News & Views - June 2003



What it Takes to Attract the Prime Minister's Concern as Regards University Funding. (June 27, 2003)

    The Sydney Morning Herald's reporter on matters higher educational, Aban Contractor, was in the right place at the right time when the documents fell off the truck. "Internal documents prepared by the University of Western Sydney (UWS), and obtained by the Herald, outline 'grave concerns', claiming funds 'are being given with one hand and taken away with the other'", reinforcing points made by the National Tertiary Education Union in its ten page critique of the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson's higher education reform package.

    According to Ms Contractor, "A delegation of coalition members in marginal seats have met [with Dr.] Nelson, urging him to single out the university as a special case, [and it appears] the Prime Minister, John Howard, has also intervened, urging that western Sydney, home to many of the so-called 'aspirational' voters, not be penalised by the changes."

    UWS calculates that over three years it would loose $31 million as a result of the reforms which will "better reflect the actual cost of delivering a course, a move described by UWS as 'clawback'." Because the mechanism is to be ongoing, UWS estimates that it will lose a perpetual $10 million per annum.

    Putting further pressure on Dr. Nelson, Labor Senators joined by the Greens and independents, Meg Lees (SA) and Shayne Murphy (Tas) voted yesterday to hold an inquiry into the "impact" Dr. Nelson's reforms will have on higher education. Senator Kim Carr (Labor, Vic.) will chair the inquiry which is to report to the Senate by October 30.

    Noted in passing: A media release from the Prime Minister today read in part, "There is a great deal of research being conducted in Australian universities, academies, government agencies and industry, in fields as diverse as detection of biohazards, robotics, cryptography and surveillance systems, that has the potential to support counter-terrorism." Perhaps there's hope for higher education yet, even linguistics if the departments play it right. And mathematics, physics and chemistry ought to have a doddle.



M.I.T. & Harvard Join Forces - Set Up Genome Institute - Get US$100 Million Donation. (June 22, 2003)

    Eli Broad, a Los Angeles financial executive is donating A$150 million over 10 years to establish a research institute intended "to apply knowledge of the human genome to the practice of medicine." The M.I.T. and Whitehead Institute's Eric Lander, one of the movers and shakers involved in the publicly funded human genome project, will head the institute which is to include 12 core faculty members and up to 30 associated faculty members from M.I.T., Harvard and Whitehead; all of whom will retain their appointments at M.I.T., Harvard or Whitehead. Put simply the institute will try to determine the molecular causes of disease by systematically examining genes and proteins and as Professor Lander, a mathematician seduced to molecular biology, emphasised such research requires experts in biology, medicine, engineering, chemistry as well as computer scientists to assist in analysing the data obtained. "It's about bringing together scientists to do larger collaborative projects, and there just isn't a vehicle for it."

    Mr. Broad, reported to have a net worth of US$4.8 billion, has previously given money to support the arts, medicine and education. He said he decided to support the effort in Cambridge, Massachusetts rather than in Los Angeles, because of the scientific expertise available there. According to the New York Times he said, "The science is more important than the geography."

    Harvard and M.I.T. intend to raise an additional US$200 million in private support over the decade to supplement Mr. Broad's gift.



There are WMDs and then there are... (June 22, 2003)
    The redoubtable Bob Park, the American Physical Society's man in Washington, in his June 20th edition of What's New has the following item regarding the White House's "spin doctoring" or what might be termed "bending the truth" beyond recognition.


There had been speculation that the Bush administration doctors information to support its policies. It’s no longer speculation. An EPA report on the state of the environment was selectively edited. According to the New York Times, a major section describing the risks we face from rising global temperatures was so mangled by the White House that angry EPA staff decided to delete the entire discussion rather than appear to be selectively reporting science. References to reports of environmental effects of human activity were deleted and a reference to a study funded in part by petroleum interests was inserted.


Say It Ain't So, Brendan. (June 19, 2003)

    click for full sizeDr. Carolyn Allport, President of the National Tertiary Education Union, released a statement last week headed, "Government misrepresents funding gain to universities," and then expands on the point by adding, "New research released by the NTEU on Wednesday [June 11] shows that Government has substantially misrepresented the funding gain to universities from its higher education reform package, with only $753 million of the $1.46 billion announced ...made up of genuinely new money."

