News & Views - July 2003



Labor Releases Its Higher Education Policy Paper. (July 23, 2003)

    The twenty-six page higher education policy paper Aim Higher: Learning, training and better jobs for more Australians is Labor's most complete policy document put forward in Opposition. However, it is not clear if it can disengage itself sufficiently from the concept of one-size-fits-all to allow critical upgrading of the university system. And how it sees the role of research in universities remains to be spelt out saying, "Labor recognises that research and development are critical drivers of Australia's economic growth underpinning the generation of jobs and industries of the future ... and will be releasing a separate policy on the vital area of research in Australian universities."

    Carolyn Allport, President of the National Tertiary Education Union has been the first to comment saying that while the Labor document has points in common with the Coalition's Backing Australia's Future "it contains a number of significant advantages over the Government's proposals," and goes on to say, "Labor's pledge to make access to higher education dependant on ability, not ability to pay, and the absence of any ideologically motivated workplace reform conditions attached to additional funding for universities [is welcome]."

    However, with regard to the critical need to upgrade infrastructure nothing of substance is included in the document and whether or not Labor subscribes to the concept of a nexus between university teaching and research remains to be seen.



DEST Releases Issues Paper for Review of Closer Collaboration Between Universities and Major Publicly Funded Research Agencies. (July 23, 2003)

    As promised the Department of Education, Science and Training today published its issues paper which deals with developing mechanisms for "closer collaboration" between the university and DSTO, CSIRO, ANSTO and the like. Many will see this as another cost cutting approach but DEST's Minister, Brendan Nelson despite the paper stating "The Research Collaboration Review is not considering structural break up of PFRAs or changes to their existing research missions. The Review is not directed to achieving reductions in the overall funding for university and [publicly funded research agencies]  research..."

    Submissions have been called and are due by August 29th. [Click here for the "Collaboration" home page or click here to download MS-Word formatted paper]



Will Australia's Mouse Plagues Soon be a Thing of the Past? (July 22, 2003)

    The University of Warwick, Coventry recently announced that it has created a revolutionary mousetrap and it is proactively seeking for all and sundry to beat a path to its door. As a result of critical experimentation with a number of foods and food essences, mice were found to be most fond not of cheese but chocolate. The engineering and design teams of the university's Innovation Direct service, a free consultancy service set about together with Sorex Ltd, a leading manufacturer of rodent control products to develop a shock and awe mousetrap made of chocolate scented plastic.  Martina Flynn, Rodent Control Product Manager with Sorex Ltd, said: "The partnership has led to the development of a unique product that is baitless, making it very easy to use in just one step." According to the manufacture the trap is now being sold in the hardware and agricultural sectors.

    TFW believes that this approach constitutes a new low in dirty tricks; it's one thing to trap a mouse if, when it pits its wits against your trap, it can get a food reward for its death defying encounter, but a piece of chocolate scented plastic; where's UofW's sense of fair play?

[Note: Mice are colour-blind.]



CSIRO's Chief Executive Gets a Right of Reply. (July 18, 2003)

    Last week we printed a News and Views item quoting former CSIRO Chief, Max Whitten, where he once again took CSIRO's administration to task, this time on Radio National's Breakfast program of July 8th for what he sees as being little short of incompetence.

    The following day, the ABC's Peter Thompson gave CSIRO's Chief Executive, Geoff Garrett, the right of reply. It seemed to leave Thompson somewhat bemused.

Peter Thompson: [The claim has been made] that the CSIRO is changing direction and abandoning -- whilst it's taking on the Flagship programs -- some of its traditional areas of very competent research.


Dr. Garrett: That's not the case ... it is really around focus, building critical mass, aligning with national research priorities and building on that fantastic tradition of achievement and delivery that we had over the last 77 years.


Peter Thompson: [T]his year the government is saying that it wants scientific priorities subject to yet another review, which is the reason underlying the fact that you haven't had your triennial funding guaranteed yet.


Dr. Garrett:  [A]s I said, so what the previous year was all about was us saying we need some more time to essentially build our planning around these Flagship programs ... in terms of the sort of priorities ... in the current year ... [T]here are a  number of views. I think it is a wonderful watershed time for science in Australia. There are a number of opportunities to say: where are we going into the future and how, therefore, do we build on the past to create this future?


