Reflections on the Budget – 2014

In every battle, there comes a point when the grinding of teeth, stomping of feet and name calling – the fun bit – has to end.  Reaching that point doesn’t mean They’re right, but rather that one is getting down to the business of the battle, channelling one’s efforts into something that will make a difference.  That first phase is just as important as the second – it’s where you build up the outrage, the energy-in-motion of emotion, to burn as fuel for those efforts. Linger there too long, however, and you’re likely to find yourself still holding the grenade when it goes off.  Continue reading

So When in Doubt, Go the Gratuitous Pole Dancer shot??

The Oz's caption?: Federal research policy is poles apart from what's needed" - see the attached pdf for the "gymnastic" encore

The Oz’s caption?: “Federal research policy is poles apart from what’s needed” – see the attached pdf for the “gymnastic” encore

Pole Dancer version

UPDATE:  12:35pm 8 AUGUST 2013  in the processing of posting this story, it has become apparent that The Australian has decided there was a better photo option to accompany their story: check out the thumbnail at via the Higher Education home page  http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education. While pleased with this outcome, I’m still including the original photo and caption included, if only to prove I’m not making this up…..

Maybe it’s because it’s National Science Week, when we celebrate the importance of science and the multitude of fields in which our relatively small country has consistently produced some of the world’s best and brightest.

Or because, for the first time, Australia’s most senior minds in higher education, science and innovation have come together to call for a non-partisan support for science and research, to avoid the very real danger of not only wasting our nation’s talent, but falling behind our region and the rest of the world.

Maybe it’s because only last week, The Australian sought and ran an opinion piece by one of this country’s most respected and important scientists, the President of the Australian Academy of Science, Professor Suzanne Corey, on why we need more women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Or because one of the few things the major parties can agree on is that science and research is the key to Australia’s future economic security and prosperity.

But when our only national newspaper accompanied a story on calls for an increase in public sector spending on R&D with an illustration like this, I was amazed. Not angry, not disappointed, not even cynically weary – not then anyway. Flabbergasted, yes; checking I hadn’t accidentally landed on a satirical site run by The Chaser boys or the Gruen Transfer team, absolutely.

That a Higher Education feature on a policy – and a perfectly well-written piece at that – could attempt to reinforce its message regarding the disparity between the current and proposed funding levels with a pun in its caption that my 14 year old nephew would be ashamed by, is wrong on so many levels. “Poles apart”, really? A “more gymnastic approach to spending”??  Just to work in a stock photo from a corporate stablemate of three perfectly pleasant, healthy and quite possibly science-minded pole dancers.

Maybe our problem is not the limitations of funding, science talent, or public policy – maybe it’s an Australian media better suited to working on Mad Magazine or covering Anthony Wiener’s text message debacle than the issues that really affect our country. That seem to think the Australian public needs a little FHM to be induced to read the “boring bits” between the headline and the sports pages.

Because with coverage like this in what claims to be Newspaper of the Year, it’s not just our science literacy that needs work by Science Week 2014.

Superman Squared?

Today is the day “Superman” is available for the masses in Australia (as opposed to yesterday, when it was open to everyone with time to queue). And while I’m a big fan of the original movie and Henry Cavill as Christopher Reeve’s true successor, there is another contender for the title, albeit not filling the suit in a Cavill-ish way.

The position of Australia’s Chief Scientist has been filled by some remarkable people since its inception, but it’s questionable whether one has ever been more suited to their time than Professor Ian Chubb AC. At the outset, I freely admit I have never had the pleasure of meeting the gentleman personally, nor do I or would I pretend to be qualified to comment on his abilities as a scientist, researcher or educator. That he is accomplished in all of these fields is probably necessary to even be considered for Chief Scientist, but it’s not really what the position, in my humble little opinion, is really about.

We all know the sciences – in their broadest, most classically encompassing sense of the word – are essential for increased productivity, good citizenship, and all those other wonderfully comforting words that get trotted out in media releases and policy forwards.  We know that innovation is good, stagnation is bad, and our kids are more capable than some countries and less than others, depending on whether the media/Minister in question is wanting to frighten us or applaud themselves at the time. But nothing ever seems to happen.  Sure we print some flyers, write some discussion papers, call a talkfest – sometimes we even participate rather than just sitting back nodding (or blogging), but what actually changes? What action results? What do you, or I, actually take responsibility for doing?

I was involved in the Queensland Smart State Initiative and, while I’m not commenting on the what/when/how/why/who of it, it was one of the most fulfilling times of my career. Not because we got it right – who can say what “right” is – but because policy makers, scientists, industry, idea creators and the public were all getting together and making things happen. For better or worse, people were prepared to try new ways of partnering, new ways of supporting industry, new ways of encourage employment and developing answers.

I’m not saying the whole Smart State initiative was some utopian experience – that’s the *last* thing I would say, politically or Politically or in any other way – but if we are going to continue to write merely position papers and print flyers or worse, leverage the discussion to better our own hobby horse be it in a public forum or as a consulting opportunity, we take hypocrisy to whole new levels and create an irony in our discussing “innovation” that could well disrupt the space time continuum.

Which is where our alternate, slightly shorter Superman comes in. Professor Chubb could, like many “political” appointees” could have contented himself to a program of consultation with the regular faces, drafting a broad motherhood-type strategy and then spending the rest of his term spruiking the importance of ideas to multiple lunches and dinners in paragraphs that are barely shuffled but warmly received.

Instead, Professor Chubb dares to challenge our complacency – he even uses the word. He points out the uncomfortable – the staggering number of departments with responsibility for science-related issues, just at a federal level; the reality that as a nation, as funders, we can’t do all things for all people; that what people want to study as post-graduate and doctoral levels as a matter of purely personal choice is in no way an indication of the areas in which Australia and it’s employers actually need advanced knowledge.