    The assertion is substantiated by a critical ten page analysis detailing how the NTEU arrived at its conclusion.

    The Coalition Government will "claw back" $584 million in operating income through the replacement of the current Block Operating Grants to universities by the new proposed arrangement under the Commonwealth Grants Scheme. In addition the NTEU determined that the Federal Government will save about $128 million by phasing out the current over-enrolment payments to universities. In short the Minister for Education, Science and Training has given the universities a four year $1.465 billion dollar package but is presenting them a bill of $712 million for the "donation" leaving them, by Dr. Allport's analysis, a real increase in funding of $753 million over four years, averaging $188.25 million per year. And as Dr. Allport points out, there are tight strings attached to a significant portion of that.

    TFW's June Viewpoint has already pointed out that had the Commonwealth government maintained its funding at the percentage of GDP that existed in 1996, universities would have received $1.51 billion more for the 2002/03 financial year than they have.

    So, who's holding the mirrors and blowing the smoke?



Minister for Science, Peter McGauran, Chooses Committee to Assess Proposals for Implementing National Research Priorities. (June 17, 2003)

     Australia's four national research priorities were announced in December last year:

With the announcement came the admonition, "All research and research funding bodies of the Commonwealth will be expected to participate in implementing the priorities to the extent that it is consistent with their mandates or missions. ...[the government] will require participating bodies to put forward plans to Government by mid–May 2003 on how they propose to implement the priorities."

    A seven member committee has now been appointed "to examine the extent to which the agencies' plans support the National Research Priorities. They will assess plans from research funding bodies such as the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council and from research agencies ranging from the CSIRO to the Australian Nuclear Scientific and Technology Organisation." They are scheduled to report "on the adequacy" of the proposals to the government "in mid-2003" so they'll have to hop to it. There is no indication as to whether or not the committee's recommendations will be made public, to what degree they will consult directly with the groups who have forwarded proposals, and what degree of influence they will have on the latitude of discretion the funding bodies will be allowed in grant allocations. The disquiet that hung over the Cabinet's first foray into research priority determinations could be repeated despite the initial ostentatious public consultation performed last year. It's a matter of the directions the Government wishes to take in leading away from the broad categorisation of the four priorities and how open or secretive it will be in the choices it adopts.

    They committee members:


It's Becoming a Question of Policies -- or is it? (June 16, 2003)
    Now that the Labor Party's leadership has been resolved, at least for the immediate future, perhaps the matter of policies may take the stage. If so it will be the first time in the seven years the party has been in opposition that it will have done so. Let's be straight, it's a matter of real policies for the benefit of the nation, not pollster driven pseudo policies. The Sydney Morning Herald's economics editor, Ross Gittins, put it this way in his column today:

They may even be desperate enough to conclude that their chances would be improved if they had some decent policies.'ve got to be prepared to lose the election to win it. You've got to be prepared to lose votes to gain them. Why? Well, partly because it's only when you're seen to have the courage of your convictions that the electorate's likely to think you're worth electing.

    [But currently] Labor is selling two propositions: the Liberals aren't putting enough money into government services and they're making you pay too much tax. So it wants to portray itself as the party of bigger government and the party of lower taxation.

    Which makes it the Magic Pudding Party. Under Labor, you can have your cake and eat it. Like Bunyip Bluegum, you can "cut and come again".  

    The one principle Labor stands for now is the abolition of opportunity cost. You should be able to spend all dollars twice over.

So are we about to see a sea change? Will Labor now begin to put forward some carefully crafted policies on science, education, technology and education, higher education in particular? And might it roll up its collective sleeves to sell those policies to the electorate so forcefully and convincingly that the governing Coalition would have to retreat from its poorly camouflaged approach of irresponsible under resourcing?

    Come Summer we ought to have a pretty good idea.



"The higher education reforms will give parents and students more options."--Dr. Brendan Nelson (June 16, 2003)

    Last week (June 10th) the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson posted an article on ON LINE opinion which after drawing on Labor's Education Minister in the Hawke government, John Dawkins, for support got stuck into his critics with, "The placards have been dusted off as protesters again attack changes essential to the future of a diverse, internationally competitive higher education sector." and continues:

Australia's 38 publicly funded universities are on a collision course with mediocrity. The case for reform rests on two incontrovertible truths. The first is that universities need access in the longer term to more money.

