News & Views - August 2001 

64 Varieties of Embryonic Stem Cells - NIH Tally (August 28, 2001)
    The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) today announcing the names of 10 companies and research groups that have human embryonic stem cells US government funded researchers may use, 64 lines in all, and considerably more than expected to be available to investigators and of sufficient quality. Of those lines six will be available from Melbourne's Monash University.

 All 64 lines according to the NIH "show characteristics of stem cell morphology" and most have exhibited all the protein markers "known to be associated with human embryonic stem cells." NIH expects to come up with more extensive information on the scientific quality of the cells, including details on how they were cultivated, growth characteristics, and evidence of pluripotency in the near future.
    The funding that our Government's Major National Research Facilities program will make available to Australia's stem cell research initiative over the next five years together with state and private investment will allow Australia the potential for being one of the world's leaders in this field of research.

Excerpts from Peter Doherty's The Role of the Public University. (August 28, 2001)

On August 24th, at the invitation of the University of Queensland, Peter Doherty U of Q alumnus and 1996 Nobel Prize winner, gave a public lecture on The Role of the Public University.

    Those early politicians were very obsessed with the idea that the Queensland government must, under all circumstance, maintain direct control of the university.
    The truth of the matter is, though, that strong external control is inimical to the proper functioning of a university. The capacity to tolerate, and even applaud, constructive criticism emanating from the university sector is, in fact, a central hallmark of a sophisticated, modern state.
    We [Academics] should be able to provide considered opinions in areas where we have real expertise we do not, I believe, have the right to use the prestige and power of our institutions to push private agendas.
    The tension between the model that universities exist primarily to provide high quality technological training in areas like engineering and medicine and the idea that a university education is a necessary process for the formation of a well-rounded, educated, thinking person, continues to plague us... Americans... emphasize that [a] liberal education is an essential pre-requisite, with training for professional skills to come later. At its best, this seems to me to be an optimal model, though it does entail the expense of additional years as a student. Do we need to be in such a hurry?
    The balance between more practical, vocational training and university education became hopelessly confused when the Australian higher education sector was vandalized by the Hawke government under the so-called Dawkins' reforms of the late 1980's. Since then, both government and the educational institutions themselves have spent a great deal of time trying to cope with the disaster that followed.
    [L]eaders of Australia’s universities are under tremendous pressure. On the one hand they need to innovate, while on the other they have to deal with many entrenched political and historical realities, some of which were exacerbated by Dawkins. The past 10-20 years have not been easy ones for the higher education system.
The full lecture100K

The Vice-Chancellor of ANU is not a Man Apart. (August 27,2001)
    Professor Ian Chubb, Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University was taken to task the other day by the Education Minister, David Kemp, for decrying the deficiencies in university resources. However, we should point out that the Presidents of the Australian Academy of Science, Professor Brian Anderson, and the National Tertiary Education Union, Dr. Carolyn Allport were equally pointed.
    Dr. Allport pointed out that "the prominence given to to science in Government's Backing Australia's Ability and the ALP's Knowledge Nation report are very welcome ... However, we need a long-term strategy to rebuild our science base, especially in universities which have borne the brunt of Government funding cuts." She went on to say, "We estimate that staff salary increases alone are costing universities $150m per year over and above what they receive from Government... universities need a 20% increase in operating grant funding in order to restore their capacity to meet the nations needs."
    The AAS President was no less plainspoken, "A strong education sector at all levels is vital in creating and sustaining a knowledge-based economy. We are seeing some very disturbing signs." Then singling out the "hard" sciences  he continued, "The declining share of enrolments in... physics chemistry and mathematics in universities and secondary schools is of great concern; we must reverse this trend otherwise Australia will not have the capacity to support the skilled workforce necessary to survive and prosper in an innovative and competitive global environment." So far history does not relate if Dr. Allport and Prof. Anderson received notes of admonition comparable to that sent to Prof. Chubb.
    A passing note: the Department of Finance has projected that Commonwealth expenditure on higher education as a percentage of  gross domestic product will decline 12%, from 0.59% to to 0.52%, over the coming two financial years.
                It really is quite incomprehensible what all the whingeing  is about.

Enlightened Self-Interest - Pros, no Cons. (August 27. 2001)
    Over the past decade first Labor and then the Coalition Government have squeezed universities and basic research activities unmercifully. In stark contrast to many of the other 29 OECD counties, and of course those comprising the  European Union. A point seldom alluded to is the debt Australia owes to the scientific and technological information as well as online analytical tools freely provided by, for example, the United Stated and the EU.
    Just two examples:

  • the billions spent to sequence the human genome. Those data and much in addition are freely available online at the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) and the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI),

  • an interface to data collected by the DØ experiment at the Fermilab Tevatron, enabling fast and automatic testing of models predicting new phenomena at the scale of several hundred GeV (Quaero).

