Science And...


    Science and Business 

In the fourth of an occasional series Harry Robinson comments on the mindsets of Australian business and science
[Earlier Articles]

Brain Game Players

The result of the federal elections mean clearly that science cannot hope for much from government for several years. Consequently, science must develop more skill in attracting support directly from business. In the United States, business looks to science as a source of profit. In Australia, the record is dismal.

Yet there is a way. Join me in finding a path.

Let's begin with a pre-election talk in Perspective on Radio National. Katie Lahey, an executive with the Business Council of Australia, had me fooled for a minute. In the best corporate style -- deadpan -- she spoke about education and training being the most significant issue in the election campaign. She used phrases which are becoming faddish in the smiling professions, phrases such as “new challenge” and “knowledge-based economy.” And, oh yes, “increasing investment in education and training.”

The longer I listened the more suspicious I became. Ms Lahey did not once say a word about what the Business Council of Australia proposed to contribute to a knowledge-based economy or what any company or group of companies might inject into the nation’s investment in this desirable education and training.

Perhaps I had missed something, perhaps she, on behalf of her Council, had actually pointed to Business Action. So I turned up her transcript.

No action.

Inferences were hard to avoid--

  1. Trained staff were wanted, good routine workers who could carry out assigned tasks.

  2. The investment would have to come from government, not from business.

  3. Nothing fancy like adventurous scientific research was on the Business Council agenda.

  4. The nation might be facing a new challenge, but Business as Usual was the real mindset of The BCA.

It was too early to despair. The BCA speaks for the general run of businesses, not for advanced thinkers in business, for enterprises which prize intellectual property above all. And make profits from it.

A good reference point here is an article by Phillip Ruthven of the think-tank IBIS published in the Australian Financial Review on 28/2/98. You can find it on the web in Fairfax F2 Archives under the headline How to make money from the death of capitalism (as we knew it).

Ruthven's thesis was that "Intellectual property and finance are sweeping the world as part of a new order." He stated that corporations operating on this principle were earning two and three times the profits of those still putting their faith in land, bricks and mortar. "And labour? Modern corporations do not want to 'own' labour: they are outsourcing non-core functions..." he was calling for a radically different way of running businesses.

What could this have to do with advancing Australian science? Please endure one more quote. "There are hundreds of medium-large enterprises in Australia not burdened by old (and now bad) habits, now earning consistently three to four times the bond rate of return after tax."

Hundreds of enterprises thoroughly immersed in the use of intellectual property. Which must mean a small elite force of business persons on the intellectual wavelength.

These people are to commerce what researchers in science are to laboratory owners. They govern the companies which science leaders in search of support and money ought to find and approach.

Here is a layer of business able to understand the proposition of science--let us discover feedstock for you to develop.

Earlier, Robin Williams had turned up a more hopeful prospect of science-business co-operation when, on Catalyst, he introduced Sir Alec Broers, Vice Chancellor of Cambridge. The knight spoke of a Bill Gates contribution to scientific work at Cambridge with very loose strings. According to Broers, the Gates invitation was to gather a bunch of the best scientists and let them research whatever interested them.

Yes, he agreed, it might take years to get useful results and yes, “You’ve got to rely on an 80% failure rate.” When the pocket is as deep as Gates’s, 20% success will do nicely thank you because it will lead to super colossal returns.

Therein lay the string: whatever new knowledge came out of the largesse, Microsoft would have first option for development and marketing.

As to disadvantages for Australian scientists, Broers flicked off our remoteness and isolation, citing decades of relief through the web, travel and sabbaticals. And should our people strive to make research ventures with wealthy regimes in our own neighbourhood? Absolutely, said the man from Cambridge, pointing to Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai as busy, rich honey pots for the nourishment of Australian researchers.

It may look discouraging--Australian business characterised by a mean and unimaginative attitude to science. But there are pathways: Phillip Ruthven and Sir Alec Broers are good signposts.
The third in the series    (25/10/01) --  Science and the Politician
The second in the series (14/10/01) --  Science and the Arts
The first in the series      (02/10/01) --  Science and the Media

Harry Robinson
who for 25 years worked in television journalism in Oz and the US and who was for several years air media critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald.