Nifty fifty: Future Fellows announced

Plus a blue brews at ANU and Bond pays up

Sure-fire talent attractor

CMM’s parking correspondent (busiest round on the newsfloor) reports a tip from the University of New South Wales where a parking space next to the VC’s has a sign, “reserved for the Nobel Laureate.” The University does not have a laureate now, but with this sort of incentive it won’t take long. Imagine, executive parking at Kensington and in an honoured spot next to Ian Jacobs. From CERN to MIT they will be writing up resumes.

UA NOV 15

All sorts of Future Fellows

You would not credit the coincidence but just 24 hours after MYEFO cuts in other portfolios the Australian Research Council announced 50 Future Fellowships yesterday. Some 17 universities are home to Future Fellows. Monash leads with eight, followed by Uni Melbourne with six and UofQ, ANU and Macquarie with five each.

The announcement was an excellent opportunity for Education Minister Simon “softly softly” Birmingham to make nice with academics about their essential role in the innovation economy. “These 50 fellows will build on the nation’s innovation efforts and deliver research outcomes that will improve the lives of everyday Australians,” the senator said.

Not quite. If everything is now about applied research the ARC obviously did not get the memo because some of the nifty fifty are scholars pursuing knowledge not patents.

Like Mathieu Duval from Griffith U, who has $692k to study early human evolution around the Mediterranean. And Monash University’s Julie Kalman who will use $787k to “bring Sephardic Jewish traders and their networks into mainstream history of the late 18th and early 19th century Mediterranean region.” And like Richard McDermid (Macquarie U) who has $694k to study “how the chemical complexity required to form stars, planets and life arose through cosmic history”.

Certainly the majority of projects fit the government’s strategic research priorities, with biology, physical sciences and engineering being the biggest categories but they are followed by history and archaeology with five fellowships. So much for academic anguish that the humanities will lose out under the government’s new research impact strategy (CMM December 15).

But one project in particular will certainly have an especial impact, Dr Fiona Fidler’s (UniMelbourne) project “to improve the reproducibility and transparency of environmental science.”

“The project plans to assess the reproducibility of environmental research and develop systematic review methods that account for bias in published research. In this way, it seeks to contribute to the standards for statistical inference and reporting in the discipline, and facilitate a cultural shift to ‘open science’ to ensure a more reliable evidence base for environmental decisions,” she writes.

Talk about timing. Dr Fidler’s funds follow last week’s CSIRO announcement of an eight-year study that found Australian cattle emit 24 per cent less methane “than previously thought.”

ANU Dec 15 2

Uni Sydney meets its Waterloo

Western Sydney University won big with a new light rail route to service three of its campuses last week (CMM December 9). Not so the (all points of the compass) University of Sydney which lost out yesterday with the NSW government announcing the cross-city metro rail will have a station at nearby (sort of) Waterloo, instead of at the university.

Bond pays up

Bond University academics are in the money, with VC Tim Brailsford advising a 4.5 per cent pay rise for 2016. Pay rises for 2016 and ’17 were not set in the existing enterprise agreement with a salary review instead. Professor Brailsford says the rise is the result of external benchmarking and it looks like a good deal for CMM, 1 per cent plus higher than the norm in public university enterprise agreements. At the bottom of the heap a postgraduate fellow will earn $65 000 and at the top a full professor $172 500. That’s $7000 more than the present professorial pay scale at the University of Queensland.

The price of everything and the value of nothing

The NTEU’s funding expert Paul Kniest has crunched the numbers on the way the government is funding its innovation strategy and responding to the Watt Review of Research Funding. He concludes that an emphasis on competitive research grants and other research funding in allocating infrastructure block grants will be tempered by a 5 per cent cap on income losses but in the longer term entrench the division between existing research resource risk and those struggling to get going. And research which does not attract market support will lose.

