Plus Birmingham takes on SA Labor and two new CRCs announced

Amusing imposts

CMM’s Colbert correspondent (as in Jean-Baptiste, not Stephen) reports the School of Taxation and Business Law @ UNSW (still ATAX to admirers) is hosting the Festival of Outrageous Tax Ideas on June 18-19 in Sydney. This sounds like a lot of fun to CMM, which may sound sad but the study of tax, why people do/don’t pay it, how best to minimise the hissing while maximising the goose feathers and so on, is much more interesting than just reading the salacious sections of the tax code. The conference will focus on how to get globals to pay up, rebasing consumption tax and “life the universe and income tax: CGT as 42”. Surely that last one is subject to the geek antique joke levy. Details here.

SA Simon steps up

CMM was wondering what federal training minister Simon Birmingham would do about the South Australian Government declaring TAFE a protected species and banning private providers from competing for the vast majority of training places, at least for a year. (CMM yesterday) On the one hand Senator Birmingham cannot afford to see the long-time coming competitive market ended by a state keen to prop up TAFE. On the other as a South Australian the minister would be conscious of local fury if he acted on suggestions to pull federal training money. Well, last night he put policy first, telling state minister Gail Gago; “(SA) Premier Weatherill willingly signed on to an agreement with then prime minister Gillard to give students and employers more choice, through a more equal availability of funding to support training places linked to job outcomes, regardless of who the training provider is.”

“I want to see every training dollar that is available to SA invested in SA but it must also be invested in a way that gets the best outcomes for students and employers,” the senator said.

And he added, “I am concerned that the funding arrangements announced by SA may be regressive and in breach of both the letter and the spirit of the funding agreement SA voluntarily entered into three years ago.”

There’s no threat, but I’m guessing one will follow unless the SA government revises the plan.

ANU new 3

Industrial-strength research

Ministers have told us for months they want universities and industry to cosy up and last night they told us again – with a proposal for “key actions” in the Boosting the commercial returns from research strategy. The focus would be on the oft-announced nine research priority areas (below) and the government would develop “simpler, more transparent research block grant arrangements.” Other news we have heard before is the Medical Research Future Fund is going ahead and that the research training review and research infrastructure review will have an industry focus.

The NHMRC and ARC will also “ensure rules for competitive grants appropriately recognise industry-relevant expertise or research.” Plus the tax discussion paper will address incentives for “collaboration with public research institutions.”

However ministers Ley (Health) Macfarlane and Pyne left the most intriguing, perhaps alarming for DVC Rs, to last. “The government will work with the research sector and industry to develop a plan to improve the assessment of the research system. This will include improved metrics on engagement and knowledge transfer with industry, research outcomes, and impact.”

How convenient for the feds (if not the Australian Research Council) that the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering has proposed a Research Engagement for Australia metric (CMM April 24). According to ATSE, it is possible to model research engagement with industry from existing data sets, (as opposed to using them to track scholarly excellence which is the ARC’s focus). This rather seems what the government has in mind.  I wonder if this can happen fast enough to take the gloss off the outcome of the Excellence for Research in Australia exercise now underway.

Key university groups were quick to make supportive noises last night; “Government statement on industry driven research hits the right issues. Challenge is to engage with all parties to deliver the outcome,” Conor King from the Innovative Research Universities tweeted last night. And while warning the lab rat is often in the stats, (or something along those lines) Anne Marie Lansdown from Universities Australia said it supported the government’s direction. Sensibly so, the question now is how much of the research budget will be tied to industry connections.

So good they announced them twice

Or even thrice. The prime minister announced the nine national research priorities last night: food, soil and water, transport, cyber security, energy, resources, advanced manufacturing, environmental change and health. What, the priorities Chief Scientist Ian Chubb proposed months back? Those are the ones. You don’t mean the areas the Commonwealth Science Council adopted at a meeting chaired by Mr Abbott? (CMM April 14 and May 11).The very same. (Perhaps officials thought we might have forgotten them.

Class counts
The National Tertiary Education Union is not a big collection of comrades but it is a grandly gutsy one, leading the successful charge against deregulation – which is why national president Jeannie Rea had a prominent pulpit at the ACTU Congress yesterday. She used it to predictable effect, telling  what they delegates what they agreed with and demonstrating how absolute is the NTEU’s faith in public sector provision of post school training and education.