Make no mistake, he is no radical; it’s just that his common sense, delivered with the certainty that comes from actually listening rather than hearing what supports a pre-determined decision, is so unlike what we have become accustomed to hearing that it takes one by surprise. It may not be what one wants to hear, and the reaction may be to get defensive of one’s own patch of turf, but someone has to point out that not only has the Emperor got no clothes, he’s got a lot of the department store stocking his namesake range. 

That we can’t all have what we want is never a popular message. Nor is it comforting to hear that competition is not only real, but important in surviving and thriving. That is as true for science, science-related funding and innovation as it is for the viewers of nature documentaries and, yes, superhero films. Afterall, you never see Superman sitting down with the villian du jour saying, “I tell you what, you tried hard: I’ll give you this side of Metropolis, but I’m keeping the rest and Lois Lane – don’t tell Batman”.

Choices and Priorities. They are real, and they are definite, and there is no point having them if you’re not going to play by them. By all means, let’s have a process of discussing around setting them that is extensive and participatory, but not everything can be on the “A” List. 

And keep an eye out for the silver-haired superhero in the dark-navy suit. He may not have a cape – he may not need one – and sure, there may be some property damage along the way, but he may just be the man to save the day.

Image

 

The Discussion Paper launched by the Chief Scientist as part of the development of a overarching strategy for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in Australia is available on-line as a pdf.  For more information on the Chief Scientist’s statements, please see the website of Australia’s Chief Scientist or the article in The Australian today titled Chief Scientist Ian Chubb blasts complacency

Maths and Science Education Symposium

Interesting discussion at “The Conversation” on Maths and Science Education live streamed on the web today, interesting on many levels not least of which is the number of different perspectives on approaching the topic (and yes, some of them tended towards “my way”, but most were academics with grants to support). I’m sure The Conversation will have coverage of it for those who want to follow through, but for me the quote of the day belongs to Professor Ian Chubb AM, Chief Scientist of Australia (pictured below, photo courtesy of The Conversation’s twitter posting):Image“We’ve been talking about this for a while but as I get older, I’m getting less patient with inaction”

Rough Week?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a rough week – one of those weeks where you tell yourself to get over yourself cos it’s not like you’re in Syria, but then feel so bad for the Syrians that you feel worse because you’re the kind of person who compare themselves to the Syrians struggling to survive to make themselves feel better. Yeah, one of those weeks.

And I know I just finished posting that I was going to stay away from Politics, but they’re not helping. Doesn’t break the pledge to admit that, though, because it’s apolitically pathetic – seriously, THESE are the people that supposedly represent us, that are leading us towards the future?!?! Both sides, all levels, seem to be in serious need of a long time-out and cutting back on the sugar before bed-time, and being inundated with their so-called “policy positions” is not exactly inspiring one towards constructive thinking or action. And while one can (and this one freely admits she does) do your best to avoid what passes for news, it can leave one siding with Charlie Brown:  “AAAAUUUUUUGGGHHHH!!!” 

Of course, it’s not just politicians who are making my littlest niece look mature. Just over 30 months old when her baby brother was recently born, she sorted out a gift to take to the hospital on his second day: a dummy and a ruggy. “He will need these,” she told her Grandmother, and she had a point (although, to be fair, it wasn’t one of her best ruggies). 

Taking responsibility for one’s own interests, and the degree to which one is prepared to do this, is rapidly emerging as my number one priority for prospective clients, business partners or proposals and, quite frankly, policy positions.  I moaned mentioned in my wrap of the Co-operative Research Centres Association (CRCA) 2013 conference the potential I currently saw for individuals and organisations in the innovative and creative sectors to distinguish themselves by showing some initiative and responsibility. That’s only become more apparent in recent weeks – there seems to be a real sense of entitlement in some parts of our sectors, a part that if not growing in size is at least growing in volume. 

I’ve heard relatively senior academics voice a belief that, having submitted a number of unsuccessful applications for a particular national competitive funding program, her faculty was owed “a turn” for a significant investment of funds, and others vent true outrage that institutes would not as a matter of course take staff off-line to prepare potentially unsuccessful funding bids. I’ve read stories in the media of others railing at the injustice of funds being allocated to other groups or initiatives which ultimately were unsuccessful, or worse – to one and not to all applicants, demonstrating if nothing else an appalling lack of understanding in those educating the next generation of practitioners that funds can only be spent once and then they are gone. This seems a particularly prevalent criticism of expenditure of public funds, where money that funds our interests and activities doesn’t then fund (as is always the example in the media) hospital beds and road maintenance.

Of course, a certain amount of this is spin – often an attempt to position oneself or one’s organisation for “peace” funding, soften up a funding target for a broader commitment of resources generally, or just a bit of exposure. Nor am I for a second suggesting either our funding system or priorities are in any way perfect or, for that matter, appropriate. But whining about the pool of funds not being unending or about your two month effort not being as successful as someone else’s 18 months of nights and weekends, is not perfect nor appropriate, or even particularly helpful. It’s shortsighted, disheartening for those trying to improve what system we do have and, bottom line, really annoyingly good material for lazy comedians and commentators.

After all, if my Munchkin knows parents can only give you so much and then it’s up to us, shouldn’t the rest of us with ten times her experience have figured it out by now? And if we haven’t, for spin purposes or otherwise, do we – politicians, industry organisations, and funding applicants alike – really deserve the support we’re seeking?

And the Syrians? I read today in The New York Times that they’re making their own weapons rather than wait for us to come rescue them… 

Here endeth the rant.

 

PS For those interested, the NY Times article by C.J. Chivers, “Starved for Arms, Syrian Rebels Make Their Own“, is available on-line as at the date of posting.