News & Views - January 2001

Relationships Between Universities and Corporations, Part 2 (January 31, 2001)
In its January 26th issue the journal Science's editorial observes in part, "...Without doubt, the new partnership between academia and the private sector has been good for Americans. In 1999, technology transfer from universities to industry contributed $38 billion to the economy, creating over 300,000 jobs and forming hundreds of new companies.
 " ...In spite of its undoubted benefit, industry-sponsored research presents several significant problems for universities. For example, it is not the cash cow that many suppose. In general, companies pay for research that benefits them and their shareholders, not for the undirected curiosity-driven research that is at the heart of the academic enterprise. Furthermore, for the relationship between universities and industry to succeed, each must recognize their fundamentally different cultures and core values. For universities, the free and open communication of research results is essential to the goal of expanding knowledge. For companies, the protection of proprietary information is necessary to the ultimate goal of financial return."

With the increasing pressure that the Australian Government is placing on our universities and publicly funded research establishments to attract corporate funds the caveats Science and Nature propound must be heeded by all concerned.

Bryan Gaensler's Australia Day Address (January 31, 2001)
The 1999 Young Australian of the Year, an astrophysicist currently at MIT, gave a searching account of his views on Australia and being Australian. Below, just three sentences. [Read the full address]

   "Aside from all these arguments as to why science is important, I would like to think Australia is a place which is about more than economic growth and our standard of living. Australia is also a country which values culture, beauty and diversity. And so just as we treasure and appreciate great art, music and poetry, we should surely value science even aside from all the benefits and applications which it offers, but simply for the sense of wonder and insight that it gives us."

How to Shoot Yourself in the Foot Unaided (January 30, 2001)
"I don't think they really thought through the whole darn thing," Dr. Virginia Walbot, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University, said of Monsanto's decision to market products that benefited farmers rather than general consumers. "The way Thomas Edison demonstrated how great electricity was was by providing lights for the first night-time baseball game.
    People were in awe. What if he had decided to demonstrate the electric chair instead? And what if his second product had been the electric cattle prod? Would we have electricity today?"
This excerpt is taken  from an article in the New York Times which traces how a genetic modification was introduced into the human food chain and the consequences of its mishandling. [Full text]

What it Means to be Really Rich When You're a University (January 29, 2001)
Investment profits from Harvard's $A35 billion endowment earned a 32% ($A11.2 billion) return for the year ending last June. That's a few billion more than Australia's entire R&D budget (public and private sector combined). Mind you they do have to run the whole university on that, not just the science and engineering faculties, but then they do get government and private research and development funding as well.
    Harvard is of course the world's richest university but it should come as a shock just how much money one university has at its disposal. Nature (Jan. 18) reports, "Rather than 'just running on a richer mixture', says [Jeremy Knowles, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences], Harvard plans to 'grasp the opportunity to improve the quality of the undergraduate experience and the lives of graduate students and faculty'. 
    "During the next decade, six new chairs will be added to the faculty each year. The 60 new positions will be spread across all disciplines in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which currently has 650 professors, 3,500 graduate students and 6,500 undergraduates."
    Clearly, it is not sensible to expect Australia's top universities to rise to these heights, but at least we ought to be moving into the "reserve grade". When your train is going at 60 kph while the one next to you is going 75 kph, you look to be going backward at a fair clip. Both the state and Federal governments must start to do something beyond playing tinkers to a leaking sieve. 

How Do We Compare - The following is an excerpt from Science's Next Wave (January 12, 2001) It seems timely. 

On 27 November, the Canadian polls closed, the ballots were counted, and the verdict came in: Prime Minister Chrétien and his Liberal Party were returned to Ottawa with a majority government.
The governing Liberals pledged to "help Canada move by 2010 to the top five countries for research and development performance." The Liberals had also offered a pre-election mini-budget. Although the spending plans mostly involve changes to the tax laws for the benefit of corporate R&D, there was some news of interest to the non-profit world. The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) got an extra $500 million, with 80% earmarked for grants to universities and research hospitals, plus another $100 million to be devoted to support Canadian participation in international research projects.
The corporate R&D community was also pleased with the budget. "It is fantastic that new funds are finally being made available for R&D in Canada, especially the $130 million for the Genome Canada initiative and the funding announced for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (scheduled to become operational in fiscal year 2000-01 with a $500 million budget). "These monies will certainly help Canada to achieve a leadership edge," says Joyce Groote, president of BIOTECanada, the association representing companies and research organizations involved in all aspects of biotechnology in Canada.

"Science and Education: Big Talk, Little Substance." That's the headline by Bob Park, Secretary of the American Physical Society in his What's New column of January 26th  regarding the promise of the Bush Presidency. He goes on to say, "Education has been the talk of Washington this week, but with the focus on a 'reading first' agenda, science learning may suffer.
    "Announcing his education reform plan on Tuesday, Bush followed the lead of his CEO advisors declaring science and mathematics 'the very subjects most likely to affect our future competitiveness.' Unfortunately, his proposals don't quite reflect this.
   " They eliminate dedicated funds for math and science teacher professional development at the local district level, block granting the funds for general education purposes instead. And although the Bush plan calls on states to 'set challenging standards in history and science,' it does not require science testing. A recent Washington State study shows that state testing in reading and math has reduced the priority for teaching science."
    Park's concerns in the context of Australia's approach to the teaching and examining of science and mathematics while perhaps not immediately as relevant, exemplify the nation-wide control a federal government can exert both actively and passively. Its record should be assessed accordingly. 

Australian R&D Lagging According to Latest Australian Bureau of Statistics (January 26, 2001) [SMH Full articleABS statistics]
The good news is that government sector R&D spending as a percentage of GDP is faring well by world standards. 
    Australia ranked fifth in OECD member country R&D spending, with a ratio to GDP of 0.35 per cent, only behind Iceland (0.75 per cent), Korea (0.44 per cent), France (0.43 per cent) and Finland (0.37 per cent), and much higher than the U.S. However, Australian spending on a per capita basis is much weaker running about a quarter that of the U.S. Its all in how you want to look at it. The fact of the matter is we are still losing ground in R&D compared to our international peer group.
    Keith Boardman, former CSIRO Chief advised federal and state governments, in his Year Book Australia 2001 article, to target a specific area, such as biological science, to lift Australia out of the scientific doldrums and snatch a part of the high-tech future. ``Australia is well below advanced industrial countries in the production of high technology goods and services that constitute the fastest growing area of world trade,'' Boardman said in the year book. ``Australia, with its small population, cannot hope to mount an internationally competitive science and innovation effort in too many areas. 
    ``And urgent attention needs to be paid to selecting priority areas for the concentration of resources.'' 
    Areas to be targeted included the education system, research base, international networks, business R&D, capital markets and tax structures, he said. 
    ``Australia must become more competitive in the supply of high-technology goods and services and gain a fair share of the expanding world markets for them,'' Boardman said. 

Who Says Sequencing DNA isn't Immediately Practical (January 26, 2001)
Naomi Aoki of The Boston Globe reports that, " In an effort to thwart counterfeiters, the footballs used in Sunday's Super Bowl game will be tagged as they come off the field with a strand of synthetic DNA that is permanent, unique, and invisible to the naked eye.
    "The method is licensed from a Los Angeles company called DNA Technologies Inc., which has tagged everything from clothing labels to artwork. Last summer, the company marked T-shirts, mugs, pins, and other official Olympics merchandise with DNA from an unidentified Australian athlete." [Full article].

Young Australian of the Year (1999) Bryan Gaensler's National Australia Day Address Points Up Vexing Issues but Who's Listening? (January 25, 2001)
Dr. Gaensler a 27 year-old astrophysicist currently working at MIT pointed out that "When Australians understand who our Aboriginal people are, realise what they stand for and accept the responsibility for what our society has done to them the healing process can begin." He made the cogent remark that, "It is shameful that most Australians probably have a greater awareness of and empathy for the plight of the Kosovars, the Kurds or the people of Tibet than they do for the situation of indigenous Australians."
    Dr Gaensler , who is on leave from MIT until the end of the month, also had words concerning Australian scientific research, "University departments are merging and closing down, thousands of young scientists like myself are moving overseas because of lack of funding and opportunities, and a myriad of indicators as to our scientific output show us on a downward slide."

University of Australia Online - Beazley's View (January 25, 2001)
Our media gave some front page and radio news time to Australian tertiary education with the announcement by Kim Beazley of his ten year vision - at least in outline - of the use of the Internet for increasing its availability. His press release is available online as well as his address in full to the National Press Club yesterday. He strongly condemns the Howard Government's record on education and outlines a "high tech" aspect of Labour's views. The Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee has welcomed the concept of  UAO if it is presented as an as well as but not if it turns out to be an instead of [SMH account]. The fact is the UAO addresses only one, and in truth a relatively small aspect of the festering sore of Australia's degenerating infrastructure of education, research and  development.

Robotic Cheese Assessment Up and Running (January 24, 2001)
The Journal Nature in its Science Update section reports that "Italian food scientists are developing technology that they hope could revolutionize one of the country's most important culinary traditions — judging the taste and flavour of mozzarella cheese." Will wine tasting be next? That could radically change western society to say nothing of Easter shows. [Full story]

Relationships Between Universities and Corporations (January 21, 2001)
In its January 11th editorial the journal Nature asks, "Is the university-industrial complex out of control?" The question is analogous to the matter of corporate donations to political parties. How biased may results reported by researchers be toward the companies supporting their work? And what perception may the public have regarding such possible bias. There is no question that corporate support for university research is an essential part of research and development in Australia's universities and the Government is insistent that Federal research institutions such as CSIRO obtain a very significant part of their budgetary requirements from non-government sources.

What to do? Nature's list of caveats to ensure public trust in the results promulgated by public R&D institutions are summarised below:

Whether our tertiary institutions and Government research establishments will show an earnest concern remains to be seen - but they should. 

US Federal R&D Budget for 2001 (January 21, 2001)
The research and development budget from the United States' federal government for the fiscal year 2001 (1 Oct 2000 - 30 Sep 2001) is $A162 billion or $A590 million per million population. That's an increase of just over 9% above FY 2000. The federal R&D allocation is about 30% of the total US R&D funding. On a population basis that's $A11.2 billion. The total Australian R&D budget for the 2000 financial year will be something under $A9 billion of which $A4.4 billion comes from our federal government. It will be most interesting to see what the Government's promised January 29th statement will contain. It should not go without comment that between the two financial years 1996/97 - 1998/99 the Government expenditure on R&D dropped from 1.65% of GDP to 1.49% of GDP. So we shall see if we go significantly above '96/'97 levels or even get to it. That will give a good indication if our Government is really serious about the Nation's well being.

Former President, Clinton on Science and Maths Education (January 20, 2001)
In the December 22 Second issue of the journal Science former President Clinton gave his views regarding science and mathematics eduction in the US. He saw two basic issues:
1. how do you get more kids to do maths and science at advanced levels,
2. if you can do that how do you get enough qualified teachers?

He went on to specifically mention increasing salaries to competitive levels in order to attract more good people, as well as getting outside specialists to teach advanced courses in high schools as is done at universities.

From an Australian viewpoint it has become a matter of not, can we afford the additional cost but rather can we not afford it.

Light Stands Still (Jan. 19, 2001)
While it's still not possible to get time to stand still researchers at Harvard and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center had done it to light. To what end? "...the work's biggest impact could come in futuristic technologies called quantum computing and quantum communication. Both concepts rely heavily on the ability of light to carry so-called quantum information, involving particles that can exist in many places or states at once." Australia has an increasing interest in photonics (light's equivalent of electronics) and basic research into quantum computing. To be a significant player in the field the Government's policy statement in ten days will have to show significant support for these areas as well as giving industry strong incentives to invest in them.

$A325 Million in Funds to CRC's Over Next 7 Years (January 19,2001)
The news as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday is most welcome, but it should not be taken that it signifies an addition to current funding for R&D. Here is what the Treasurer announced in the budget papers for 2000/01: "Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Program 2000 selection round The 2000 CRC selection round was formally launched in January 2000, with applications closing in July. The guidelines for this selection round have been revised to ensure that they fully reflect the Government’s objectives and the recommendations of the Mercer-Stocker report, Review of Greater Commercialisation and Self Funding in the CRC Program. New and emerging industries are encouraged to participate through the new guidelines which reinforce the importance of cooperation between CRC partners, including Federal and State Governments, industry, universities, and the CSIRO."

