News & Views - May 2001 


A New Canadian Venture, Blueprint Worldwide Inc., Plans to Create and Maintain a Public Database of Information About the Proteins of Humans and Other Organisms. (May 31, 2001)
    The company is being formed by Canadian academics with financing from IBM, Toronto-based life-sciences company MDS Inc. and by Canadian health authorities. IBM and MDS are each contributing Ca$4.5 million (A$5.6 million) in financing, services and equipment. Unlike leading for-profit firms it plans to give away its data. The company won't be generating the data itself, but will be consolidating the public data scattered in various databases and publications. For example Blueprint plans to enter results from some 200,000 scientific papers into the database. It also plans to develop new ways to catalogue protein data, and will act as an international repository for the findings of all scientists.
    David Lipman, who leads the National Institutes of Health division that runs GenBank, one of the world's main repositories for genome data, said the U.S. government has no plans to launch a database of protein interactions. 
    The two companies appear to be following a policy of "enlightened self-interest." MDS is positioning itself to begin discovering new drugs, while IBM is pursuing an emerging market among drug and biotech companies for computers and computer services.
    This announcement follows on the February statement by Canada's Minister for Industry, Brian Tobin, that Canada intends to become a world leader in genomics. They appear to mean what they say.

Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) -  "Budget Fails the Modern Economy Test" (May 28, 2001)
   "Dr David Denham, Vice-President of FASTS said the Government needed to take every opportunity to build upon the measures it announced earlier this year in the innovation statement ...[But] the average spend in this area by the world's leading economies is just over two percent of GDP, where Australia is currently spending about 1.5 per cent. It is measured by GERD (Gross Expenditure on R&D) as a percentage of GDP (Gross Domestic Product).
'To reach this target, the Federal Government would have to make an announcement of the size of Backing Australia's Ability ($2.9 billion) every year for the next four years,'  he said."
    In a rather more circumspect statement the Australian Academy of Science expressed disappointment. "Professor Michael Barber, Secretary (Science Policy), said, 'This Budget has missed an opportunity to ramp up the message of "new economy" because the chance to kick-start universities has been ignored. Of major concern is the continuing erosion of science capacity as universities are forced to switch to courses that are cheap to deliver.' ...Given half the chance, Australian scientists and technologists can deliver on wealth generation for the nation. It is too bad that only about $160 million of the $3 billion expected over five years for Backing Australia's Ability has been delivered this year."

A$770 Million to Stanford (May 28, 2001)
    Currently Stanford's endowment is in the neighbourhood of A$15 billion. Nevertheless earlier this month Walter Hewlett son of the late cofounder of Hewlett-Packard, William Hewlett and chairman of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation announced that, "it became clear to me that if something wasn't done to put [Stanford's School of Humanities and Sciences] on a more firm financial footing, there would be a major deterioration." Of the US$400 million donated to the university, US$300 million will go to the School, while the remaining US$100 million is earmarked to assist in undergraduate teaching.

Oxford and Princeton Increase Collaboration (May 28, 2001)
    In a recent announcement the universities of Oxford and Princeton set out plans to increase faculty and student exchanges as well as access to research facilities. Twelve initial collaborative projects were specifically mentioned, which included research into astrophysics, biotechnology, genomics, material science and nanotechnology. Clearly this is the way of the future and it's to be hoped that Australia's major research universities will show similar initiatives, but to do so our institutions will have to be in a position to bring something of significance to the table.

