Med research chief Anderson’s frank farewell

Plus UWS honours policy hot Schott

Sharks with prescription pads

Newly former National Health and Medical Research Council chair Warwick Anderson has had more farewell performances than Melba but he saved the frankest for last, in yesterday’s address to the National Press Club. Certainly his text reiterates issues his admirers have heard him on before, the achievements of Australian researchers, the need for the research institute sector to address the under-representation of women in senior position, the necessity for small independent research institutes to combine in pursuit of efficiency and alternative career paths for the mass of biomedical and life science PhDs who will not have life-time research work.

But he also had a go at vested interests. Quite a go. Professor Anderson warned against three threats to peer reviewing in allocating research funds. First, from political interference, (although he offered no Australian example for the record). Second, from alpha researchers who think they, rather than the NHMRC, should decide who gets how much. And third from well-connected interest groups; “in recent years we have seen election promises to direct funding to prostate cancer, Type I diabetes, tropical health research, and for many new laboratory buildings. I’m not saying that diabetes, prostate cancer and new labs are not worthwhile, but without peer review of the merits relative to other calls on funding, the taxpayer cannot be sure that they got the best value for money.” He added that while the prime minister has said the NHMRC will have charge of the “vast majority” of money from the Medical Research Future Fund (which I suspect will not be much), “vested interests are already circling like sharks.”

And finally Professor Anderson denounced 19th century quackery as it “roars into the 21st century.”

“I can see no excuse for practitioners (or anyone else) urging people who are ill with diseases that are entirely treatable and even curable by what its critics call conventional medicine, to substitute this treatment with an ineffective product. This is especially so when the practitioner personally benefits, say by selling a line of herbal extracts or miracle foods, or an app, or a cookbook.”

Or teaching courses in voced or higher education? Professor Anderson did not say – there are limits to frankness in even the frankest farewell address.

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Hot Schott

Kerry Schott is the very model of a major modern mandarin and as such UWS should be delighted she accepted its hon doc, awarded yesterday. Dr (a real one, her doctorate is from Oxford) Schott had a long career in banking before moving to public service. In NSW she has run Sydney Water and been a policy engineer on finance and elections. Her inquiry into the NSW public service was as frank as it was fearless and brave it was  indeed. “It is astounding to note the problems that management has faced and a credit to the public sector as a whole that service delivery has continued.”  (Interim Report, 76), she wrote. Any university who needs a public policy thought leader would do well to sign her up. I wonder if this is what UWS is up to.

Recognising research merit is the easy bit

The idea research that shapes policy should be included in impact measures unsettles people (CMM, yesterday). Apart from the standard contempt for the fourth estate there are obvious questions of how to measure what and where. But, like US Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, on defining pornography, I reckon we can recognise policy-shaping research in the media when we see it. As per yesterday, when Professor Bill Laurance from James Cook had an oped in the New York Times on why development economists love roads into wilderness but ecologists loathe them. Asit Biswas and Julian Kirchherr suggest (CMM April 10) the generality of research articles reach as many as no people. But with this oped Professor Laurance put his work before tens, probably hundreds of thousands of people all over the world. Of recognising policy influencing research in the media is one way, working out how to rate it is another. Does an oped in the NYT rate higher than a piece in the Townsville Bulletin, not if you live in the latter.

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Re-regulation now the issue

The debate over deregulating undergraduate course costs has become a proxy for a discussion of the role of the state in Australian society – with the regulating left arguing the state should oversight universities. Labor’s Kim Carr wants universities to establish compacts with government on and the National Tertiary Education Union wants public accountability agreements between government and universities, “negotiated and administered by an independent agency or council with statutory planning and funding responsibilities,” (CMM March 30).

And now veteran higher education policy thinker Vin Massaro (The Australian, yesterday) is suggesting an “independent higher education commission” to review, recommend and implement reforms, and then stay on, “as an independent co-ordinating body for the sector with responsibility for advising government on the health and funding of the system, including the negotiation of compacts if these are seen to be a worthwhile tool.”

This will strike Minister Pyne and vice chancellors as a call to return to Moscow on the Molonglo but it will go down well with many in university communities, who are uncomfortable with a market culture in higher education. And it creates a clear political position for Labor to run on, if the party does want to fight the next election on education.

Will the idea come up when University of Melbourne VC Glyn Davis discusses deregulation with Greens MP Dr Adam Bandt this evening? As event chair, the NTEU’s Jeannie Rea, puts it; “there are more options for reform than just fee deregulation and funding cuts.”

Vigorous vox pops

There is worry in the west that the WA Government wants to reduce staff and student representation on university councils. This is already set to occur in New Zealand, where Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce can appoint up to four university council members, with the council itself then appointing others. The Tertiary Education Union will not wear this willingly and is campaigning for councils to include an elected third of members. “Tertiary education is a public good, our institution belongs to us all, and because students and staff are responsible for protecting it we should have a say in its governance. Elected students and staff bring unique and diverse voices to the council table and provide a crucial democratic counterbalance to the growing power of the ministerial appointees on our council.” Perhaps the NTEU in WA could borrow the text.

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