plus Marnie Hughes Warrington on timely ways to improve productivity

and Alan “the erudite” Finkel goals on innovation policy

A stone’s throw

Curtin University in Perth reports research that “giant ancient super volcanoes on the east coast threw rock right across Australia.” Blowing their tops about WA complaining about Commonwealth horizontal fiscal equalisation no doubt. 

More important than appears

Polls are closing today in the election for the NTEU Victorian state assistant secretary. It’s the sort of job that generally is filled by begging somebody to take it but this time the post was hotly contested. The union’s Victorian state secretary Colin Long endorsed Josh Cullinan, well known for his long enterprise bargaining battle at Swinburne U. However union leaders at RMIT, Monash, Federation U, La Trobe, Victoria U, UniMelb and Deakin U urged members to vote for anybody but him, suggesting being employed by a university is essential to the job and Mr Cullinan has never been. Observers of the Victorian branch suggest the campaign against Mr Cullinan is a proxy protest against Dr Long‘s focus on centralising campaign resources. Whatever the outcome, it is expected the poll will be declared late today.

Mon Aug 22

Soccer, its Icelandic for innovation

Chief Scientist Alan the erudite Finkel’s latest speech is his usual inspiring, engaging effort, explaining how Australia can create an innovation culture by looking to Iceland, specifically its soccer team, which in June knocked England out of the European League of Cup Winning Cup Qualifiers (or some such). Iceland built its soccer success by building infrastructure for the game, educating people about it, creating a culture that loved it and developing a plan for the game. Australia can create an innovation culture by doing the same, he said. “It is a business of maximising the potential for people to perform, through a combination of smart regulation and strategic investment,” he said. Another Finkel speech another policy goal kicked.

Time waits for no research grant

Research funding fights focus on who gets how much but Marnie Hughes Warrington points out there is another resource that could improve productivity – time. In her August essay on university cultures and management the ANU DVC points out the way research funds are allocated comes at an opportunity cost. Yes, she acknowledges 20 per cent funding rates (CMM thinks she means the NHMRC) are a big issue, but so are selection processes that can up to 12 months. “That’s nearly a whole year when staff do not know if their application will succeed, and they consequently cannot often commit themselves to other projects,” she writes.

“So while I support the current discussions on the need to cover the indirect costs of research, the decades-old timelines of research grant schemes also need to be put under the spotlight. Application volumes have increased dramatically, but the fine-grained milestones and technological solutions currently in place have not scaled well.”

The same problem can apply to teaching, she suggests, for example where a commitment to teaching out a course is set by the maximum completion time, which can take ten years.

Timelines seem a simple thing to complain about, but quicker release back to teaching and to other research activities—including commercial research—could only help productivity,” she concludes. Or as Benjamin Franklin put it, “time is money.”

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Prizes in Perth

Curtin U’s Kingsley Dixon is the WA premier’s scientist of the year, “in recognition of his efforts in conservation science, restoration ecology and plant science.” Scott Draper, from UWA is the Woodside Early Career Scientist of the Year for his work on offshore fluid mechanics and audiologist Christopher Brennan-Jones, also from the University of Western Australia is student scientist of the year.

Back and forward

CMM’s weekly award (ah, but which week (read on)?)  for writing clearly about the incomprehensible goes to Stephanie Beddo of Griffith U for her interview with Joan Vaccaro of the university’s Centre for Quantum Dynamics. Aspro Vaccaro has figured out how time flows, why it only goes forward and why everything did not stop at the Big Bang (no, not the one on TV). Read all about it for yourself here. As a bear of little brain CMM was baffled by it but when critics of the applied research agenda talk about the importance of leaving scholars to pursue theory this is exactly what they mean. This isn’t going to meet the government’s new definition of “innovation” as a synonym for “jobs”. Unless of course Griffith has a patent pending on a time machine.

Growing data

The WA Government is cooperating with Curtin and Murdoch universities to create a big-data agriculture research team led by Dr Simon Cook. Dr Cook is now working in Columbia, applying data analytics to agriculture. “The challenge is to translate the data availability into improved decision making capability, both on farm and within the supply chain. This is essential if agriculture is to keep ahead of increasing pressure to deliver food security, while maintaining the natural resource base,” he says.   Cook returns to Perth in October.

Winocur leaves BHERT

After eight years as executive director, Sharon Winocur is leaving the Business Higher Education Roundtable. BHERT‘s members include over half Australia’s universities and a range of major corporations. The group is chaired by Cisco ANZ VP Ken Boal. Anybody interested should ask Dr Winocur.

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Speak freely, not critically

Murdoch University’s existing enterprise agreement cites actions that may cause an “imminent and serious risk … to the reputation or financial interests of the university” in the serious misconduct policy but management now wants to toughen this up in the deal now being negotiated so that serious misconduct can cover; “the reputation, viability or profitability of the university.”

