Making the most of the applied research imperative

Plus how the ARC stays centre-stage

Feed the meter

The University of Queensland reports its new 500 bay underground car park is nearly complete, which means the cost of parking to pay for it will increase in the new year. Top rate is $1300 per annum, which may not worry a university executive but is surely a slug for a casual wondering whether they have work next semester.

CMM hears other universities are planning to hike the price of parking but in the absence of shiny new spaces for hundreds of cars are nervous about announcing the rates.

UA NOV 15

OLT keeps quiet

It seems the Office of Learning and Teaching hates hacks knowing what it is doing, it did not announce to reptiles of the press that it’s teaching awards were on last night. So staff there will not be pleased by CMM reporting that Griffith U’s Hakim Rane and Monash U’s Kevin Tant were announced as university teachers of the year last night. Well done gents.

UniSuper loses star

Kathryn Forrest is leaving UniSuper after 11 years and according to  CEO Kevin Smith she is a real loss. “The services we provide to your universities are better for her understanding and advocacy,” he wrote to HR directors at Australian universities yesterday. Ms Forrest also created dedicated UniSuper liaison manager positions for each university – four years ago. Ye Gods, how were things managed before then?

It’s not what they know but what they are asked

Greens education spokesman Robert Simms does not like the way commerce is intruding on research. “While increased funding to research and development in our universities is always welcome, I am concerned that an overly commercial focus could take the impetus away from other important research that may not have immediate financial returns. … Our universities are much more than just the engine room of our economy.

“We need to ensure that we continue to appropriately fund curiosity-driven research that can lead to the significant breakthroughs that have the potential to fundamentally change our world.” Senator Simms suggested. And many academics will agree with him.

Good-oh, but it is too late. The time to argue that basic research should not have to compete for government money with applied problem-solving science was last year when then Science Minister Ian Macfarlane and Chief Scientist Ian Chubb started talking up the role of applied research. As Professor Chubb said in October 2014; when resources for research are rationed “somebody, somewhere may have to select where to invest,” (CMM October 22 2014).

The idea that bureaucrats, or worse business buccaneers, will do the picking gives many serious scientists the screaming meemies – but the brutal reality is that if elite researchers in a given field will not embrace the applied research strategy officials will find other who will.

But it’s not as simple as a divide between pure research, which might serendipitously change the world later on and applied work on a better widget now to save South Australian manufacturing.

For a start, Lynn Meek and Leo Goedegebuure from the L H Martin Institute suggest “universities do not excel at commercialisation” and the divide is properly between those that undertake “fundamental research” and those “that deal with industry-related issues and problems that will never be on the radar of our most gifted researchers. Let the latter drive innovation across our professions and services industries, including their students in the process,” they suggest (CMM November 30).

And yesterday NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer Mary O’Kane entered the argument (in an AFR oped) suggesting that the characteristics of entrepreneurs are not common on campus. But what academics are good at is solving “or at least making a dent in” what she calls “really hard problems.”

“These problems could be coming from industry brokers, governments, communities, even from big world problems and universities themselves … to make this work really well we need industry and government partners who are intelligent posers of problems and intelligent absorbers of the results.”

This does not seem that far from the impact model the government wants to see and distant from the establishment idea that government should fund researchers to pursue what they like on the off-chance that their research into Higgs Bosun might improve YouTube download speeds.

CEF Dec 115

Trams will run on time

Western Sydney U is pleased indeed with the NSW state government decision that the route of a western Sydney tram will run past three of its campuses, Westmead, Parramatta city and Rydalmere, ((CMM October 28 2014). Next up is the University of Sydney, which wants an underground station of its own, on the coming cross-harbour underground line.

ARC on the up

All year the Australian Research Council has seemed under siege, with university lobbies and discipline groups pushing for a new impact metric, which could reduce its role, or outright replace, the ARC’s Excellence for Research in Australia. The frontrunner was the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering’s model, originally called Research Excellence for Australia. But for the scheming and speculating (and there was a bit of both) came to not much. In the end the ARC emerged on Monday in the innovation statement box seat. While there will be an impact measure the ARC will build it and then run a pilot in 2017, preparatory to a roll out alongside ERA in 2018.

So how did the ARC stay centre stage? Chair “Ever-ready Aidan” Byrne is largely responsible; he adapted to changing circumstances and started to talk up how ARC data could assess impact early in the year . But people who research-funding advisor Ian Watt takes seriously also explained the ARC’s strengths and what was in the innovation statement largely follows Dr Watt’s recommendations.

ANU Dec 15 4

Another question

The University of Wollongong’s Research Branch is celebrating year’s end with a “Global Challenges Q&A” on “risks and rewards of challenge-led interdisciplinary research.” Sounds like a high old time to CMM. But as they are inviting questions – here’s one. Just how did the University of Wollongong muck up its ERA 2015 submission to the extent that the Australian Research Council reported some 13 UoW disciplines were not rated (CMM December 4), condensed matter physics, biochemistry, interdisciplinary engineering, other engineering, medical and health sciences, clinical sciences, nutrition, public health, applied economics, accounting, business and management, marketing and other commerce, psychology.

What works in Wikipedia

Thanks to UK university administrator Mike Ratcliffe for pointing out an  MIT Technology Review paper on people using Google’s page rank algorithm to create a league table of influential universities on the basis of Wikipedia mentions. The list is here. Sadly for anybody bored with the same old Anglosphere assembly in commercial rankings this is more of the same, at least for the first few. But the rest of the global top twenty, in descending order, includes lesser known names: Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, MIT, Chicago, Stanford, Yale, UCal Berkely, Humboldt of Berlin. Cornell, Penn, London, Uppsala, Edinburgh, Heidelberg, UCLA, NYU and Michigan.

A squiz at the Aussie entries is also interesting; Sydney (114) Melbourne (144), Monash (619), UoQ (675), ANU (702), Curtin (783), UTS (925). CMM has no idea what this proves, but Wikipedia mentions is surely as fair a measure as asking academics and recruiters what they think.

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Hard to read

“Do transitions of political power in Australia align with El Nino events? 50 year pattern noted by UoQ’s Graeme Hammer?” the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation tweeted yesterday. And there CMM was thinking the link was to predictions of a renaissance in spin bowling.

Know something the world needs to know? Anonymity guaranteed but lots of questions asked, stephen4@hotkey.net.au