News & Views - July 2001 


Former Senior Republican Senator from Oregon Has His Say on Research (July 29, 2001)
    Mark Hatfield represented Oregon in the US Senate from 1968 to 1997. He was Chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee in the 1990s. In a letter to Science (July 20, 2001) he makes the following observation:

Rather than letting the budgetary challenges of the day resign us to inappropriate cuts in science funding... we should look back on the genesis of the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) "doubling movement" as proof that public support and scientific promise can prevail.
    This was backed by Research!America's public opinion polls showing citizen support for such increases [including basic research, white bar above]. Thanks to strong leadership in the Congress and among stakeholders, the rhetoric became reality. And last year, other science agencies including the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Science Foundation also benefited from the doubling campaign, experiencing budget growth in the double-digit percentages.
    Reversing these trends or stopping them altogether would leave science funding to play catch-up with scientific opportunity. Society should not be resigned to only inflationary increases [and] flat line budgets.

It might be most informative for our political parties to advocate an impartial assessment of Australians' opinions on the matters such as evaluated by Research!America - the results might surprise them - they might even benefit the Nation.

The Hard Sciences Are Doing It Hard, Really Hard (July 27,2001)
    The Journal Nature in its July 19th issue has reported that "the number of graduate students enrolling in physical sciences in the United States is still falling sharply, despite an expansion in the government's overall research budget, according to the National Research Council (NRC)." This appears to be a direct result of a continuing decrease in funding (18% from 1993-1999) compared with a 28% rise for the life sciences. Nature continues, "Michael Lubell, a physicist at the City College of New York and head of public affairs at the American Physical Society, predicts that effects of the shift will be felt gradually, as the quality of the workforce declines. He points out that, 'As researchers retire from the national labs and academia, it will get harder to replace them with high quality people.'"
    This decline is not unique to the US; the physical sciences are doing it at least as tough in Australia. Tony Thomas, Professor of Physics at Adelaide and Chair of National Committee for Physics, Australian Academy of Science in describing the situation in what he refers to as science's engine room, says "since 1984 in Australia academic staff in physics are down 29 per cent; if you go to 1994, the situation is even worse. Student-staff ratios are ridiculous compared with the rest of the civilised world. Support staff are down 26 per cent. There are almost no workshops left in physics departments. Morale is terrible, salaries are uncompetitive and research supports demoralising."
    Make no mistake if Australia loses physics, the rest of our science will follow.

As Good As It Gets?  - Well Not Quite (July 27, 2001)
    Just retired president of Harvard, Neil Rudenstine, passed some casual comments to a group of Harvard students which wound up in the British press (a UK journo on a Harvard scholarship was among the group).  Rudenstine summed up the state of British higher education as moving from "a disaster into a nightmare". Emphasising the point, "The sad reality is that in Britain even Oxbridge is suffering because of the lack of resources and private-sector involvement." Pointing out that the Cavendish laboratory had a budget of US$16 (A$31) million he added, "[That] wouldn't keep our history department going".
    By current Australian standards Oxford and Cambridge are well off. It might be interesting, perhaps worthwhile, to invite Professor Rudenstine together with another recent university presidential retiree, Harold Shapiro of Princeton, to tour and evaluate our Group of Eight universities. It's all very well for a Senate committee to spend five months or more evaluating our universities' competence, but how well qualified are they to bench mark them against the best in the world - and that's what ought to be done. We do it for sport, is higher education really of less consequence?

Aston By-election and the Knowledge Nation (July 23, 2001)
    Notes from our correspondent at Aston. "During the by-election Barry Jones was trailing along close to KB but was not questioned on Knowledge Nation, not once. The minders directed all attention to local issues and were not even aware of KN. They went on to lose green preferences because the greens were not aware of KN and its environmental clauses. Much to be done."
    Kim Beasley is going to have to put some horse power (kW) into the Knowledge Nation bus if he wants to get some mileage (kilometerage) out of it. How much will indicate how really important it is to him - rhetoric's cheap.

