It will take more than ANU

Settled science

Professor Ruth Bishop received the Florey Medal for biomedical research at a Parliament House ceremony last night and it was the location that gave Sarah Farnsworth on ABC Radio’s PM program the chance to either have a gratuitous go at the government or stick up for science, depending on what each listener thought. She pointed out the science minister would not be attending – because the government did not have one. Farnsworth then threw to a previous Florey Medallist, Professor Peter Colman from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. “I expect that everyone will be watching the new government a little more closely to be sure that what appears a bad signal does not in fact end up as any kind of attack on the science endeavour of the country.”  I suspect many in the science community have already made up their minds. And in the media. Ray Martin chipped in about the five minute mark on Q and A last night to say we lacked a science minister – ignoring Education Minister Chris Pyne’s point that Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane has the brief. Mr Pyne was obviously too modest that bits of his universities patch cover science as well.

Astute advice

Chief Scientist Ian Chubb has just appointed an advisory group to advise him on STEM education, a subject I suspect he suspects will be dear to the hearts of ministers Macfarlane and Pyne when they get around to science. It’s an astute group of people with researchers, teachers and industry experts all included. Monash chancellor and regular technology commentator Alan Finkel is a member  as is Brian Schmidt and ACARA chief Robert Randall. There is even a teacher, a group often overlooked when the powerful pontificate on schools, Anita Trenwith, winer of the 2102 award for science teaching excellence.

They just couldn’t resist it

The headline of the day goes to the University of Newcastle for its announcement of a project storing the genomes of near extinct frog species. “Great leap forward”.

Changing times for training 

New statistics from the estimable National Council for Vocational Education Research demonstrate employers grumble about training but still think it is doing an ok job. Between 2011 and this year the number of employers using the VET system dropped 4 per cent, to not much more than half. Those employing apprentices and trainees are also fewer, by a similar figure to a touch more than a quarter.  While the number of employers with apprentices and trainees is down 3 per cent (to 27 per cent) but unaccredited training is not increasing. Satisfaction with the relevance and quality are both down as well but still sit above three quarters of consuming employers. And the public system cops the criticism with private providers having a 6 per cent lead over TAFE on quality facilities and training relevance. Admittedly, this is not as bad as it seems – some 90 per cent of employers with staff attending TAFE think well of the system.
There are however two sets of numbers that demonstrate a disconnect between providing the education and training for the people industry needs. A third of employers report difficulties in finding staff, and half say it is because of a lack of people with industry skills. And a third of employers reported they had jobs requiring vocational qualifications, down 3 per cent in just two years.

Comrades of the press

In Sydney (the city that is) the deal doers don’t care where you went to university or how you made your money (as long as it isn’t ICAC-able) and there is nothing they like more than cosying up to the next sure thing. Which may account for the popularity of the University of Sydney China Studies Centre, which lists all sorts of bankers and businesses as friend and associates. The Centre is hosting a seminar today on issues and investment opportunities in sustainable energy, transport, water and agriculture which all sound potentially profitable. Its Chinese media partners BQ magazine and the online Peoples Daily will surely cover the event. The former is a glossy politics-business magazine which is doing what its Australian equivalents can’t – stay in business. As to the latter, which launched in March – is it a regional edition of the Chinese Communist Party’s paper of that name? Just asking.

ANU exceptionalism

Rushing headlong into last week ANU has finally posted Brian Schmidt’s immensely well-received address of last Thursday, “The future of ANU and its role in Canberra”. Professor Schmidt’s argument that the ANU, funded by the feds must be in the world top 20 in all its research areas was all but universally applauded on the night, and since. Yesterday Vice Chancellor Ian Young agreed, telling the Australian Financial Review that without change ANU would struggle to be as good as the other Group of Eight institutions, let alone offshore institutions.  So what’s with the refreshing frankness? The VC’s plan to free up ANU resources for research is what. Early last year Professor Young talked tough about cutting costs and heads, upsetting just about everybody at ANU. Since then he has adopted a consensual and conciliatory approach, making the case for freeing up funds by administrative savings.  But while the process is well handled no retrenchments have occurred yet nor under-performing research programs shut down. When the hard stuff starts you can bet the VC will be pointing to Professor Schmidt’s lecture as explaining why it is necessary.

 Oh yes, that other one

As ANU goes so goeth Canberra. Professor Schmidt also argued that, “ANU faces the real threat of losing its status as Australia’s premier research university as we move towards sameness in the sector. And if that happens, the argument for the very existence of a national university is undermined.” Which would, he did not need to state, be very bad news indeed for Canberra. It’s a point we have heard before, from Stephen Parker who runs the city’s other university and knows that survival requires change. In his Don Aitken lecture he argued, “that the commonwealth public service now has only a contingent commitment to Canberra and that the way to secure its presence is lifting the education on offer there; “if we are going to remain a government town we must also be an education city. We need Canberra’versity, but we aren’t obviously doing much deliberately about it” Perhaps not quite what professors Young and Schmidt have in mind but still there is no faulting Parker for working with what he has.
And taking every opportunity to promote it. Yesterday he instagramed congratulations to the University of Canberra community on the 45th anniversary of its founding. I’m sure staff were pleased.

 No rush to the barricades

Having voted for industrial action the Murdoch University branch of the National Tertiary Education Union is holding a meeting tomorrow to discuss details. It will be interesting to see how many people turn up and what they decide, because it seems members are not all that keen on a full-scale strike. Apparently, by far the most popular actions put to union members in the recent ballot were an overtime ban, a ban on professional development activity and no participation in student recruitment events (all supported by 80 per cent of the poll). These votes accounted for around 10 per cent of the university’s staff.

Golden west gongs 

The longish short list for the Western Australian scientists of the year awards is out. Inevitably there are mining researchers and astronomers, two big -ticket fields in the west, but they do not exclude other disciplines. My favourite is Ryan Loxton from Curtin University, who is working on “computational optimisation,” which is determining the best operational strategy from all the options in everything from cancer chemotherapy to fleet vehicle management. Nominees are evenly divided between the University of Western Australia (seven) and Curtin (five). Edith Cowan University is also represented.

Deep impact

I am nowhere near smart enough to follow the research metrics debate – it beats me why most of the participants are not writing trading programs for banks, it would be easier, albeit less ethical work. But I am bright enough to see the imminent demand to extend citation measurement to account for readership and application of research in social media as impact becomes an issue. The University of Southern Queensland’s Pat Loria proposes what to do when it does. Writing in the London School of Economics social sciences blog he suggests creating impact management systems, which, “will incorporate outputs and impacts, harvesting metadata from human resources systems, research management systems, institutional repositories and impact monitoring services.” “The aim of the IMS is to collect research activity data that can be interpreted and weaved into variations on a theme for internal, external and public audiences,” he writes.  The arguments over inputs, outputs and impacts will be fascinating but very, very complicated.