Science, Parliamentarians and Hot Pasta (May 28, 2001)
    Robert May, Australian expatriate, president of the Royal Society, London and immediate past U.K. Chief Scientist was invited by Science to write its May 11th editorial. In it he quotes some interesting statistics based on a recent poll in the United Kingdom. "84% of Britons think that 'scientists and engineers make a valuable contribution to society' and 68% think that 'scientists want to make life better for the average person.' but the real issue, as the same poll showed, is that roughly 50% thought that the pace of current scientific advance was too fast for government to keep up with through effective oversight and regulation." Professor May goes on to emphasise the necessity for developing effective means for dialogue among scientists, government and the public while agreeing that this is easier said than done.
    In all probability the figures quoted by Robert May would be similar in Australia. Surely this is reason enough for our engineers and scientists to form consensus with the major political parties to bring the importance of science, science education and its fostering to the fore as an national issue of paramount importance. The current slanging match between the Coalition and Labor regarding who will increase taxes who won't  and who is "slithering" around the subject does no one credit and implies that Australian voters think of nothing but their wallets. If like Britons, two of every three Australians believe that "scientists want to make a better life for the average person", is it out over the question that they would believe that they deserve adequate support for doing their jobs. One thing is certain, it ain't happening now.
    Oh, and about the hot pasta - The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung pointed out in a recent article that the International Atomic Energy Agency has 2252 plant breeds in its database that were genetically modified (mutated) in the 1970s and '80s using high energy radiation, a mechanism discovered by Herman Muller in the 1920's, and for which he received the Nobel Prize. Durum wheat, from which the flour for pasta is obtained, is one of the plants that has been usefully so modified. Some of Italy's parliamentarians, including the outgoing Minister of Agriculture interpreted this as impugning Italian spaghetti by implying that it was radioactive.
    The British public appear to have a point - parliamentarians seem to have trouble understanding science - and there is no reason to believe that Italian representatives are any more ill informed than British or Australian parliamentarians. 

$22.5 Billion for Infrastructure and R&D This Year. (May 26, 2001)
    No that's not what our Federal Government is allocating this year, and no it's not even the whole estimated allocation from all Australian sources this year.
    "Although some analysts have repeatedly speculated that the downturn will force Intel to cut back its plans to spend [US]$7.5 billion on capital expenditures and [US]$4.2 billion on R&D this year, [CEO Craig] Barrett reaffirmed those plans, repeating a line that has become something of a mantra in his speeches since the slump set in: 'The only way out of a slowdown is with new products and new technology.' " So reports Henry Norr in today's San Francisco Chronicle. At US$0.52 to the Australian Dollar Intel will allocate 2.5 times Australia's total estimated investment for the coming year. Nevertheless, according to the Government Budget papers, "[The] Major National Research Facilities (MNRF) Program is directed at keeping Australia at the leading edge of scientific and technological developments [emphasis ours]. Under the Program, funding is provided for facilities in a range of key scientific fields where the establishment costs are beyond the capacity of any individual Australian institution. These facilities create centres of capability for pursuing research with state-of-the-art equipment."  
    Total expenditure for 2001-2002?  A$3.5 millionWhom are they kidding?

The 2001/02 Science and Technology Budget - No Systems Go. (May 24, 2001)
    The 2001 budget papers for science and technology are available on line. They need critical appraisal because as always in such matters, the devil is in the detail. In essence the Government has "locked in" its promise of  about an additional $155 million which was foreshadowed in the unveiling of its Innovation Action Plan on January 29th. It also allocates some $86 million for an the upgrade to the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor facility, a debatable imperative at best. Put simply, the government has turned a deaf ear to pleas for meaningful support for science and education. The budget does nothing to assuage the disquiet voiced by the Scientific community both within and outside the universities once the detail of the Innovation Action Plan had begun to be critically analysed. At best we remain stagnant while our OECD cohort continues to advance.  Peter Pockley, frequent commentator on Australian R&D for the British scientific journal Nature, put his views cogently in Yesterday's Australian, "Research slips from government's sights ...After a short burst in January, the sector has dropped off the government's priorities in favour of recovery of votes. The Budget is a tacit declaration by the Coalition that it sees no electoral imperative in a real kick-start to the nation's capacity to catch up with competitors in innovation through universities and research." Dr. Pockley continues coming very close to wondering if its university R&D estimates is done with smoke and mirrors but with the caveat that , "the full S&T Budget Statement is being withheld until nearly 24 hours after the Budget (after this report was filed) and warrants closer examination of the detail before setting a considered judgement of the overall position in stone." That statement is now available (see above) and should do little to lessen his disquiet.
    Those views will be known and echoed  throughout the world's scientific community within the week. How much real incentive is there for our expatriate scientists to return? Where is the encouragement for the gifted of our younger generation to go into research and development?