Object Lessons - Is Anyone Paying Attention? (July 16, 2001)
    Apoptosis, programmed cell death, is not a term that usually comes to the minds of government or shadow ministers, even of science, but to anyone who has followed research in the field over the past decade it has had a profound effect on our understanding of a number of diseases, cancer perhaps more than any. So, for example, cancer researchers no longer think of cancer as a simple case of cell division gone out of control, but one where the programming of controlled cell suicide has also gone awry by becoming if not inoperative, certainly ineffective.
    So what? Well, as knowledge of the mechanisms of apoptosis increases, the approaches that may be applicable to control cancer expand. But when and how were decisions to be made as to prioritisation of research into understanding the mechanisms underlying controlled cell death. Certainly the management of cancer is considered by most to be of public concern, but unless the underlying causes are critically understood, there is a marked likelihood that a considerable amount of resources will be wasted on ill conceived projects. This is merely an easily understood example of why poorly informed decision making must be kept to a minimum in a country such as Australia where research funding is so meagre. The fact is that hasty decisions may be made at ministerial level concerning areas for priority funding where only superficial consultation has taken place. Similarly requests for funding to granting bodies such as the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council may be inadequately reviewed either because individuals asked to do so are not competent or are unwilling to carefully evaluate them - or indeed both.
    In addition the problem becomes compounded when granting agencies which are under-funded have to decide among too many proposals which are deemed to be worthwhile and wind up inadequately funding those they do back.
    Shortly, final decisions will be made determining which of the three dozen or so short listed requests for funding as Major National Research Facilities will gain support. It will be interesting to see just which will and how well.

Congresswoman Offers a Word of Advice (July 15, 2001)
    "As a community, scientists have a great deal of influence, but only if they choose to wield it [our emphasis]. Both politicians and the public need to hear from the scientific community: I urge you to speak out. Together we can find support for this research and forge policies that recognize the moral, ethical and societal concerns without handicapping the science."
    So wrote Congresswomen Constance Morella (Republican, Maryland) in a letter published in the July 6th issue of Science. Representative Morella was referring specifically to embryonic stem cell research but her appeal would be equally apt for all fields of scientific research. The last time in living memory a member of the Australian Parliament made a somewhat similar plea was when Barry Jones did so as Minister for Science in the Hawke Government.

European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) Gets New High Profile Head (July 15, 2001)
    Within months of Singapore's announcement that Gunaretnam Rajagopal, the assistant director of research at Cambridge University's Canvendish Laboratory, had been appointed to set up and lead Singapore's new Bioinformatics Institute, Professor Janet Thornton, who currently heads the Biomolecular Structure & Modeling Unit, University College, London has accepted the directorship of research at EBI near Cambridge. She succeeds Micheal Ashbruner who, as well as being Professor of Genetics at Cambridge, also served as co-director of EBI together with Graham Cameron. The top level appointment has come on the heels of a major injection of funds  from the Council of 16 European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) member states, as well as additional grants from the European Commission and the Wellcome Trust. Thornton, who will take on the post full time, said, "I am very pleased to be joining the EBI at a time when Graham Cameron and the EMBL have been so successful in securing funding and making Europe aware of what they are doing."
    One of Thornton's priorities will be to boost research activities at EBI. The new funds will allow the addition of a full complement of research teams. The possibilities for expansion, EMBL announced, "encouraged [it] to look for a director with the vision to direct a broad range of research activities."