Peter Thompson: [I]n February you told a Senate estimates committee that retrenchments will continue too at an average of 150 jobs a year. Now, where are those jobs going from?


Dr. Garrett: The areas that we're refocusing on are in the exploration domain, in the mining area. We're saying: where are our customers; where are our key stakeholders? They are over in the west and we need to partner more closely with them. ... In the whole area of information technology we know that we're putting new money ... In the area of health and water, we are putting in new areas, so it's a shift in our priorities to really build this critical mass, build the focus of our attention, work with our partners to deliver against the big challenges... for the next decade and beyond: how do we play our part in that role, in that whole challenge?


Peter Thomson: Just briefly and finally -- the Flagship projects. What difference are they going to make?


Dr. Garrett: It's about saying what are the big challenges that Australia confronts? How do we cut health care costs by up to $5 billion in a year and help Australians achieve up to 10 years of productive enjoyable life? How do we get the double whammy of keeping our energy costs world competitive but drastically cutting the pollution emissions by up to half? How do we drastically increase the benefits the way we use water, including recycling and reusing our wastes, and the mantra of water for all forever? Wouldn't that be wonderful in our land!

Two years ago a Senate committee looked into the question as to whether or not Australia's university system was in a fit state to do its job. It would appear that it is well past time for an objective assessment as to whether or not CSIRO is being directed so as to serve the nation appropriately.



Test the Nation's IQ U.S. Style. (July 18, 2003)

    On Monday, June 9, the Fox network in the United States aired Test The Nation, a two-hour television special during which viewers were invited to test their IQ online while a group of disparate contestants were grilled in front of the cameras . The US was a bit slow to the mark, the show in various guises having already been run in Australia and a number of European countries. But what made the US version somewhat different according to Science is that "The producers added 'scientists' to the usual categories, rounding up 40 from California universities-- many of them graduate students -- and dressing them all in white lab coats." They were pitted against groups of teachers, students, body builders, construction workers, blondes, and celebrities.

    So what were the results? In third place came the celebrities, the "silver medal" went to the teachers, while in top place -- would we be telling you about it if it were other? -- came the scientists. Top of the heap was David Merwine, an assistant professor at UCLA, who felt that his group may have had an unfair advantage over at least one of their opponents, "all the blondes wore halter tops and were in the section right next to the construction workers."



Short List for 2003 Eureka Prizes Announced. (July 18, 2003)

Close to sixty finalists are vying for 21 prizes worth an aggregate of $210,000 in four categories, Education (4), Industry and Innovation (3), Research (8) and Science communication (6).

The prize winners will be announced at the award dinner on 12 August.



American Physical Society Study Demonstrates Infeasibility of US Missile Defence Strategy. (July 16, 2003)

    The American Physical Society today released a detailed analysis of boost-phase missile defence (disabling ballistic missiles while they are still under power) which has recently received much attention as one possible element of a US National Missile Defense system. The study was co-chaired by Professors Daniel Kleppner, MIT and David Harris, University of Illinois. Professor Kleppner observed:

Few of the components exist for deploying an effective boost-phase defense against liquid-propellant ICBMs and some essential components would take at least 10 years to develop. According to U.S. intelligence estimates, North Korea and Iran could develop or acquire solid-propellant ICBMs [which have a shorter intercept window] within the next 10 to 15 years. Consequently, a boost-phase defense effective only against liquid-propellant ICBMs would risk being obsolete when deployed.

Furthermore, the report showed that even a successful intercept while preventing "munitions from reaching their target, live nuclear, biological, or chemical warheads could strike populated areas short of the target in the United States or in other countries. This 'shortfall problem' is inherent in any boost-phase defense and difficult to avoid."

    Why this reality check should carry any weight with the White House and Co. is debatable -- what's a physical law or two, if you don't like 'em and you're head of THE superpower, change 'em.

    The APS' man in D.C., Bob Park, observed, "The study's authors studiously declined to draw policy implications. What's New is under no such constraint.  As one physicist who read the report put it, 'Even if it would work it wouldn't work, but it won't work.'  A week before release of the APS study, the Senate slashed funding for boost-phase interceptor development."