    The second is that money is only half the problem. The Howard government's reform package delivers on both. At its heart is $1.5 billion in new money for our universities - $10.6 billion over the next 10 years.

So does Dr. Nelson mean for his readers to believe that those groups and individuals who have pointed out the deficiencies of his reformation argue against "universities need[ing] access in the longer term to more money" or that reform of the university system is required? Neither is the case and the approach of misdirecting the argument is regrettable. For example, careful and critical assessments of the reforms have been put forward by the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, The Group of Eight, The Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, the National Tertiary Education Union, Kenneth Davidson in his opinion piece in the Melbourne Age, and the scientific weekly, Nature in its lead editorial of May 29 which remarks:

An egregious omission from the reform package is any mention of further infrastructure support for universities, many of which have to use teaching money to support their research, as Australian grants rarely cover overheads.

    For a nation hoping to benefit economically and socially from the fruits of world-class university research and teaching, more substantial government investment would have been appropriate.  Driving universities to compete for fee-paying students runs the risk of reshaping universities as sites of vocational training rather than as places of higher learning.

Are these the Luddites Dr. Nelson belittles in his on line opinion piece, and just what has the Higher Education at the Crossroads review achieved for its $1,030,000 cost to taxpayers? Have we been presented a humbug for our money?



FASTS Organises 5 US Congressional Science Fellows To Visit Canberra and Talk to the Pollies. (June, 13, 2003)

    The Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) continues in its effort to increase the awareness of federal parliamentarians as to the importance of scientific research for the nation's wellbeing. This coming Monday through Wednesday it has organised meetings between five US science fellows and a number of Members and Senators including the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, as well as Peter McGauran and Kim Carr, Minister and Shadow Minister for Science respectively; it is not clear whether or not the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, has made himself available but his special assistant for science is scheduled to meet with the science fellows.

    The science fellows have undertaken to meet individually with the chairs of a number of Parliamentary Committees as well as giving a seminar on Tuesday for all interested Members and Senators.

    FASTS lists the five visitors as:

Dr Rosina Bierbaum Dean, School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan
Dr Jeffrey Payne National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Dr Brendan Plapp Optical Society of America
Dr Danny Wedding, Director, Missouri Institute of Mental Health
Dr Stephen Nelson, American Association for the Advancement of Science

Early in May FASTS arranged for Dr. Margrit Leuthold, General Secretary of the Swiss Academy of Medical Research (SAMW) and Coordinator of the Council of the Swiss Academies of Sciences', to discuss Switzerland's implementation of the scientific fellows program with members of the Australian Parliament.

Note: Currently the United States Congress has approximately 35 Science Fellows advising it.



The Cost of an Elaborate Charade? (June 12, 2003)

    One of TFW's Adelaide readers called our attention to a short piece in the June 10th Australian referring to the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee's estimates hearings last week. Specifically, Senator Carr (Labor, Victoria) asked politely what the current cost estimates are for all those reviews that the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, has got his department to undertake. The figures do not include a costings estimate for the time taken in diverting individuals from what are considered their normal day jobs. Writing much sought after submissions for example.

Review of higher education
Science and innovation mapping project
CRC program evaluation
Review of public research agency-university collaboration
Research and infrastructure taskforce
Evaluation of knowledge and innovation reforms






Queensland University's Vice-Chancellor Has a Say on "Global Positioning". (June 9, 2003)

    In the winter issue of the University of Queensland's Graduate Contact Professor John Hay comments on Australia's support for higher education. Opening with, "There is little doubt that the very best of Australia's universities ...can deliver outcomes that are legitimately world-class," he goes on to say, John Hay addressing the National Press Club April 30th"...this quality is achieved in spite of Australia's commitment to its higher education sector rather than because of it. In this context the country is indeed at the crossroads."