The mean spiritedness toward our universities and basic research (and not only in the sciences) should it continue will increasingly affect our international standing and will undoubtedly impinge on the ability of our tertiary institutions to attract overseas students, a matter dear to the heart of the Coalition.
    Not really smart policy.

Bell Labs' Troubled Times and Basic Science. (August 27, 2001)
    "Of all the world's industrial research centres, Bell Laboratories wears the crown. Bell Labs has been an icon of ingenuity ever since its launch in 1925 by American Telephone & Telegraph." With those two short sentences Nature introduced its August 9th news feature. Over the course of its history work at the labs has received six Nobel prizes and among other achievements produced the UNIX operating system and the C programming language. In consultation with astrophysicists at Princeton its workers deduced the presence of the cosmic background radiation, one of the fundamental pieces of evidence in favour of the Big Bang origin of our universe.  It has served as the outstanding interface between fundamental physics and high technology. But a series of incompetent business decisions by its now parent, Lucent Technologies, has put work at Bell Labs' in jeopardy. As Nature points out, "the main concern is whether the labs' tradition of allowing researchers the freedom to explore the areas they find interesting can survive."
    Recent decisions by the Australian Research Council (ARC), the nation's main source for non medical basic research funding,  has placed increasing emphasis on grantees showing how their work may benefit Australia. Just how that's interpreted together with the increasing expenditure by the ARC on so called linkage research can have far ranging repercussions on Australian science for at least a generation, and is one of the reasons for more than one vice-chancellor to try to get the Government of the day, the opposition and the public to recognise that our universities are in crisis. 

New Zealand's Royal Commission on Genetic Modification. (August 24, 2001)
    On the 11th of May last year the New Zealand Government, pressed by the the Greens, published the warrant calling for a Royal Commission Report on Genetic Modification. Prime Minister Helen Clark referred to it as "the most wide ranging inquiry into genetic modification ever undertaken in any country."
    Following release of the 1200 page report at the end of last month, it was lauded in Nature's editorial of August 9th. The journal points out that "Whatever researchers may believe about the benefits, the future of genetically modified (GM) crops and foods depends on the prosperity of companies wishing to invest in their development and on the willingness of farmers, retailers and consumers to buy them. Those market forces in turn depend critically on regulation and public attitudes. Thus it has been encouraging to witness the constructive and sensitive approach adopted by the New Zealand government in establishing a Royal Commission on Genetic Modification as applied to research, medicine and agriculture." The commission's four members were a retired chief justice, a biomedical researcher, a medical practitioner of Maori heritage and an Anglican bishop. Nature summarises its assessment by "In the end, a campaign to make New Zealand a genetic-engineering-free zone has, with transparent justice, been dealt a heavy blow from which it will be difficult for it to recover, although New Zealand's Green Party vows to 'fight on' ". The short executive summary in fact gives no real sense of the detail and high quality of the report which is the basis of a New York Times feature article published on Tuesday.

Minister Scolds ANU's Vice-Chancellor. (August 23, 2001)   
    The censure brought by the Howard Government against the leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, precluded any significant media coverage that Science Meets Parliament Day might have achieved, but a public stoush, even a small one, if it concerns a cabinet minister is news. Professor Ian Chubb, Vice-Chancellor of ANU and Chairman of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee may not look much like Kerryn Phelps but he can get a bit feisty too when roused. The normally soft-spoken V-C was quoted this morning as being disappointed by Government reaction to his stated view that Australian universities are in crisis. Professor Chubb has pointed out that among a number of other problems there can be up to 32 students taking a tutorial. Not really what comes to mind when thinking of students and tutors. Never mind, the Federal Minister for Education Dr. Kemp sent over a note to the V-C taking him to task for airing his views. Professor Chubb's assessment, spoken as softly as ever, "It's a bit disappointing. I think that we ought to get down to the substantive issues and rise above some of the minutia."
    We could get lucky. The Senate committee charged with looking into the matter might bring forth a cracking good report, and the Government of the day might take heed.

