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Just before Christmas I received copies of the examiners’ reports on my thesis. I am not able to know the names of the examiners until the whole degree process is over but I assume that all three were chosen for their expertise in ageing.

I find it difficult to accept that three people with what should be parallel backgrounds can have such different views. One gave positive ticks in all the boxes, one gave all negative ticks and the third is all over the place. This was particularly intriguing in terms of whether each examiner regarded my research as new knowledge or not. One said it was, the other two said it was not although the one who was all over the place seemed to think that if I did some more study it would be! Considering that I am supporting my arguments using the fairly recently accepted brain plasticity research, which to my knowledge no-one else in the field of later stage of life research has applied in this area, I find it difficult to accept that it is not new work. In addition, if it is not new work and other people are already following this line I would assume I would be aware of it through the very many conferences I attend, both in Australia and overseas.

I know that there is some unease about increasing the number of undergraduates exponentially as we seem to be doing, without lowering standards. This concern then extends to higher degrees, particularly with doctorates. At my first conference for researcher students in ageing five years ago I was concerned that so many students, many of them in the field of physiotherapy, were researching very trivial issues. In their case the incentive was that they could then call themselves ‘Doctor’ when setting up their physiotherapy clinics and people would assume that they were medical doctors.

This mass production of higher education needs to be monitored to make sure that ‘easy’ topics don’t replace genuine research in much-needed areas. If we look at the world today we do not seem to be producing research in the right fields nor  are we applying it as we should. Any newspaper any day is likely to portray at least parts of  the world in a state of chaos, either nature produced or man-made, and we seem to have no solution for either. The collapse of the banking sector led some people to realise that our so-called democracies are actually controlled by dictatorship banks. Queensland, which has been suffering for years from drought is now inundated with water which has to be left to flow distructively away. Will this be replaced by another drought which again we don’t know the cause of, nor can we prevent it.

Meanwhile I am left to grapple with an academic problem nearer home. If one examiner objects to part of my thesis and the other two don’t is it a problem? How do I address such differing responses? The one who failed me makes comments that have already been refuted in the text, suggesting that he read it in a hurry. The one who ticked all the boxes is very keen for me to publish several parts of my research which I intend to do but not initially in the academic press which is what I think he has in mind. Ageing, and the effects of it, are an everyday problem for an increasing number of older people. This is where most research should be taking us, to practical use in the community. A few years ago a researcher in Sydney did research on solar panels but could get no financial support here. He found a very different story in China which seems to be well ahead of other economies in its use of natural energy and welcomed him with open arms.

Research should be largely based on the natural, and man-made, problems around us, recognised as such and assessed as such. Then we will have a better world, including for the homeless and starving. Then our scholarship and research will have its rightful place in society.

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I think many of us expected a great new world to accompany the 21st century, particularly compared with the huge changes last century. We are already a decade into it and we seem to be ignoring so much of our new knowledge. Maybe as an older person I am more conscious of  changes, and the lack of changes which should be happening as a result of new knowledge.

For many of us the revelations in Wikileaks is showing us a very different side of our world leaders – a side we prefer didn’t exist. People we put our trust in are expected to have personal standards that we can endorse but this no longer seems to be the case. Worse still, I’m not convinced that their behaviour will improve. The only thing that may change is that they may be a bit more careful about what they commit to paper. Otherwise they will continue with the same unacceptable behaviour. What interests me is that Obama hasn’t been implicated in any of it, at least according to the Australia media, yet his popularity is low. Does that mean that we now expect our leaders to behave unconscionably and accept them if they do? Does this imply that society is not moving forward with each new generation having higher standards than the last? I always wince at the thought of people flooding to see public hangings in the past and hope that as a society we are moving upwards in our standards.

One area in which we ignore progress is the idea that we will get much better results in projects if we involve the users of the project right from the start. I am aware that this doesn’t happen with older people because society’s pecking order designates us as second class citizens, without knowledge or views, but the behaviour stretches beyond this. I recently attended a meeting about the new Super Clinic the Federal government is providing seeding money for in Canberra. The senior government officer leading the discussion was surprised at how many members of the community had views on the project. If you don’t involve the community, in a project designed for the community, right from the start then you will get less successful outcomes. I asked if the selection criteria for the group to set it up would include their ability to meet major health problems, such as the epidemics in obesity and diabetes. I was told they wouldn’t be. So they are not going to provide for the needs of  the community, nor are they going to address major health needs. Shouldn’t this be ringing alarm bells for a government frequently accused of badly managing projects? It’s wonderful fodder for the opposition, but I suspect they prefer to bring our attention to it when it is too late.

We learned so much in the last century yet we ignore so much of it. I wonder if, now that the characters of our leaders are being exposed, if we will continue to be apathetic. Don’t we want a better society, one we can be proud of? No doubt the many millions across the world who are starving and homeless already know the answer to this.