Science stars light up PM’s council

Plus Uni Melbourne leads (what a surprise) another ranking

Who will pay?

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane unveiled his long anticipated applied research policy yesterday, with the announcement of the Industry Growth Centre plan, which “will bring together expertise from business and industry, the scientific and research communities and the university sector.” The centres will cover industries in which, the government has decided, Australia has a natural advantage – food and agribusiness, mining equipment, technology and services, medical technology and pharmaceuticals, advanced manufacturing, and oil, gas, and other energy. The IGCs will enable “the adoption of new processes and development of new products” and “increase the commercialisation of new ideas”. The program budget for the first four years is $180m, including 60 $1m grants to “to help convert ideas with high potential into profitable commercial realities.”

Is it just me, or does this sound a bit like the existing Cooperative Research Centre program, which exists to link researchers to industry? A review of the CRC’s is just beginning and it would be one funding step forward and one back if the program was gutted and the money used to fund the IGC’s. Last night CRC Association chief Tony Peacock was suggesting predictions of the programme’s end were premature but a reduction in the number of new CRCs is an obvious way to fund the IGC’s. Another would be for to Treasury to raid Australian Research Council funding.

The new program is also a bit less than inflated expectations of an industry focus on the nation’s entire research effort (which was never going to happen, see below). Even so, you can’t fault Minister Macfarlane for doing what he promised.

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Science stars

There was outrage when Prime Minister Abbott did not appoint a science minister last year, despite the fact you needed an electron microscope to identify the achievements of the last Labor minister for science, Don Farrell. Government supporters replied that having Industry Minister Macfarlane represent science at the cabinet table did the job. And now that point is made with Mr Macfarlane announcing the Prime Minister’s Science Council which includes a balance of industry experts and super scientists, including Tanya “photon girl” Monro, Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt and cervical cancer vaccine creator Ian Frazer. Some among the science lobbies are very pleased with the council’s creation, although there are questions whether two meetings a year are enough and continuing demands for a science minister.

Who will make it happen

There were just two problems with yesterday’s story in The Australian detailing the way Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane wants research funding based on commercial application rather than academic prestige –the Australian Research Council ($875m budget) and the National Health and Medical Research Council ($930m) aren’t in his portfolio. I’m guessing Health Minister Peter Dutton would argue NHMRC funded research is already as applied as possible. And although Education Minister Christopher Pyne has plenty on his plate just now I doubt he would give up authority over the ARC without the mother and father of a blue. Just as he likes being minister for the ARC the council is widely considered content reporting to him.

I wonder if this is why ARC chief Aidan Byrne and NHMRC head Warwick Anderson are not members of the Prime Minister’s Science Council, which is heavy on science stars but light-on for science policy people who can make visions happen. Then again, Mr Macfarlane has some high-powered support of his own to do that. Entrepreneur Larry Marshall is the next CSIRO head and Chief Scientist Ian Chubb is certainly on-song with Mr Macfarlane’s applied research message. He welcomed the council’s creation last night stating, “l look forward to working with council members and Ministers on the opportunities and challenges ahead.”

Above criticism

People who enjoy criticising UniSuper will be disappointed to know that the fund is out of Transfield. There are occasional attacks on the higher education superannuation provider for holding shares in Transfield, because a subsidiary provides services to migration detention centres. In fact, UniSuper never had a direct holding but a market fund it uses did. But no longer, observers say that UniSuper is out of Transfield altogether.

Calculated conclusions

Last week’s Senate committee inquiry on deregulation featured arguments between Opposition education spokesman Senator Kim Carr and just about every university representative on the Labor  government’s university funding. The Group of Eight sought to settle the issue yesterday with a briefing paper on government funding for the last 25 years. According to the Eight, full-time equivalent student funding peaked in 1994 and then declined to 2003, when it was at 73 per cent of 1989 levels. It increased to 80 per cent during the Howard Government and reached 90 per cent under Labor. But the previous government sought savings to fund the demand-driven system. “In a system where volume is uncapped but price remains capped, ad hoc cuts are an inescapable reality. This is the future of the current system. As a result, the quality of teaching and learning is likely to suffer over time. Further, it will become harder to support high quality research,” the Group of Eight argues. So that’s that.