David King, Britain's Chief Scientific Advisor. (August 12, 2001)
    David King, like his predecessor Robert May, came to the role of the British Government's Chief Scientific Advisor from academe rather than industry. He headed Cambridge's chemistry department. King points out that an ill wind can blow some good. In his case he's convinced that the foot and mouth epidemic which transpired almost immediately he took over from May, "has been enormously powerful in bringing to the attention of the prime minister how science can advise policy-making and be effective." And for the moment at least he has regular access to Tony Blair. King has taken advantage of his current clout by gaining a commitment that science will be included in the next cross-departmental review of government spending scheduled to be completed by mid-2002.
    One of King's major fears is the progressive reduction of in-house governmental scientific expertise. "The net result is that we've lost a fair amount of the science base from within the civil service, so we don't have these people bubbling up into top positions. The problem with an organisation that out-sources all of its resources is that, if it does it too rigorously, it no longer knows even what questions to ask." It has all too familiar a ring except the bell seems to toll louder down under.

Italians Take Heed of Lack of Support for Science. (August 12, 2001)   
    Government funding for Italian science is currently set at 1% of GDP about half the European Union average. That's set to change with the announcement that over the next five years it will double, i.e. approaching the expected EU average for 2006. Nature commented recently, "The [current] lack of investment, together with the excessively bureaucratic recruitment process, has been blamed for Italy's comparatively poor standing in international science."
    Virtually the same comment could be made regarding Australian Science. While we don't suffer to the same extent from a "bureaucratic recruitment process" we remain not only woefully short of resources for science  - Innovation Action Plan or no IAP - far too little attention is paid to the views of our younger scientists when allocating the meager resources currently available. As one of our country's eminent (and older) scientists pointed out in these pages some months ago, it's rule by the bureausaurs.

National Missile Defense - A US Senator Appears to Have Some Reservations. (August 12, 2001)
     Describing President Bush's missile defense plan as "the most expensive possible response to the least likely threat we face," the US Senate Majority Leader, Tom Daschle (D - South Dakota), observed in regard to the Pentagon's test of its anti-missile missile, "we knew who was launching, where it was being launched from, when it was being launched, and the flight path it would take. For good measure, there was a homing beacon on the target." However, he added that he's not necessarily an opponent of the program if "our adversaries would be kind enough to meet all of these conditions, and if we are willing to accept a 50% success rate," he'd be in it. Thus far there's been no public comment by members of the Australian Parliament.

"The Role of the Public University" - Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty (August 10, 2001)
    On August 24th, at the invitation of the University of Queensland, the former U of Q student and 1996 Nobel Prize winner, together with Rolf Zinkernagel, for work done from 1973-75 at ANU's John Curtin, will give a public lecture on the role of the public university. He appears to believe the matter to be of sufficient importance to speak his mind in public.
    Professor Doherty is Chair of the Department of Immunology St Jude Children's Research Hospital, Memphis and a Research Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne. The abstract of his lecture:

The Role of the Public University - An unwavering commitment to the health of a strong, independent, public university system is a key measure of a free and mature society. The universities have long provided much of the focus for the informed debate and critique that is so essential for the health of a democracy. The increasingly obvious reality of the past 50 years is that both economic development and social improvement are inextricably linked to the promotion of liberal education, knowledge, insight and innovation. The universities play a major part in this process, both by training the young and by providing the sites where discoveries can be made and ideas tested. Only the universities house the spectrum of expertise that is required to establish the interactive models that will drive the world of the future. Australia needs both a broadly based system of higher education, and a spectrum of first class research universities with the critical mass to be competitive in a world that will be increasingly dominated by knowledge and insight. Australia cannot, with its small population, afford to waste the potential of a single citizen.

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Canada to Set Up Comprehensive and Independent Science Advisory Body to Counsel Government (August 10, 2001)
    Draft proposals for a body to be known as the Canadian Academies, and based on models such as the US National Academies complex have just been published by a working party set up by the government of Canada late last year. Its members are to include the country's three main existing organisations for science, engineering and health: the Canadian Academy of the Sciences and Humanities (otherwise known as the Royal Society of Canada), the Canadian Academy of Engineering, and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, which is to be established later this year.
    According to the statement released by the government, the Canadian Academies' mandate will be to conduct assessments of the sciences and enhance international linkages critical to capturing the opportunities and meeting the challenges that arise from advances in the sciences. Its mission is to be two-fold:

1. to provide a source of credible, independent, expert assessments of the sciences underlying pressing issues and matters of public interest and, 

2.  to provide a strong Canadian voice for sciences, both nationally and internationally.