A Robust Knowledge Infrastructure Must have Bipartisan Support. (May 22, 2001)  
The Federal Labor opposition is carefully orchestrating the promulgation of its "Knowledge Nation" Policy. Just over a month ago Michelle Grattan reported that Barry Jones as head of the Labor Taskforce for the Knowledge Nation had delivered its draft report to Kim Beazley. Now comes an article in the May 19th Weekend Australian by Paul Kelly, "Knowledge Nation is a road to Damascus shift in traditional ALP thinking", announcing that the report is now finalised and that Barry Jones will be "dispatched to sell [it] around Australia." Kelly goes to quote Mr Jones extensively who makes the points that, "We have to overcome the crippling mind-set which repeats the mantra: `But Australia is only a small economy.' Tell that to the Swedes, the Dutch, the Finns and the Israelis... You can't just have a quick fix [for the schools, universities, research institutes and corporations]... It's much too serious and it is very complicated... You have to think in terms of decades."
    A Government must face an election after no more than three years in office. That being the case, surely at the very least a rapprochement between the major political parties must be found, and a consensus cogently presented to all Australians. Our parliamentary representatives owe those who place them into office that much. Without it the political bickering, posturing and ineffectual tinkering will continue ad nauseam at the Nation's grim cost.

The Year of the Volunteer. (May 20, 2001)
    Aban Contractor's feature in Thursday's Sydney Morning Herald was headed, "More students, less money, ... go figure" The thrust of the article is yet again that the universities are being cut to the bone. For a number of years part-time teachers have been employed in order to maintain courses at minimum cost. The ultimate is represented by an August 1996 letter sent by the School of Dentistry at The University of Sydney, when, "part-time teachers... received a two-page letter from their dean asking them to work for free. It cited the new Howard Government's determination to cut the current account deficit and the need for the university to address its own debts. 'As a result, I am writing to invite you to continue supporting your faculty by providing part-time teaching as you have done in the past, but without a fee for service.' "  Matters have not been improving. 
    On the other side of the issue Dr. Kemp, the minister charged with Education, Training and Youth Affairs, insists that the universities have never been better funded. But the fact of the matter is that since the Fraser Government both Labor and the Coalition have looked to minimise Federal Government expenditure, essentially telling the universities to go drum up business and become more cost effective. It's an excellent way to cheapen the product and that's just what's happening. Mind you under first Amanda Vanstone and then David Kemp the Coalition has done the more effective hatchet job, but were Labor to form the next Government serious reconstructing of tertiary education is no certainty. If Mr. Beazley is serious about the "Knowledge Nation", he'll have some selling to do to get sufficient of the Labor caucus to back it meaningfully.
    From the viewpoint of academics and senior "academic management" some effective lobbying of both government and the Australian people will be needed, and it is past time that it's realised that it is not going to be done for them.

Every Country has Its Price. (May 20, 2001)
    President George W. Bush has sent senior diplomats to key countries, including Australia, to obtain backing for his missile shield. Next month he will meet the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, in Slovenia to try and persuade him to come on board. After all Russia just got US$20 million from Dennis Tito for going into space as super cargo. Properly handled this could be portrayed as a deposit. Canada's National Post has reported that Bush's SWII would mean several hundred million dollars in contracts for advanced equipment to be built in Canada. It's perhaps the ultimate in Keynesian economics, someone else's government pays you to make things that no one in your country has to buy. Whether it is of any value or not is of no consequence. Now rumour has it that this approach was used successfully by Ronald Regan to get Margaret Thatcher on side seventeen years ago and Russia is in far greater need for a substantial cash injection than Thatcher's Britain was in 1984. Come to think of it Australia might get a piece of the action if it handles matters adroitly.

Australian Astronomy Centre Stage. (May 19, 2001)
    In a March 18th News And Views TFW referred to an interim report on work done using the 150 inch Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring near Coonabarabran, N.S.W. which has significantly extended our understanding of that birth and nature of our universe. This past week, the work was reported by the New York Times under the header "Scientists Detect the Traces of the Seeds of Cosmic Structures" The findings of the 2dF survey, which were presented a fortnight ago at a scientific conference were made available to scientists around the world this past Wednesday. They emerged from the largest and most detailed mapping of galaxies ever made. Dr. Carlos Frenk, an astrophysicist at the University of Durham in Britain and a member of the 2dF team, said the importance of the findings were to be found in the grand perspective they provided. Dr. Joshua Frieman, an organiser of the conference, said they will be followed on by "a much larger survey now in progress, called the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and involving the United States, Germany and Japan. It would among other things determine about a million galaxy positions [as compared to the 2dF's 170,000] over the next several years. The initial finding by the 2dF team suggested that the Sloan survey would be able to... probe the overall contents of the universe."
    The 2dF study involved 28 astronomers and cosmologists, 12 of whom are Australian connected. Nevertheless the Australian Government has been less than generous in its funding of Australian astronomy despite its outstanding contributions to the science. What will happen in next week's budget remains to be seen.

