Cognitive Science at Macquarie: a personal history by Max Coltheart

Jacqueline (Jacqui) Goodnow was Australia’s first cognitive scientist. She graduated with an Honours degree and the University Medal in Psychology from the University of Sydney in 1944. It was not possible for her to do a PhD in Psychology there at that time (the first University of Sydney PhD in Psychology was not awarded until 1957). So she went to Radcliffe College for her PhD, graduating in 1951. She then worked as a research assistant at Harvard’s new Centre for Cognitive Studies, which led to her book with Bruner and Austin, A Study of Thinking (1956), one of the key works that led to the rebirth of cognitive psychology and the vanquishing of behaviourism in the 1950s.

Jacqui came to Macquarie University in 1972, initially to the Department of Education; she then took up the position of Professor of Psychology in 1976. She became very influential in Australian psychology because of her membership of the psychology committee of the Australian Research Council (ARC; at that time called the Australian Research Grants Committee), and she played a major role in the ARC’s decision in 1990 to declare Cognitive Science one of its priority research areas. As a consequence, there was an ARC Cognitive Science priority panel from 1991 to 1993.  Two of the four members of this panel were Jonathan Harrington and me, both from Macquarie; we were later to become Deputy Director and Director of the Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science (MACCS) in 2000.

Cognitive Science at Macquarie

I moved from the University of London (Birkbeck College) to Macquarie in 1987 as Professor of Psychology and director of the clinical psychology programme there. The Psychology department at Macquarie in 1987 did not have many cognitive psychologists (the 1987 Macquarie University Calendar lists only a single publication from the Psychology department in the area of cognitive psychology). What the department did have at that time was a group of social psychologists who believed that research in psychology must be qualitative rather than quantitative, and who fervently opposed experimental psychology, especially experimental cognitive psychology. They were very opposed to my being appointed, but Jackie Goodnow was in favour of this; and she prevailed.

Read more... part 1

However, because of this group my first few years at Macquarie were not happy ones, and eventually I decided to leave. In 1990, I asked another University for a professorial position, and was offered one. I accepted it, and resigned my Macquarie post.

Luckily for me, Macquarie’s Vice-Chancellor and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) came to hear about this. They asked to meet me, and they persuaded me to stay. A room in building C3A was established as a dedicated cognitive science laboratory and equipped with a network of twelve Macintosh Plus computers equipped with computational modelling software. A new undergraduate course PSY327 Cognitive Science was added to the psychology undergraduate curriculum for 1991. A new Senior Lectureship earmarked for teaching cognitive science was funded for the Psychology Department (this post was taken up by Marie Carroll from the University of New England, who went on to become Foundation Professor of Psychology and Pro Vice Chancellor (Academic) at the University of Canberra). Macquarie’s Masters in Clinical Neuropsychology course was created in 1991. All of this established cognitive science at Macquarie

In 1998 level 5 of building C5A was refurbished and was vacant. I suggested that those in the Psychology Department who had interests in cognitive psychology (Lyndsey Nickels, Robyn Langdon, Kathy Rastle, Veronika Coltheart, Sachiko Kinoshita, Tim Bates, Jo Ziegler and me) be moved there. This proposal was accepted and eventually we were all housed in the West Wing of C5A Level 5, along with frogmouth, rosella and currawong (our three Sun computers).

And Macquarie’s Linguistics Department was also moved from building W6A to the East Wing of Level 5 of C5A. Which meant that the linguists Jonathan Harrington and Sallyanne Palethorpe, having previously occupied a different building from Kathy Rastle and me, were now housed in the same corridor as us. That geographical proximity led to the four of us collaborating, and publishing together. I am still working with Sallyanne,

The psychologists-and-linguists group occupying Level 5 of C5A interacted so well that when in 1998 the ARC announced the next round of its Key Centres for Teaching and Research scheme, we decided to put together an application for an ARC Key Centre for Teaching and Research in Cognitive Science. Several other applications for this scheme were put together by other groups at Macquarie, but the DVC (Research) and Research Office ranked ours first, and prepared to submit it to the ARC.

Then I got cold feet about this.

I hadn’t found the calibre of students enrolling in PSY327 Cognitive Science to be very high, and I had serious doubts about how popular would be the kinds of postgraduate coursework units in Cognitive Science that this Key Centre would require. So at the very last moment we withdrew our application. Given the amount of help the DVC (Research) had given us in developing this application, I felt bad about this. I felt I should apologise to him by buying him lunch at Quay restaurant. So we had lunch there.

This withdrawal was actually very lucky for us, because the very next year, in 1999, the ARC announced the next round of a different Centres scheme, its Special Research Centres scheme, something that suited us far better, since these Special Research Centres were solely for research and research training.

