Elephant in the operating theatre

NHMRC must face up to Medical Research Future Fund

Green for gone

No, another rare animal isn’t extinct, rather lolly-maker Allens has cancelled Green Frogs, because they are outsold by the red variety ten to one. The science is settled that red is top colour for food sold to kids.* However green is number two so why less gap than chasm? Finally – a question where more research is really needed.

*Lynn M Walsh et al, “Colour preference and food choice among children” Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 124, 6 (1990) 645-653. And you thought I was making it up.

CEF1 June 15

Do more with same

The Academy of Science released its response to the National Health and Medical Research Council discussion paper on fellowship schemes last night. Given the emotions and ambitions involved it is a careful and considered document. The NHMRC is criticised by some for distributing money in penny packets rather than focusing funds on senior researchers whose work offers the best chance of big breakthroughs on the one hand, and not giving enough young researchers a chance to build the foundations of a career on the other.  Thus the Academy points out; “expecting fellows to make adequate career progression so they are ready to apply to the next level up in the fellowship scheme, rather than re-apply at the same level, should be a principle of the scheme. This principle is best implemented flexibly by assessment panels.” But it also recommends; “reducing the limit on the number of grants that can be held at the chief investigator level.”

Overall the Academy suggests the NMHRC use its existing research resources more strategically, for example by; “redirecting the funding for some of the early career fellowships to the pinch points in (the) fellowship pipeline, such as the career development fellowships level and the senior research fellowships level A”.

And yes, it addresses expanding opportunities for young female researchers, by extending four year fellowships held part-time for up to eight years and by pressuring employers “to put in place adequate gender equity policies.”  Given the Academy has announced a programme a trial of the Athena SWAN programme (CMM yesterday), it could do little else.

But the elephant in the operating theatre the Academy addresses, which the NHMRC might have hoped to avoid, is the Medical Research Future Fund. The Academy says the structure and purpose of the Fund is starting to emerge and the Council cannot ignore “the positive role that the MRFF could play in alleviating current funding pressures in the next half decade.” (See CMM,  June 24.) True enough, but with the NHMC‘s future relationship with the MRFF unclear and the funding balance between the two not known the point is more easily made by the Academy than addressed by the Council.

Natural highs

Rob Newton from Edith Cowan is talking next Wednesday, on exercise as medicine. No, not as in “just swallow, dammit,” but as a range of therapeutic treatments, which produce different chemical processes in the body. There’s nothing for it – runners on people.

ANU June 2

TAFE in trouble

The NCVER has confirmed its May preliminary figures, confirming government funded training numbers dropped in 2014 (CMM, May 26), with numbers at the 2010 level. Yesterday the estimable National Centre for Vocational Education Research reported a 3.5 per cent decline across the board, between 2013 and 14, to 1.79m. There are all sorts of reasons, caps on training places in state programmes and all but open access to university is one, people turning away from TAFE is another, but whatever the cause, all up government providers were down 8.8 per cent. In contrast, enrolments with private providers grew by 8.4 per cent, to 582 000. While South Australia only accounts for 7 per cent of the national market the collapse of demand for TAFE there was even more dramatic. Student numbers were down 20 per cent and study hours declined by 26 per cent.

For public training advocates this growth is due to for-profit bounty hunters enrolling people in courses they have no hope of completing and increased course fees imposed on TAFE. For private providers it demonstrates students are abandoning chaotic, sclerotic public sector providers.

Both are probably right.

This is why federal training minister Simon Birmingham has spent the last six months tightening requirements for private providers to qualify for federal money, increasing consumer protections and funding regulator ASQA to pay particular attention to dubious providers. Yesterday the minister reminded the training community of his new ban on colleges charging fees for students who withdraw before enrolment confirmations go to government.

And it may be why NSW Teachers Federation official Maxine Sharkey argued yesterday, “TAFE is a national treasure … the attack on TAFE is an attack on the education of the working class.” A slogan not a solution for sure, but it works with the large and vocal public training lobby.

Still coming

The NCVER is promising to start publishing data on government and privately funded training “later this year.” It’s been a long time coming, with work underway in 2013. CMM wonders how the comprehensive My Skills website, promised in the 2011 budget is progressing.

Fertile fields for ag scientists

Last year 18 research and development organisations in Australian agriculture received $238m from producer levies. These bodies are not universally popular, there are regular grumbles about flash accommodation for the richer ones, with Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce suggesting they should be based in the country rather than Canberra. And back in 2011 the Productivity Commission called for cuts to matching federal funding. However a new  Senate committee report indicates this is never going to happen, reporting examples of strong returns on research investments. Instead, the report focuses on the collection and administration of levies, rather than whether growers should fund research through compulsory payments, (except for a minority report by Senator David Leyonhjelm, (Lib Dem, NSW) who proposes allowing growers to vote on levy amounts, including zero.) Overall, this is good news for ag science PhDs, yes undergraduate enrolments this year are up but an alternative source of research work to universities can’t hurt.

mindhive 2

 Image intact

Ross Jennings from Green River College (Washington state) suggests what US institutions need to do in the international education market, including work with agents. “Universities and colleges in the UK, Australia and Canada have been using commission-based agencies for decades. They carefully vet them, both at the institutional and governmental level, and are quick to decommission them if they discover fraudulent or unethical practices.” He must have missed that episode of Four Corners.

Double a dolt

CMM blundered twice yesterday, errantly including a second o instead of an e in the name of the deputy chair of AITSL, Bill Louden. And I left Ian ‘the gent young” Young from ANU out of the elite group of VCs who are in the 2015 top 1o0 engineers. Thanks to readers for the corrections.

Medicinal purposes

Loyola University researchers have found consuming too much water kills the occasional athlete. Apparently they can die of exercise-associated hyponatremia, from drinking too much water. Further proof, as if any was needed, that water should only be consumed when heavily diluted with scotch.

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