Australian research: not that good, not that rich

Plus why John Dewar and Suzanne Cory did well this week

ARMS and the man(darins)

Chief Scientist Ian Chubb and Australian Research Council head Aidan Byrne were spotted in conversation at the Australasian Research Management Society conference yesterday. There were suggestions they were just innocently shooting the breeze. Pshaw – any breeze those two shoot stays shot.

Report card and work plan

Professor Chubb’s address to ARMS yesterday included much familiar to readers of his 11 000 speeches on the need for a science strategy. Like the way we Australians like to live “in a thin fog of complacency generated by the ‘she’ll be right’ approach, or the ‘no worries’ motto or the ‘we punch above our weight’ cliché.” But then he told his tribe truths that not all of them will have liked, that scientists’ performances are inevitably assessed by their publication record. And that in the “coming weeks” his office would release, “a comprehensive report that will provide some sensible, thought-provoking but broad indications of Australia’s performance in STEM research, across a suite of bibliometrics and comparisons.”

Given what Professor Chubb has said in the past about how we compare against North Americans and Europeans (as distinct from “the world”) this will not necessarily be a case for Aussie-oi-oi-oing. “When we turn to the average and compare ourselves to a selection of countries in Western Europe and North America-countries that we like to think we could be like – our average field weighted citation is below them all,” he added yesterday.

Professor Chubb also said the idea of every academic being funded for research isn’t going to happen and that the research community should be smarter than to “ask for more money on the grounds that we don’t have enough … to spend on whatever turns up that exceeds threshold quality standards. It hasn’t worked before and I can’t see it working now.”

“So we need to find areas where we have a critical need or comparative advantage,” Professor Chubb said, which is what his new STEM strategy provides. And he made it plain that Industry Minister Macfarlane understands we must ensure capability in the core sciences and maintain key components of basic research.

Professor Chubb added “some money should be spent to improve knowledge that might not immediately, directly or obviously return a cent to the country,” which might appease the alarmed. Is this a preview of the science section of the government’s forthcoming innovation strategy? I’m guessing yes.

Cited success

The Scopus Young Researcher awards were announced yesterday at the ARMS conference. The winners are: David Lubans (Uni Newcastle-young people’s physical activity and nutrition), Ajayan Vinu (Uni Queensland-clean energy), Shulei Chou (Uni Wollongong-battery storage), Kerrie Wilson (Uni Queensland-bio diversity) and Tracey Burrows (Uni Newcastle-child obesity). These are great results for UofQ and Uni Newcastle – two awards each is a big deal indeed. The Australian Research Council also did well – funding four of the five recipients. The awards are based on publications, citations and impact.

One small step for a research manager

One giant-ish leap for the ARC and education officials. Since 2012 combining the data collection process required for Excellence in Research for Australia and the department’s Higher Education Research Data Collection has been on the agenda. And now there is a suggestion of a consultation paper next year. You don’t want to rush these things.

But what does he really think

Kim Carr addressed the Deans of Arts, Social Science and Humanities conference in Brisbane yesterday. Here’s how he started;

“I do not accept that universities have no alternative to bargaining with the government to soften the most inequitable aspects of Christopher Pyne’s grand plan. I do not accept the fantasy that implementing the plan would usher in an era in which a few universities become antipodean rivals of Harvard and Oxford while the rest prosper by carving out specialist niches for themselves. The reality is that that this plan rests on a dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest vision that has nothing to offer beyond trashing the Australian expectation of a fair go.”

I bet they loved it, but I wonder if DASSH was Senator Carr‘s only audience . If any in the Labor leadership group are not wedded to utter rejection of deregulation, as is speculated, he is doing his best to lock them in.

CSI Wars of the Roses

The Lancet reports University of Leicester research on Richard III’s skeleton (discovered in 2012). He was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 by blows to the head. A case of (and I do apologise for this) breaking news.

Winners of the week

La Trobe Vice Chancellor John Dewar is a big winner this week for the advanced entry ASPIRE programme, announced on Monday. ASPIRE offers 1000 La Trobe places to prospective 2015 students at whatever Canberra will charge them via HECS plus 10 per cent, if deregulation occurs. This is a brilliant move, addressing community concerns with the cost of study, signalling La Trobe will compete on price to attract students it wants and branding the university as a student-centric innovator.

Karen Nelson-Field won the arts, community and sports category in the South Australian Women in Innovation awards on Wednesday night. Dr Nelson-Field was honoured for her work on social media at the University of South Australia’s Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science. Her research examines whether the standard assumed connections between advertising and buyer behaviour apply in social media. Like her colleagues, she really does put science into marketing.

Swinburne provost Jennelle Kyd also had a great week, leading the university’s VET strategy consultation. Swinburne’s earnings from vocational education look like falling by 40 per cent this year from $120m in 2012 and something must be done. But rather than come up with top down dogma Professor Kyd has produced a paper and put it out for comment. It’s a great way to encourage the Swinburne community to share the problem and hopefully, come up with a solution.

While the science communication club generally talks amongst itself, molecular biologist and immediate past president of the Australian Academy of Science Suzanne Cory gets out into the marketplace and sells. She is presently delivering the Boyer Lecturers and on Monday night produced a stellar performance on Q&A’s science policy special.

Belinda Robinson  had a winning week as well. Universities Australia, which she runs, has a public profile less low than subterranean and yet she is having a big impact in the corridors of power where deregulation is discussed. This is a tough time for UA, with members divided over what they will settle for and spectacular special pleading, notably from the Group of Eight and the Regional Universities Network, but publicly UA is holding together and privately making the case that the status quo is unsustainable.

Second opinion

The Popular Front for People in Lab Coats (aka the Medical Research Future Fund Action Group) is doing a splendid job with everybody who already thinks ever-more research funding is never enough. (Have a look at the Twitter agree-a-thon @ #ActionMRFF.) But when it comes to convincing the rest of the research community not so much, because unless funding via a Medicare co-payment occurs more money for medical research means less for other researchers. The government created a precedent for this when it specified the Australian Research Council would lose $100m over four years to various medical projects.

But the MRFF has made a friend in Tony Peacock, who runs the Cooperative Research Centre Association. “I would love to see more spent in our highly effective program. But I don’t think the science and innovation community can ignore the opportunity the government has presented in the Medical Research Future Fund,” Dr Peacock says. And he points to the Howard era precedent, where hikes in other outlays for research followed increased medical research funding. “I feel many medical research people are being almost too polite about the fact that medical research is getting singled out. As a non-medical researcher, I personally don’t have concerns that medical research is getting singled out – I’m thinking of it as ‘first cab off the rank’ instead. Yes, in the coming CRC Review, we will be making the case as strongly as possible that the CRC Program needs a boost – but I don’t see that as a reason for not getting behind the MRFF.”

Selective quotation

Parliamentary Secretary for Education Scott Ryan spoke at the industry publishers’ conference the other night. It was a solid example of the “hooray for you” industry association speech, which as required, included kind words from a report. In this case Senator Ryan read from the Book Industry Strategy Group report. What, the 2011 report commissioned by then innovation minister Kim Carr? Yes, that’s the one. Surely this is not the one that called on government and the industry to set up a $16m two-year fund to assist scholarly publishing in the humanities and social sciences? The very same. You mean the one Senator Carr took delivery of, saying, “it’s simply not good enough for us to say that we have a new form of distribution which is completely disconnected from the people who have worked in these industries for generations. And we have to be mindful of the change in circumstances to ensure that those high-skilled, high-wage jobs are able to be available for people in this country,” ? Got it in one. I’m guessing that, following Twitter, citation by Senator Ryan is not commendation .

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