Ex Labor Senator Chris Schacht Has Some Advice for His Party But are They Listening? (July 15, 2003)

    Former Senator from South Australia, Chris Schacht, had a chance to air some strong views in an opinion piece in today's  Melbourne Age. Without doubt he will have ruffled more than a feather or two and there will undoubtedly be those who will accuse him of disparagement since he missed the cut for the last Senate election. But maybe, just maybe, he ought to be listened to. Some excerpts:

I joined the ALP in 1965 to be involved in policy debate and to argue for change in society. ... Those who join the ALP, or any party, because they want a career in politics are joining for the wrong reason. Unfortunately this is a trend that is emerging in the ALP. ... [Y]ou build factional support until it is your turn to be selected as an ALP candidate for a seat. As an MP you serve your faction faithfully... Faction always comes before party or community.

    It is this careerism created by now non-ideological factions backed and advised by misused market research that is doing the most damage to the health and vitality of the ALP as a reform-based party. If we adopt policies that appear to mirror the conservatives, what justification do we give voters to elect us? ...  [W]hat we should adopt from the most successful of ALP leaders is a commitment to a party based on policy and ideas, not market research-led careerism.

It will be interesting to see if Labor can regroup so that they cease looking like a Clayton's Opposition and throw off the vapid appearance they've presented since the self-wounding Paul Keating departed. Simon Crean has pushed the matter of education as his first declaration of policy following the seeing off of Kim Beasley. How robust, how well thought out, and how well it will be presented to Australians remains to be seen; so far Mr Crean and Ms Macklin have skimmed the surface layers, what's below remains to be uncovered.



What Might it Take to Realise Replacement of Fossil Fuels with Hydrogen. (July 14, 2003)

    Paul Grant is a science fellow at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto California. In a two page Nature "Commentary" (July 10, 2003) he opens with "The dream of clean, usable energy needs to reflect practical reality." and continues, "...let us concede that the day finally comes when your newborn drives an economical fuel-cell-powered vehicle with enough on-board hydrogen storage to travel 500 km without having to refill at a hydro-station too often. Where will the hydrogen come from? After all, this is fuel you can't mine or drill for." After doing some sums Grant calculates that, " would need to generate around 230,000 tonnes of hydrogen daily -- enough in liquid form to fill 2,200 space-shuttle booster rockets -- to fuel its vehicular traffic." Making the oversimplifying assumption that Australia with about 1/15th the population would require 1/15th the hydrogen, that comes to about 145 space-shuttle booster-rockets worth per day. Were Australia to obtain its hydrogen through electrolytic conversion of water we would use, based on Grant's figures, about 130,000 tonnes per day. In his article Grant says, "For me, the most compelling rationale for the hydrogen economy is the potential to drastically reduce carbon emissions. If we can get energy without oxidizing carbon, I believe it's a good idea to do it," and he then estimates the land usage involved in producing sufficient electricity for the required electrolysis. For the US that would be "130,000 km2 for wind and 20,000 km2 for solar technologies. The former is about the size of New York State, the latter about half the size of Denmark." A number of Australia's large sheep and cattle stations exceed 10,000 km2 so for Australia the land requirement per se would be no deterrent, but the cost of implementing the infrastructure would not be trivial. Nevertheless, concerted research into development and implementation a hydrogen based economy could make Australia a leader in the field and it is a stated goal of CSIRO's "Energy Transformed" flagship program. Whether or not CSIRO under its Chief Executive, Geoffrey Garrett, and our federal and state governments give more than lip service to the initiative remains to be seen.



Will Higher Education Become a Real Election Issue? (July 14, 2003)

    The Australian Labor Party is continuing its teasing tactics in releasing its education policy blueprint in bite sized portions. The approach is getting under the skin of Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson.

    Yesterday Labor's education spokeswoman, Jenny Macklin said that Labor would fund 5000 new university teaching places under a $161 million plan to alleviate the shortages in Australia's public school system, however, she has refused to give details, which she says will be released with Labor's whole university package in several weeks. Previously Labor has said that were it elected it would cut $1600 a year from the cost of maths and science degrees to encourage increased enrollments, promised to create 20,000 extra TAFE places, scrap full fees for Australian undergraduate students, increase the HECS threshold to $35,000, stop universities increasing fees by up to 30 per cent and eliminate real interest rates on student loans. Which is all very well, but so far Labor has said nothing about upgrading the "factories" that are producing the "product".

    Meanwhile the Australian Democrats spokeswoman, Natasha Stott Despoja, told the Melbourne Age,  "Labor's announcement did not go far enough. She said Labor was trying to undo the damage it did to education while in government." While she has a point, the Democrats have yet to produce a comprehensive education policy of their own; perhaps someday it will happen -- it certainly hasn't yet.

