Category Archives: Brainfrastructure

The knowledge economy needs investment in brainfrastructure

This week has seen me taking my rapidly evolving personality cult on the road to Canberra and Sydney, ostensibly to sell Crowd funding for academic research.

This was after a kind invitation from Julie Preston (@julzpreston) , on behalf of NECTAR at ANU, a ‘grass roots’ group formed by the Early and Mid Career academics. I see myself as part of this group, who are increasingly disenfranchised by the current ultra competitive grant system, which is skewed to cement the position of the elite of Australian Ponzidemia (detailed in a recent blog post by Adam Micolich aka @ad_mico)

I asked Julie to book my return flight two days later than needed to attend the Crowd Funding workshop, as I wished to spend time in Canberra engaging with Politicians and Public Servants. This was at the request of Honourable Richard Marles MP, federal member for Corio. Amelia from Richard’s team managed to set up meetings with both Parliamentary Friends of Science representatives (Richard himself and the Honourable Karen Andrews MP, federal member for the Gold Coast)

Unfortunately, due to a holiday absence, I couldn’t see the woman who is the contact for STA (the lobby group for Science and Technology in Australia….whose efforts could do with more galvanising right now, IMHO!) but did get to catch up with my local MP, the Honourable Sarah Henderson, of Corangamite.

Sarah had been for an extended visit to my lab at the Deakin Medical School at Waurn Ponds the week before, during National Science Week, to hear about my research on the local endemic and emerging infectious disease, Mycobacteria ulcerans. I told her then that all my research was supported by local philanthropists, crowd funding and internal University funding (which is generous in my Dept versus stories I hear from sundry colleagues).

When we met again in Canberra on Wednesday, we spoke of her plans to try and secure funding for the Geelong region and how she saw the transition to a ‘smart’ economy as imperative for her constituency. Sarah is aware she is preaching to the converted on this, as I also push the ‘Smart Geelong’ barrow, purely out of self interest (and for the future job prospects of the students I teach).

During our conversation on the upcoming announcements for public-private partnership schemes to be soon launched for investing in ‘smart’ infrastructure by the current government, there came an opportunity to mention that I was currently the beneficiary of such infrastructure. As I am in the middle of designing my new lab to be opened opposite the Hospital in Central Geelong, paid for with a Regional Development grant.

I also mentioned that while it will be fabulous to have a shiny new lab….I may be unable to do much research inside it, due to the current situation for funding ‘people and projects’ in Australian Science. I re-stated the point made in this recent Fairfax Editorial, that investing in people to DO science is a form of infrastructure funding. Sarah agreed in principle to this concept, but lamented her junior minister status and said ‘you may have to talk to the Prime Minister about that’.

But I think this #brainfrastructure concept is an important one, and all the evidence on the financial return on investment in a Knowledge Economy model is well defined. Here’s hoping that my next trip to Canberra gets me the meeting proposed by Karen Andrews, with Greg Gilbert, the Senior Science advisor to Ian Macfarlane’s Dept of Industry.

If I can sell medical maggots to sheep farmers in a Crowd funding project, perhaps I may have a stab at selling the #brainfrastructure concept to the Department responsible for driving the productivity of the Australian economy?

And here’s a picture of me wishing this wasn’t just a pipe dream of a delusional ‘Pollyanna’ scientist….

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Science Pathways 2013: HDR training

So, my very first real post on my much neglected blog will be a reflective piece on the discussions of HDR (higher degrees by research) training in Australia we had at SciPath13.

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Image: http://www.stonemarketing.com/images//flipround.jpg

After getting up on stage at SciPath12 this time last year and stating ‘You can tell I have had transferable skills training during my PhD, I brought my own coloured pens for the flip chart task’, I was unmasked as a rare beast.

Why was I so rare? It boiled down to the fact that I had all my post grad training in the (12 years) I spent away from my native Oz in the UK. I happened to gain both an MRes and PhD from the University of York Biology department, starting in Sept 2003 and ending in March 2009. This was immediately following the publication and initial implementation of the Roberts Review in 2002. The Roberts Review was in response to pressure, mainly from the industries that needed better SET (science, engineering and technology) workers, to broaden the training. According to Vitae ‘The government responded positively to Sir Gareth Roberts’ report SET for Success, providing funding of just under £150M in the 2002 Spending Review to the research councils to increase stipends, length of doctoral programmes and provide training for their funded researchers. This also included providing improved career prospects for research staff, including the creation of 1000 academic fellowship positions.’ Recent evidence of the impact of the policies then implemented was published in 2011.

In York,the early attempts to get members of the traditional academic staff (complete with beards) to teach us newbies about project planning, time management and personal effectiveness were clumsy and resulted in much cocky scorn from us, the golden children of science. But then the funding for the ‘quaternary industry’ of HDR training kicked in and suddenly the University could hire external providers (much like the Brisbane based Kerstin Fritsches Post Doc Training). The one that we were required to do was GRADSchool and I managed to do it in bits and pieces as a ‘beta tester’ during my Masters and PhD.

We also had an on site Graduate Training Coordinator, the first (and current) one employed in during my second year. Hilary Jones has done a fabulous job in the intervening years, taking into account feedback from students and incorporating different streams into the program for those with different career trajectories. I am still trying to convince my employer, Deakin University, to fly her over to run some intensive programmes for our HDR students.

Why did the UK universities start these types of activities after the Roberts Review? It may have had something to do with edicts from the Research Councils UK (RCUK), the strategic partnership of the UK’s seven Research Councils. These bodies fund most research and research training in the UK, to the tune of £3 billion per year. So I guess if it is imposed (and funded) from above, the users of the money were forced to come to heal. The outcomes expected for HDR trainees (like me) is encapsulated in the Research Development Framework that was presented by Tony Peacock, Head of the CRC association, as the minimum standards in their training programme. I was tweeting one of the students from Deakin in the audience, to say ‘Remember when I showed these same slides to you guys in our department this time last year?’ . The feelings of déjà vu were strong! I now incorporate the ideas from the RDF in my teaching, from the importance of ‘soft skills’ to my first year Medical Biotech undergrads at Deakin, to the careers sessions I have been asked to do for our HDR students in the School of Medicine.

The opening of EMCR Forum’s Science Pathways 2013, during the now traditional ‘stop begging for money’ speech from Australia’s Chief Scientist, Prof Ian Chubb, he made it very clear that Australia lacks any kind of coherent and strategic plan for advancing scientific research….and hasn’t had one for some time (even when we had a science minister!). And as my mind exploded with the calculations of bureaucratic waste in dissipating the Australian research effort over 14 portfolios and 79 departments, I felt powerless. Powerless to even make a dent in the established feudal system that still seems to be entrenched.

Thankfully, the next speaker, Prof Alan Finkel, was more upbeat and gave an inspiring talk about innovation and engaging with industry. It is my hope that if more of the ‘establishment’ (Universities, the CSIRO, CRCs, Institutes and Research Councils) band together and put pressure on to change the research funding and training landscape in a strategic way.

The government within its rights to demand a trade off. Again, this happened in the UK and I was interviewed when a final year PhD student at York when the BBSRC came to launch the RCUK ‘Excellence with Impact’. And yes, as you would expect, there was the howls of outrage from the Professors in the meetings – the ‘Blue Sky Science’ argument, mostly. I have decided to put a dollar in a jar every time I hear that phrase from now on, I could fund myself to do some research after a while!

But if we want the ‘win-win’ situation for science in Australia, we may have to start to judge the potential impact of our research from the perspective of our biggest stakeholders, the tax payer.

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