Plus Ian Macfarlane leads the winners of the week

“Anybody seen my keys?”

Scientific American reports researchers in Israel, “close in on creating Black Hole in Lab.”

Not much industrial strength research

Now that applied research is all the go what will happen to the whimsical researchers who potter around labs investigating whatever takes their theoretical fancy? Not much, basically because there aren’t many of them. For all the talk about a need for universities to focus on applied research with real-world outcomes, this is pretty much what government has funded for yonks. A very general look at Australian Research Council grants by discipline type shows that insofar as discipline codes can distinguish between applied/pure research the dreaming spires are empty. In 1992 some 79 grants went to pure science projects, rising to 91 in 2013. In comparison, apparently practical STEM projects rose from 820 or so to just above 900 – over half the total in both years. In contrast HASS grants were stable at 25 per cent across the period.

But surely industry is increasingly keen to get academics working on sensible projects. Um, not so much. In 2003 Australian and international companies and industry groups were partners in 35 per cent of Linkage projects. In 2011 business was involved in 33 per cent of 892.


Potential winner picked

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane nominates “medical technologies and pharmaceuticals as a national research priority, which surely means he will be pleased indeed with an announcement yesterday from the Queensland medical consortium, the Translational Research Institute. On the basis of stage one trials of Professor Ian Frazer’s vaccine for the genital herpes simplex virus HSV2, “there is hope the vaccine will result in a “functional cure”, where the virus is cleared from the bloodstream, dramatically reducing the threat posed by the virus.” Yes, that Ian Frazer, creator of the cervical cancer vaccine. I give it to lunchtime before the Medical Research Future Fund Action Group starts quoting this announcement as a reason to give their members the $20bn promised in the budget.

Grubby messages

University of Sydney literature professor Barry Spurr, retained to assess English by the federal school curriculum review, allegedly sent emails from his university account which disparage all sorts of people on the basis of gender and ethnicity. Somebody got hold of the mails and sent them to online publication New Matilda, which yesterday published a story including comment from Professor Spurr. The university issued a statement quick smart last night that it “is deeply disturbed by reports offensive emails were sent by a member of its academic staff from a university account. … racist, sexist or offensive language is not tolerated at the University of Sydney.” Uni Sydney added it is investigating to determine if there is a breach of its code of conduct. It had no alternative, the story led PM last night and by this morning it was all over social media, print and and broadcast media.

Golden age

The Brookings Institute is running a promotional clip for its Millions Learning project featuring project co-director Julia Gillard. It’s a reminder of what a hit she was as education minister.

Winners of the week

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane did well this week, announcing his Industry Growth Centres. Granted the last Labor government had a sort-of similar idea and the Cooperative Research Centres do the same sort of thing. But the announcement gave Mr Macfarlane an opportunity to hammer away at the need for applied research and academic-industry engagement. Mr Macfarlane also undoubtedly enjoyed announcing the Prime Minister’s Science Council, including some very senior scientists, Brian Schmidt and Ian Frazer, for example, if only because complaints that there is no science minister stopped for a while. It was a couple of hours at least before people started complaining two meetings a year is not enough.

Chief Scientist Ian Chubb also had a win. The PMSC includes no policy people; the ARC’s Aidan Byrne and NHMRC’s Warwick Anderson are both notably absent. This ensures that when it comes to putting the council’s ideas into action the chief scientist is exactly that.

It was Vicki Thomson’s last big week – one of many as executive director of the Australian Technology Network, which she left yesterday. Ms Thomson is erudite, astute and energetic, the ATN’s presence in the policy debate has had a great deal to do with the way she worked well with member VCs. She will be back in early January at the Group of Eight, where she will no doubt do it again.

Physicist Tanya Monro’s also had a great week, extending her status beyond the lab and into policy, with her appointment to the PM’s council. It caps a great few months for Professor Monro; she was poached from the University of Adelaide to become the University of South Australia’s DVC research and was appointed by SA premier Jay Weatherill to the state’s economic development board.

And then there is Andrew Norton, perhaps the most influential higher education policy thinker outside government. On Monday he released his new Grattan Institute report on the state of higher education, the indispensable guide every cross bench senator should consult before voting on deregulation. It included an analysis of graduate incomes, showing that the ATN is level pegging with the Group of Eight but after that there is daylight. Will this upset various lobbies? Too right, but that’s the thing about Mr Norton, he only reports what the stats show.



There is such a thing as a free lecture

Yesterday five Monash students locked themselves to a ladder in the chancellery as part of a National Union of Students protest demanding VC Margaret Gardiner  “resist Abbott government attempts to impose US-style fees on university students.” Greens leader Christine Milne was impressed indeed by this, tweeting, “Monash uni students take a stand for free education. Keep up pressure on Tony Abbott to stop making life harder for students.” I’m guessing Minister Pyne will be quoting the bit about “free education” before long.

Work it out

This is why you never let administrators near the customers. Monash is promoting its “domestic full-fee calculator for 2015.” No, they do not know what the Senate will decide; I’m guessing “domestic” refers to international students studying at Monash’s local rather than offshore campuses. Even so it will be easily updated for deregulation. This is a splendid idea until you use it. It starts ok, anxious undergraduates insert start year, course type and faculty then they specify a degree. They then get a table showing credit points, equivalent fulltime student load and fee. However to learn the credit points a link takes them to the student handbook, but the homepage not the course – at which point I gave up trying to find out what medicine would cost.

Monash has more marketing minions than Felonius Gru and they should have a look at this – when trying to take money off people it helps to make it clear what products cost.