ARC Special Research Centre grants were for nine years. Macquarie’s new Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Jim Piper, who had previously won one of these Special Research Centre grants and been Director of it at Macquarie, told me that what the ARC particularly cared about in assessing these Centre applications is the Director and the fit between what the proposed research is and what research the Director has done. So we created a Centre proposal for research on reading, visual cognition, and delusional belief: proposing a Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science.[MC1]

At dawn on one beautiful morning late in 1999 while I was working at home on my computer, I had a phone call from my late friend Peter Wenderoth. He said “You got your grant”. He’d checked the ARC website even before I had.

The Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science

Job ad

Suppose one were advertising for the position of Director of a Research Centre. One might include in the Job Description the following necessary qualifications

* Demonstrable ability to deal with and resolve interpersonal conflicts

* Leadership: demonstrable ability to direct the work of the scientific and administrative staff of the Centre

* Administrative ability: demonstrated effectiveness at establishing administrative structures and chairing key committees.

There are personality shortcomings I have which cause me to shrink from interpersonal conflicts and from staff meetings, and which make it very difficult for me to tell other people what to do. These would rule me out from such a job. Fortunately, this was not how ARC chose Centre Directors then. So, as the University had promised when signing off on the Centre application, I was granted nine years’ leave with pay (though that turned out to be not much more than two years) from my position as a Professor in the Department of Psychology and took up the full-time position as Director of MACCS.

In the early days of MACCS we focussed a great deal on reforming the PhD system.  We introduced thesis supervision panels and the journal-article format for PhD theses; originally the only place in the University where these things were done was in MACCS, but now both are standard across the whole University.  We also introduced research-oriented coursework units for PhD students. All of this proved very attractive to PhD students, and soon we had many of these. More than half of them were from overseas because at that time the University had a very generous International PhD scholarship scheme. This generated a very vibrant and international PhD culture in MACCS.

In 2002, ARC announced the first round of its Federation Fellowships scheme, a five-year very senior research fellowship scheme a little like their current Laureate scheme. I applied for one of these and was successful, an event celebrated by a surprise dinner for me at a Lebanese restaurant in Enmore at which, actually in the restaurant, some of my colleagues performed a specially written song, “Monster Max”.

Then came something of a shock. The ARC instructed me to step down from being Director of MACCS, on the ground that this was a full-time job and being a Federation Fellow was also a full-time job. I didn’t want to relinquish either position. What to do?

The ARC had introduced the Federation Fellowship scheme in a great hurry - I suspect there was a lot of political pressure from the Howard government - and had not really thought it through. For example, they had not thought about: What should happen if a FF was an ARC Centre Director? They had not even thought about: What should happen to the FF’s current position e.g. Professor when the FF was taken up? Hastily, they said to such FFs “Well, of course you’ll have to resign from your current tenured position if you want to hold a Federation Fellowship”. If FFs did that, where would they be after the FF ended? Flurries of concern amongst the FFs ensued. I was at least fifteen years older than all the other inaugural FFs, and somehow I became a kind of unofficial shop steward for them. My advice was: Go to your DVC (Research) and say: “Can I please have a letter from the University promising my current job back in five years time?” (Of course, that’s what the ARC should have required of Universities in the first place; it does now). I advised the FFs to hint that if they didn’t get such a letter they would not accept the Fellowship. No University would want that. So things calmed down.

But what about me as Director of MACCS? I explained to the ARC that my job had been restructured into two: A Scientific Director (me) and an Administrative Director (this was Suzanne Anderson, who had been called the Centre Administrator until then) and so I no longer had two full-time jobs. I doubt that they believed me, but this saved face, and I could continue on as both MACCS Director and Federation Fellow.

In 2003, the ARC announced a round of a new grant scheme, their Research Networks scheme. Applications in two parts were solicited. The second part was for some millions of dollars to provide long-term support for inter-institution networks supporting some specific area of research. Before that, the first part was for seeding founds of some tens of thousands of dollars to facilitate the development of the larger applications via meetings and preliminary collaborations. The MACCS reading researchers got together with other Australian reading researchers and also research-oriented practitioners concerned with investigating and treating disorders of the production and comprehension of spoken and written language skills, and proposed the establishment of the Developmental Disorders of Language and Literacy (DDOLL) network. The ARC provided seeding funds of $20,000 and the DDOLL network was established. We then decided that nothing more needed to be done – the network was doing everything we wanted it to - and so did not proceed with the larger application

Activities by DDOLL led directly to the instigation, by the Federal Minister for Education, Science and Training, Dr Brendan Nelson, of a national review of the teaching of reading in Australian schools. The DDOLL network continues to be extremely active and currently has more than 350 members in a variety of countries. A nice example of applied cognitive science.

In 2004, MACCS welcomed its second Federation Fellow, Professor Stephen Crain. He became Deputy Director of the Centre and it was due to him that MACCS developed a major new research direction, cognitive neuroscience, with his establishment of magnetoencephalography laboratories in the Centre.

