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Science and its Influence: Communication and the Proper Responsibility of Governments

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

Many scientists ascribe the failure of governments to support science and the recommendations of scientific research to the failure of the scientific community generally to communicate the significance of science effectively.

The failures of government to adopt the science agenda is not due solely to poor communication. Governments fail to address the findings of high quality research in many areas including health, education, public transport, urban planning. Governments are mostly persuaded by their own ideological agenda and the lobbying of sectional interest groups and their funders. Politicians gain support for their policies from many in the community who privilege their own preconceived views and experience over analysis of available evidence.

Many western governments approaches to public policy are based in neoclassical economic beliefs which regards private enterprise as significant, small government as highly important, as more efficient than government and high taxes as inimical to personal freedom and business success. They are loath to address issues such as inequality, government funded health and education and see the private sector as having a major role in infrastructure development and in carrying out functions once considered part of government’s remit. Business practice is considered to be very valuable. That is hardly a view based on performance? Thus many of the conclusions from scientific research, if adopted, would undermine the agenda and interests of business groups, an agenda. Others are marginalised or opposed through embracing of fundamentalist beliefs.

The ultimate course of public policy is determined by politics and alliance formation, by narratives which address the beliefs of those in power.  Logic and rationality are not central. Therefore support for a stronger role by scientific bodies and by allies is needed. The strong promotion of the achievements and significant public benefits deriving from science must continue at the same time. Above all advancement of any enterprise from small informal group to major corporation and government is significantly influenced by cohesive leadership with a clearly articulated and defensible policy. In many countries that is lacking.

For their part, government ministers need to recognise that they have a greater responsibility than mere satisfaction of their own narrow political agenda. Where governments ignore the considered findings of science the future of the community is at risk. For instance, it is not possible to claim a secure and prosperous future and at the same time continue with burning of fossil fuels unless one dismisses the majority conclusions of scientists engaged in the relevant science and the many other scientists.

There are too many examples of past errors today in respect of climate change, public health, education, infrastructure development and economics. The notion that small government and economic growth will solve everything has to be discarded.

A stronger role for science is essential and governments have to ensure that role is addressed. In the absence of perceived economic gain, usually over the short-term, the private sector will not.

The level of funding for scientific research is related both to government policy and to the involvement of the private sector. In the United States and a number of other countries in Europe and Asia, industry supports laboratories conducting applied and often basic research and maintains close ties with universities and government agencies.

In Australia, at both Commonwealth and State level, governments have reduced their involvement in scientific research substantially. Where State governments funded research in areas such as agriculture, mining, fisheries, nature conservation and many other areas, they now fund very little. At the Commonwealth level CSIRO has been through numerous reviews and its funding reduced significantly; as well layers of corporate activities have been added and goals related to industry given much more attention.

Numerous programs on radio, tv and many publications focus on science. Those opposing the proposition that human agency was the main contributor to carbon emissions and climate change for instance simply didn’t listen, watch or read such material. Even a cursory glance through readers’ responses to articles and programs about subjects ranging from health to education and the arts is sufficient to show that many people consider their own already held views to be a better guide to ‘truth’ than the views of ‘experts’.

There are some who consider the views of experts to be no longer relevant and even that universities are not either. Many such people regard the benefits of education to flow principally to the individual and therefore appropriately charged to the individual rather than the citizenry through government taxes. Similar views pervade the policies of many governments concerning health and social welfare.

Read more at The problem is that scientists are poor communicators. Really?

A related background document addresses some issues relevant to the main theme of this essay as they concern government policy, especially in Australia.

I nearly forgot: one of the main reasons for the disregard of science is that so much of the discussion, especially within academe, is simply an argument amongst the advocates for different branches of science in order to gain more funding or more graduate students or just more. Just like everywhere else.

And the other important point is that many charged with leadership of the scientific enterprise are not sufficiently aware of the characteristics of the most successful scientific enterprises and the features of leadership there. Why was the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and its moons successful? And the Rosetta and Philae mission to the comet 67P. The discovery of Higgs Boson? Gravity waves?

What are the successful scientific laboratories – in terms of Nobel Prizes – and what goes on there?

Australia’s CSIRO continues to make very important contributions in many fields, despite ongoing reorganisations of doubtful utility and ongoing reductions in funding. Why is that?

Last, what has corporatisation and “monetisation” – the requirement that CSIRO devote its research to areas of significant economic development – contributed to success?

What are the key features of science leadership? Some other essays on this site deal with some of these issues. Robyn Williams on the Science Show has on several occasions dealt with these very issues.

