Plus the most interesting research in the world

Kick Chris quick

In the social media equivalent of attaching a “kick me” sign to Education Minister Pyne’s bottom the Education Department has created a Facebook page to carry the “facts about higher education” campaign. And what a surprise, the comments that appear are not complimentary. You can get the drift of the ones the bureaucrats removed from the department’s comment, “This Facebook account has been created to help answer questions people might have about the current higher education system or point them in the direction of correct information. We appreciate differing views, (but) … if your post violates our terms of use, we reserve the right to remove it.” There must be a whole bunch of removing going on.

ANU tap into

Cash injection

There was anesthetised applause yesterday for the government’s revised plan to pay for the Medical Research Future Fund, basically because the medical establishment’s preferred position is that Canberra should kick in the $20bn required, preferably before Christmas. But still some new money, wherever it comes from, is better than none and the Group of Eight was not churlish about the cash. According to the chair of the eight’s deans of medicine Bruce Robinson (University of Sydney), “we must remember that the goal of medical research is to improve people’s health. In the long run this investment will alleviate suffering and save the community money.” Spot the flaw in that argument. Short of us all becoming immortal there will always be diseases to work on and medical researchers warning that more money is needed. There is also another affliction that affects the MRFF for which there is no cure, honeypot syndrome. Just suppose the new co-payment plan passes the Senate and stays in place for a few years, by when it amounts to a few billion or so. What’s the chance that a government with a budget emergency, regardless of party, will leave it untouched? Somewhere between Professor Buckley and Dr None is my guess. Remember the Howard Government’s Higher Education Endowment Fund (2007), which morphed into the Rudd Government’s Education Investment Fund (2009) – gone to gowing’s both as government discovered more pressing needs.

Outstanding alliteration admired

This week’s award goes to the University of the Sunshine Coast for “USC may have cracked the koala chlamydia conundrum.” Respect.

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Relevant research

Next time some minor minister (morning, Jamie Briggs) wants to poke fun at academic research he should have a look at Altmetrics list of the top 100 articles this year that generated attention among reptiles of the press and in social media. Because there are a bunch of articles that are important and interesting for the way we live now. Like number one, on “massive scale emotional contagion through social networks” which generated 300 news stories, ten peer reviews and 340 Facebook posts. And number 50, by J P Iannidis, “How to make more published research true,” on making lab results reproducible. Not to ignore the last one listed, which explored “the relationship between wedding expenses and marriage duration.” Inevitably there is a bias towards what a mass audience can understand, which reduces the listings for super serious science. However the list demonstrates how research reflects, and indeed drives, life – and death. There are five scholarly papers on Ebola. But for serendipitous research it is hard to beat V Hart and colleague’s paper in Frontiers in Zoology, “Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field,” which was peer reviewed six time and generated 2660 tweets. No I have no idea what its popularity means or whether anybody will attempt to commercialise it. But it certainly explains the weird behaviour of dogs I know.

Unskilled, wrong skilled

There are some scary stats in a new report on education and training participation among 15-19 year olds from the estimable National Centre for Vocational Education Research. Scary stat number one is that 81 per cent of them are in education and training. Certainly many, well some of the remainder will be working full-time – but they are unlikely to be in jobs that are the foundation of a working lifetime. The brutal truth is that 19 per cent of young people are on the edge of the abyss of poverty and powerlessness, of a life on welfare, which is no life to speak of.

Scary stat number two is the way VET is sliding in status with young people. Between 2009 and 2011 the number of people in higher education increased by 15 per cent, to 311 000, while the comparable figure for apprentices and trainees declined 16 per cent to 84 000. Overall the number of publicly funded VET students in the age group is static at around 450 000, although the figure dropped 7 per cent between 2012 and 13 to 453 000. This is also very bad news – and not just of the “we need plumbers more than media studies graduates” kind. Higher education is not the right path for everybody but it is becoming the only one young people think will provide a career. If this continues it will unbalance the economy and waste the potential of you people who take paths that do not suit them.

Self taught

Dutch researchers are examining “the employability of professional bachelors”. Who knew being single was a higher education qualification. I thought it was a competency.


Trade secrets

The day after the Office of Learning and Teaching announced the 2014 awards for university teaching to the academic community it finally released the details to the taxpayers who fund the programme. Brydie Leigh-Bartleet from Griffith U is teacher of the year for her work in music learning and teaching, notably with First Peoples. The award is worth $75 000 for programme development. Paul Ramsden, “architect” of the Course Experience Questionnaire won the lifetime achievement award. The overall swag was split as follows;

Queensland: CQU (one), Griffith (three), QUT (two) UoQ Business School (one), UofQ (two)

NSW: CSU (one), Newcastle (two), UNE (one), UNSW (three) UofSydney (one)

ACT: ANU (one)

Victoria: Deakin (one)

WA: Curtin (one), Murdoch (two)

Inspired assurance

University of Western Sydney DVC R Scott Holmes is keen to encourage consultancies and is promising staff funding support for consulting, “significantly reduced” overhead loading on consultancies, the ability to roll over consulting income from year to year and continuing support from the research office. And thene there is the call to arms “I am clear that by the application of our expertise to real-world challenges in this way we have a great opportunity for genuine and significant positive impact.” Inspirational, up to a point.

PETAA steps up

The Primary English Teachers Association of Australia is at pains to assure us its new research grant is not at Australian Research Council scale. Even so, $75 000 is fair swag for a professional association to allocate annually for research on teaching primary English. And as a statement of the profession’s commitment it is an antidote to suggestions that teachers are always responsible for everything commentators complain about.

Accounting for autopsies

Rodney Phillips, now at Oxford, will return to Australia after 30 years to become new dean of medicine at the University of New South Wales. In addition to being head of finance and physical capital in Oxford’s medical science division he is also is co-director of a viral pandemic research unit. A killer counter as it were.