisation of nuclear magnetic resonance (magnetic resonance imaging), while the Chemistry Prize was given for the discovery of water channels in cell membranes and for structural and mechanistic studies of their ion channels – ont> surely a clear demonstration of the importance for a fundamental understanding of the enabling sciences to further progress in biomedicine. The lesson seems to have been taken in by the NIH in developing its plan for the Institute's future direction. Whether or not there is a comparable understanding by Australian Governmental Ministers responsible for science is moot.



Australia's First Teraflop Supercomputer Announced. (October 9, 2003)

    The Australian Centre for Advanced Computing and Communications (ac3) announced yesterday, "Australia's newest and most powerful supercomputer - supplied by Dell and running on Intel technology - has broken the computing world's version of the sound barrier by performing [1.07 trillion floating point] calculations per second. The cluster of 155 dual processor Dells uses the Linux operating system.

    According to ac3 CEO Dr Philip McCrea, “ [It] will make a tremendous contribution to a diverse range of research projects which include development of new photonic technology, new microwave technologies, modelling of the effects of land cover changes, the design of new drugs, and improved mobile communication reception.”

    In the June 2003 listing of the world's top 500 Supercomputers this places the ac3 machine in the top 10% (48th place). The previous top Australian computer was the 0.84 teraflop machine (79th place) housed at the Australian Partnership for Advanced Computing facility, ANU.

    1st place is occupied by the 35.9 teraflop NEC Earth Simulator with Los Alamos National Laboratory's 8,192 processor Hewlett-Packard machine (13.9 teraflops) coming 2nd. Besides Australia the only other "small" nations in the top 50 are Finland (42) and Switzerland (47).



Click for enlarged viewFollow-up on NIH's Future Directions. (October 7, 2003)

     The American Physical Society's Bob Park came as close as maybe to saying, "Not before time," commenting in his October 3rd What's New column, "Until about the middle of the 20th Century, advances in medicine most often resulted from serendipitous observations by brilliant loners: vaccination, aspirin, penicillin, come to mind.  Today, advances rely on the enormous research strides into how the body works.  In the new NIH, according to [NIH Director Elias] Zerhouni, the emphasis will be on interdisciplinary teams in which the physicians, geneticists, and biologists normally funded by NIH, will be joined by physicists, materials scientists and engineers. Previous crosscutting initiatives at NIH failed when competing institute directors resisted, and the new unity will be difficult to sustain without the 15 percent increases of recent years.  Zerhouni's predecessor, Harold Varmus, urged increased funding for fields such as physics, with little success, but the new plan gives these fields a stake in increasing NIH funding."

    The NIH has published a specific web site NIH Roadmap which among other material makes available the one hour press briefing that Elias Zerhouniand and several of the NIH's Institute directors gave, including Francis Collins, Head of National Human Genome Research Institute. Following on Bob Park's comment, it's worth noting that in the NIH's five page background briefing, a full page is devoted to outlining what is referred to as the "Interdisciplinary Research Implementation Group."

    How Dr. Zerhouni's bold vision will be received by the Bush administration and the US Houses of Congress is the key question. Without robust investment it will be stillborn. But in the current economic climate in the US and the demands engendered by the Bush administration's pre-emptive adventures, it is debatable how supportive the US government will be.



2003 Ig Nobel Prizes Shared Round the Planet. (October 3, 2003)

    It's that time of year again when Nobel and Ig Nobel prizes occupy the awareness of the scientific fraternity. The Igs were awarded yesterday at a lavish ceremony in Harvard's Sanders Theatre. The prize-winners included:

Other awards went to a paper analysing case of homosexual necrophilia in ducks and a chemical analysis of a Japanese pigeon-repelling statue.

   Marc Abrahams the Ig Nobels organiser feels they honour research that makes people laugh, then think, and goes on, "There are many people who have done work that will never win a Nobel Prize, but that deserve recognition."

    2 Harvey, J. T., et. al. An analysis of the forces required to drag sheep over various surface. Applied Ergonomics, 33, 523 - 531, doi:10.1016/S0003-6870(02)00071-6 (2002).



NIH Evolves to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century. (October 1, 2003)

    In mid-August Elvira Ehrenfeld, as director of NIH's Center for Scientific Review, foreshadowed changes in the US National Institutes of Health's policies. She specifically emphasised, "It is clear that we are losing groundbreaking proposals simply because of the conservatism built into the system. ... It's just too risky not to [fund high risk but potentially high impact research]."

    Now NIH Director, Elias Zerhouni, having consulted with more than 300 experts over 14 months has laid out the path he wants the Institutes to take. According to ScienceNow his overreaching approach will be to "accelerate research by giving bench scientists more tools, encouraging cross-disciplinary teams, and overhauling the infrastructure for clinical trials."  Zerhouni says, "Think of it as synergizing areas that no institute either has the mission or resources to invest in."   Initial six year funding for the 28 suggested initiatives is set to less than 10% of NIH's current annual budget, US $2.1billion compared with NIH's 2003 budget of US$27.3 billion. "It's a revolutionary process for NIH," Zerhouni continues, pointing out that all 27 institutes and centres have agreed to chip in. "That has never been done before."

    Other plans include a new award as suggested by Elvira Ehrenfeld that would give creative researchers US$500,000 a year for 5 years with no strings attached, "nanomedicine" centres, and a national grid for biological computing.