    So far Dr. Nelson's contribution to the fray has been a series of tax-payer-funded media releases:

Abstract: The Federal ALP has apparently decided to drip feed its ideas for universities into the media rather than release the package it promises it has developed.



Abstract: Labor's education spokesperson Jenny Macklin has today confirmed that Opposition Leader Simon Crean tried to prise her out of her education portfolio during his recent reshuffle of the Labor front bench.

Abstract: Labor's education spokesperson Jenny Macklin has today effectively admitted that her plan to slug taxpayers a reported $161.3 million for new teaching places in higher education is in response to her inability to persuade her State and Territory Labor colleagues to properly pay teachers and retain them in the workforce.


Abstract: Simon Crean has today announced a Labor Government would provide fellowships for 300 PhD students.


Abstract: The ALP’s training announcement today signals a welcome, but belated and surprising interest in issues of training.


Abstract: The ALP has today insulted the higher education community, and undermined almost 9,500 young Australians by making an announcement which is less a policy prescription for higher education than a re-release of a single dot point from its failed “Knowledge Nation” – “spaghetti and meatballs” document.


Tertiary Education May Be Good for Your Mental Health. (July 12, 2003)

    An article in last month's issue of the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology is entitled "Head Circumference, Education and Risk of Dementia: Findings from the Nun Study" by Mortimer, Snowdon and Markesbery. They report, "To examine the prevalence of dementia associated with having a smaller brain, lower education or both of these characteristics, 294 Catholic sisters were assessed annually for dementia. Sixty participants died and their brains were evaluated to determine fulfillment of neuropathological criteria for Alzheimer's disease (AD). ...The findings suggest that higher education and larger head size, alone or in combination, may reduce the risk of expressing dementia in late life."

    Now there might be an argument for supporting higher education. The Treasurer, Peter Costello, has reminded us on more than one occasion that the cost of caring for the elderly will escalate in the coming decades. Surely it would be far more cost effective to utilise higher education as a prophylactic for dementia rather than paying for the care of the demented elderly. And the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, did tell Fran Kelly on the ABC's 7:30 report last year that more funds for universities would mean less for hospitals and social services. Now were more money for universities to result in a reduction in the care required for Alzheimer's disease through greater mental stimulation for the population as well as new research into dementia and its alleviation, not to mention other afflictions of the elderly, mightn't that be considered a worthwhile investment in the reduction of overall health care costs?

    Perhaps that doesn't fit within the Prime Minister's agenda ... but it ought to.


High Tech - Low Tech and the Splatometer. (July 12, 2003)

    Splatometer - Credit, BBCThe Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) wants to enlist the assistance of Britain's drivers to estimate declines in the nation's insect population. The object is to determine if falling insect numbers explain a decline in some bird species. Currently there is only anecdotal evidence that Britain's insect population has fallen over recent decades. Now the RSPB is developing its Splatometer which is under test by members and if the trials are considered successful the general public will be recruited to assist in determining insect numbers over an extended period.

    The Splatometer consists of a postcard sized sheet of clear PVC which drivers will be able to attach to their windscreens or front licence plates. After driving 50 miles (80 kms) the sheet is removed, covered with a second sheet of clear PVC to make a "bug sandwich" and sent in for scanning and computer analysis. The RSBP is working on modifying scanners and adapting software for the job. However, some entomologists believe that accurate discrimination between insect species from splattered remains will be difficult. Nevertheless, the approach may contribute to assessing overall insect decline.



CSIRO in the Gun Once Again. (July 12, 2003)

    Just one year ago Max Whitten, former Chief of CSIRO's Division of Entomology wrote in Australasian Science "CSIRO's leadership is in crisis". With the passage of time his views haven't changed and from what he told the ABC's Peter Thomson on the Wednesday (July 9th) Breakfast program if anything, matters have worsened.

Dr. Whitten: CSIRO is facing unprecedented levels of retrenchments. [reason] is continued cuts by the Coalition government ...but secondly, that was in anticipation that the new management of CSIRO would increase its external earnings by up to about 60 per cent of its budget.  ...the incoming chief executive ...promised an increase up to 60 per cent. So that was part of the expectation by the government following the appointment of the chief executive back in 2001. [T]hat simply did not happen.