Not quite. A sympathetic but sceptical funding expert suggests elements of the Eight’s argument are once over lightly. For example, the guru points out the Go8 takes out Facilitation Funding in 2011-13, to make comparisons meaningful with pre 2011 years. Why so? The funding was essentially indexation for those years.

The expert enumerator also asks why the Eight removes a bunch of funding programs, capital roll-in, research quotient, Indigenous support, research training component and others, “they ought to all be included if the funds went in theory to support teaching.”

And the Go8 paper also uses the CPI as a deflator but “it is only just relevant to universities since it is a household cost measure not a business one.”

Everybody clear on that? No, I didn’t think so. The problem is that higher education funding is so vast and complex that a valid argument can be made to suit just about everybody. Perhaps the Go8 should follow the lead of CQU VC Scott Bowman, who told Senator Carr last week, “I’m not getting into a debate on Labor funding but every year it does feel tighter.”

Deans of education take note

The Donnelly-Wiltshire Review of the Australian Curriculum assures us it is “not concerned with evaluating teacher education.” Understandably so, what with the review of teacher ed chaired by ACU VC Greg Craven yet to report. Even so, Dr Donnelly and Professor Wiltshire have opinions. Some are anodyne “pre-service teacher education needs to have a good balance between theory and practical experience, and relevance to the school curriculum,” they write. But by spelling out what Australia needs from new teachers they make it clear what they think teacher educators in universities are not delivering. “A first-rate curriculum without first-rate teachers serves little purpose in the drive to achieve the best educational goals for the benefit of the student, society, and the economy. It is clearly the key ingredient in all of the top performing countries, and Australia needs to make every effort to raise the status and capacity of our teachers.”

And to avoid ambiguity, they add what education faculties need to do, specifically training teachers in “skills in organisation of curriculum-related school activities within and outside the classroom. Teachers also need effective interpersonal skills and a reporting facility on student progress that relates meaningfully to parents, thus forming a partnership with parents and families of students to join students and teachers in the journey through the curriculum. We recommend that jurisdictions, universities, and sectors recognise the vital importance of this challenge and carefully study the many successful practices adopted internationally – particularly in Finland and the top performing Asian jurisdictions which have been the subject of our attention (particularly Singapore and Shanghai).”

Deans of Education, you have your instructions. Or at least one set – the optimists will be hoping the Craven committee endorses existing practise.

Rankings of the day

The National Taiwan University rankings, out yesterday, use scientific publications to assess an institution’s research productivity, impact and excellence, based on the Science Citation Index and Social Sciences Citation Index. The NTU says its indicators are “more objective” than “traditional” indicators, such as peer review or Nobel laureates. Gosh, who do you think that is a dig at? Whatever, there isn’t a rating around critics can’t claim is methodologically flawed or easily gamed. But for all their flaws everybody loves to know which institution is where in any rating. So in the NTU Australia has four in the top 100, Uni Melbourne (what a surprise) is first at 35, followed by Uni Sydney (37) Uni Queensland (56) and Monash at 87.

Fertile fields

The Australian Centre for Intellectual Property in Agriculture is holding an ANU workshop on Tuesday on open access, specifically whether the Rural Research and Development Corporations should follow the major funding agencies, in opening access to reports of publicly funded research. Australian Research Council chair Aidan Byrne will speak.

Call them customers

“Education and training institutions looking to innovate and bring new products to market find it difficult because talking about ‘customers’ is not in their language or DNA … Providers face a fundamental shift from talking about their ‘students’ to talking about their ‘customers” Acquire Learning’s John Wall will tell an investment conference today. Acquire says it puts prospective students onto training providers right for them and on available government assistance.

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