Stop Bitching and Just Get On With It. (May 10, 2001)
    The header for Margo Kingston's article in this morning's Sydney Morning Herald might have read Batterham Bashes Scientists, but it was far more genteel and stated simply Scientists 'must help themselves' with funds
In a speech given yesterday to the National Press Club Australia's Chief Scientist, Dr. Robin Batterham, maintained it is "up to the science community to show what they can do" with what it's been given and implied it ought to be grateful for the increase in resources provided in the Government's Innovation Action Plan. One might be forgiven for thinking that the Prime Minister's Office may have had a hand in the tenor of Dr. Batterham's address. Certainly it would have been well received by the PM. Chelsey Martin in the Australian Financial Review quotes the Chief Scientist, "I think it is up to the community that we've got now of scientists, engineers and technologists to show what they can do, to show what changes they can make in our performance with the very significant package that has been tabled and earn the trust and groundswell of support to go on from there."  It is beyond credulity that the former Chief Scientist for the UK and recently elected President of the Royal Society, Australian Robert May, would have countenanced such a devastating and counterproductive observation. He went on coming as close as maybe to relegating Australian basic research to the dust bin. Most assuredly with an advocate such as Dr. Batterham Australian science doesn't require foes. Perhaps he might like to view the graphic provided last month by Gavin Brown, Vice-Chancellor of Sydney University, when he addressed the NPC and then repeat his contumely. Compared to the OECD average our support for research and development is woeful and assuredly we shall reap our economic decline for it.

Did Reg Really Say That? (May 10, 2001)
The ABC's 7:30 Report of May 9th focused on the Federation Centenary and of course politics. Fran Kelly, the Report's soft spoken political correspondent, made the observation, "...even as the policy differences [between Labor and the Coalition have] narrowed, the hostility between the two sides in Parliament has become, if anything, more vicious than ever. ...That's turning voters off too." At which point the old Liberal "Toe Cutter" and Frazer Minister, Reg Withers made the observation, "The debate has disappeared out of the Parliament. Question time is a farce. Ministerial statements are no longer made. Government policy is never announced at Parliament. Parliament has become an irrelevance."

In short Australia is ruled by Cabinet. The tight reign placed on parliamentarians by their parties assures and perpetuates what has increasing become and oligarchical system. Labor is no different from the Coalition. It would be interesting to see if Australians would regain a respect for our Parliament and Parliamentarians were Members allowed increased latitude in casting their votes. That's one of the significant differences between the major parties on the one hand and the Australian Democrats on the other. In that respect the Democrats are more comparable to the U.S. Republican and Democratic Parties.

The effect on the interaction between the Cabinet Oligarchy and MHR backbenchers - of both parties - would certainly alter the responsiveness and character of governments. Obviously that latitude would need to extend to both sides of the House and Senate for the change to take place, and of course the threat of expulsion for crossing the floor would require mitigation.

Dumb idea - it'd never be allowed by the party powerbrokers.

The Department of Defence, The Senate and The National Tertiary Education Union (May 9, 2001)
    TFW's editorial of April 13th asked, "Australia's Public Universities - Are They Good Enough?" and referred to the Senate's Public inquiry into "The capacity of public universities to meet Australia's higher education needs." The Inquiry is in the news again, due principally to Australia's defence forces who last week informed the Committee that university students the Department sponsors have complained of the quality of both facilities and teaching. Thirty-seven of the nations 38 public universities have DoD sponsored scholars. It pointed out that the universities from its viewpoint were strategic assets and, "contribute significantly to the development of Defence capability."
    The NTEU, clearly pleased at having an unexpected ally, has strongly supported the DoD's submission and has urged the Minister of Defence, Peter Reith, to support increases of 20% to the Government's student base funding. It would be interesting to know whether or not Mr. Reith made any representations during the Cabinet's final budget deliberations this week.
    So far there have been representations from industry, academe, and now the defence forces that there are serious deficiencies in our tertiary education system. And these have come since the January 29th announcement of the Government's Innovation Action Plan. Whether or not Senator Tierney, who is Committee Chairman, still believes that the system is not in crisis remains to be seen.
    A final note: as of April 13 the Committee's Web site listed 73 submissions of which 54 could be scrutinised; as of today it lists 97, 85 of which can be read. In all some 300 submissions were put in, including that from the Department of Defence. It is not among those listed.

Princeton's New President - Molecular Biologist Shirley Tilghman (May 9, 2001)
    For a double first Princeton University has chosen a molecular biologist, Shirley Tilghman, to take up its tilghman.gif (11407 bytes) presidency on June 15th. At the press conference held immediately following the announcement, Tilghman, Head of Princeton's  Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, and noted for her studies on the mechanisms of gene activation and deactivation indicated that she has every intention of treating the sciences and humanities even handedly and went on to emphasise that teaching must be coupled with inculcating an active search for knowledge. One of the points that came out at the press conference was Princeton's across the board undertaking that it would open its doors to every talented student, "irrespective of the ability to pay." No set number of scholarships, instead an open-handed commitment by this private university seen by many as a refuge for "silver tails". 
Isn't it about time that the Group of Eight behave comparably. Isn't it more than time that those parliamentarians, and the leader of the Opposition in particular, who profess support for the right of every Australian to an education commensurate with his or her ability, to replace rhetoric with practice?

It's a Mad World. (May 6, 2001)
    Bob Park is the American Physical Society's Washington Representative. Following are his  observations for this past week in full. Clearly he's spitting chips, but certainly the US' energy moguls and defence contractors should be popping Champaign corks. Our Foreign Minister's fulsome support for SW II ought to be viewed in the light of the physics of reality as well as political expediency. Perhaps the Chief Scientist has already had at least a quiet chat with him.

WHAT'S NEW Robert L. Park Friday, 4 May 01 Washington, DC

community seemed to lapse into a sullen silence after the Bush
administration announced missile and energy initiatives that
would have led to cries of outrage in the past. There is still
no White House Science Advisor. Anyone chosen now will
presumably support these new policies; that's unlikely to make
the science community happy. 

would you expect two Texas oilmen to come up with? Exactly. The
Vice-President, speaking in Toronto on Monday, explained that
energy policy will emphasize production. Oh, conservation may be
"a personal virtue," he said, but it won't solve the problem:
"Americans demand more energy." So clean coal technology,
drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and even
nuclear energy, are part of the strategy, but there will be no
talk of renewables or efforts to reduce reliance on SUVs. By the
end of the week, however, conservation made a weak comeback. The
President yesterday directed Federal agencies in California to
reduce energy consumption. Conservation, it seems, is quick. [And read the NYT report]

And he wants it in space, in the air, at sea and on land. The
threat of attack by third world crazies was cited as creating an
urgent need for such a defense. Let's see, we have spent $100B
or so already to develop such a system. What we learned is that,
if the enemy will put homing beacons on their missiles, we might
stop one out of three. But an Administration spokesman explained
that the defense doesn't really have to work, it only has to
create uncertainty. Well, it certainly does that. Even if it
could be made to work, it would only guarantee that a different
delivery system, such as a Ryder Rental truck, would be used 

Larry Lindsey, Economic Policy Advisor to the President, was the
Keynote speaker at the AAAS Science Policy Meeting. He warned
that the Kyoto protocol could damage our collective prosperity
and does little to promote development of new energy technology. 
But of course, it was the Administration that slashed the
renewables and energy efficiency budgets by 50%. Lindsey left
hurriedly following his talk, without taking questions.

rumored that the White House has hired a headhunter to find a
replacement for Dan Goldin as NASA Administrator. Goldin is the
only high-level survivor of the last Republican Administration. 
Meanwhile, high-tech bungee jumper Dennis Tito's stomach problems
have hogged the news all week, making one wonder if too much
disposable income isn't becoming a problem.

THE AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY (Note: Opinions are the author's,
and are not necessarily shared by the APS, but they should be.)

It's What Makes the Web Profound (May 3, 2001)
   ginspot.gif (13182 bytes) Paul Ginsparg, the Los Alamos theoretical physicist, founded the archive 10 years ago. To say that its affect on physical research has been profound borders on gross understatement. Leaders in arcane research areas such as super symmetry, quantum cosmology as well as more accessible subjects such as medical physics or physics education, to name but a very few, log in daily to check out what's new. Perhaps of greatest value has been its affect on research in the less developed nations, but at 2 million hits a week, workers in all corners of the Web enabled world keep up with and contribute to the most recent advances via Make no mistake this is a website for the cognoscenti, but a May 1st feature article in the New York Times gives a good indication of the far reach of Ginparg's 1991 initiative.