The role of government seems often to be overlooked. This is a point taken up by Professor Robert Hill, Executive Dean, Faculty of Sciences at the University of Adelaide on the ABC RN Science Show for 3 December 2016. He says this, “Until Australian politicians understand and properly promote the exceptional quality of our best scientists and the obvious relevance of careers in science, we will continue to underachieve as a nation. University science faculties should also take their share of the responsibility for failing to demonstrate the wide variety of career choices available to graduates.”


The Myth of School Choice and the Distortion of Education Policy

Sunday, April 24th, 2016


At the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai in March Education Director for the OECD Andreas Schleicher criticised the Australian education system for falling behind global standards. He pointed to the very significant drop in the results of students at the top of the PISA test rankings in the past year. He said “[Australia] more or less defines teachers by the number of hours that [they] teach in front of students. That is part of the problem. We treat teachers as interchangeable widgets on the frontline – they are just there to implement prefabricated knowledge.” Schleicher said many countries were struggling to keep the best teachers in the profession because of curriculums that restrict creativity.

The OECD through its PISA program which explores literacy in 15 year olds in writing, math and science every three years has been criticised very heavily in some countries as driving the education agenda. Countries determine their own policies but unfortunately the ideology which underlies PISA – standardised testing, along with performance pay and independent schooling – has been adopted too vigorously by some countries. The important findings about effective school education policies and practices brought out in the comprehensive reports of PISA and Education at a Glance are ignored or even deliberately misinterpreted.


In Australia parents are moving their kids in ever larger numbers to schools they perceive to be better based mainly on scores in standardised tests – NAPLAN – published on the MySchool website. What is happening is a drift of students from advantaged backgrounds away from public schools, which generally have large numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, to independent schools. As a result learning gaps between children from different backgrounds are widening. Parents are responding to test scores and to other factors. That should have been anticipated by those deciding to privilege standardised testing and support extra funding for independent schools.

The Myth of School Choice: Government support for Independent Schools and Standardised Tests traverses the recent report from the Grattan Institute which illuminates important outcomes of the Howard Government’s support of independent schools and the reactions of parents to that. The focus on NAPLAN has problems drawn out in a report by Chris Bonner and Bernie Shepherd for the Centre for Policy Development and a study by David Zyngier of Monash University. That independent schools do not contribute to better educational achievement when socioeconomic background is taken into account is shown by a sophisticated report by researchers from the University of Queensland and colleagues. As it has been by many previous analyses!

Study after study has shown no significant educational gain by the much better resourced independent schools. The extra funds would have been better spent supporting those children with greatest needs, those from disadvantaged backgrounds having trouble with the learning program.

The Turnbull Coalition Government, like the Abbott Government before it, has refused to fund the last two years of the National Plan for School Improvement framed in response to the Gonski Panel’s recommendations: it maintains there are insufficient funds. However, there is substantial evidence to the effect that funds are available by addressing the substantial tax expenditures – tax concessions – introduced in recent years; Australia is a relatively low tax country and a major contribution to debt is private debt funding purchase of houses and apartments.

The response by the Turnbull Government to the States’ refusal to consider operating their own income tax systems has left unresolved the funding of schools (and hospitals) through agreements between the former government and the states, with the Prime Minister maintaining that the states have no grounds on which to ask the Commonwealth to raise taxes and claiming the previous agreements were made in “barely credible circumstances”. The Myth of School Choice: the Economics of Independent Schools and Australian Government Policy shows just how wrong this is and how billions of taxpayer funds have been wasted. A report by Lyndsay Connors and Jim McMorrow and detailed analysis by Trevor Cobbold illuminate the situation.

Proposals to have the Commonwealth fund independent schools and the States fund public schools were strongly criticised and are not supported by the Government’s own Green Paper on the Future of the Federation. In Victoria a review by former Premier Steve Bracks recommends policies reinforcing the Gonski reforms.

Despite adoption of policies in the US and UK based mainly on neoclassical economics which privilege private sector participation in generating public goods like education, favour competition and choice and deploy financial incentives to drive change, there are examples in those countries, as in Australia, of exciting outcomes from schools which do address the main features of effective learning in schools.

The Myth of School Choice: Genuine improvement happens when everyone collaborates for the benefit of the children summarises an important review by education historian Diane Ravitch of two very interesting books on schools in the United States.  It isn’t simply quality teachers or the administrative independence of school principals and it certainly isn’t standardised testing which make the difference! Kristina Rizga, author of Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph, about a high school in San Francisco with an enrolment of students from a wide cultural diversity, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, points out, “too many politicians, powerful bureaucrats, management and business experts, economists, and philanthropists are making decisions about the best solutions for schools. In short, the people in charge don’t know nearly as much about schooling as the students and teachers they are trying to “fix.””

