News & Views - February 2001


An Eye to the Main Chance (February 27, 2001)
     News emanating from the Bush White House appears grim indeed for science unless you're into Biomedical research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is rumoured to be in line for a possible 15% (A$6.4 billion) increase while the physical sciences will be lucky if their budgets keep pace with inflation (expected to be about 3%). Another source of concern reported by Science, "is the absence of a science adviser. 'Concrete gets poured fast on budgets,' so it is critical that researchers have a voice inside the White House, noted Jack Gibbons, who served as Bill Clinton's first science adviser, at a meeting last week of the National Academy of Sciences' public policy committee. D. Allan Bromley, who held the job in the first Bush Administration, agreed. 'All of us hoped and believed there would be [an adviser] by now,' he said. But for the moment 'there is no evidence that we will see anything for a few more months.' "
    We are at least in better shape with regard to scientific advice. Our Chief Scientist has a nominal two day work week. There is, however, little information on exactly how much of the Prime Minister's time is available to him. It has been suggested that it is considerably less than the PM spends on "talk back radio".
    Nonetheless perhaps now would be a good time for the CS to point out that if the United States is beginning to reduce it's commitment to the physical sciences we could take advantage be upping ours and gaining back a bit of lost ground.  

Now That's a Grant (February 18, 2001)
In order to attract first class scientists to Germany the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation has announced the Wolfgang Paul Award. It is of interest because it is directly competitive with awards announced by the Prime Minister in Backing Australia's Ability on January 29th: 

"To attract and retain leading researchers in key positions, part of the new funds to be provided for national competitive research grants will be used to introduce 25 new Federation Fellowships worth $225,000 a year for five years. In addition, the number of Australian Postdoctoral Fellowships will be doubled from 55 to 110 and remuneration of these positions will be improved."

According to their information sheet, "The recipient of the Wolfgang Paul Award will have a total of up to DM 4.5 million (A$4.0 million) available for research work within the period of 2001 - 2003.
In addition to providing [a salary] for the awardee of up to DM 250,000 (A$220,000) per year; if the awardee assumes a vacant chair, the salary can be increased to this amount, the award also covers the support of the awardee’s coworkers and technicians and, as appropriate, of junior research groups as well as the necessary equipment and consumables (incl. travel costs, etc.)."
    In addition to the 15-20 Wolfgang Paul Awards, the AvH Foundation will offer 20 to 30 young scientists up to A$2 million each over three years.


If Australia is to attract and keep "leading researchers in key positions" we must recognise the nature of our competition. It is the responsibility of the the heads of the Australian Research Council, National Health and Medical Research Council, and the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies as well as the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee to make both Government and Opposition aware of what we're up against, and up to our political leaders to respond potently. It's time we got real.

Decline in U.S. Ph.D.s (February 17, 2001)
The total number of Ph.D.s awarded in the United States has gone down, dropping 3.6% between 1998 and 1999. Physical Sciences, Engineering and Mathematics declined most, 8.5%. Both the Glenn Report (Before It's Too Late) and the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century have identified science and technology education as a U.S. imperative. This situation will mean that even greater enticements for our best and brightest researchers and developers. Those carrots proffered in the the Government's innovation statement of January 29th are looking even smaller than a fortnight ago. 

"Alston calls for innovation nation" (February 16, 2001)
That's what the headline in the ABC's on-line bulletin reads. The Federal Communications Minister, Richard Alston, was cajoling academics to do applied research. According to the minister this was the path to becoming an innovative nation. The importance of a first rate infrastructure of basic research on which to build applied science and innovative technology was not alluded to.
    If our Minister of Communications really has little appreciation of the importance of fostering and sustaining world class fundamental research, we have little hope of attracting the 250 world leading researchers referred to by Senator Alston, to say nothing of becoming leaders in innovation. It's as if the Government believes it can place the foundations of a modern nation on quicksand.

The Foremost Scientific Weeklies Publish the Annotated Human Genome (February 13, 2001)
The Journals Science and Nature today published special editions detailing the results of the private and publicly funded human genome sequencing projects. The finding that we contain closer to just over 30,000 genes rather than the 100,000 plus mooted by many geneticists suggests that gaining a thorough understanding of their interactions may be even more subtle and challenging than previously suspected. At a May meeting at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, New York a sweepstakes was set up. As of May 22nd bets ranged from 27,462 to 200,000 with a mean of 62,598. Now the real fun an use can begin.