    Professor Hay underlines the immediate benefit universities contribute to the nation pointing out, "In a country that lacks a strong corporate research culture and spends well below the OECD average on research and development, universities are a vital source of innovation and discovery" which enhances the private sector and the quality of human life. "An internationally competitive higher education sector ...comes at a price ...[but it] will be returned many times over... Funding is currently inadequate to maintain even the current teaching and research infrastructure over time. If we are serious about a knowledge-based future, we must act now to achieve it."

    Hardly a ringing endorsement of the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson's, reformation program for Australia's higher education sector.



Commercialisation of University Research Hits the Broadsheets. (June 6, 2003)

     "Research for Sale - but at what cost?" is the question Seamus Bradley asks as the lead into his 2,500 word page 4 article in June 4th's Melbourne Age. Succinctly what does it really cost the universities to earn a buck from commercialising their research. Bradley really doesn't give an answer, and the various Senate Committees have yet to get a credible one. The premise has been that by uncorking the cornucopia of research lying around Australia's universities, immediate great wealth would be visited upon them. There is no convincing evidence that it's happening. Rather than looking at the long term benefit that university research can bring to the nation, the Commonwealth Government continues to give every indication that it wants an immediate return on the investment of the public's money. Dr. Nelson's planned reformation shows no sign of a change from this policy and the following excerpt from Bradley's assessment makes the point very well:

While commercialisation of research is generating little by way of income and even less in the form of profit, the Universities in Crisis Senate report warned that "at its worst, private funding can undermine the integrity of knowledge". And chasing venture capital may be a fool's errant anyway.


The senate report notes that "Stanford University, the successful US private university around which Silicon Valley grew, still receives 90 per cent of its research funding from government".


This is despite the fact that Stanford, which also receives large bequest and alumni funding, stands at the epicentre of global venture capital activity. The Economist reported in February 1999 that about a third of all the world's venture capital goes to nurturing innovation in Silicon Valley. "Most of the money is raised there," it reported, "and most of the wealth created stays there."

Interestingly in the May 30th issue of the Age The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne and Current Chairman of the Group of Eight, Alan Gilbert,  says:

Nelson has come up with the only realistic approach - a mixture of "user pays" and public funding. Obliging students to contribute to the cost of their higher education is a reasonable recognition of two things: that about 70 per cent of taxpayers do not get to university in Australia at present; and a university education confers a major private benefit to the graduate.

As though this weren't already occurring and then puts up the stalking horse:

Are critics of the package therefore going to ask taxpayers to foot the entire bill for a higher education system capable of meeting Australia's economic and cultural needs in a world increasingly dependent on broadly accessible, high-quality higher education?

Currently the Commonwealth supplies about 44% of university funding, while HECS together with fees and charges contribute just over 36%. There would seem to be something not quite kosher in Professor Gilbert's arithmetic but perhaps we're missing something.


On July 17, 2001 the then Chair of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, ANU vice-chancellor Ian Chubb, in his opening statement told the Senate Committee investigating "Australia's Higher Education Needs":

...there is an obligation on government, as recognised by those in other countries, to invest what we have called ‘patient capital’ back into our universities so that we can invest in the medium to longer term and ensure that we are not just in it for the short term, two years or three years or whatever it happens to be -- what I have called ‘impatient capital’. Organisations give you a dollar in return for $1.20 worth of effort and they want to focus on a particular product. One of my colleagues said once that if fisheries give you a grant they want you to spend it on fish and not on sociology students. That is true. But we need that patient capital underneath to ensure that we have that breadth and that equality of educational experience that we believe this country needs [emphases ours].

The Federal Government paid no heed to Professor Chubb then and there's no sign they see matters any differently now.



FASTS Publishes its Newsletter for June (June 5, 2003)

    The Federation of Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) has released Science News: June 2003. The topics highlighted:


1. The Science Fellows Program
2. The Budget and Science
3. Workshops for Member Societies
4. Invitation to the Board
5. “Science meets Parliament” Day
6. The Mapping Exercise
7. Invite the Minister

  8. Subscriptions
  9. National Science Week
10. Oceans Eleven Report
11. Universities Being Commercial
12. Honours for Scientists
13. The PM on Science



Photo CREDIT: INSTITUTE FOR SYSTEMS BIOLOGY And the Answer to Everything is 25,947. (June 5, 2003)