In 2006 a new Vice-Chancellor, Steven Schwartz, took up his position at Macquarie.

When he arrived he said he wanted to refocus the university around peaks of research excellence, and began by asking the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) and Research office to identify what these peaks – “Concentrations of Research Excellence” or CoREs  - were at Macquarie. Then 43 new academic positions were created which would all go to these CoREs. One such identified CoRE was cognitive science. MACCS asked for 6 new positions and was granted all of these. That’s how we got Anne Castles, Blake Johnson, Anina Rich, Greg Savage, John Sutton and Mark Williams. Ten years later all of them are still here.

In late 2006, Amanda Barnier, who was in the Department of Psychology at the University of New South Wales, was awarded an ARC Australian Research Fellowship and Discovery Project Grant with John Sutton (who not much later joined MACCS but was then in the Department of Philosophy at Macquarie University). She had been collaborating with John and another MACCS member, me, for some time on grants and projects and took the opportunity when it was offered to move her ARC Fellowship and research labs to MACCS. So she accepted the Fellowship but took it up at Macquarie instead of UNSW, in January 2007. She is still here, and her two collaborations have continued to flourish.

Read more... part 2

In 2007 Macquarie appointed a new Chief Financial Officer, John Gorman. Before his arrival, financial management at Macquarie was a little relaxed: for example, Faculties were permitted to accumulate millions of dollars of unspent budget surplus over the years. One of the first actions of the new Chief Financial Officer was to put an end to this. Faculties and their departments were told that at the end of each year any unspent budget amounts would be returned to central funds: budget accumulation over the years would no longer be permitted. This afforded MACCS a potential opportunity and a potential cost.

At that time Macquarie’s School of Economics and Financial Studies had a budget surplus of several million dollars, which it therefore had to spend in a hurry: that was the potential opportunity for MACCS. The only way E&FS could spend so large a sum quickly was to build itself a new building, which it did, and so vacated its previous premises, level 5 of C5C. Since the C5C building is located right in the heart of the University, there was a proposal to demolish it and replace it with decorative open space. Fortunately, it was in the end decided not to do this. So that left level 5 of C5C vacant. We asked to have it and it was agreed that we could move there. We said we would if it were refurbished.

In those days, the University’s Buildings and Grounds office was extremely keen on ultra-open-plan space (a very cheap way of refurbishing), so the plan they drew up for our C5C space consisted almost entirely of cubicles. We didn’t like that; we wanted plenty of offices. So there many tense meetings between Katie Webb and Lisa Yen and B&G. Katie and Lisa were ultimately victorious, and thanks to them we ended up with the rather nice premises we had in C5C, with lots of offices.

That was the opportunity John Gorman’s financial policy offered MACCS. But there was a potential cost that was serious. Part of the conditions for ARC Special Research Centres was that at the end of the nine years of grant funding these Centres would be able to continue on a self-funded basis, and every one of our Annual Reports had to indicate what progress was being made towards our being self-funded. By the beginning of 2007, after seven years of the grant, we had accumulated some millions of dollars and were planning to keep on accumulating so that by the beginning of 2009, when there would be no more funding from the Centre grant, we would have a large enough surplus to keep MACCS going indefinitely. That conflicted dramatically with the new zero-surplus policy – which generated a number of meetings of the University’s Finance people with Katie and me. We kept arguing that when the University signed off on the Centre submission in 1999 it was agreeing that MACCS could roll over its surplus annually, and we wondered aloud what the ARC would think of Macquarie if we were no longer permitted to do this. As a result, MACCS ended up being the only unit in the University permitted to accumulate surplus finds over the years. So when the MACCS ARC Special Research Centre grant expired at the end of 2008, MACCS continued to exist, funding itself from 2009 onwards from its accumulated surplus (with Anne Castles taking over as Director in 2010). The plan was for MACCS to continue indefinitely in this way.

After the Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science

But then in 2010 the ARC announced the next round of another and different Centres scheme, its Centres of Excellence scheme. This scheme required the participation of multiple institutions, so under the leadership of Stephen Crain various researchers from MACCS joined researchers from the University of New South Wales and the University of Western Australia to submit a Centre of Excellence application. This application was successful, and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders (CCD) was established, with ARC funding for the period 2011 to 2017. The CCD does research and research training in five areas: belief formation, language, memory, person perception, and reading. Stephen Crain is the CCD Director and Anne Castles its Deputy Director.

The CCD needed a host department, and so a new University department to host it, the Department of Cognitive Science, was established in 2012, with Anne Castles as its initial Head of Department (Genevieve McArthur took over the headship in 2015). An undergraduate major in Cognitive Science taught by this department has now been introduced at Macquarie, and the Department now also teaches graduate courses in Cognitive Science.

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