News & Views - November 2001 


Good Seed - Bad Seed. (November 29, 2001)
    The header for Kim Campbell's November 21st column in The Christian Science Monitor reads "Geeks need not apply: Science is chic in SEED magazine," and refers to the brainchild of founding editor Adam Bly, 20, who wants to make science cool for those that see themselves as with it. Bly says, "SEED defines the science of contemporary urban culture... This is about showing science as pop culture."   
    The Journal Science isn't overly impressed commenting, "[it is] apparently aimed at glamorous young rich people with good eyesight and short attention spans."
    But is it so deserving of opprobrium. Certainly in Australia there is little indication that the approaches used by the Australian Academy of Science, the Group of Eight or the Federation of Scientific and Technological Societies have been successful in bringing science and science education to something approaching a cause célèbre. Deborah Blum, who teaches science journalism at the University of Wisconsin in Madison says simply, "A magazine that would integrate science into all parts of our life, I think is a fabulous idea." While Felice Frankel, a science photographer and a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is sufficiently taken with Bly's attempt that despite reservations, "I'm going to be involved because I feel that they're trying to do something that no one's done before, and that is to engage people in science who don't usually think about it." Frankel, the magazine's arts editor, goes on to say, "This is for a generation that is not mine, [but it] is about engagement - introducing people to the very exciting idea that everything is about science."
    It mightn't be inappropriate for FASTS or the Go8 to arrange for subscriptions for members of Federal Parliament -- even those requiring readers.  

Science and Education Stable Mates in Restyled Ministry. (November 25, 2001)
    The Howard Government's reshaped ministry was announced on Friday and includes tyro Dr Brendan Nelson who has been designated Minister for Education, Science and Training. How this will effect the Government's treatment of science and mathematics in particular and tertiary education in general remains to be seen. Dr Nelson, 43, obtained his bachelors of medicine and science from Flinders University and was a general medical practitioner from 1985-95. He served as Federal President of the Australian Medical Association from 1993-95 and entered Federal Parliament as the Member representing Bradfield, NSW in 1996.
    Mark Metherell, in his column in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald wrote, "his moderate views on indigenous and drug issues threw his hopes of a ministerial preferment by Mr Howard into doubt. However, after a softening of his criticism on sensitive issues such as mandatory sentencing, and performing strongly on backbench committees, Mr Howard appointed him parliamentary secretary for defence early this year.
    "Mr Howard said yesterday that Dr Nelson had taken 'extremely well' his failure to win a ministry in his early years and had worked impressively as a parliamentary secretary."

It remains to be seen how strong and how effective an advocate for science and education Dr Nelson will be, or will want to be, when faced with the Coalition Cabinet's old guard, especially in light of Mr Howard's implication that Dr Nelson had learned the error of his old moderate ways.
    The fact that the National Tertiary Education Union has welcomed Dr Nelson's appointment, albeit based principally on his handling of the chairmanship of an inquiry into technical education, is at least hopeful.

Must be Contagious. (November 25, 2001)
    Ten days ago N&V reported the Russian Government appears to have a love/hate relationship with scientific research. Now come the Chinese who in their rhetoric appear to grasp the necessity for a solid foundation in fundamental research. But it remains to be seen if deeds will match the words. Several months ago Guangzhao Zhou, former president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, decried tendencies in the Chinese scientific community for excessive secrecy, sparse interdisciplinary collaboration and a rush to publish  results and overstate scientific achievements. However, it's also true that the Chinese Government has recruited many promising young scientists from abroad. These are mostly ethnic Chinese, whose families came from mainland China. But salaries are low and in general adequate resources are hard to come by. The Journal Nature in its November 15th editorial argues for a balanced approach, "The Chinese government needs to give more researchers, both academic and applied, better salaries and a firm footing so that they do not need to scramble for proof of their worthiness. Academic researchers should be encouraged to apply their research, and science should be capitalized on wherever possible. For what China needs is an industrial base that can support research that will complement the work done in universities and academy institutes. Only then can the government's burden of overseeing most scientific research be lightened. But application of science, like good academic results, also takes time."
    Not a bad maxim no matter if you're a government responsible for 1.3 billion or 20 million. Quite apart from any other considerations unless their scientists' working and living conditions are first-rate their top scientific talent will ebb away to more luxuriant pastures. Don't we know.

