Earlier this year the Federal Government asked the Productivity Commission to undertake a research study on public support for science and innovation. There were over 100 submissions. The Commission’s work has progressed, and includes a 585 page staff working paper titled Econometric Modelling of R&D and Australia’s Productivity.
A book published earlier this year provides a perspective on contemporary science and innovation policy. It would be interesting to read the submissions to the Productivity Commission in light of the book by Dr Thomas Barlow, a thirty-something consultant who served from 2002 to 2004 as Scientific Adviser to Dr Brendan Nelson, Minister for Education, Science and Training in the Howard Government.
Dr Barlow holds a DPhil in Theoretical Chemistry from Oxford University and a BSc (Hons I) from Sydney University, where he was awarded the university medal in Chemistry. Following this he held research fellowships in chemistry and biomedical science at Oxford University in the UK, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA.
A key or even central theme of the book, and the title of the third chapter, addresses the question “Are we our own worst enemy?”
Debunking myths about Australian science, innovation and commercialisation
Early in the book Dr Barlow lines up the targets which he spends most of the book shooting. He convincingly writes that entrenched in the general imagination of Australians are 10 myths relating to science, innovation and commercialisation. Among the myths, relevant to readers of the lightbulb blog, are the following five (at pages 4 to 5):
- MYTH: Australians are hopeless at profiting from their inventions because Australian researchers aren’t commercial enough. [The book notes in response the extraordinary GDP figures of Australia over more than a decade.]
- MYTH: All of Australia’s best ideas end up overseas. [The book briefly discusses the sale of Radiata Communications to Cisco Systems.]
- MYTH: If only the members of the Australian research community could all work together, Australia could achieve so much more. [“… Australian researchers are already among the most collaborative in the world. Ninety per cent of research publications published by Australian scientists have more than one author. … University-industry collaborations, again as measured by joint publications, more than doubled through the 1990s. In addition, more than a third of Australian research publications have an international co-author.” – page 37]
- MYTH: The Australian public doesn’t value science sufficiently highly. [The book says, let them eat cake, oops, continue to enjoy their love of sport and that science will go on nonetheless.]
- MYTH: Wealth creation in Australia relies excessively on non-technological industries such as agriculture and mining. [The book says, it does not matter if we still benefit from those industries, especially given the very high levels of technology innovation Australia has achieved in those industries.
The writing style Dr Barlow has adopted makes it difficult to pin down his views beyond his criticism of the myths. Too often he tells a story to illustrate a view, without expressly stating his view.
This is not completely a bad thing. Reading Dr Barlow’s book I’m reminded that the world is changing fast and we have to think in new ways about some issues, problems and challenges. Navigating into the future armed with stories rooted in history or contemporary examples is perhaps as valid as alternative preparations. Story telling is the approach of this book.
Dr Barlow’s polemic is that Australians are failing to understand themselves, their real strengths and weaknesses as regards science and innovation relative to the rest of the world.
He says comparisons with other countries (Finland, Japan, Asian Tigers, US etc) can be misleading and not so useful given circumstances in Australia which are unique to the country, the character of its people, and its areas of comparative advantage.
Our science and innovation cringe
He recommends we take off the self-imposed blindfold, and avoid being like 19th century Australian landscape painters who until the final decades of that century painted the landscape as if they were looking at an English countryside. They saw what they wanted to see, not what was there.
Dr Barlow says the enemies among us are those who exhibit an Australian science and innovation cringe in submissions to government, public criticism of Australia’s track record, and mass media whinge sessions about brain drains or selling off the farm. He says their pessimism is self-reinforcing and revolves around myths about Australia’s historical record.
Dr Barlow notes alternatives to:
- avoiding foreign ownership – ie the alternative is to welcome it to access markets abroad or to make a trade sale when for example huge capital investment or production and distribution scale might be required from a giant abroad for continued growth;
- fearing a brain drain of talent overseas – ie the alternative is to see Australians working abroad as a sign of a strengthening Australian Diaspora;
- being pessimistic about the skills of Australian executives (eg their suitability for running hierarchical business structures) – the alternative is to recognise is that the trend is moving away from the industrial age organisation man, and moving in favour of innovative thinking from fertile, nimble and flexible SMEs, mavericks and individualists.
Dr Barlow does not dig much deeper beyond supporting his polemic with lots of stories and examples. They make the book easy to read but they also make it verge on waffle. The fact is our contemporary public policy is biased in ways unhelpful to innovation and commercialisation. And it is realistic, not pessimistic, to note these and loudly. Dr Barlow does not do this. The impediments include excessive and convoluted business law regulation, a taxation system biased against business growth and opportunity for venture capital, and intellectual property laws that are increasing in their complexity with too few attempts made to simplify them. Dr Barlow mentions some of these things in one paragraph alone.
Insights on modern Australian science and innovation
Nonetheless the book makes a contribution by providing highly readable good news for and about modern Australian science and innovation. The remainder of this book review draws together some of Dr Barlow’s insights relevant to readers of the lightbulb blog.
