plus Swinburne’s star system

our no education election

and researchers stay in their silos

A for (wasted) effort

The National Union of Students election scorecard is out and what a surprise, The Greens rate best, with only one failing grade – a D for “ability to implement change”. That’s the only category the Libs get an A for. What, change like Christopher Pyne’s deregulation plan?

Comfortable in silos

Ask anybody with an ARC grant and they will tell you that interdisciplinary research is the go, over the phone, from their silo. And no the evidence isn’t anecdotal, not now that ANU biologists Lindell Bromham, Russell Dinnage and Xia Hua have analysed 18,476 proposals for Australian Research Council Discovery Grants over five years. In a paper published in Nature this morning they report using a methodology from evolutionary biology to find; “the greater the degree of interdisciplinarity, the lower the probability of being funded.” This applies across all applications, between different disciplines and the Group of Eight and others, “the overall patterns of interdisciplinarity scores and success rates are similar across institutions,” they write.

The reasons why research assessors are not keen on research by people from different disciplines are well known, outcomes are not as precise as those of work with a narrow focus, research projects may not produce as many articles in peer reviewed journals and it can be hard to explain. But the authors suggest their methodology offers a means for research agencies to identify “highly interdisciplinarity proposals that might require special evaluation strategies, such as seeking reviewers who have experience in research spanning multiple fields.”

But perhaps nobody will be worried in the brave new word of researcher-industry interaction. A company with a problem does not care if a biologist and physicist cooperate, as long as they fix it.

And about time too!

Christ’s College at the University of Cambridge has elected ANU law professor Jane Stapleton the first female master in its 500-year history. Her husband Peter Crane, also an ANU law professor is accompanying her to Cambridge, where he will teach.


The no education election

The election offers Australians a choice between “market mayhem or public accountability” in post-compulsory education according to the National Tertiary Education Union. “The deregulation of VET has shown that education is far too important to be left to the market,” national president Jeannie Rea says. As for higher education, the Libs have not abandoned deregulation. “The government’s plans for flagship courses create the perfect environment for $100 000 degrees.”

Ah, $100k degrees, they were the foundation of the NTEU’s brilliant campaign that was fundamental to the defeat of Christopher Pyne’s deregulation plan but this time not so much, with post school education off the electorate’s agenda. Yes, Labor spokesman Kim Carr has run a largely positive campaign and goes to the poll with two big ideas, an independent higher education regulator and a Commonwealth polytechnic network. However leader Bill Shorten has mainly stayed silent on VET and higher education, beyond the occasional denunciation of deregulation. Same with Malcolm Turnbull, who mentioned flagship courses, but that was about it. While spokesman Robert Simms has called for increased spending on everything education Greens grownups have not been vocal. Yesterday the party announced the National Council approved priorities for the next parliament, “including any negotiations that might follow the election” and stopping course fee deregulation was not among them.

In part our no education election is down to minister for invisibility Simon Birmingham who has skilfully kept the issue off the agenda. But CMM suspects it is mainly because both major party leaders want to keep the bad news on HECs hikes until after the election.

Genetics and all that jazz

Researchers from Kings College London and the University of New Mexico have surveyed English school students to find genetic factors influence choice of subjects for senior school exams, as well as achievement. To an extent this is due to success in previous study, which can be down to DNA, but lead author Kaili Rimfeld and colleagues wonder whether subject choice “is governed by appetites as well as by achievements.” The authors warn that “hereditary does not imply immutability” but even so the idea of a gene that drives people to study jazz is an unsettling idea.


Worries at Western Sydney

While winter has arrived people at Western Sydney University worry cold winds of change are coming. The university council has just held a planning day, where Vice Chancellor Barney Glover’s five-year plan was on the agenda. This involves big capital investments and DVC R Scott Holmes also says a “significant investment” is necessary if the university is to “remain competitive” in research. Good-o, the university is not carrying much debt, around $65m, and its 5.1 per cent operating income in 2015 compared well to other NSW universities so funding growth should be possible.

Except that operating income this year is not as strong as anticipated, an unexpected drop in enrolments last semester was a shock to the financial system leading to a 2 per cent “expenditure restraint” being imposed in April. And the university was still struggling last year with an expensive administration, spending 31 per cent of income on non-academic employee expenses, making it fourth of ten in in the state. Optimists suggest management is doing a micawber hoping something in the way of savings will turn up in the backend change process, Service Unlimited, which launched at the start of the year. Pessimists wonder whether, with Professor Glover now at UWS for a couple of years, it’s time for a university wide restructure.

MOOC of the day

QUT digital media experts Jean Burgess, Alex Bruns and Tim Highfield  offer a three-week MOOC, on social media analytics, “how can you tap into social media conversations and discover what’s being said about the things that matter to you.” When they say ‘social media’ they mean Twitter. It starts on July 18 via Future Learn.

Swinburne’s star system

Swinburne DVC Research Aleksandr Subic is spending up on staff, again. Since arriving from RMIT last year he has hired five research heavy- lifters signalling the areas he expects to move the university up the research rankings (CMM June 6). Now he is hiring directors and deputies to run Swinburne’s five research institutes.

The firmament these stellar achievers will fit into is based on applied research, mainly in health and STEM sciences and with an emphasis on postgrad- industry engagement, “through research projects, joint ventures and placements.” A graduate certificate in research and innovation management will be embedded in the PhD programme “to provide all our students with a foundation in entrepreneurship and innovation.” This extends the Work Integrated Learning approach for undergraduate degrees announced last year (CMM June 22 2015).

The plan is as expensive as it is important to Swinburne’s future, which Professor Subic recognises by betting his career on its success by 2020. Yes, one of the metrics can mean whatever Swinburne wants it to mean; “our key disciplines in focus areas will be rated in the top 100 in the world,” on which rating, pray? But there are hard targets; “all our research will be rated above world standard, (referring CMM assumes from the specific phrase, to the Australian Research Council’s performance review) and “50 per cent of our research income will come from industry and business” and “at least” 200 higher degree research students will be collaborating with industry and university partners offshore.

Ambitious stuff, but one thing puzzles CMM. The plan mentions astronomy is one of Swinburne’s “main strengths”. But that’s it – so where does astronomy fit in the plan(?), unless it doesn’t.


No one’s in the money

Checked your super balance lately? Don’t. CMM did the other day and found UniSuper had generated enough income this financial year to pay for a long lunch, as long as nobody ordered a second bottle. This is not the fund’s fault, what with market growth being less low than subterranean. But if you do want to know how you are going compared to your peers UniSuper has a new tool that does it – with added advice on how to budget better. No, it did not cheer CMM up.