Healthy competition in medical research funding

Plus Dewar accepts a second term at La Trobe and Laureate Fellowships announced

Mandarins moving

The Department of Education and Training is restructuring some higher education functions, again. From July the higher education branch, to be led by James Hart, will consist of: funding policy and legislation, (Melissa Reardon) governance, systems and access (Julie Birmingham) plus student information and learning, including QILT (Di Weddell). The other operational areas, international and research and economics look largely unchanged but the intellectual firepower assembled for deregulation is dispersed

ANU June 2

Fashion rules

Finally a way of proving that “smart casual” is a crime against dress codes, with Fordham University in New York  announcing masters degrees in fashion law. No, CMM is certainly not going to make a “does my bum look big in these judicial robes” joke.

Healthy competition

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann has released details on how the Medical Research Future Fund will allocate money. The proposed advisory board will, “collectively possess expertise in medical research, policy relating to health systems, management of health services, medical innovation, financing and investment, and commercialisation.” Which will make the MRFF an alternative source of advice to the National Health and Medical Research Council with its own revenue stream, outside the budget to spend. That the NHMRC chair will be a member of the MRFF board of advisers is all very well. So is the requirement for the new board “to take account of the work and priorities of the NHMRC, to ensure that funding from the NHMRC and funding from the MRFF are complementary and that there is no duplication.” Pull the other stethoscope, is what CMM says to that. The two agency leaderships will blue for sure.

What the MRFF will be used for is also intriguing, it includes medical research infrastructure for state governments, universities, medical research institutes and corporations. “This could involve supporting research into the development of medicines or medical technologies (including personal health technologies) for commercial use.” The queue is already forming.

Mindhive 1

Souped-up sell

UWA postgraduates are continuing their campaign against the end of two small university scholarship programmes, which help researchers just starting their careers with very small sums. There’s free soup on the campus Oak Lawn today to make the point that being hungry for knowledge is not much good when you are light on for lunch.

Research rewarded

On Monday Education Minister Christopher Pyne was talking up international education and yesterday he was applauding his own research administration, with the release of funding rules for Future Fellows and announcement of Laureate Fellowships. Yes, the 50 Future Fellowships is only a half round, but it is a big improvement on no fellows at all. The original Labor FF funding ended this year and in March Mr Pyne tied more money for the programme to the Senate passing his deregulation package. This did not go down well, so the minister (ahem) fixed it, finding the funds for a half round. Future Fellowships are designed to keep mid career researchers of great promise in Australia.

Mr Pyne also announced 15 new fellows in the Australian Research Council’s Laureate programme, worth $42m over five years. The spread of fellowships reflects the research dominance of Group of Eight institutions, with ANU, UNSW and UofQ each being home to three laureates. The University of Melbourne won the two fellowships reserved for females who are required to continue their research while advocating for women in science. Researchers at Swinburne, QUT, Macquarie and Curtin received one each of the other four Laureate Fellowships.

Dewar’s skin in the game

LaTrobe VC John Dewar has accepted a second five-year term, which will include the university’s 50th anniversary in 2017 and end in 2021. It comes as his first term changes, focusing research in areas of strategic strength and restructuring the workforce, pay off. Professor Dewar says LaTrobe now has an appropriate staff balance but he continues keen to see elite teachers fully focus on classrooms. The university has also met its council’s requirement to achieve a 7 per cent surplus, needed to refurbish facilities now 50 years old. And he points with particularly pride to La Trobe’s regional campuses, which have increased undergraduate applications.

These are all major outcomes, not easily achieved. The course cuts and staff losses, which came with his reform plan, were bitterly contested on campuses and in the courts by the university branch of the NTEU. The disputes went on for years but now La Trobe is set up to pursue Professor Dewar’s objective of making LaTrobe the unchallenged number three brand in Victoria, by being a world leader in areas of research strength and continuing its commitment to a university education for students from low SES circumstances. And he’s looking forward to it. LaTrobe, he says, “gets under your skin.”

ASQA in the money

When Ian Macfarlane had training in his portfolio he was not especially impressed with the Australian Skills Quality Authority. On June 26 last he delivered a speech, which slammed training administration agencies as impenetrably bureaucratic. And as for allowing ASQA to increase the fees it charged industry, “for the foreseeable future this isn’t going to happen.” (CMM June 27 2014).

But times have changed and now training minister Simon Birmingham has $68m in new money for ASQA to investigate at-risk areas in training rather than focusing on provider paperwork. “Without this funding, ASQA would have been forced to increase fees and focus on revenue raising, rather than tackling poor practice,” Senator Birmingham said yesterday.

This is sensible politics. The controversy over crook providers exploiting people by conning them into courses they have no hope of completing has died down and Minister Birmingham has worked to stop the spivery with tougher penalties and rigorous supervision. This new funding is part of that process.

But whether it will transform ASQA from an administrative agency into a consumer protector is another issue. Rod Camm from the private provider lobby argues the industry needs an ombudsman, given, “it has taken far too long for the consumer protection agency to kick into gear.” (CMM May 5). Whether an extra $65, will energise ASQA is now the big issue in voced.

CEF1 June 15

What the doctors aren’t ordering

Never stand between a medical researcher and a transfusion of cash and their lobby group Research Australia is focused when it comes to funding. Just ask Elizabeth Foley, its CEO between 2011 and yesterday, when chair Christine Bennett announced she was no longer needed. “The Board formed the view that strategically, for its next era of advocacy and development, Research Australia would be best served by a CEO with a professional background from the health and/or medical research sectors. As such the Board has asked the current CEO to complete her tenure as at the end of this year,”Professor Bennett said. Yes, Ms Foley, who came from financial services, had led RA through “transformational change,” and the Board thanked her, but she is still gone. Still, “Elizabeth is looking forward to seeing many of you at the many key events we have planned for the remainder of 2015,” Professor Bennett added. No doubt.

TAFE keeps the cash

Yesterday’s NSW Budget committed to $2.3bn to vocational education via the Smart and Skilled programme that started in January. There is a student entitlement for fees up to Certificate III and income contingent loans for higher-level courses. Good-oh, but where will people study? The budget papers make it plain – funding for TAFE accounts for $1.9bn in operation costs and $100m for capital. Leaving not much for other registered training programmes.

Googled advice

Thanks to the reader who sent CMM this quote. “Leaders spend much of their time watching and copying the competition, and when they do finally break away and try something new, they are careful risk-takers, developing only incremental, low-impact changes.” It’s from Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg’s How Google Works, but it sounds to CMM like vice chancellors developing research strategies.

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