A Notable Test of General Relativity by Swinburne University of Technology Scientists (July 13, 2001)
    Willem van Straten, a student of Matthew Bailes at the Swinburne Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, Swinburne University of Technology, Hawthorn, Victoria published in yesterday's Nature, together with six colleagues, an independent proof of one of the central predictions of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity - that space in a gravitational field is curved. By measuring variations of the time of arrival of radio pulses from a very high frequency (millisecond) pulsar accompanied by a white dwarf star, van Straten and his colleagues showed that the proximity of the dwarf star to the line of sight between the pulsar and Earth fractionally affected the arrival time of the radio waves from the pulsar because of the variations in distance they had to travel. The effect was quantitatively consistent with Einstein's theory. Theoretical astrophysicist of Utrecht University Frank Verbunt pointed out that earlier studies just showed that Einstein's general relativity theory is self-consistent, "But in this case, it's a real independent test of the validity of general relativity."
    While the avowed encouragement for biomedical research by both political parties has been well publicised, support for the physical sciences continues to be woeful. This recent paper is just one more indication that our astronomers and astrophysicists deserve better treatment. One wonders just how many of Professor Bailes' students will have to find positions overseas once they've obtain their degrees and then remain expatriates in order to continue in their chosen field.

The "Peter Principle" Remains Alive and Well in LANL's Management. (July 11, 2001)

The theory that employees within an organisation will advance to their highest level of competence and then be promoted to and remain at a level at which they are incompetent.

ETYMOLOGY: After Laurence Johnston Peter (1919–1990).
         [From The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition]

In May of this year we ran a News & Views piece on Paul Ginsparg who ten years ago founded arXiv which became the avenue of choice for preprints in the physical sciences. Students and researchers from Nobel laureates to undergraduates access it on a daily basis to keep up with the latest research. Among other things it has been invaluable to workers in countries where resources don't extend to journal subscriptions.
    Ginsparg will now be leaving the Los Alamos National Laboratory, under less than amicable circumstances, for Cornell University which will allow him to continue and extend arXiv using it as a model for research into digital libraries.  As Ginsparg  describes it, the last straw was a recent salary review which described him as, "a strictly average performer by overall lab standards; with no particular computer skills contributing to lab programs; easily replaced, and moreover overpaid, according to an external market survey".
    The Chair of the Department of Physics at Cornell,  Peter Lepage's  sardonic comment was, "Evidently their form didn't have a box for: 'completely transformed the nature and reach of scientific information in physics and other fields'."
    There really is no substitute for abject stupidity. But of course, as for working on a National Missile Defense system, Paul Ginsparg would probably be a dead loss.

Integration of Research - European Nations May be Taking It Seriously (July 10, 2001)
    Over the past year or so there have been increasing reports concerning the possible further rationalisation of publicly funded research efforts by nations making up the European Union (E.U.). In particular Philippe Busquin, its Commissioner for Research is pressing for a "European Research Area" in order to increase the coordination of the research efforts of the E.U. members.
    Busquin, 60, was trained as a physicist. He entered Belgium politics in 1977 and became a member of the European Commission, Research in 1999. Against some pretty fierce opposition from some of the smaller countries in the E.U. as well as some of the nations soon joining the union, he appears to be gaining some influential converts such as the current President of the European Science Foundation, Reinder van Duinen, another physicist who like Busquin believes the time has come to usefully coordinate the research initiatives of E.U. members. The sharpest stick driving this effort is the spectre of U.S. R&D which Busquin sees as overwhelming European research efforts unless increased coordination can increase the efficiency of its research and development initiatives. However, principal opposition is coming from nations such as Austria who fear that their institutions may suffer in any effort of unification of research efforts.
    Undoubtedly any significant changes, will take time. Nevertheless, the portents are there and will have consequences for Australian R&D. If nothing else increasing international collaboration at the institutional level will assume increasing importance during this decade. Of course the better the perception of our institutions the higher the quality of the collaborations they are able to command. And stating the obvious, in Australia - governmental support plays a vital role.