Despite everything, at Mission High in San Francisco great gains were made by students through the intense enthusiasm of their teachers.

Rizga says, “What matters in quality education – critical thinking, intrinsic motivation, resilience, self-management, resourcefulness, and relationship skills – exist in realms that can’t be easily measured by statistical measures and computer algorithms, but can be detected by teachers using human judgment. America’s business-inspired obsession with prioritizing “metrics” in a complex world that deals with the development of individual minds has become the primary cause of mediocrity in American schools.

Diane Ravitch points out “grand ideas cannot be imposed on people without their assent. Money and power are not sufficient to improve schools. Genuine improvement happens when students, teachers, principals, parents, and the local community collaborate for the benefit of the children.”

And education does not by itself fix poverty.

Pyne’s Curriculum Mess

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

The Minister for Education in the Abbott Government, the Hon Christopher Pyne, continued his destruction of the former government’s education policies in early January of this year when he announced a review of the National Curriculum developed over the last five or so years and about to be implemented in all states. The announcement is a further step in the dismantling of the entire education policies of the former Labor Government.

The latest decision is the undermining of the Gonski reforms by allowing that the states need not contribute any increased funding to implement the National Plan for School Improvement. As Trevor Cobbold points out that is fundamentally destructive of the basis of the National Plan. In other words the Coalition by supporting states’ rights has sabotaged the Plan. This is a breach of the commitment given by Mr Abbott before the election and also goes against the policies of the Howard Government.

As Cobbold points out not only did the Howard Government subject state and territory government to conditions for federal funding, but it went so far as to circumvent state and territory government control over their own schools by funding schools directly, subject to conditions.

Predictably, in announcing the curriculum review, Pyne claimed the government had a mandate for the review, justified it by claiming it would be robust and that it should not be a partisan issue. His two reviewers, consultant Dr Kevin Donnelly and Professor of Public Administration at the University of Queensland Ken Wiltshire were immediately identified as well-known opponents of the new curriculum.

There are particular reasons why all this fuss by the Minister about the curriculum is a waste of people’s time and based on no understanding whatsoever of education, learning and schooling.

The curriculum is useful when it forms a strong basis for discussion in the classroom and encourages understanding and further inquiry. And more importantly, if our aim is to have young people emerge from school able to reach their potential and be productive members of the community in the brad sense of that word and able to understand the world around them and interested in the future and in humanity, then we have to recognise that the education process doesn’t start at school but in the earliest years, in the home with parents, carers, other children and amongst a physical and emotional environment which has profound and long lasting influence.

Pyne’s curriculum review has been heavily criticised by academics and education researchers, media commentators and parents and citizens groups as premature at best and unnecessary at worst.

Maralyn Parker in her Daily Telegraph blog branded the exercise a shambles. She quoted reviewer Dr Kevin Donnelly as complaining that every subject had to be taught through a perspective “where new age, 21st century generic skills and competencies undermine academic content”, “the draft civics and citizenship curriculum air brushes Christianity from the nation’s civic life and institutions and adopts a postmodern, subjective definition of citizenship”.

Dr Donnelly has also asserted that, “The history curriculum, in addition to uncritically promoting diversity and difference instead of what binds as a community and a nation, undervalues Western civilisation and the significance of Judeo-Christian values to our institutions and way of life” and the English national curriculum as adopting “an exploded definition of literature, one where classic works from the literary canon jostle for attention along side SMS messages, film posters, graffiti and multi-modal texts”.

Maralyn Parker also made this prescient comment:

“Next will be an attempt to change how teachers teach.

“Kevin claims “One reason why the cultural-left has been so successful in controlling the education system is because the majority of Australia’s professional bodies, subject associations and teacher training academics are hostile to a conservative view of education epitomised by choice and diversity, an academic curriculum, meritocracy and traditional styles of teaching.”

Indeed Mr Pyne has announced a review of teacher education! That is for another time.