     [T]o get that external money, which we now know they are not getting, they increased the number of commercial gurus in CSIRO -- there are 170 plus people.


Peter Thompson: In a sense, given the ambitious targets of getting so much funding from outside, wasn't it necessary to pump up that marketing arm?


Dr. Whitten: If you look at the experience in America, most of the successful universities only get about 3% of their funds from commercialisation, and the cost of developing, protecting and commercialising that is often more than the 3%. So it is probably a very flawed strategy to put so much emphasis on the commercial side.  CSIRO's reputation in helping develop this country, has been in public good research. Lots of projects over the years created great wealth for the country, and that's been put aside in this sort of endeavour to look for solutions to problems that create intellectual property and income streams for the organisation.


Peter Thompson: Max, what is the problem with the flagship programs?


Dr. Whitten: [Their] real agenda [is] to diminish the power of the divisions and to replace divisions with new structures. [The program is] not a reform that [is] driven by new ideas, genuine cooperation, and if you actually look now at the flagship [program], you will find that what it's done is it has increased tension, it's increased competition within divisions, between divisions, and indeed the flagships that have been announced, most of them are internally focused and they don't have very strong partnerships with outside bodies.

What it amounts to is that as with the Coalition government's approach to higher education, public funding is reduced to allow it to be channelled to areas it considers to be of higher priority. Ultimately it will be the public who will decide if this tactic is appropriate or misguided and short-sighted.



What Happens After You've Done Your OWLs. (July 11, 2003)

    Harry Potter and his friends having turned 15 and just finished the school year have completed their OWLs (intermediate exams for those not familiar with Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry). They can look forward to two more years of intensive instruction following their holidays, mostly with highly competent masters in their subjects and varied and rewarding career paths after graduation.

    Last week the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, swelled with pride announcing the results of the findings that Australian 15 year-old students performed very strongly in PISA 2000 according to the OECD/UNESCO Report Literacy Skills for the World of Tomorrow – Further Results from PISA 2000.

    According to Dr. Nelson's figuring "Our students were outperformed by only one other country in reading literacy (Finland), two countries in mathematical literacy (Japan and Hong Kong-China) and two countries in scientific literacy (Japan and Korea). The full 390 page report gives a number of different approaches for analysing the data that was compiled and while Dr Nelson's take on the data may be subject to some questioning, for example (PISA 2000 ranks Australian 15-year-olds' overall proficiency level on the combined reading literacy scale as 8th out of the 41 nation's taking part) it's still in the top 20% (click chart for enlarged view).

    The fact is that the Australian fifteen-year-olds that were tested did damn well. But then what. According to the submission lodged by DEST in April this year with the Senate Inquiry into current and future skill needs, "Australia's future growth and prosperity are likely to depend significantly on having a highly skilled workforce many of whom have a good foundation in the enabling sciences. ...In his report The Chance to Change, the Chief Scientist, Dr Batterham, expressed concern at the number of children losing interest in science and mathematics, and falling enrolments in science and mathematics in the senior years at secondary school. Between 1992 and 2000, the number of students in secondary teacher education courses undertaking science subjects declined by 29%. This situation is likely to be compounded as between now and 2010, the retirement of mathematics and science teachers is expected to lead to staffing pressures," and goes on to say it will make available, "funding of an additional 2000 university places annually for five years, with priority given to mathematics, science and ICT". Fine but as we asked in April, "who is to teach the teachers and what is needed to attract the best of those available to our universities and keep them there? But of course there is the remark attributed recently to the Education, Science and Training Minister that what's needed is to 'promote teaching excellence' and correct an over-emphasis on research. With the sort of over emphasis the Federal Government currently places on research, and an apparent profound lack of comprehension of the nexus between research excellence and higher education... ."

    In a 1988 movie Sherlock Holmes (Michael Cain) staring up into a tall tree asks Dr. Watson (Ben Kingsley) "What are we looking for." Watson replies in frustration, "Footprints." The film? Without a Clue.



DEST Releases Estimate for Commonwealth Grant Scheme through 2007. (July 9, 2003)

    The Department of Education, Science and Training yesterday released its calculations with respect to transitional funding for universities in implementing the Minister, Brendan Nelson's, reform package. Dr. Nelson has stated that no university will be financially disadvantaged during the transition stage. DEST has now determined that the initial $12.6 million earmarked as a transitional fund is inadequate to meet Dr. Nelson's pledge and has allocated an additional $26 million over the next three years. Dr Nelson hasn't indicated the source of the additional funds.