Instant Gratification or a Large Return, Why the Dilemma?  Ask a Rat. (July 9, 2001)
    Not only does the whole industry of consumer credit thrive on instant gratification, populist politicians depend upon it and governments are seen to perform back flips when faced with perceived unacceptable consequences at the polls. Recently, psychologists at Cambridge (Science, 2292: 2499-2501, 2001) using experimental rats obtained evidence suggesting that specific regions in the brain are involved which affect the desire for instant gratification relative to the degree that an individual is prepared to wait to obtain a reward significantly greater than the one given immediately.
    If superficial appearances are to be believed, the leaders of our two major political parties seem to have somewhat differing views as to the degree of importance that they should place on instant gratification with the coming Federal election in the offing. Interestingly enough some of the largest multinationals are ready to expend vast resources and accept appreciable delay in reaping rewards often in the face of possible failure. The billions that IBM spends on R&D is a case in point. A more specific instance is shown by Corning's continued research into fundamental optical fibre development despite a current glut of laid fibre cable. In addition, venture capital is being made available to several start ups in the area. Not only is significant risk involved, any payoff will be well down the track. But the return could be thousands of times the investment into the research. That being the case there is no requirement for always trying to pick near certain winners.
    But no science, no research and no winners; little science, little research, few and mediocre winners. Surely it's worth a government's serious consideration.

Problems of a Science Advisor (July 9, 2001)
    With the projected appointment of John Marburger to the post of science advisor to US President Bush old sweats have made some observations as to problems that arise. They don't sound much different from what would happen here. For example, will he be marginalised because of not being a political insider and being seen as just a lobbyist for the science community. Neal Lane, one of President Clinton's science advisors makes the point, "It's all about people [in Washington]. No amount of rational argument and well-reasoned memos replace creating trust." One of the difficulties of course is to be able to engender trust in a political master while giving objective assessments which may be counter to what is perceived as political expediency. As to whether  the  advice is effective, can only be judged on eventual outcomes.
    So far as Australia is concerned, the current government has effectively denied that there are any serious problems with the supporting structures for the nation's education, and research sectors. The $2.9 billion 5yr innovation plan is in truth little more than a pacifier. Whether or not the Howard Government can be persuaded to effectively upgrade its commitment to science and education is a moot point. It remains to be seen what Labor will offer when Mr Beazley makes a definitive statement, and how committed he will be able to render his parliamentary party to effectively support his vision of the Knowledge Nation. It could take some doing, and unless the science and education communities begin to lobby effectively, and unless MPs' constituencies perceive science and education to be matters of immediacy, Kim Beazley will by hard pressed. 

The Group of Eight has its Say Regarding the Report of the Knowledge Nation Taskforce. (July, 9 2001) Below is their media release in full.

Knowledge Nation Taskforce Report

The Group of Eight, a coalition of Australia's leading universities, welcomes the general thrust of the report of the Knowledge Nation Taskforce released today. While we recognise the current status of the 20 recommendations as essentially advice to the Federal Labor Party from the Taskforce, a number of the proposals are to be particularly commended. In particular the Group of Eight supports the introduction of initiatives that will:

  • double Australia’s investment in R&D by the year 2010 - taking us to the top of the OECD rankings

  • increase base operating funding for universities and

  • ensure that all universities have the capacity to identify their own priorities and not be forced into a one-size fits all model.

We are delighted at Mr Beazley's personal commitment to assuming the mantle of "Australia’s Knowledge Nation Prime Minister". We recognise too that there must be caution in announcing new policies and committing public funds before the ALP can make an assessment of what funds might be available should they win office at the next poll. But we urge Mr Beazley to recognise that the huge gaps in Australia’s position vis-ŕ-vis that of comparable competitor nations that have been identified in this report require urgent action and an appropriate policy response.

The Jones report may provide Mr Beazley with a "roadmap on a journey that stretches through this decade" but this must not be perceived as a leisurely journey. It might be more appropriate to take that journey in a metaphorical supersonic jet because the opportunities and benefits for all Australians will be critical to our future quality of life. The risk of failing to act, as echoed in the Talleyrand quotation "not to choose is to choose" which appears at the top of the Taskforce report, will see us fall further behind.