Commentator Mungo MacCallum (“History repeats in curriculum war”) writing in The Drum, the ABC’s comments site, on 21 January observed that Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s review of the national curriculum will not be left solely to his two hand-picked cultural warriors of the extreme right. “They now say they will co-opt experts in every field, as well as call for submissions from all the state and territory curriculum authorities, the independent and Catholic schools, principals, teachers and parents – just about everyone, in fact, except the students themselves. In effect they will be starting again from scratch, and since the process of evolving the original curriculum took several years, Pyne’s ambition to see the results of his review incorporated in the curriculum for the 2015 teaching year seem unlikely to be realised. Indeed, state authorities in New South Wales, to name but one state, have dismissed the idea as fanciful.”

MacCallum also observed, “Wiltshire, whose expertise has been in the broad field of public administration, has some experience in curriculum reform; he headed a similar exercise for Queensland’s Labor premier Wayne Goss, a job which brought him into open conflict with Goss’s chief of staff, one Kevin Rudd. But once again, he has no known acquaintance with maths and science. It is hard to see this ideologically driven review coming up with big improvements in the teaching of either discipline.”

Associate Professor Tony Taylor at Monash University has been intimately associated with the review and formulation of history curricula. In 1999 he was appointed Director of the Australian Government’s National Inquiry into the Teaching and Learning of History and, from 2001-2007, he was Director of the Australian Government’s National Centre for History Education. He has researched and published extensively on history and education. He was a senior consultant with successive Coalition and ALP federal governments in formulating three drafts of a national history curriculum and also developed national professional standards for the teaching and learning of history.

Professor Taylor wrote in The Conversation 10 January, “These appointments come as no surprise. They are entirely in line with the government’s brazen approach to appointing close supporters to positions of authority and influence. The justificatory rhetoric that surrounds the current nominations is familiar, stale and inaccurate.”

Taylor commented in the Fairfax Press on January 16 that “Since federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s launch last week of a two-man curriculum review panel, of conservative educationist Kevin Donnelly and conservatively inclined business academic Kenneth Wiltshire, levels of incredulity, derision and cynicism among educators and political commentators (outside News Corp media) have gone off the Richter scale.” He continued, “Pyne might as well have announced he was rearranging the communal henhouse by shoving two foxes through its front door. The curriculum history wars, part of the bigger culture wars that have been blighting the Australian cultural and political landscape for more than a decade, were on again.”

Professor Taylor also observed, “Finally, any criticism of this world view is to be regarded as subversive and is based on godless Marxism or is just plain atheist in origin. Occasionally ill-informed mentions of bogyman postmodernism are thrown into the mix. These complaints form the basis of the current curriculum review.”

Reporters Josephine Tovey and Judith Ireland (“Education: Christopher Pyne’s move to review curriculum dubbed a political stunt”, January 11) reported

the lead writer of the new history curriculum, Professor Stuart Macintyre of the University of Melbourne, as pointing out that the curriculum had been developed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), over three years, involving consultation, submissions and contributions from a huge number of people – more than 4000 submissions and surveys were received in relation to English, maths, science and history alone. ”Whereas this is to be conducted by two people who have particular backgrounds. How they’re expected to apply expertise is beyond me, both in the subject areas and in curriculum”.

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority’s board chairman, Barry McGaw, said he welcomed the review. But he also said the authority had used a ”rigorous, national process” that had produced a high-quality curriculum. ”The Australian curriculum is setting higher standards across the country, perhaps most notably in mathematics and science at the primary school level”.

On the other hand, Professor Judith Sloan, writing in The Australian (October 12, 2013), described the national curriculum as mired in half-baked fads. “I HAVE never been a fan of the idea of a national school curriculum. I can understand why some people find it attractive. What happens to the 80,000 odd school-aged children whose families move interstate every year? How confusing it must be for them to deal with differences in curriculum. Actually, this is a very weak argument. In point of fact, the differences in the content of school courses have never been vast across the states.”

Professor Sloan trashed the economics curriculum: “The bottom line is that the national curriculum on economics and business for years 5 to 10 is tosh. It is page after page of earnest, largely worthless, drivel. I pity the poor teachers who have to use this guide as a basis for preparing teaching materials and lessons.”

The Australian Council of State School Organisations, a peak national group affiliated with most state and territory parents and citizens associations, was reported by Daniel Hurst  in The Guardian of 13 January (‘National curriculum review premature, say parents and teachers’) as questioning the review’s timing and motivation.

“The council’s chief executive officer, Dianne Giblin, said parents were “a bit bemused” by the review because the national curriculum was yet to be completely rolled out. She said parents and parent groups had been heavily involved in developing the national curriculum, with the process attracting thousands of submissions.”