Thus she condemned opening voced to private providers; “we unfortunately only have to look at the disaster of public TAFE taking on the contestability model to see what this could mean. In Victoria this ‘contest’ has just meant the hollowing out of cheap and popular courses by profiteers, while draining funding from the public TAFE system to the point of collapse.”

And she warns that universities must be saved from the same fate; “too much public investment has gone into our universities to squander it. And the TAFE system must be rescued, restored and strengthened. This is the role of government. Education is far too important to be left to the market.”

Because education changes individual lives and societies; “Over my lifetime we have moved towards a mass system. This has changed what we teach and research at universities – not just who studies and works there. Our mission must be to democratise knowledge, and the power that comes with knowledge.”

Good thing she did not mention class – ethnicity, sexuality and gender studies specialists would not have known what she was talking about.

Chubb + Pyne = agreement

Chris Pyne’s idea that maths should be compulsory in the final two years of school as part of a STEM strategy did not have all the experts cheering yesterday. Geoff Prince from the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute told ABC News Radio that it is a good idea, but there are not enough trained maths teachers now to cope with more students. RMIT maths educator Dianne Siernon said “a significant proportion of Year Eight students do not have the necessary pre-requisite knowledge and confidence to meaningfully proceed with secondary school mathematics.” And critics referred to an ABC story last September, which quoted Chief Scientist Ian Chubb as saying there is no point making senior school maths compulsory, “if it is not attractive.”

Quite so. But what wasn’t always mentioned was his qualification; he wants maths to be “so compellingly interesting,” kids are keen to enrol.

Which is probably why Professor Chubb issued a statement last night in which he restated “the position I have put forward many times: science and mathematics have to be so compellingly well taught that students will want to study them.” And to ensure we all got the point he also stated; “I support this initiative without reservation.”

Succession sorted

The other week Uni of Adelaide PVC R Robert Saint defected to Flinders after less than two years in the job (CMM May 18). Adelaide did not muck around, announcing one of its own, as successor yesterday. Paediatrics researcher and research policy specialist Julie Owens starts in a couple of weeks.

 Cheers for CRCs

More good news for the CRC Programme. Last week the Miles Review endorsed the programme, (although calling for an assessment of all operating CRCs) and Industry and Science Minister Ian Macfarlane made favourable noises about the Miles’ message. Then yesterday Mr Macfarlane used his keynote at the CRC Association conference to announce $74m for two new CRCs to run until early next decade. One is the CRC for Optimising Resource Extraction and the CRC for Innovative Manufacturing. Granted, the funds come from the programme’s diminished budget, but two new CRCs is a bunch better than the none announced last year.

Especially when there is no sign of a competitive round this year. The party line seems to be that as this is a job for the new programme committee (chaired by Philip Clark and including Ian Chubb), which will take time to settle in, bidders will have to wait. However there is still said to be a chance that the Grow North research project, which will happen, might be a CRC.

No pining for Chris

Remember back in December when now independent senator Glenn Lazarus would not talk to Christopher Pyne, no matter how often he was invited? Contrast that with yesterday, when the senator told ABC Radio’s AM he was sure Social Security Minister Scott Morrison would talk to him when he had time. “I’ve requested meetings. But look, I believe that they will come around. … I don’t think there’s any deliberate stuff going on. I just think that they’re very busy people and they will find time for me.” It’s policy now, unlike then.

Understanding the Pozible

Deakin University is losing DVC R Lee Astheimer after six years. VC Jane van den Hollander sets out many reasons why she will be missed, including the university’s ERA performance and ranking rises, specifically in ARWU. But for CMM’s money her best move was backing the Deakin team that built the crowd-funding model for small research projects via Pozible.

There’s a great example running now. Deakin infectious diseases researcher Mel Thomson needs $10 000 to make a video for prospective big donors on her work on bacterial infections. She raised $10 000 last year via Pozible for work on stopping infections that make replacing hips anything but.

So good for Professor Astheimer for backing a new funding stream that does not deliver ERA points but gets funding for young researchers. It is a model other universities should look to now and will have to embrace in the future as research demand grows faster than public funding supply. But what will Astheimer do next? CMM asked but she is not telling.