The report of the Jones taskforce follows on from, and adds weight to, the work already done by the Chief Scientist and the Innovation Summit Implementation Group. We now look to the ALP to add to the rhetoric by announcing clearly targeted and adequately funded policy initiatives.

Search for the Next Generation of Antibiotics (July, 9, 2001)
    A point on which the governing Coalition and the opposition Labor Party agree is that biotechnology should be a priority area for research, development and Australian investment. Much work is done currently on modifying the structures of naturally occurring antibiotics of fungal origin. But a very new, admittedly chancy, area is just beginning.
     Hints of viruses that specifically attack bacteria go back more than a century and by the 1920s bacteriophages were being used in the laboratory as antibacterial agents. The lack of knowledge regarding their nature pretty well precluded their investigation as therapeutic agents, and by the time they were characterised as viruses and their makeup reasonably well understood, antibiotics had become entrenched. Very recently a few laboratories have begun looking at the composition of these viruses to determine if useful antibacterial agents may be able to be derived from them. ( e.g. Burnhardt, et al. Science, 292: 2326-29, 2001). It will be interesting to see if Australian researchers will become actively interested in this area, and if so, will they be supported? Or, as has been the case so often in the past, are our government and industry only interested in areas that already have a demonstrated probability of success from the "big guys" before they offer substantial support thereby clutching at the tailgate of the bandwagon?

Bush Chooses His Science Advisor (July 4, 2001)
    It had been rumoured over a week ago that Dr. John H. Marburger III, the director of Brookhaven National
Laboratory would be offered the post of the presidential science advisor. Marburger's appointment has been greeted with enthusiasm not only by the US scientific community but by environmentalist groups as well because of his deft handling of the strained relationship he inherited at Brookhaven caused by pollution problems at the lab, some of them decades old. They included leakage of chemical waste and small amounts of radioactive tritium from part of a nuclear reactor used for research. Unfortunately it may still be several months before Marburger can take up his appointment, the US Senate must approve his nomination, and as a result sound scientific advice for Mr. Bush remains in abeyance.

Knowledge Nation Taskforce Report 'Tabled'.  Beazley, 'It Won't Be Pigeonholed' (July 2, 2001)
    In his address to the Sydney Institute on June 14th the Leader of the Federal Opposition, Kim Beasley announced that he would shortly release the final version of the report of Labor's Knowledge Nation Taskforce. He has been as good as his word and the 64 page report is now available. It has been described as "visionary" by both the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies' (FASTS) policy committee chairman, Dr. Ken Baldwin and National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) president Carolyn Allport. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Dr. Baldwin went on to comment, "The plan is one thing: generating the political will to implement it is another. Now it's up to the ALP to unveil their plans for Australia's future. We believe the 60,000 scientists and technologists represented by FASTS will reserve their judgment until they compare fully costed policies from all parties." Dr. Allport concurred, "[the report's] usefulness depended on Mr. Beazley picking up the ball and running with it."
    In short Mr. Beazley, Mr. Jones and Co. have talked the talked - let's see if  they can now walk the walk.
                Sydney Morning Herald's first report.
                Kim Beazley's address in full.
                Report of the Knowledge Nation Taskforce (HTML)
               It is also available in pdf format by following the link at the bottom of  Kim Beazley's address in full.

The Comparative Performance of Australia as a Knowledge Nation - A Postscript to the Chifley Report (July 2, 2001)
    Simon Marginson is director of the Monash Centre for Research in International Education and is the senior author of the sixty-six page Chifley Report . The Coalition attacked the report for basing its findings on old OECD data (the OECD had just released it's 2001 updates). In an article in today's Sydney Morning Herald, Professor Marginson updates the report's analyses using the new data. Based on this update you can make your own judgment as to whether or not the Government's criticisms per se are consequential.