He estimates the winners will be the Group of Eight (ex UniMelbourne) plus a few others, notably QUT, JCU and U Tas, with Murdoch U and WSU notable losers. This, he suggests, will be very bad for researchers at universities that loose out if their work does not attract external funding. Management will scramble to make up the loss by changing their research emphases, he warns. And it is part of a broader government plan for “a massive cultural change in relation to what research is now valued. The government has made it clear that the only research it values is that which has potential for commercialisation,” he laments.

CEF Dec 115

Pre-emptive protest

There is a grassroots revolt in the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University over what union members there say is a proposed 33 per cent cut in academic staff numbers. The campus branch of the National Tertiary Education Union issued a statement supported by 70 staff yesterday, “at their request.” So what is going on? The academics’ statement says they are told the cuts are coming to balance the school’s budget. So why isn’t the union building barricades? Perhaps because there is as yet nothing firm to fight over. Last night  Professor Veronica Taylor, Dean, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific replied to a CMM inquiry;  “ANU has received an independent review of CHL. The review was designed to ensure the long-term sustainability of the school, which is widely recognised as one of the finest centres for research and education on Asia and the Pacific. The university is still considering the review recommendations and staff at CHL have been kept informed of the contents of the review. No decisions have been made regarding future staffing or budgets.”

Four nor five-star

Western Sydney U is recruiting “individuals who will amplify the strategic directions of psychology.” “These roles will enhance WSU’s position of the university of choice in psychology and as a leader in professional training and research,” its advertising states. Perhaps not so much with research. According to Excellence for Research in Australia, the research leaders in psychology and cognitive sciences are ACU, CQU, UNSW, UoQ and UWA – all of which achieved two “well above world standard” five star ratings for both the discipline areas (out of four in the field) they research. WSU achieved two “above world standard” and one “at world standard.”

Not over yet

No optimistic assumption ever goes unpunished. When DVC Birgit Lohmann got involved in a stalled dispute over a new academic workload model at the University of the Sunshine Coast CMM thought a deal would be done (October 12). It might still happen but for now the dispute over workloads, which started in November last year, drags on. The National Tertiary Education Union has lodged notice of a dispute with the university, claiming management guidelines mislead academics about the existing Enterprise Agreement as well “improperly interpreting it,” and as such breach good faith bargaining provisions. This may take some time.

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Says it all

The Bruce McKenzie and Neil Coulson review of funding for vocational education and training in Victoria (yesterday) not only sets out a way forward for the state where the rot in the system started but makes it plain why the feds will switch off the life support for hopeless VET FEE HELP and start again in 2017.

“In recent years, too much of the system has been driven by provider behaviour, rather than supporting students to make informed training decisions, or to protect them from opportunistic or unethical behaviour,” they write.

“There has been too much change, too quickly, and the system has not had a chance to adjust and stabilise itself, or to invest and improve. Too often, subsidy levels have been used as a blunt instrument to manage the training budget, without due regard to the actual cost of the training, or how needed it is,” they add.

“Contestability can, if properly implemented, drive innovation, efficiency, and improvement across the sector. But government cannot simply declare something contestable, open up the market, and hope that it works. It needs to design and administer the market more carefully, guided by the outcomes it seeks to achieve,” they warn.

Too right, CMM adds.

We aren’t alone

Academics Tiff Macklem, Ajay Agrawal and Scott Bonham asks “what’s the root of our productivity problem?”

“The problem isn’t education. We produce highly talented engineers, scientists and business people. It’s not a shortage of innovative ideas … we outperform many OECD countries in terms of the number of peer-reviewed articles produced per capita in natural science and engineering. … The crux of our problem is commercialisation and scale. Simply put, we must convert more of our ideas into products and services that generate sales, then move quickly to achieve global scale.”

Yes, yes, we know that Australian academics and industry must cooperate to innovate. Except that this oped is about Canada, appearing in the (Toronto) Globe and Mail (thanks to Alex Usher for the lead). And there CMM was thinking we had academic innovation and applied research all to ourselves.

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