Australian R&D's Public Outreach (January 18, 2001)
Over a dozen years ago the then Minister for Science, Barry Jones, accused Australian scientists of being wimps because they did not speak out to inform the government and community of the value of their work. That no longer pertains, but a lack of professionalism in lobbying for the necessity of research and development in science, engineering and technology does remain. A case can and should be made for FASTS (the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies) to obtain and allocate funds so that the public, and the government are made aware of the paramount importance of R&D. FASTS' once a year visit to the Houses of Parliament is an excellent initiative but it's now time to raise the game. Rita Colwell, director of the US National Science Foundation is asking for over A$9.5 million to inform the public about "the scientific underpinning of today's economy." If the Australian people understand the importance of science and technology for their well being our representatives will follow. 

The Beauty of Astronomy (January 17, 2001)
Perhaps not a "true" news item but while this site deals with serious matters there is time to call readers' attention to the remarkable beauty to be found in observing the universe. So have a look at some of the images obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope and read about the knowledge its use has given us over the past 11 years.

Old News - Coming News? (January 15, 2001)
Sometime this year the Government has promised to release its policy based on the reports issued by the Chief Scientist and the Innovation Summit. It is perhaps fitting to allude to a speech made by Vice-President Al Gore not quite five years ago. He said in part, "In their most recent budget, the Congressional leadership proposed reducing federal funding for science and technology by one-third by the year 2002, adjusted for inflation. And get this: several years after the Cold War ended, defence R & D is going up, while civilian R&D is going down. More for Star Wars, less for environmental research. At the very moment global economic competition and global environmental degradation demand civilian research and the technologies it often produces, this Congress is proposing the sharpest cuts in non-defence research since America was fighting World War II. 

The only investment the Congress wants to increase was in health sciences. And that's great. But in almost every other realm, they're approaching technology with all the wisdom of a potted plant" [Full text]. At the time Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House.

How things have changed; in the U.S. currently the R&D budget stands at A$1,800,000,000 per million population and rising. Australia spends A$465,000,000 or about 26% on a per capita basis. 

In the meantime the redoubtable Mr. Gingrich, no longer a member of the American Congress, wrote at the end of November last year, "As a nation, the United States must take a new approach to the federal investment in scientific research and development. The current approach of arguing for percentage increases does not communicate the sense of urgency required for a safe and prosperous future. Although I have strongly supported increased science funding, current proposals will not increase them enough. We need a science budget for the next generation based on opportunities in science rather than on bureaucratic and political infighting in Washington." [Full text]

It will be interesting to see what the Howard Government comes up with - will they invest the budget surplus generated by the GST in Australia's future or go for instant gratification of the constituency.

Shift for Education Technology Policy (January 11, 2001)
The New York Times reports that the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology released a report in mid-December that serves as a summary of what has been accomplished since the department released the first national educational technology plan in 1996. The new plan, titled "e-Learning: Putting a World-Class Education at the Fingertips of All Children." [Full NYT report], [The D-of-Ed's report

Tech Gurus Educate Bush (January 6, 2001)
Bob Park, Secretary of the American Physical Society, in his What's New Column (January 5) notes that President Elect G. W. Bush met with tech-sector CEO's this week for policy advice, and got a unanimous answer: we need more investment in K-12 science and math, to create a technically educated workforce. Bush proclaimed the issue a priority. Perhaps this means that Bush will take active notice of the Glenn Report; perhaps our Prime Minister might do the same;  we live in hope.
In addition the Cox News Service reported that, 'More than any other issue, participants in the high-tech discussion urged Bush to push education reforms that would produce a more highly skilled work force. High-tech companies have complained that the nation lacks enough workers qualified to keep pace with their ever-evolving field. 
        ``The jobs will move to wherever the best educated workforce is in other countries,'' John Chambers, chief executive of Cisco Systems, told reporters after the meeting at the University of Texas.' [Full report]