Q&A: more slogans than substance

And that was from audience members!

Pyne plays it straight

Education Minister Chris Pyne did well on ABC TV’s Q&A last night, he kept calm and stayed on message in the face of some serious heckling and slogan chanting from a bloc of audience members who drowned him out to the point the producer cut to a song. The extraordinary thing was that Mr Pyne was praising the HELP loan scheme, making the point that this distinguishes us from the US. Inevitably he ducked questions going to the budget  but he could have been pushed harder on funding for undergraduate education and on the implications of his repeated statement that HELP opens access to higher education and that graduates did very well out of their education in terms of what they pay. It was less a hint of what the Minister wants to do than a flashing neon sign and he could have been asked what the government would do if HELP payments rose, give the money to universities or Treasury. It was a shame he wasn’t pushed, university communities would have liked to hear. There was however one solid higher education question, from a physicist  who pointed to the lack of certainty for research. It was a good question, although it would have been hard to chant, and one which the minister did well to answer – agreeing there is a need for longer research grants. It showed what the show could have accomplished.

When awful is good

The budget will be “somewhere between diabolical and awful” for research one well-placed insider suggested yesterday adding that this was from an optimist. Certainly the prime minister is on the record promising to be a friend to medical research but the best estimate for the Australian Research Council is that it has already taken its hit, with the now government announcing it would take away $103 million before the election.

Audit unclear

The consensus of research community leaders is that the Commission of Audit could have been worse for them, that the CoA was not all that interested. Certainly people are alarmed by the CoA’s emphasis on research that meets government objectives. As National Tertiary Education President Jeannie Rea put it yesterday, “the Commission of Audit’s recommendations on research and development will guarantee ongoing interference by government into the independence and autonomy of research institutions and the politicisation of research policy.” But others are less concerned than confused by demands for cooperation across the research system and the Commission’s call to close the Cooperative Research Centre program. One research infrastructure observer suggests combining the Australian Research Council (run in house) and the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (outsourced) different data management systems would cost, not save cash, say around $30m. The good news is that the two agencies could get 80 per cent of the way using their own resources.

What really perplexes research administrators is the CoA’s call to close the CRC program and hand the cash over to the ARC – the Council would allocate the money in exactly the same way. ‘It’s not clear what the Commission was getting at it,’ one observer told me yesterday.

In synch

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane issued a media statement yesterday congratulating the Australian Synchrotron for having reached 20,000 research partnerships. Yes that synchrotron, the chronically under-resourced agency which neither Canberra nor the Victorian Government has been keen to fund in the past. It was a routine statement no doubt but a week out from the budget you have to think that any mention is good news. Ministers rarely say nice things about agencies they are about to close or cut.

The good news is the bad news isn’t later

The Association of Medical Research Institutes advised yesterday that applicants of the 50 per cent of NHMRC applications not making it to fill review will hear in August not June, but at least this is earlier than October. Gosh thanks

Price of publishing

Danny Kingsley can’t find out how much Australian universities pay for academics to publish in open access journals. And if Dr Kingsley can’t find out no one can. The Australian National University research comms manager is an expert in journal metrics and who pays how much to read what research articles. This is not good – the big journal publishers have long made a bomb through journal subscriptions but they are now switching strategies by also charging universities to publish in journals that readers can access for free. Any chance of getting this issue on the agenda depends on knowing what this costs – and we don’t. Basically individuals as well as institutions at various administrative levels variously pay open access charges but the costs are not specifically reported to the Australian Research Council or the National Health and Medical Research Council. I understand there is some sympathy for the ARC to collect the data but no plans to make it mandatory. That would be a very good way of attracting the ire of the red tape cutters an research observer said yesterday. Pity – until we know how big a cheque the taxpayer sends to the journal publishers for open access publishing there is not much chance of getting government interested in a way to save money better spent on research.

Safe pair of hands

Vicki Thomson is the definitive industry association chief, ever-discrete, always across the brief, utterly unflappable and if she is ever upset by vapid VCs or dopey hacks it never shows. So it isn’t surprising that she is offered the occasional appointment, like joining the Australia – China Council board, announced yesterday by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

Parallel universe

A national student day of action is planned for May 21; a week after the budget is brought down. No faulting the organisers for realism – there is no point in a protest before next Tuesday, the government will not listen.

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