We’re good at growing researchers
- ‘Across the whole of Australia the number of researchers more than tripled between the late 1970s and the early part of the twenty-first century. … In fact, there are now as many researchers in Australian universities alone as there were in the country as a whole across all sectors – including universities, government laboratories and business – in 1990.’ [Page 51]
We have exceptional levels of rural productivity
- ‘There are families in the Wongan Ballidu area north of Perth who, after tax and the payment of personal salaries, have seen the average net worth in their business grow at an average of 12 per cent per annum over 35 years. … Plenty of so-called high-tech businesses would struggle to harvest those sorts of sustained gains.’ [Page 59]
We have capitalised on strength and lead in mining software
- ‘The extent to which the Australian mining industry is technologically focused – and leading the world – is such that more than 60 per cent of the mining software now used globally is Australian.’ [Page 60]
We have strength in being diversified in our research spread
- ‘For its size, the Australian economy is currently highly diversified, and its research base reflects this. Any insistence on the nation concentrating its resources in innovation implies a need to direct support away from this diversity. Yet national economies that are overly specialised can be extraordinarily vulnerable.’ [Page 33]
We must work with, not against, the motivation of scientists as individuals
- Dr Barlow convincingly argues against any preference for big collaborative group projects. He notes the achievements and the love of discovery motivation that is a key driver for individual scientists. He quotes Rene Descartes in support: ‘Truths are more likely to have been discovered by one man than by a nation.’
- The book repeatedly cites examples of apparently obscure or basic research (as contrasted to developmental research or applied research) leading to valuable outcomes. I think the message can be simply and not unfairly said to be: leave the scientists alone to follow their curiosity, scientists just want to have fun, leave them to pursue the unknown. It’s not something scientists would put into a grants submission, but as one senior and successful scientist he quotes said to him – everything he did in his research was driven by a desire to improve his understanding of the world, and he argued all his success in research was attributable to this impulse. In further support of these ideas.
- As the best quote on the topic of motivation, Dr Barlow at page 202 quotes Richard Feynman, US physicist and Nobel laureate, who is said to have observed: ‘Physics is like sex. Sure, it may have some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.’
We must avoid stringent priority setting
- Similarly he is against centralised or national research programs. He cites failed national ventures, such as multi-billion dollar efforts in Germany in biotechnology and Japan via Miti. He stands on the shoulders of the economist, Joseph Schumpeter, who in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy warned that over the long term centrally planned economies were less efficient. Dr Barlow writes that ‘stringent priority-setting [eg by governments and grants bodies] is sometimes the enemy of curiosity [by scientists and innovators]’. [Page 208]
- ‘Two factors,’ writes Dr Barlow at page 187, ‘impel governments towards the exertion of greater control over the research they fund. The first is the belief that control is needed to build scale in critical areas and to enhance efficiency. … The second is the belief that individual researchers cannot be trusted, on their own behalf, to make decisions that serve the long-term interests of the nation.’ Dr Barlow debunks both propositions noting anecdotal evidence of researchers self-organising at the grassroots level around issues that are very often of national significance.
We are changing with the times – technology trends and service trends
- ‘Throughout the 20th century, most nations that sought to catch up with America’s technological success have felt they had no other option but to focus national innovation on building scale-based technological systems, especially in manufacturing.’ Dr Barlow makes this point at page 220. Elsewhere in the book he notes that scale is not as effective as it used to be. This point is made more effectively by other commentators, but Dr Barlow gives us some interesting local observations.
- He says today it is becoming increasing harder to differentiate between high-tech and low-tech industrial sectors. Here Dr Barlow refers to the embedding of knowledge-based systems in manufacturing, agriculture, mining, defence and old technology like traffic lights. Dr Barlow refers to an increasingly noted reality – low-tech businesses are being transformed into high-tech businesses, something of direct relevance to Australia with its strong bias towards mining, agriculture and other traditional industries.
- There is also good news relevant to a number of services niches in Australia. ‘… [T]he industry sector in Australia with the highest proportion of employment in science and technology occupations now lies in business services. In addition, around 40 per cent of total business expenditures on research and development now occur in the service industries. This is a significant bias that is not seen in most other developed countries: in Canada, for example, the figure is less than 30 per cent; in Korea, it is around 10 per cent; and in Japan, it is around 2 per cent.’ [Page 229]
- ‘Much of the Australian commitment to research and development in the services sector represents an effort to push new software solutions into the finance and insurance industries, and into retail, property and business services generally – all so-called old industries.’ [Page 229-230]
Dr Barlow is an engaging writer. The simple message of the book is that pessimism about science and innovation in Australia is largely nonsense. The book is in a mass market paperback format and hence unsurprisingly has no footnotes or index and only a short bibliography.
Thomas Barlow, The Australian Miracle: An Innovative Nation Revisited, Picador (www.panmacmillan.com.au), 2006.