Imperial College Getting a Cultural Shock. (November 24, 2001)
    The Imperial College of Science Technology and Medicine gets third place in the hierarchy of British research universities but as the Journal Science wrote recently, "There are now many [British] universities with research reputations eager to usurp Imperial's number three spot. With what might be considered a case of constructive paranoia, Imperial College broke, some would say violently, with tradition and appointed Sir Richard Sykes as its new rector.  Until recently Dr. Sykes was chief executive of Glaxo Wellcome and chief architect of a merger that formed the world's largest pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. His goal? "I don't want the U.K. as our benchmark." He prefers to use as role models U.S. research universities such as MIT, Caltech and Stanford. Among other factors that means stronger links to industry and an endowment sufficient to allow a reasonable degree of independence. His overall approach bears some resemblance to that of Alan Gilbert, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, where Professor Gilbert is looking to develop a viable Melbourne University Private, however, there are no plans for creating an offspring.
    Understandably there is some skepticism in British academe. Will, for example, the ties to industry become so great that Imperial's academic independence is threatened, a matter of the tail wagging the dog, and something which has recently been the subject of an extensive analysis by the Association of American Universities.  And just where will the money come from to develop a usefully sized endowment; Stanford's currently stands at about US$7 billion. Dr. Sykes speaks, perhaps somewhat glibly, of touching the College's richer alumni.
    In any case, it will be interesting to watch developments and it is generally agreed that if anyone can pull off Richard Sykes' vision, he can.

Some Good News for Canadian Theoretical Physics. (November 22, 2001)
     In October last year, Mike Lazaridis announced a gift of Can$100 million to establish the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Two other executives of his wireless internet component manufacturing company Research In Motion have added another Can$20 million for a total of  A$145 million. The City of Waterloo, Canada, has donated a premier site a few minutes walk from the University of Waterloo to serve as the location for the Institute's permanent facility which is scheduled to be completed in 2003.
    The aim of Lazaridis' initiative? "The institute was explicitly created to encourage young, innovative scientists in their research prime to pursue issues that are often deemed 'too hard' and 'only to be done after procuring tenure'," says Howard Burton, its executive director. Perimeter scientists will tackle notoriously thorny problems in areas such as quantum gravity, quantum information theory, elementary particles and cosmology.
    Now a year later the first recruits, three permanent staff and four postdocs, are settling into temporary quarters in Waterloo's old post office. By 2008, the permanent building should house some 40 resident physicists and postdocs as well as about 30 visitors and associate members. Sir Roger Penrose, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, and a member of the advisory board says simply, "They're off to a good start -- of course, it depends on how the recruitment goes from now on, but I expect Perimeter to do well." Among the initial recruits, string theorist Rob Myers from McGill University, Montreal and polymath physicist Fotini Markopoulou, from the Albert Einstein Institute in Potsdam.

US National Survey of Student Comprehension of Science. (November 21, 2001)
    The United States' 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress has given American educators some pause. A scant 18% of high school seniors achieved scores that indicated they had a solid grasp of science, while just over half showed they had a basic comprehension.
    Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, said,  "Our nation continues to short change our students in science," while many science teachers complain that they can't persuade school officials to give them the time or money required for training. Wheeler went on to say that schools are competing with private industry for college graduates with science backgrounds, and worries that the private sector's higher salaries are "eating the seed corn" by taking so many talented potential teachers. "If they really get all the good science-oriented people, then we won't have the science-teaching work force that we need to produce their next generation of scientists and engineers."
    How our high school students would rate compared with their US cohort we don't know, perhaps it would be worthwhile for the ministers of education to determine, while a survey of scientific comprehension by members of parliament might be very revealing .

