Bionic brains and passing provosts

Never miss a chance

Education Minister Chris Pyne alerted hacks to the first meeting, in Parliament House, of his teacher education advisory group yesterday.  But it was “photo ops and remarks” only – which is media management code for nobody will say anything interesting. And so it was. The minister thanked the group and Professor Greg Craven for his colleagues thanked the minister. Great believer in truth in government Mr Pyne is.

Passe provosts

Perhaps the cult of the provost is passing, with Macquarie University VC S Bruce Dowton deciding not to fill the role previously occupied by the recently departed Judyth Sachs. “Many of the key elements of Professor Sachs’ work as provost have now been achieved and the institution is structurally more sound and sustainable as a result,” he said. As a result a DVC academic, who will manage just the university librarian and PVC teaching and learning, will replace her. As for the rest of the provost’s previous reports; “it is appropriate that the executive deans of the faculties report directly to the vice-chancellor.” He’s a tiger for work Professor Downton.

And so it begins (again)

The 16th CRC round was announced late on Friday (CMM yesterday) and Round 17th opens on Monday. Which gives the losers just a week to vent before the resilient get cracking on new bids. There is a volume of venting already with the aggrieved ignoring CRC association chief Tony Peacock’s advice not to grumble publicly. Skippy supporters are particularly upset with the star wars warriors – supporters of a proposal for a wildlife biodiversity CRC are aggrieved at the space environment bid getting the nod. And while nobody seems surprised that the science communication proposal did not get up some wonder how it even got short-listed. Opposition spokesman on research Kim Carr poses another apposite question – why did the government announce the 16th round results late on Friday, thus assuring minimal coverage in the Saturday papers, which some people still read. For a government keen to sell itself as a friend of education and applied research this was a chance too good to waste. And yet industry minister Ian Macfarlane did.

Furry philanthropy

Lead figure in the $40m biodiversity CRC bid John Rodger (in 1995-2003 he led a CRC on marsupial conservation) was not whinging yesterday. Rather he was out selling a new strategy to get the centre up. The University of Newcastle academic told local ABC radio that he wants to raise $200m from the private sector for research on reintroducing wildlife into areas where species are gone. In the absence of a philanthropist with the deepest of pockets maybe the way to do this is to break the ask up. Looks like a job for crowd-funding to me.

Bionic budget

Health Minister Peter Dutton will this morning launch the Australian Academy of Science’s proposal for a major research effort in brain science, including a “bionic brain” to model human functions. This is one of several ideas but the Academy highlighted it for the media, presumably on the assumption that (i) hacks are happiest when the can relate a story to popular culture and (ii) they remember ’70s television. It’s a strong case – except for the proposed spend $250m over 10 years, which would presumably be on top of the $200m the feds have promised for dementia research. It is all very well to suggest it would “be less than 1 per cent of the Commonwealth Government’s total commitment to research at present” but as one research policy planner said it shows how medical science assumes political power puts it ahead of other science communities. Another pointed out that $250m is serious money, that the original bionic man only cast $6m – say $50m adjusted for inflation – but this bid wants five times that, just for a brain. (Readers under 40, ask an old person about Lee Majors).

Indispensable engineers (for now)

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, STEM jobs grew by 14 per cent between 2006 and 2011, compared to 9 per cent in other occupational areas. This is a stat to sell, which I am sure  university and training marketers will, loudly and often. They will then go on to announce that 75 per cent of people with university STEM qualifications work in “higher skill jobs.” Um, but for how long? Oxford scholars Carl Frey and Michael Osborne make a case that increases in computing power means artificial intelligence will soon-ish start replacing people in 47 per cent of US occupations, including high skilled ones. But at least engineers seem safe, for now. In fact a big job for engineers will be overcoming the engineering issues that slows AI replacing people.

For patrons to ponder

Following my puzzling over philanthropy yesterday and how much should be given to whom, Conor King from the Innovative Research Universities suggests five assumptions that should not shape the debate. (i) Universities are only for the most capable; (ii) mixing the best with others reduces their learning; (iii) more money should be invested in you the brighter you are; (iv) the more you pay the greater the greater the subsidy you should receive and (v) you cannot over-invest in an individual’s education. I’m guessing fundraisers will not want prospects thinking too much about any of these ideas.

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