By Peter Hall
ABOUT five years ago, when a colleague and I were stranded by aircraft problems on our way to a meeting, he related a story about a mutual friend who, more than a decade before, had been denied tenure at the colleague's university. Let's call it University X. It is among the top few in any international research ranking of universities.
The unfavourable tenure decision had not been entirely disadvantageous to our friend, who went straight to a tenured post at another very good university.
However, as we were both aware, he had done very little since he left X.
My colleague remarked that our friend would have done a lot more, and made very significant contributions to his field, if he had stayed at X.
This anecdote goes to the heart of issues relating to the quality of research environments. It reflects the challenges many Australian academics face developing their careers on an isolated island much closer to Antarctica than to any of the world's top 10 universities.
A strong research environment doesn't have a lot to do with the physical state of the offices or even the laboratories.
In fact, there is a standing joke in my field that, in research universities abroad, the correlation between the standards of physical and intellectual environments is negative.
The environment that matters at University X has everything to do with the intellectual climate.
Arguments in favour of concentrating research resources in a small number of Australian universities typically neglect the vital intellectual environment, which cannot be assembled nearly as easily as offices and laboratories. Moreover, funding only a small number of research-intensive universities involves substantial changes across the education system, including at the interface between schools and universities.
The challenges of developing an intellectually strong and dynamic research environment, rather than one with good facilities, are partly those of critical mass. And to achieve the necessary scale, it is often argued that research funding should be concentrated relatively narrowly in Australia's top research universities.
Last October the Group of Eight called for "the adoption by the government of a higher education research policy [that] focuses on selectivity and concentration of higher education research", and lauded Excellence in Research for Australia's capacity to "drive selectivity and concentration of Australia's higher education research system".
There are many arguments and cautionary tales relating to the weakness and vulnerability of research enterprises that are concentrated rather than diverse.
Sean Gallagher, from the University of Sydney's US Studies Centre, has argued that: "To achieve the macro outcome of sustaining national research capacity in a value-for-money kind of way, you need healthy research competition among many players and not just concentration on the few.
"If research funding continues to further concentrate in the Group of Eight, there will be less competition and Australia will have a poorer outcome."(HES, May 25.)
Gallagher noted too that US economist J.D. Adams's account of declining public funding for American universities "highlights unintended adverse consequences from a nation's best scientific research capability being focused in a small number of elite universities". It is straightforward to develop mathematical models that convey, and help explain, these concerns. Indeed, Adams's work can be interpreted as an analysis of data in the context of some of those models.
However, a simple physical model is perhaps more persuasive, if only because it shows the real issues to be elementary and common to other aspects of our lives. If sand, gravel or some other granular material is poured on to a flat surface, it will form a conical pile whose sides make a particular angle to the horizontal. That angle, known as the angle of repose in the mechanics of granular materials, is a constant for the type of particles but can be varied by altering the particles' nature.
A network of many institutions has similarities to a cone made from small particles; the Go8 is effectively asking for an increase in the angle of repose. Unless there are fundamental changes to the nature of many of the institutions, the limitations of the supporting relationships among them restrict the extent to which one part of the network can be altered significantly without the entire structure being rendered ineffective and even unstable.
Implementation of the Go8's calls for concentrating research resources among a few universities would require changes not just to funding but to many other aspects; for example, to the diverse connections between schools and universities and to the places where the academic staff at strong research universities receive their training.
Many staff would have to be recruited abroad; they couldn't all be trained in the relatively small number of research-active institutions that would remain, since this would only reinforce the narrowness and vulnerability of the system.
Could we keep those highly skilled, highly motivated and highly mobile people in Australia, if all we had for them was excellent facilities? Of course not; they would not stay unless we could provide the necessary rich and dynamic intellectual environment, and do so within the proposed relatively small system, having no more than eight to 12 research-active universities.
The US, whose environment we seem to be trying to emulate, keeps ahead only by drawing very large numbers of talented scientists, and others, from many nations.
Adams gives measures of the extent to which this has been a prerequisite for maintaining US pre-eminence. For example, he estimates that "intellectual migration from Europe [has] increased [US] resident Nobel Prize winners by 50 per cent".
However, Australia often seems to be discouraging, rather than attracting, academic researchers.
Our nation has long been a particularly difficult place for foreign research students to study, owing to funding and visa obstacles.
Potential research collaborators have declined invitations to participate in Australian research programs because of the complexity of the visiting academic visa (sub-class 419) process. Under this visa program, it's easier for Australians to undertake research in the US and be reimbursed for expenses than for American researchers to work here.
Moreover, Australian Research Council rules on funding for foreign researchers typically require specific proposals to be submitted up to four years in advance.
These are just some of the challenges we face in sowing the seeds for a rich, dynamic and diverse intellectual research environment of international calibre; other obstacles are even more systemic.
For all these reasons, ensuring that research in Australia's universities is competitive with that abroad is not nearly as simple as concentrating research funding in relatively few institutions.
It requires substantial reform at several levels and a sharp focus on creating the intellectual environment in the world-class institutions to which we aspire.
More mundanely, it's very much like changing the nature of sand so that, when poured on to the ground, it has a different angle of repose.
Peter Hall is professor of mathematics and statistics at the University of Melbourne.