Perceived Necessity and a Prodigal is Transformed. (November 20, 2001)
    "A new sense of urgency about terrorism has prompted the Bush administration to try to repair federal relations with the nation's scientific elite." So opens an article by William Broad in today's New York Times on a rapprochement that George Bush's administration is seeking to get scientists on side. In the first instance he has asked the nation's National Academies (made up of the National Academy of Engineering; the Institute of Medicine; the National Research Council, and the National Academies of Sciences) to rally scientists and engineers to the cause of fighting terrorism. There is a hope among the scientific community, admittedly tempered with some skepticism, that as Harvard physicist, Lewis Branscomb said the developing bond between science and government promises to rejuvenate the partnership that built the atomic bomb, landed American astronauts on the moon, won the cold war and cured many diseases but also fostered much of the US's basic research. William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, said, government officials "are recognizing that they need help, and that's a step forward."
    While clearly the US Government is primarily interested in the acute and current problems it faces, there appears to be a realisation that if a climate isn't provided to maintain an expert body of knowledge, the nation will be significantly disadvantaged. One unexpected avenue that is being pursued was brought up by William Colglazier, executive officer of the National Academies, who said an administration body, which he would not name, was seeking help from social scientists to better "understand the motivations of terrorist groups and
the things they value."
    And with all of this there is every indication that John Marburger, the President's Science Advisor, will assume rather more importance than many had come to expect.
    Surely there is basic message for our government that "if you ain't got 'em, you can't ask 'em." An immediate example is the knee jerk reactions of the Howard Government and the Labor Opposition to the MV Tampa incident. Consultation with social scientists with regard to the "boat people" prior to and following the Tampa's rescue manoeuvre would have been worthwhile. There is no indication that such a scenario has been followed. The simple fact is that properly resourced our universities are assets not liabilities. Currently they are not above the required threshold.

Might the Carr Government do Something Proactively for Tertiary Education in New South Wales? (November 19, 2001)
    Seems the New South Wales Premier, Bob Carr, is beginning to have the next state election on his mind although it's not due for well over a year (March 2003). One concern is the education portfolio, where John Aquilina seems to gain in unpopularity with little apparent effort. It must be admitted, however, it isn't clear whether the opprobrium comes with the job or current ministerial ineptitude. Fair Trading, Sport and Corrective Services Minister John Watkins, a former English literature teacher and holder of an arts degree and a diploma of education is tipped for the job.
    Earlier this year Roger Wilkins was appointed by Carr to become the Director-General for the arts ministry. Should Watkins get the education portfolio it'll be interesting to see whether he and Wilkins get their heads together and come up with useful initiatives to arrest the disintegration of the state's tertiary educational system. Why Wilkins? Well, universities are supposed to be centres of the arts as well as the sciences and Wilkins is a professed "physics freak" as well.
    They can of course continue the hand wringing and finger pointing decrying Canberra's flagrant parsimony which while accurate, isn't particularly helpful, or they can come up with ideas appropriate to the high flyer status that's been accorded them.

Does Jenny Talk to Nats? (November 18, 2001)
    New Yorkers, say half a century ago, used to ask, "Does Macy's tell Gimbel's," referring to the city's two largest retailers of the day. Today's Sydney Morning Herald runs a piece by Candace Sutton on Labor's shadow health minister, Jenny Macklin, now tipped for deputy leadership, suggesting that she just may have a significant say in Labor policy prior to the next election. Sutton sees a strong endorsement for Ms Macklin in the strongly right-wing broadcaster Alan Jones' description of her as a "raving leftie".
    The question arises as to whether or not Ms Macklin will broaden her vision to take in the problems detailed in the Senate Committee's report, Universities in Crisis and make the whole issue of education in Australia a matter of paramount concern in the Australian psyche. To that end it would seem sensible for her to chat with Senator Stott Despoja as well as other members of the Senate Committee and the more influential groups and individuals who made submissions to the Committee. And it's not too soon for representatives from the National Tertiary Education Union, the Group of Eight, the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies and the Australian Academy of Science, to name just four organisations, to make their cases. Might she even consult with overseas academics and administrators who know from the inside what the best tertiary institutions of learning are made of?
    Hope springs eternal.

    Bioterrorism: Alternative Medicine Responses to Exposure. (November 17, 2001)
    The following report is reprinted from Bob Park's What's New (16/11/01)

The chair of the House Government Reform Committee, Dan Burton (R-IN), can't understand why we don't just treat this stuff with alternative medicine.

