Plus Alan “frank” Finkel explains his objectives and tax incentives for innovation: no laughing matter

APP of the day

IT academic Insu Song and colleagues at James Cook U Singapore have developed a phone app that diagnoses pneumonia via patients breathing into a mobile. According to Dr Song, testing in Bangladesh demonstrated the app to be 180 times cheaper than a visit to a doctor there. Gates Foundation money has funded development to date but it’s time for commercial partners.

Campus Morning Mail

Oh those emails, yeah they were read

Western Sydney University VC Barney Glover has confirmed a Sydney Morning Herald story that the university monitored staff emails. In a message to staff yesterday Professor Glover asserted “university policy permits the checking of staff emails, but only in specific circumstances.” However – and it is a huge “however” – he added, that it has, “come to my attention that the emails of a very small number of staff have been checked without their knowledge.”

“I have instituted a formal review of these instances. In addition, I have directed that the university’s current policies and practices be reviewed to ensure they are clear and consistent with best practice, Professor Glover said.

“In the meantime, and until further notice, no staff emails will be checked without informing the staff members concerned”, (court requirements excepted).

CMM wonders whether staff members will be told before, or after their emails are read. Of course the email everybody will want to read is the one Professor Glover sent to the poor devil who advised him staff messages have been read. Unless the astute VC didn’t write anything down.


While the feds ponder how to rort-proof training it seems the market is responding to ample evidence of high prices for low value courses. Swinburne’s VET programmes took hits in recent years as for-profit trainers went after their customers but word is that its VTAC offers are up 13 per cent this year. As a celebrated “salty old dog” in Swinburne VET says, “the word is out on the privates … no one is touching them.” CMM assumes he is talking about for-profit trainers.


Frank Finkel

Just what is Chief Scientist Alan Finkel thinking? He keeps delivering content-rich speeches that are informed and entertaining. Perhaps he did not get the memo that speeches are supposed to take all available time to say nothing of substance but whatever the reason, yesterday’s effort will be giving mandarins the screaming meemies.

For a start, it was fun, who knew the light it took an ancient Babylonian 40 hours to pay for we get for half a second’s labour. It was ambitious for the power of science, urging us to ignore incremental improvements and embrace transformative change, energy-saving geopolymer cement and smart streets and cars were the examples he used. And it was brave, putting what he wants to achieve on the record.

Dr Finkel is working on the feds’ 15-year science and innovation plan and he signalled to his energy industry audience what he wants from them. “You would be very surprised if energy productivity doesn’t end up part of the mix. Just as I would be very surprised if you were not active contributors.”

He also made a case for very big-ticket research infrastructure kit, which will cheer up the research community, given he is leading the mapping of the country’s long-term infrastructure needs. “The national-scale research infrastructure roadmap that I will be leading is our chance to make sure we can keep pursuing opportunities like these. To generate big ideas – and get them to the market. At scale.” You would need to be in Babylonian darkness to miss the message, Dr Finkel is going to say what he thinks and have a go at delivering on his ideas.

Like CMM said, officials must be having attacks of the screaming meemies.

Send for a sub

“Re-designing the format of our articles to improve the reader expetience (sic) and to enable and encourage engagement with content” – journal giant Taylor and Francis, via Twitter yesterday. CMM is in no position to criticise anybody for poor proofing but then again T&F has an army of unpaid editors they could have asked to have a look.

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Macquarie dean departs

Macquarie University’s executive dean of business Mark Gabbott is giving it away. And as is customary when senior Macquarie people decide to move on the goodbye will not be long – he is leaving in the middle of March. His friends say Professor Gabbott wants a change after six years in lighthouse land. But CMM wonders whether he was disappointed by the faculty’s ordinary outcome in December’s Excellence for Research in Australia. The faculty, claims “a strong global focus, achieved through our research centres, research collaborations, a large number of quality PhD students, and a range of research projects that focus on global developments and local responses.”

All undoubtedly true, but what other researchers value is research ratings and Macquarie’s results were not up with the leaders in December’s ERA. The University of Melbourne had five “well above world standing” ratings UNSW four and UoQ three. In contrast, Macquarie U only managed three, “at world standard” and two “below”. Enough to dishearten any dean.

Basic research basically buggered

In yesterday’s Canberra Times Labor’s Kim Carr made an entirely reasonable case for funding basic research, regardless of any immediate practical application, because who thought work on X way back would lead to Y now (insert examples of choice). The senator has long said the same but with the National Innovation and Science Agenda perhaps the government’s most popular policy the argument for government leaving money on the lab bench and not asking what it will be used for is lost. At least while Malcolm Turnbull is in office. That’s the problem for scientists who think they are outside, or above, politics, politicians have other ideas.

An innovator, an entrepreneur and a policy wonk walk into a bar …

If you are looking for a stand-up comedy act don’t call the Innovative Research Universities lobby. But the IRU team is the people for you when there is a major policy proposal involving higher education on the table. As there is with options for tax treatment of investors under the National Innovation and Science Agenda.

The IRU suggests that if the government adopts a “principles approach” to determining whether an innovation company qualifies for a tax concession, it should include expansion beyond initial activities. It adds that “a better set of suitable factors” is needed to quality a company for access to a concession. And IRU supports the government proposal to follow the UK model and exclude financial and property services from concession access. But it rejects the idea of limiting access to tax incentives to “sophisticated investors,” lest it only extend the concession to established investors, “those who least need further incentives.”

This is an immensely important debate. Tax concessions might deliver money to research, or drain it away as smarties game the system, and other universities will surely buy into the argument. The IRU says its member, Flinders U, will propose creating public companies to house spin-off investments in a separate submission. But the IRU, as usual, is early with a debate setting analysis.


Tell TAFE it’s dreaming

A report in The Australian yesterday stated the government is considering funding a VET loan system where students in courses that meet the economy’s needs would be able to access the most money.

CMM hears the public training lobby thinks this is a splendid idea. Governments are much easier lobbied to enrol students that fit TAFE capacity than having to match the market. It certainly fits into Labor shadow minister Kim Carr’s proposal for soft caps on university enrolments, to limit graduate numbers in over-supplied occupational areas.

But it isn’t going to happen. For one thing people who want to train for a career know what they want to do far better than the government. And for another, new training minister Scott Ryan would be mad to be locking into any proposal just yet. As the senator said in Question Time yesterday, six days after being sworn in is a bit early for making major policy. CMM suspects any time before the election will be too early.