    Well, if not quite the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe and Everything it was the answer Lee Rowen of the Institute for Systems Biology came up with for the number of genes in the human genome. It won her half of the US$1200 GeneSweep pool set up at the 2000 Cold Spring Harbor Symposium. At the time, it was considered by most everyone in the business to be a ridiculously low estimate (guess). While currently informed opinion focuses on 24,500, there's quite a bit of poorly explored DNA sequence -- dubbed "dark matter"-- that may contain more genes. Faced with this conundrum, the initiator of the sweep, Ewan Birney,  thought he'd have to postpone picking a winner but the three year time limit has run out and Rowen was given half the award. In good Nobel Prize tradition, two others were awarded equal shares of the remaining half,  Paul Dear of the U.K. Medical Research Council, who had guessed 27,462 in 2000, and Olivier Jaillon of Genoscope in Evry, France, with 26,500 in 2002.

    The three prize winners have yet to divulge how they will use their largess.



Australian Vice-Chancellors Voice Concerted Disquiet Regarding the Higher Education Reform Package. (June 2, 2003)

    On May 20th thirty-seven of the 38 Vice-Chancellors of Australia's public universities met in Sydney to discuss the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson's proposed reformation of Higher Education. They decided to take more time to find common ground before making an official reply. That reply was made available this morning.

[Click here for the full report].

Calling its response, "Foundations for the future of Australia's universities - an AVCC blueprint" it opens with, "while the Government has accepted the broad reform framework as advocated by the peak university group, there remain issues in the package which must be addressed as part of any long term commitment to reforming the nation’s university sector." They list five principal problems:

In addition they go on to list the following key concerns:

Finally, the Vice-Chancellors present a list of 17 recommendations detailing the points listed above and conclude with what is hardly a ringing endorsement: The Government's reform package is strong in providing the base for the future development of Australia's university sector from 2005. ...Australia's universities are at a crossroads in their development, with positive changes in resources and policies overdue. It is time to ensure the long-term outcomes of enhancing Australia's higher education system.


So will Dr. Nelson take proactive notice? how will the Australian Senate respond? And will the Labor Party come forward with a credible statement of policy?


As Geoffrey Rush observed in Shakespeare in Love, "It's a Mystery." But it's really not amusing. Just what are the reasons that out of the 30 OECD nations Australia, which boast's one of its most vibrant economies, ranked 27th in 1999 in public support for higher education on the basis of GDP? Has it improved significantly since then?



A Note from a Swiss Correspondent. (June 2, 2003)

    In a May 25th News and Views item TFW reported that the Swiss Parliament's upper house voted  to raise government science spending by 6% annually over the next 3 years, for an overall total of $13 billion. The following amplification came in from our correspondent in the Bernese Highlands this morning:

    I suspect that in the eyes of most Australians, Switzerland is seen as a small country with great wealth, but something which highlights the contrast with Australia, is the fact that Switzerland is currently in a severe fiscal crisis and the 6% per annum increase is part of a budget which saw a huge DECLINE in total expenditure of over A$4.1 billion.

    Because of the need to cut total expenditure, the proposed increase for science spending was first reduced to 5% and then mooted to be as low as 3% in the committee meetings. Nevertheless  the final figure recommended was pegged at 6%.

It remains to be seen what the Swiss lower house decides, but at the moment it looks as though the Swiss government just may invest it's money where its mouth is regarding support for science.



Translation Please, or "Did He Really Write That?" (June 1, 2003)

    The Chair of CSIRO's Flagship Programs, Graham Harris, is directly responsible to Chief Executive Geoffrey Garrett. Peter Pockley in Australasian Science's June issue reports in detail on the "Light Metals" program but he also quotes from an unpublished document of 11/02/03. According to Dr. Pockley:

Dr Graham Harris says the [Flagship] "process [is] delivering outcomes in an emerging network culture". Harris envisages CSIRO "responding to external drivers" by acting as "honest brokers", playing "a catalytic role" in "complex systems" and stimulating "innovation strategies" that will "place CSIRO in a position of cognitive advantage" No practical examples are provided.

One assumes that someone in the Federal Government ran that up the flagpole and got his head around it, seein' as the Flagship Programs got an extra $20 million in this year's budget. We are quoting out of context, but somehow it seems unlikely that quoting within context would help.