Minister Pyne has said, as reported by Hurst in The Guardian, the aim of the review “was to turn out a robust curriculum, a good curriculum that improves the results of our students” and he said he was confident Donnelly and Wiltshire would produce an objective and fair report. He said the national curriculum should not be a static document and should always be questioned, tested and argued about. “I haven’t appointed a committee that tries to please everybody and therefore does not produce a robust result,” Pyne said.

Neither Donnelly or the other reviewer Professor Ken Wiltshire at the University of Queensland are curriculum experts. The study of curricula is a discipline in itself and one of Australia’s education researchers, Professor Lynn Yates of Melbourne University’s Graduate School of Education is a leading expert in the field. A major conference on the curriculum held at the University of Melbourne in late February 2010 involved distinguished experts in many disciplines. It was hardly reported in the media.

The reasons why the review of the curriculum is a waste of time is at Moving deckchairs on the wrong ship!





Prime Minister Tony Blair speaking on the Arts March 6 2007

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

On March 6, British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke gave an important speech at Tate Modern on the arts. The intended speech is reprinted in full in the Guardian.

Here are some highlights – the first several introductory paragraphs and then statements referring specifically to museums. Not the least interesting statistics are those concerning the increases in attendances at the National Museums since admission was made free, including increases from particular socio-economic groupings which are historically less inclined to visit museums.

There are also interesting observations about “arms length” administration and funding rather than control.

These statements can surely be used in advocacy in Australia.

Years ago, before coming to government, I said that we would make the arts and culture part of our “core script”. In other words, it was no longer to be on the periphery, an add-on, a valued bit of fun when the serious work of government was done; but rather it was to be central, an essential part of the narrative about the character of a new, different, changed Britain.

When I said this all those years back, I think there was a certain amount of scepticism. But at last week’s Downing Street seminar in advance of this speech, one participant said we would look back on the last 10 years as a “golden age” for the arts. I will come on to why that has happened in a moment.

But the important point to realise is why I said it. I didn’t say it because I thought we, as a government, were of great importance to you, the arts, but rather because you, the arts, were going to be of fundamental importance to the country.

The reason for this will be spelt out in the policy reviews shortly to be published across government and is utterly critical to understanding why arts and culture matter to a modern nation like Britain.


So when more children get access to the joy of art, it is not the art alone that they learn; it is the art of living, thinking and creating. They may never be, probably won’t ever be, an artist or a dancer or a designer, but in whatever job, in whichever walk of life, they will carry an idea that is not just about the buying and selling, but about what makes the ordinary, special. When people on low incomes can visit museums free of charge, and see great works of art, they take something of the inspiration with them. A nation that cares about art will not just be a better nation. In the early 21st Century it will be a more successful one.

It is worth a brief counter-factual exercise. Imagine what the world would have been like if we had continued with the funding regime and the policies that we inherited. Many of the country’s finest regional theatres would have closed or would exist as shadows of themselves, on a diet of light drama. Many orchestras would have gone to the wall. There would be no new programmes for art education. Museums, far from being full, would have gradually diminished in importance as charging reduced the audience to the middle class. I’m not sure there would be a British film industry, or at least not one nearly so healthy, or the same huge success at the National Theatre.

Instead government funding has doubled since 1997 and is now done on a more stable 3-year basis. Free admission has meant that there are 42 million visits each year to museums and galleries.

We have been able to run very effective policies to keep ticket prices down. In the case of national museums, of course, entry is free.… visits to national museums have risen by almost 30 million.

Between 2002/03 and 2004/05 the number of people from lower socio-economic groups visiting government-sponsored museums increased by almost 30%. The Renaissance in the Regions programme has helped attract almost three quarters of a million new visitors from communities that would not traditionally attend a museum.

The tourist benefit shows the British model in action. Seven of the ten most popular tourist attractions in this country are government-sponsored museums and galleries. 28% of visitors to the London theatre come from overseas.

Increasing numbers of British arts organisations and artists now tour internationally. The British Museum’s exhibition in Tehran provided an opportunity for the Foreign Secretary to visit at a sensitive time. The Arts Council’s international fellowship programme and its Artists Link Programme with the British Council in China have created some great international exchanges. The British Museum and the V&A have also announced an unprecedented programme of collaboration with China. Exhibitions from the British Museum have also been helping build civil society in Kenya and Ethiopia.

I think the results have been spectacular. When you are searching to show how things have changed you are usually seeking a policy that somehow embodies it.

Perhaps it is free entry to museums. But actually the crucial thing is not the policy but the fact that, as Nick Serota said to me recently, museums now just “feel” different. They have a different atmosphere.