Burton held a hearing Wednesday on how to respond to bio-terrorist attacks.  For him, this is nothing new; in a 1999 hearing on Alternative Medicine his lead witness was Jane Seymour, who played Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman on TV (WN 12 Feb 99). This time, however, Stephen Straus, director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine was testifying, and it wasn't what Burton wanted to hear. Straus questioned "whether the measures that some are promoting do anything more than prey upon people's fears and distract them from taking more prudent steps to protect themselves...It may not even be prudent to combine such natural products with antibiotics because of the possibility that they would interfere with proper action of the drugs." Perhaps fearing a backlash, many in the alternative medicine industry have issued unprecedented warnings to the public not to use their products to treat or cure anthrax.


The Price of Posturing. (November 16, 2001)
    As TFW pointed out earlier, putting up and outfitting the International Space Station has so far cost US$30 billion, most of it US money. Now a crisis is brewing in NASA's outer-planet exploration program. Congress put US$30 million into the 2002 budget for a flyby of Pluto, a program the White House had previously axed. But the White House is unlikely to support Pluto funding in 2003. In addition there is barely enough money to fund a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, slated for launch around 2008. That could put the Europa mission in jeopardy. And, with competing demands for the war on terrorism and the economic stimulus package, finding the extra dollars will be tough.

An Object Lesson: is it being reflected here? (November 15, 2001)
    With the collapse of the Soviet Union just over a decade ago Soviet science, which was already on the ropes, crumbled. Resources all but vanished; scientists from Russia and the other republics emigrated in droves. According to Loren Graham, a historian of Russian science at MIT, it "suffered the most precipitous decline in financial support known in modern history."
    Recently the journal Science ( 294: 974, 2001) reported, "...the attitude of the Russian government toward science continues to be capricious. Earlier this month, the government abruptly dissolved the post of
science minister, leaving vice premier Ilya Klebanov in complete control of federal science policy. He's expected to continue a year-long tilt toward applied research. 'The government wants science to provide not only new knowledge, but knowledge useful to industry,' explains Mikhail Alfimov, director of the Russian Foundation for Basic Research."  Physics Nobel Prize-winner Zhores Alferov, director of the Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute in St. Petersburg says simply, "The most important enemy of science in our country is the Ministry of Finance," while Science points out that lack of funding to replace and upgrade aging equipment continues to be a serious problem.

Real Science in Space. (November 10, 2001)
    The United States and friends have already pumped almost A$60 billion into the International Space
Station. Thus far nothing of value has come of the effort, and cutback to a crew of three any findings of scientific significance is out of the question though it ought to be remembered that a decade ago the American Physical Society said unequivocally, "Scientific justification is lacking for a permanently manned space station in earth orbit."
    On the other hand the GRACE Mission is dirt cheap, but of course it doesn't get you humans going around in circles. The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment as Mark Watkins of Caltech's Jet Propulsion Lab explained to the ABC's David Mark on PM

 The easiest way to measure gravity is to do the Newton's apple experiment but try to imagine dropping that apple in space and watching how it orbits the earth. It turns out that the easiest way to measure the motion of one satellite is to track it with another satellite, and that's basically what the GRACE mission does. It's two satellites and they track each other continuously around the orbit. Two satellites flying at an altitude of about 500 kilometres and they're about 200 kilometres apart, and we measure the distance between the two of them to about one micron.

What that enables us to do is watch very carefully how the mass distribution inside the earth affects the orbit of the spacecraft. [Then] We will take that gravity field and probably …the first thing we'll do is use it to improve our knowledge of the ocean... And that tells us much better how ocean currents are behaving. It lets us understand oceanography a lot better.

The whole of the five minute interview is available online.

Science and Technology Advice to Parliament and the "Noodle Nation". (November 9, 2001)
    It started three years ago, an effort on the part of the scientific and technological community to get federal parliamentarians interested in supporting science and technology -- actively.

