Ch 8 — Science and Education

From Canberra — Australia’s National Capital by Crispin Hull
Ch 8 — Science and Education
Nearly one in 12 Canberrans attends university — and seven universities have a presence here — an astonishing number for a city of 310,000. It also houses Australia’s key scientific research institute, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. Founded in 1926 it has become so widely known in Australia that its initials, CSIRO, are almost synonymous with scientific research. Indeed, many Australians familiar with the initials and the organisation’s work would be pressed to say what the initials stand for. The CSIRO with 7500 staff is one of the world leading and most diverse scientific research institutes. It has extensive laboratories on Lady Denman Drive opposite the Australian National University. Its most important role is to give government independent scientific and industry advice and to bring together teams of scientists from different disciplines to address problems in Australia and to work with industry. It has had extraordinary success in both theoretical and practical research, most notably in biological control of agricultural pests, addressing salinity, food science, forestry, construction and energy.
The Australian National University is one of the “”big eight” Australian universities. It grew from the University College — a Canberra branch, devoted entirely to research and post-graduate study — of Melbourne University. Once again, Prime Minister Robert Menzies was the driving force. He thought Canberra should have a university with undergraduate studies and amalgamation with the research body was the best way because it would be hard to justify two universities. Legislation was passed in 1960 creating the Australian National University which would include both undergraduate study and the research and post-graduate study of the University College. Many opposed the move, thinking the great research institution would be “”watered down” with research academics having to muddy their hands teaching. But the blend was a great success. The ANU still has a “”School of General Studies” embracing the Faculties offering undergraduate study in the major disciplines and the Institute of Advanced Studies embracing research into the various humanities and sciences. Of all the universities in Australia the ANU is still the most skewed to research – only half of its 10,000 students are doing undergraduate degrees. Attached to ANU is the John Curtin School of Medical Research, out of which came two Nobel prize-winners. Sir John Eccles (1903-1997), Foundation Professor of Physiology in the John Curtin School (1951-1966), shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1963 for his fundamental contributions to research on transmissions in the brain and spinal cord, based on research carried out in the school. John Doherty was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1996 for work on basic understanding of how the immune system recognises virus-infected cells. It was a triumph for curiosity-led experimental research leading to better investigation of the body’s immune defence system, important in organ transplantation and anti-cancer agents.
Canberra did finally get its own city university when the former College of Advanced Education converted to the University of Canberra. UC is more vocationally oriented than ANU and is one of the main suppliers of educations services to the Federal and Territory Public Services. UC has nearly 10,000 students in vocational degree courses and some Masters and PhD students.
The other five universities with a presence in Canberra are: the University of NSW which runs the undergraduate degree courses undertaken by the 850 cadets at the Australian Defence Force Academy; the University of Sydney which runs the Clinical School for medical students at The Canberra Hospital; the Catholic University which has one of its many Australian campuses at Watson with 650 students; Charles Sturt University has a presence in the form of St Mark’s Theological College; and most recently the University of the Third Age, for non-degree students over 50 interested in learning for learning’s sake has more than 2000 students. The Canberra Institute of Technology has about 15,000 students, nearly all part-time doing technical courses associated with their jobs.
The Mount Stromlo space observatory – another part of the ANU – is a few kilometres south of the city centre. Together with the Siding Spring observatory it forms one of the leading optical astronomical observatories in the world, researching stellar and galactic astrophysics, the structure and evolution of stars and galaxies and the origin and development of the universe.
The observatory is one of the oldest institutions in the ACT. It was established (as the Commonwealth Solar Observatory) in 1923. It joined ANU in 1957 and is now part of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. The Observatory is open to the public for hands-on exhibits and tours.
Canberra is a world player in space research. The Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex at Tidbinbilla is one of three such complexes around the world that form the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Deep Space Network that relays information packages between interplanetary spacecraft and mission control over distances up to 12 billion kilometres. The largest of the four antennas at the complex is 70 metres in diameter and weighs three million kilograms. The complex is managed by the CSIRO. The Canberra Space Centre, which is open to the public, is housed at the complex. The centre has interactive displays and explanations of the human quest in space – including a moon rock. It was here at Tidbinbilla – not Parkes as the movie The Dish suggests – that the voice of Neil Armstrong was relayed from the moon to mission control and the world in 1969.
Canberra is also home to the Australian Geological Survey Organisation, or Geoscience Australia since 2001. The organisation was set up in 1946 (as the Bureau of Mineral Resources) with the main aim of the systematic geological and geophysical mapping of Australia for mineral exploration. The task of mapping the land area of 7.7 million square kilometres at a scale of 1:250,000 is now virtually complete. The office provides advice to government, monitors earthquakes and nuclear explosions, makes earthquake and landslide risk-assessments, provides information on the earth’s magnetic field for navigation, mineral exploration, geological dating, dealing with hazards related to geomagnetic disturbances, maps the limits of Australia’s jurisdiction under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and researches prospects for off-shore exploration.
In 1998 Geoscience Australia moved to a new buildings in Symonston with 40,000 square metres of space incorporating high efficiency design. Maximum use has been made of natural light. In addition to the huge skylights and cowls in the roof, perimeter offices have internal walls of glass, and ‘light shelves’ over windows, to maximise the transmission of light through to the interior. Artificial lighting is controlled by movement sensors so that lights switch off automatically when areas are unoccupied. All windows are double-glazed, and substantial thermal insulation is included in the roof and the walls. The major energy-saving feature is the air-conditioning — 220 geothermal heat pumps, which carry water through loops of pipe buried in 350 bore holes, 100m metres deep, to exchange heat with the earth. It is expected to save $1 million in energy costs over the 25 year life of the plant.
At the secondary schooling level Canberra’s college system under which Year 11 and 12 are separated has been successfully copied elsewhere. It is one of the reason that Canberra manages a retention rate of more than 95 per cent through to the end of Year 12.
One of the best-known educational facilities in Canberra is the National Science and Technology Centre, known by locals as Questacon. Located the Parliamentary Triangle the centre has more than 200 hands-on exhibits making science and technology fun and relevant to everyday lives. Most visitors spend far longer there than planned and frequently the adults who take their children to it come away more enthralled than their off-spring.

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