    Gilbert Normand, Canada's Secretary of State for Science Research and Development and a strong supporter said, "The Canadian government has a large number of separate advisory committees, but it does not have an independent, national organization that has the confidence both of the Canadian people and of the international scientific community." He added that the new body will provide a source of "credible, independent expert assessments on the sciences underlying important issues and matters of public interest."
    Running costs? About Can$3 million a year; and while the government might decide to provide this money on an annual basis, Normand's preference would be to set up the organisation with an initial capital allocation from the government of Can$30 million, which would allow it to be stable for ten years of operation and would help to nurture its independence.
    With an investment of that order it's reasonable to expect that the Canadian government is serious in its stated intent.

Irish High Technology Superstructure Gets Basic Research Keystone (August 8, 2001)
    In a move to make Australian scientists deeply envious Science Foundation Ireland announced significant measures to stem the country's brain drain and to put substantial resources behind its rhetoric. The following report from Science Now (Aug. 7) is reprinted in its entirety. The sums given are in US$.

Known for a high-tech buildup that has earned it the nickname Silicon Bog, Ireland has now taken a major step in shoring up the basic research end of its R&D pipeline. Last week, in an effort to stem the country's accelerating brain drain problem, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the country's nascent grants agency, announced that 10 scientific stars will share $67 million.

Ireland's economy is booming. But while high-tech companies are spreading across the Irish landscape and fueling a 7.5% average rise in annual gross domestic product over the past 5 years, that prosperity hasn't extended to academia. "Ireland has not been seen as a location to carry out world-class research in the past, and traditionally the best of Irish researchers went overseas to complete their doctorates," says SFI spokesperson Martin Hynes. Even worse, few returned. Attracted by higher salaries and better grant support, many talented scientists set up shop elsewhere in Europe or in the United States.

SFI would like to counter this trend. The government set up the foundation in July 2000, handing it $600 million to spend on peer-reviewed research over the next 5 years. Now SFI's first move is to bankroll 10 world-class labs to beef up basic research connected to biotechnology or information technology--areas deemed vital to the country's economic development.

The so-called SFI Principal Investigators, selected by international panels, each will get about $6 million over 5 years, including unpublicized premium salaries said to be more in line with industry than academia. The SFI has placed no restrictions on how the scientists spend their money, although foundation officials expect the researchers to use the funds to recruit top-notch team members, refurbish aging labs, and purchase equipment.

"The winning candidates are key people in their fields," says biochemist Brian Heap, foreign secretary of the U.K.'s Royal Society, which last year launched a similar initiative to retain top scientific talent. "In terms of brain gain," he says, "Ireland will benefit substantially."

Now, anyone left with an Irish joke he feels obliged to utter? If so, take a careful look at what Backing Australia's Ability has offered.

Scientists to Meet with Parliamentarians in a Fortnight. (August 7, 2001)
    The annual event staged by the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) "Science Meets Parliament" day is scheduled this year for Wednesday August 22nd. Tuesday the 21st will be a briefing day with a projected multifaceted program. It is worthwhile reading through the two year old report on SmP for 1999. The then President, Sue Serjeantson, wrote,

The steady flight of Australian scientists and technologists to better-funded, better-resourced and better paid positions overseas is stark evidence that all is not well in Australian science. Investment in science and technology should be top national priority, and FASTS wanted to take this issue up directly with Australia's 224 national Parliamentary representatives.

How effective that initiative and the one following on November 1, 2000 has been can be judged perhaps by two observations passed by the Group of Eight and the National Tertiary Education Union. In its media release of April 11th this year the Go8 pointed out:

Following the release of the Innovation Action Plan (IAP) by the Prime Minister the Go8 calculated the impact of the IAP proposals for funding R&D on Australia's projected performance.

In his address to the National Press Club in Canberra today, the Chair of the Group of Eight, Professor Gavin Brown, said: "The recent innovation commitment was a step in the right direction and I strongly welcome John Howard's personal involvement. An enormous amount remains to be done.

"Somebody must have the courage to point these things out. A huge investment in R&D such as we proposed in December would simply bring us back to the OECD average of R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP. That average is over 2% but Australia has fallen from 1.7% in 1996 to 1.4% today".

And a month prior in a submission made to the Federal Government before the publication of the 2001-02 Budget and a month following the release by Prime Minister Howard of the Government's Innovation Action Plan.

...the policy reversal by the Prime Minister in the area of research and development is insufficient to rectify the damage done during his tenure. The scale of the package required to restore the viability of an accessible and quality tertiary education sector far exceeds the commitments made in Backing Australia's Ability. In contrast to the recent realisation of the need to publicly invest in research and development, the Howard Government has put in place policies which have directly reduced access and quality. Worse still, it has chosen to do nothing to rectify the problems despite growing evidence of the damage which it has done.