    The table produced by the DEST shows that from 2005 - 2007 there will be an estimated negative impact on 9 of Australia's publicly funded universities of just under $43 million so there still appears to be a net shortfall of $4.4 million if the Minister's pledge is to be honoured.

    Of course this is all good "sport" as an obfuscation for the billions of dollars of which the university system has been starved during the tenure of the current Coalition government. And as long as governments deal with university funding as lost revenue rather than a national investment for the common good, the quality of our tertiary educational system will continue to decline.

[Note added July 10] The University of Western Sydney's acting vice-chancellor, Robert Coombes, has said previously that UWS would be $7.5 million worse off in 2005 under the reforms, not $4 million as shown in the Government's table, while according to the University of Sydney, despite DEST's figures showing it will be $7.3 million to the good in 2005, in fact it would at best only be marching on the spot. How many more of the universities will contest the department's figures remains to be seen.


Will the "Meatball" Hit the Fan? (July 9, 2003)

    Last Saturday the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, put out a media release headed "LABOR NEEDS A POLICY NOT A RE-WARMED MEATBALL". Not really the sort of puerile retort expected from a minister responsible for the nation's education portfolio [see: you get no bread with one meat ball ]. The release was in response to the first instalment of the Australian Labor Party's education policy. Over the ensuing days Labor has released additional parts of its "TAFE and university policies" which it labels, Aim Higher: Learning, training and better jobs for more Australians. Clearly Labor intends to gain extended media coverage by spinning out the release of its policy and it's working. Over the past week the papers have given higher education better media coverage than it's had since Dr. Nelson brought down the government's policy paper Our Universities: Backing Australia's Future.

    Labor has stated it opposes any increase in HECS fees and will lower the cost of a degree for some courses in areas of skill shortage and claims it will lower HECS fees for maths and sciences courses by $1,600 per year.

    So far various groups interested in what Labor has released to date have given cautious approval but would like to see Labor go beyond hand waving. For example, the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee has said it is "encouraged by Labor's Post-Doctoral Fellowship increases," of 300 new fellowships but its CEO, John Mullarvey, added that  the AVCC was looking forward to seeing the remainder of the opposition package and full costings. "Only when we see the full package can we properly assess Labor's proposals."

    The Federation for Australian Scientific and Technological Societies also "welcomed the ALP's announcement that a Labor Government  would create 300 new three year fellowships for young scientists," and Chris Fell, current president of FASTS feels that, "At the moment young [Australian] scientists  are vulnerable to attractive offers from overseas." He added, "FASTS would look forward to seeing the detail of  the policy."
    Now if Labor will go on to detail how it intends "to re-build, reform and expand Australia's universities and TAFEs," e.g. renovate Australia's universities as regards, infrastructure and academic staffing and not go to water when the Coalition bellow that what ever it is, it'll send the nation into penury. AND if it will get to work and do some hardball marketing of its proposed "product", just maybe the country might come up a winner, particularly if the Coalition is pushed to refurbish its Our Universities: Backing Australia's Future policy so that  it doesn't resemble a dog's breakfast. Fact is, it could do with a few high quality meatballs.



The Ultimate Genetically Modified Organism? (July 5, 2003)

    The 19th International Genetics Congress is about to get underway in Melbourne on Sunday (July 6th) with "6 Nobel Laureates, 300 elite international speakers and over 2700 delegates from 67 countries" expected to attend. It's unlikely that the claims of Hira Ratan Manek will be discussed but it might lead to some lively debate if they were. As Bob Park, the American Physical Society's man in Washington and author of Voodoo Science reports in this week's What's New column,

According to the Hindustan Times, NASA [has] turned to a survival expert, Hira Ratan Manek, a 64-year-old mechanical engineer from India. Manek claims to have survived for eight years on sunlight, water and a little tea. He is in the United States to show NASA how he does it. NASA scientists reportedly verified that Manek survived on water and sunlight for 130 days. The NASA Public Affairs Office confirmed to [What's New] that the claim is true. This is a bold new approach. If the laws of nature stand in the way of a solution, it’s time to change the laws.