It hasn't worked

One day each year Science Meets Parliament is undertaken by the Federation of Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) and every type from graduate student to professor emeritus wheels in and is given audience by those parliamentarians sufficiently courteous to give up about 45 minutes of their sitting day to the exercise. They listen, in most cases politely, sometimes attentively, and occasionally show sufficient intelligent interest to ask well-argued questions. The graduate students, professors emeritus and all souls in-between then return home and the parliamentarians get on about their business. How much effect have these exercises had on the business of government? Judging from the implementation set out in Backing Australia's Ability and Labor's costing of Knowledge Nation, very little. The problem appears centred on the current approach to parliamentary democracy by our major parties, i.e. a populist approach to running government. No where is this more evident than in Prime Minister Howard's response of ridicule to Labor's Knowledge Nation in referring to it as "Noodle Nation". Presumably he and his advisors consider this approach able to strike a chord with Australia's voters. Opposition leader Kim Beazley comes across as being sincerely concerned about the state of the nation's educational and scientific infrastructure and our diminishing expertise, but the detailed budget for Labor's plan is woefully inadequate. This appears to be determined by Labor strategists being terrified of being accused of spending the nation into ruin by the Coalition. Only the Australian Democrats make sense and if it weren't for the implied insult we might say that our only real hope is that, "A child shall lead them."

Things Could Be Worse. (November 8, 2001)
    Melbourne University's Vice-Chancellor titled an op-ed piece for the Australian yesterday "Whoever wins, it's business as usual: a sector in pain". Put simply, Professor Gilbert doesn't see either of the main parties' approach solving the problem that "Australia will not become a leading Knowledge Nation under present policies, which leave even our best universities to undertake advanced education and vital research with only half to one-third of the resources available to the top 100 universities elsewhere in the world." He continues to advocate, "In the absence of greatly increased public outlays, Australia needs a public policy framework enabling universities to become increasingly self-reliant. It needs governance and regulatory arrangements for its universities combining proper public accountability with a minimum of restrictive or regressive regulation." Overall he advocates policies very similar to those discussed in the UK and reported by the journal Nature (413:105-06 (2001)), see past editorial September 26th).
    But things could be worse, Italian scientists are almost certain to have to cope with a A$1.4 billion claw back through prime minister Giuliano Amato's government being replaced in May by Silvio Berlusconi's. The new administration has made science one of the biggest losers in a review of its predecessor's spending plans. The redoubtable nonagenarian Nobelist Rita Levi-Montalcini says the government's budget cuts spell doom for the nation's scientists.
    Professor Gilbert's resignation to the parsimony of Federal Governments seems counter productive, at least in part. Australia's private sector is not philanthropic and support for subjects not seen to be of near immediate commercial value will continue to vanish from the curriculum in both the humanities and sciences.
    But there may be a ray of hope yet. In a move of exquisitely bad timing the Australian Democrats released their Innovation and Science policy on Melbourne Cup day. No they’re not going to assume government, but it's probable that they’ll hold the balance of power in the Senate under given circumstances. However, a third point comes to mind; Senator Stott Despoja just might be the crux of the most powerful science, and innovation lobby group in Australia. She has retained the science and education portfolios for the Australian Democrats, it remains to be seen once Parliament reconvenes how good a "lobbyist" for science and education she will be. A section of what's stated in the policy document:

The Democrats are committed on the focus on science and engineering by:
        Additional investment in our schools ($1 billion), TAFEs ($670 million) and Universities ($1 billion);
        Improving access to education for all Australians including targeted programs for    Indigenous, rural and regional    students and those from low socio-economic    backgrounds;
        Strengthening science and maths education in primary and secondary schools;
        Investing in the on-going professional development of teachers;
        Strengthening ICT skills and e-literacy in all education sectors;
        Investing in our national network of public and education libraries.

The Democrats will:
        Increase funding to universities for research block grants and postgraduate research students by 20% over 3 years;
        Bring forward the increases in ARC Competitive Grants and research infrastructure announced in Backing Australia’s Ability such that one-third of the total increase is effective in 2002, two-thirds in 2003 and the total in 2004;
        Ensure at least 60% of ARC large grants are for basic and strategic research;
        Implement a broad-based R&D tax concession of 150% with an incremental incentive of 200% for labour-related investment in R&D;
        Reduce onerous compliance costs for business to access private sector grants, export assistance and tax concessions.

We live in hope.