The budget papers altered nothing, and the fact of the matter is that the occasional cries of anguish by what are essentially voluntary organisations and occasional efforts have sprayed onto an impervious government. Harry Robinson in his July 20th Editorial outlined just how one effective lobby operates. Perhaps now is the time for FASTS and its 60,000 members to develop a coherent plan to professionally and effectively lobby our parliamentarians. A voluntary day a year appears not to be quite enough.

Australia, the Internet and a Radical Scheme to Bring Education and Skills Training to Developing Countries (August 6, 2001)
    Late last week Foreign Minister Alexander Downer announced together with the President of the World Bank, Australian expatriate James Wolfensohn, what represents Australia's most ambitious foreign aid initiative for decades. At a cost of a minimum of $200 million over five years, the "Downer-Wolfensohn Plan" calls for tens of thousands of teachers, students and officials in developing countries to be given training in specific skills over the Net, becoming "virtual students" in Australian universities without leaving home, and studying school programs devised for the World Wide Web in Australia.
    "What we're doing today," Mr. Downer said, "is planting a seed from which a great gum tree will grow. There will be an enormous range of ideas and proposals that emerge from this seed. It's going to become the fundamental point of our aid program. The scope is limitless." The Foreign Minister went on to say that initially the scheme will focus on setting up information and communications technology infrastructure outside the main cities of about a dozen developing countries, ranging from the South Pacific to Africa, South Asia and South-East Asia, and training their future teachers in these skills so they can then teach their students.
    As the Downer-Wolfensohn Plan is put into place, what Australia provides will become increasingly important, the technology, like cricket umpires, works best when it's unobtrusive. Therefore, if the education provided is top class, we look and will be so; if it's mediocre, we'll be judged to be second-rate. One thing's sure, it's a big ask and the world will be watching.

V-C of University of Melbourne Tells it Like it is. (August 1, 2001)
    A week after Professor Ian Chubb, representing the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, warned the Senate inquiry looking into the adequacy of Australian universities to do their job, that the universities were in crisis, Professor Alan Gilbert, V-C of the University of Melbourne, told  an Australia Institute conference debating The Idea of a University: Enterprise or Academy? that "The best universities in Australia are not among the world's top 75 universities and probably not among the top 100. Their capacity to invest in world-class research and teaching infrastructure cannot at present match that of the top 100 universities in the United States and lags well behind that of the best East Asian and European universities."
    Professor Gilbert's solution, by no means universally accepted by his fellow Vice-Chancellors, is to commercialise the University of Melbourne in order to transform it into the "intellectual powerhouse" of Australia. "What we need to do," Professor Gilbert added," is [to] defend the essential integrity of the university and not be hung up on one funding model or another. The price of being a university with high levels of integrity, standards and research is not going to be [external] influence[s], it is eternal vigilance about institutional autonomy and adherence to standards."
    Unfortunately, as in all such matters, the devil is in the detail. Australian V-Cs may look longingly at the best of US universities and note that among the best the private institutions predominate, but the fact of the matter is:

        1. they have sizeable endowments,
        2. the best of the public universities also have considerable endowments,
        3. the US  Federal government makes, by Australian standards, huge
            sums available for R&D with few strings attached, e.g. NIH and NSF grants.

Even the best endowed would not hold the ranking they do without that injection of government funding. And as to their "private" wealth, the table of the top 50 endowments tells its own story. In the 1998-99 fiscal year Harvard's endowment was nearly A$29 billion dollars, Stanford over A$12 billion, and the public University of California (Berkeley), A$3.7 billion. When discussing the commercialising of Australian universities, the leverage of those endowments plays a very significant role. In addition the dilemma of accepting what Professor Cubb refers to as "impatient" commercial funds has exercised and continues to exercise the administrators of both American and British universities as witness the number of articles and editorials in both Science  and Nature on the subject. In a phrase there is no easy and certainly not a glib solution. Whether or not the situation can arise whereby the best of Australian universities are able to accrue sufficient endowment to give them sufficient independence to call the shots remains to be seen. A case could be made for the establishment of endowment funding for the best of our universities, perhaps in a manner similar to the Medicare Levy Surcharge. But without a marked increase in ARC and NH&MRC grants for university research and considerably beyond the package delineated in Backing Australia's Ability we better content ourselves with being world swimming, cricket and rugby champions.