Rather than a physical impossibility perhaps Manek is a product of advanced genetic modification and is capable of direct photosynthesis. The effect such genetic modification would have on the world's environment, starvation in developing countries directly, or were it to be utilised in animal husbandry, regardless of any interest by NASA, is mind numbing. Maybe CSIRO's Chief Executive, Geoff Garrett, might consider checking out Manek's claims and NASA's "verification" to see if he could reinvigorate the government's flagging interest in supporting the organisation by suggesting it might be of fundamental importance to CSIRO's Agribusiness Flagship program. After all if NASA's interested...

    Correction (07/12/03): Bob Park in a follow up What's New reports when he phoned NASA he got the impression that it confirmed the invitation to Hira Ratan Manek. However, "NASA [now] insists they said there had been no contact with him.  WN deeply regrets the confusion."



Temporary Brain Regain. (July 4, 2003)

         The Following item by Stephen Luntz is reprinted with permission from Australasian Science's July 2003 issue.

Bryan Gaensler

    "Together with other card-carrying members of the brain drain we have come to the conclusion that there is often an unresolved dichotomy between professional opportunities on offer overseas and the culture and lifestyle applications of the homeland," says former Young Australian of the Year, Bryan Gaensler.

    Now assistant professor at Harvard University's Department of Astronomy, Dr. Gaensler was discussing a program he proposed whereby leading Australian scientists who have gone overseas in search of better career opportunities are funded to return to Australia for a few months each year. The University of Sydney has taken up the idea, funding a pilot program in which two expatriate scientists will spend the northern non-teaching period carrying out research and working with local high school students.

    "Most people never resolve the dilemma," noted Dr Gaensler. "They either long to return home but never do so, or give up a lot of their professional ambitions in order to get back to Australia. The return fellowship program allows excellent expatriate scientists to maintain professional connections with Australia, and lets Australian institutes benefit from the considerable overseas expertise and connection of our expatriates. Everybody wins."

    The first participants in the NSW Residency Expatriate Scientist Awards Project are Dr Theo ten Brummelaar and Prof Paul Franzon. Dr Brummelaar was central to the establishment of Sydney University's Stellar Interferometer at Narrabri and is now based at the Mt Wilson Observatory in California. Prof Franzon is a leader in nano-engineering and winner of Science's Breakthrough Award.

    The first two positions were advertised in December 2002, and Dr Gaensler says that a "surprisingly large" number of applications were received. "We have big plans for this scheme," he said. "Ultimately we envisage this encompassing all universities plus CSIRO, and other appropriate governmental or private sector organisations. Also, we hope to extend this beyond scientists. Musicians, museum creators, economists and neurobiologists, just to pick a few random examples, could all benefit from such a scheme."



Senate Inquiry into Higher Education Funding and Regulatory Legislation: The Nelson Reforms. (July 1, 2003)

    Twenty-two months ago the Senate Employment, Workplace, Small Business and Education Reference Committee published its report Universities in Crisis. Now, following the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson's, recommended reforms based on his "Higher Education at the Crossroads" review, the Senate has designated a four member sub-committee drawn from the original group of Senators to undertake an inquiry into the policies Dr. Nelson has proclaimed. The sub-committee consists of Kim Carr, chair (ALP-Vic), Trish Crossin (ALP - NT), Natasha Stott-Despoja (AD - SA) and John Tirney (LP - NSW). Submissions are invited with a closing date of August 15, 2003.


Details are available, including a copy of the submission's top page, and instructions on formatting submissions from the inquiry's Webpage.

Inquiry into higher education funding and regulatory legislation -- Terms of reference:

  1. The principles of the Government's higher education package.

  2. The effect of these proposals upon sustainability, quality, equity and diversity in teaching and research at universities, with particular reference to:

    · The financial impact on students, including merit selection, income support and international comparisons,

    · The financial impact on universities, including the impact of the Commonwealth Grants Scheme, the differential impact of fee deregulation, the expansion of full fee places and comparable international levels of government investment, and

    · The provision of fully funded university places, including provision for labour market needs, skill shortages and regional equity, and the impact of the 'learning entitlement'.

  3. The implications of such proposals on the sustainability of research and research training in public research agencies.

  4. The effect of this package on the relationship between the Commonwealth, the States and universities, including issues of institutional autonomy, governance, academic freedom and industrial relations.

  5. Alternative policy and funding options for the higher education and public research sectors.