Medical researchers (what a surprise) brilliant budget bid

More green than gold

There is a social media campaign out of New York calling on UniSuper to end investments in fossil fuel companies. It’s not the first, I’m guessing it will not be the last- the fund is regularly requested not to invest in everything and anything, from Israeli enterprises to anything owned by evangelical Christians. The problem for the fund managers is that there is ample law requiring them to invest in the financial interests of all members, not the political opinions of some of them. But for members who are environmentally purer than pure UniSuper does off an investor option that is greener than green. Whether it will pay enough to support them in retirement is another issue.

Plus ca change

Who do you think the research leaders were in 1974 when an organisation called the Australian Research Grants Committee doled out the dosh? Same as now, although the order was a bit different. Back then the University of Sydney, led from Monash, Adelaide, UNSW and Melbourne with UofQ and UWA following. ANU was last of the then, and still great eight. Sydney received just under $1m, more than four times ANU’s share. Gosh, d you think 40 years of collecting a great big whack of research cash might explain why the Eight are still in front? 

Buy land, they aren’t making it anymore

Mark Twain supposedly said. University of New South Wales Vice Chancellor Fred Hilmer appears to agree, making a strong case against selling and leasing back university property to raise capital. “Non-profit organisations, such as universities, should not be borrowing except in special cases and I certainly don’t believe universities should be forced to borrow to finance research and teaching,” he wrote in the AFR yesterday Good-oh, unless it turns out universities will need less buildings and more bandwidth in the future and that investing capital in new physical classrooms and recurrent in maintenance is not the best use of resources in an environment where all students do not need to listen to lectures in person on campus.

Wish lists

It’s submission season (then again, when is it not) and yesterday the Association of Medical Research Institutes released its  budget bid – and cleverly constructed it is too. For a start, AMRI reminds the Government of last year’s promise to be a friend to medical research and quarantine it from cuts across the forward estimates. And it urges an end to research red tape – another idea out of the Prime Minister’s playbook. Especially as the Association estimates it will not cost anything. AMRI also argues for a national office for clinical trials, suggesting the National Health and Medical Research Council scheme is not working. The $10m to pay for this is easily found in the NHMRC’s model, it says. AMRI also calls for decade-long commitments to major research facilities, saying it has worked in the past – this is another idea around for a while and which is said to appeal to ministers who like the idea of concentrating funding in elite institutions with established records. And finally it asks for $20m for medical research hubs to invest in proving concepts to make potential products appealing to investors.  Sure this is all self-serving and will make no friends at the NHMRC but it is attractively packaged. If the Government is kind to any research lobby it will be AMRI.
In contrast Universities Australia’s bid is another pot of pleading variously calling for restoring continuing or increasing funding for various teaching and research programs. In particular UA wants demand driven funding maintained, restoration of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme at up to $200m a year, plus more Future Fellowships. And saving the audacious to the end UA advocates increasing public spending on tertiary education from 0.76 per cent of GDP (0.84 per cent, including student fees the government now gives to universities up front) to 1.12 per cent, “as budget circumstances allow”. Given UA speaks for a system with all the unity of the Holy Roman Empire in 1618 this is all to be expected – that they need more public money is about the only thing the members all agree on.
But what is interesting is UA’s tentative step towards slugging students more for the cost of education. “A number of suggestions made recently by individual universities and sub-groups on alternative funding proposals that would place more of the comparative cost burden on students suggest that such a debate will not necessarily be confined to calls for additional public funding and will necessarily promote a discussion around the relative public/private benefits of higher education. “ UA promises a discussion paper. I wonder if there will be much to discuss after the various inquiries the government has going.

Parker’s playbook

Stephen “Renaissance Prince” Parker’s sponsorship of the Brumbies rugby team has attracted a trans-Tasman imitator with the University of Otago funding the local Highlanders. I wonder whether U Otago will also follow the University of Canberra VC’s patronage of a new font to honour Canberra’s centenary, plus a poetry prize.

Watch out, publishers about

I hear Taylor and Francis publishers were in Sydney yesterday. Perhaps they are visiting to receive the thanks of grateful academics who the company allows to publish in its journals (without being paid for their work, of course) and readers without institutional access to specific journals who are happy to pay $35 a pop for individual articles. Or perhaps not. Whatever, it will not worry T&F and its peers for as long as they can get away with it. The question is how long will that be. The NHMRC and ARC already require research they fund to be publicly available – which the publishers get around by charging academics (or normally their institutions) to publish in open access journals. I hear the ARC is talking to university librarians and the Australian Open Access Support Group about open access in reality rather than regulation.  This will take time but observers of scholarly publishing say when the old regime falls it will fall quickly.

Too right

QUT law academic Nigel St John Stobbs via Twitter last night: “listening to academics tell addicts about how hard it is to overcome addiction is always a special moment”

Hard knocks at NICTA 

There’s no faulting NICTA for resilience, at least what is left of it. Last August the Labor Government promised the Information and Communications Technology Research Centre an extra $40 million for the 2015-16 financial year. This lasted less than a month, until the conservatives nixed the idea. And now NICTA is down an unspecified amount with funding cancelled by the Victorian Government. (The last state Labor Goverment (is there a pattern here?) announced $33m over four years in 2010.) Late last month NICTA CEO Hugh Durrant-Whyte warned staff that the Victorian operation would have to be halved due to the Liberal Government changing priorities and it seems the process is about to start. NICTA promises details today.

Yes Marshall McLuhan is on Facebook

Is Facebook fritzed for university marketing? Pundits have argued for months (that’s centuries in online time) teens are terminating the site as old people’s social media. While Facebook says everything is ok it has created a new newsfeed called (how retro) “Paper”. This is only a problem for marketers who confused the medium with the message and assumed Facebook could do it all. It can’t. Content is king. Create and communicate it and they will come.

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