CMM wonders whether this could be used against a whistle-blower going public about misbehaviour in management and the National Tertiary Education Union has responded with a proposal for a new intellectual freedom clause applying to all staff. But Murdoch management is not having any of it, saying the academic freedom provisions in the existing agreement are protection enough. These allow academics to speak on their own areas of expertise, talk on other topics without purporting to speak for the university, teach and make controversial statements, as long as they do not harass, bully, defame or vilify anybody.

Good-o, but who says academic freedom will always come above the reputation, viability  or profitability of Murdoch, as perceived by a manager? Perhaps not the university officer who told academic Kate Fitch to delete a tweeted image of students protesting in support of asylum seekers (CMM February 29), (granted the demand was quickly withdrawn). And perhaps not chief operating officer Darren McKee who has told staff; “the university does not support the creation of the proposed new concept of ‘intellectual freedom’ because it believes the change seeks to create a right to publicly criticise our institution in a manner that could harm our collective reputation. Murdoch believes our agreement should never enable the university to be damaged.” On which basis then acting DVC (now provost) Andrew Taggart could be seen to have criticised Murdoch management when he publicly associated himself with Dr Fitch’s students and their protest (http://campusmorningmail.com.au/504267-2/ CMM March 4).

This sort of attitude isn’t unique to Murdoch, University of Melbourne administrators were keen on something similar – until their plans for a similar broad misconduct policy were dropped after staff criticism (CMM August 10). Murdoch management will brief staff at a “campus conversation forum” on enterprise negotiations on September 8.

Nurses’ aid

With employment in hospitals expected to grow by 15 per cent through to 2019, CMM suspects government talent scouts will be taking notes at the National Instruments 2016 autonomous robotics competition. The challenge for teams from 22 Australian and New Zealand universities is to, “complete tasks such as navigating to different rooms in a hospital setting to deliver medicine while avoiding various obstacles.” Finals are next month.

UoQ’s PPE degree

The University of Queensland’s teaching and learning restructure (CMM July 20) is underway with six new products, sorry degrees announced for next year. Three are in biomedicine and exercise physiology one is in criminology and there is a four-year “advanced humanities” degree. “Graduates will also be at the front line in a new generation of humanities postgraduate study,” UoQ assures us. There is also a long list of jobs humanities graduates can do, including “commentator” – now there’s occupation in demand.

UoQ is also introducing the classic qualification for ministers and mandarins, the bachelor of politics, philosophy and economics. CMM is a fan of the PPE and wonders why there are not more degrees for people who are interested in creating policy, rather than complaining about it. La Trobe launched one in 2012 with its students creating their own society in (CMM September 25 2014) 2014. Good for UoQ in also offering a PPE to undergraduates, which will provide a platform for understanding, explaining and making policy now often taught in fee-paying masters.

Overall the new courses conform to VC Peter Hoj’s focus on “graduate employability,” (which) “is our number-one priority and we want to ensure UQ graduates maintain a competitive advantage in the workplace at graduation,” (CMM July 20).

Raiding party

The California State U Golden Bears and the University of Hawaii Rainbow Warriors play the US college football season opener in Sydney on Saturday. UNSW is helping with training facilities. CMM suspects it is an elaborate ruse by the yanks to poach talent from the UNSW gridiron team, the Raiders. They have their season opener against the Nepean Ducks at Daceyville on September 10.

Scarred toothless

The National Health and Medical Research Council’s“ten of the best2015 projects is out, including research on brain cancer, lung development of premature babies and repairing injured heart cells. CMM is especially impressed with Jason Armfield from the University of Adelaide who has created a “dental anxiety scale” for those scared toothless by the prospect of the dentist. With an estimated one in seven of us deploring dentistry anything that reduces fear of the chair has to improve the nation’s pearly whites. This selection has nothing to do with CMM going to the dentist this afternoon.

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Recounts in VET

Just when the estimable National Centre for Vocational Education and Training has finally sorted out the stats for public and private training providers the feds call an inquiry into VET data management and reporting. Private providers are only recently incorporated into national reports, which took a good deal of effort and anxiety at the NCVER (CMM March 20 2015).

“It may be the experience of many stakeholders that current arrangements are satisfactory, and that changes may not be necessary to existing reporting arrangements,” the Department of Education and Training discussion paper suggests. And it may be that pigs will take up hang gliding. No industry can ever miss a free kick at data collection agency. Back to the database design NCVER.

Dolt of the day

Is CMM, who mangled his report on the South Australia scientists of the year awards. Alan Cooper was correctly reported as receiving the big gong. But Phiala Shanahan wasn’t nominated for the prize, she won the PhD research excellence award. Kieran Mitchell was also a nominee in that category. All are from the University of Adelaide.