Information Societies - Where We Rank (February 12, 2001)
In the latest release of the IDC/World Times Information Society Index (ISI) Australia ranked 8th in a group of the top 55 nations. Sweden came in 1st. The ISI weights 23 parameters involving computer infrastructure, information infrastructure, Internet infrastructure and social infrastructure. The top ten nations  in order are: Sweden, Norway, Finland, the USA, Denmark, the UK, Switzerland, Australia, Singapore and the Netherlands. It is noteworthy that Norway, Hong Kong, and Japan have the strongest social infrastructure. The social infrastructure category measures civil liberties, newspaper readership per capita, press freedom and secondary and tertiary school enrolment.

The 150 Year Plan or "Backing Australia's Ability" Virtually Cost Free. (February 12, 2001)
Science reported on Friday, "They won't live to see the payoff, but two researchers who study aging each put $150 into a trust fund last month that will go to one of their descendents in 2150. Who gets the cash (with compound interest, it could add up to half a billion dollars [$A925 million]) will depend on which researcher has a sharper insight into the future."
A wonderful example of forward thinking. Now if our Government were to set aside say 6 million dollars immediately - spend nothing on universities and R&D for a hundred and fifty years - we'd have 10 trillion dollars available with which to catch up.

Suggestion for a Voice in Canberra (February 12, 2001) 
Last week the American Physical Society placed the following ad. "We are looking for a physics major with great writing skills and a genius IQ to spend eight to ten weeks in Washington, battling the forces of evil. The starting date is negotiable and we're flexible on the genius thing." Perhaps FASTS (The Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies) might adopt a comparable strategy to augment its Science Meets Parliament Day.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute to Go Physical (February 7, 2001)
The journal Science has reported that the $A21 billion biomedical charity announced last week that it will spend $A910 million over 10 years on a research centre that will develop cutting-edge bioinformatics, imaging, and other tools. It will also serve as an incubator for visiting scientists--even those who aren't HHMI investigators.
    Plans call for a cluster of buildings with 46,000 square meters of space on the site. The campus, which will eventually house up to 300 scientists and has room to double in size, should open by 2005 with an annual operating budget of roughly $50 million.
    The interdisciplinary centre is intended to feed investigators' insatiable appetite for high-tech tools such as bioinformatics software and low-temperature electron microscopy.

It is important for our funding bodies, as well as the state and Federal governments to understand the sort of resources that are being made available, and not only in the United States, for cutting edge research if Australia is to retain and attract first rank scientists. In short we must appraise realistically our competitors. 

R&D and Education Support  Economic Slowdown or Not (February 5, 2001)
Former US senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman co-chairman of a bipartisan United States Commission on National Security urged recognition that, "the inadequacies of our systems of research and education pose a greater threat to U.S. national security over the next quarter century than any potential conventional war...." The Commission called for doubling the US federal R&D budget by 2010, elevating the President's Science Advisor to oversee the task, resuscitating the national labs and passing a National Security S&T Education Act to "produce the needed numbers of science and engineering professionals as well as qualified teachers in math and science."
    Meanwhile, Representative Sherwood Boehlert (Republican-NY) and new Chair of the House Science Committee stated the he would, "build the Science Committee into a significant ensure that we have a healthy, sustainable and productive R&D establishment," and went on the say that he would, "run the Committee in a way that would make Einstein smile." 

 Unless our federal leaders can begin to recognise that without genuine and strong bipartisanship Australia cannot hope to meet the challenges of 21st century research and development, and reap the benefits, we shall fall increasingly behind the nations with which we wish to identify. That bipartisanship is unlikely to occur unless Australians force it upon Canberra.

Is Using Smart Good Enough? (February 5, 2001)
After announcing the Government's innovation blueprint, the Prime Minister appeared on the ABC's 7:30 Report. Mr. Howard's interview with Kerry O'Brien  can be read in full but at least one of the points he made had unsettling implications. "Just because you defend the economy against allegations - wrong allegations - that it's an old economy, doesn't mean that you aren't prepared to embrace some new initiatives.
    "What is incompatible with rejecting this claim about us being an old economy?
    "When you look at our computer usage, our Internet usage, the application of new technology to old industries, the claim that we're an old economy is nonsense (Italics ours).
    "There is nothing incompatible with rejecting that and also saying that we can do better and invest more money in research, more money in centres of excellence."

To equate the use (and in Australia's case a vast majority of foreign purchase) of  high technology hardware and software for modernising "old technology" industry boarders on the disingenuous. The President of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS), Sue Serjeantson put it quite simply early in December, "Buying smart isn't good enough."
     The Government may use all the spin available to it, but the fact remains, if as Mr. Howard states, "This is new policy. There are many new initiatives in this. It's the result of 18 months of work. It hasn't been cobbled together," it suggests that "the mountains went into labour but an absurd mouse was born."