Mythbuster

In the SMH today, I have a review of The Australian Miracle, a terrific science policy book by Thomas Barlow. The published version isn’t online, which isn’t all bad, as it was somewhat bowdlerised (after reading my review, tell me if you can work out why it was given the headline “It’s a lucky country when bright sparks stay put”). The full version is over the fold.

Review of Thomas Barlow, The Australian Miracle: An Innovative Nation Revisited 

Australians are uniquely inventive, yet hopeless at commercialising our ideas. We suffer from a brain drain, as our best people and ideas flee overseas. And government funding for scientific research is inadequate and unfocused.

If these statements strike a chord, Thomas Barlow wants to persuade you that it’s a discordant note. A thirty-five year old biologist who recently served as science adviser to federal science minister Brendan Nelson, his aim is a quintessentially scientific one: to use facts and reasoned argument to pop some rhetorical balloons commonly floated by science policymakers.

Are Australians a wondrously innovative people? Barlow argues that we are no more ingenious than the English, Chinese, Japanese or Americans. The oft-cited collection of national discoveries – the black box, the polymer banknote, penicillin, the pacemaker, the stump-jump plough, the hills hoist, the wine cask, the two-stroke lawnmower – are no more and no less than one would expect of a country our size. On average, we produce about two percent of world scientific papers, which is approximately Australia’s share of the total economic output of the developed economies.

Are our researchers incapable of commercialising their research? Barlow points out that collaboration between industry and public sector researchers are healthy. Our universities produce similar numbers of start-up companies, and earn similar revenue from intellectual property, as their counterparts in Britain and the United States.

Are our national resources swirling down the brain drain? Fortunately, the answer is no. Thanks in part to a highly targeted migration program, twice as many skilled workers pass through the arrivals lounges of our airports as the departure lounges.  We gain too from the “global churn” of talent: Australians who work or study overseas before returning to their homeland. Indeed, while Barlow does not use the example of his own stints at Oxford and MIT, his return to Australian science is a signal example of the benefits of boomerang migration.

As a small country, should the federal government focus its science funding more tightly on just a few national priorities? Central planners lurk on both sides of the Australian political aisle, but there is little evidence that such grand schemes are an effective way of allocating resource funding. (As someone who has competed for grants through the Australian Research Council, I can testify to the verbal gymnastics that researchers are willing to perform in order to convince assessors that their favourite project fits within a “national priority” area.)

A better approach is to target people rather than projects. Barlow cites a 1946 report by the United States government, which proposed the following allocation mechanism:

(i) Find the best people through peer review.
(ii) Divide the available funds to support those people, but let them decide for themselves what research they want to do.
(iii) Leave them alone to do it

The problem with narrowing our research focus is that many important scientific discoveries occur in areas previously regarded as backwaters. Australia is likely to do better from a competitive system of funding the most innovative researchers than a top-down approach in which Canberra bureaucrats pick priorities.

Grounded in hard science and mainstream economics, The Australian Miracle is about as close to a page-turner as is possible for a book about science policy. Still, amidst the plethora of facts and anecdotes, one of the few things missing is a reluctance to name names. Why not finger a few of the high-profile policymakers responsible for perpetuating the myths about Australian science? In the next edition, Barlow might consider the following examples to bolster his case.

  • On inventiveness: “Our imaginative, inventive and highly skilled people have been acclaimed for innovative genius and commercial strength well beyond our weight in numbers” (John Howard)
  • On failure to commercialise: “there’s been growing frustration for a long time now that we’re not making the most of our brilliant science” (Peter McGauran)
  • On priority-setting: “the first thing we set about doing… was to set research priorities for our country” (Brendan Nelson).

For a straight-talker, it’s surprising to see Barlow pulling punches on his former employers.

Nobel-prize winning economist Robert Solow once said that all discussions about national productivity invariably end in a “blaze of amateur sociology”. And Barlow’s book is no exception. Despite fiercely critiquing the folklore of Australian national inventiveness in his opening chapter, he informs us in the final chapter that Australians are “a resourceful and entrepreneurial people”, “flexible”, and “possess an extraordinary freedom of spirit”. Perhaps. But to turn Barlow’s rhetoric back on himself, do we really possess these traits in greater measure than the Canadians, the Irish, or the French?

Yet these are minor quibbles. The essential point of The Australian Miracle is that misunderstanding our strengths, weaknesses, and position in the world have led to bad science policymaking. At first blush, this feisty paperback may appeal more to viewers of Mythbusters more than watchers of The New Inventors, but both would do well to devour it.

Dr Andrew Leigh is an economist at the Australian National University. He is the co-author of Imagining Australia: Ideas for Our Future.

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9 Responses to Mythbuster

  1. Patrick says:

    I admit, I’ve long been partial to exactly the policy you’ve suggested: simply funding top people to do whatever they want. Kinda like what those universities over there do, you know, with all the money and stuff?

  2. Robyn says:

    The brightest people do not exist on their own – they need institutions for their research, more so if they are to commercialise or exploit the results. Funding individuals wouldn’t allow that infrastructure to operate. Research policy claims like these often boil down to just as much assertion and rhetoric as the others Barlow points out (others could just as well argue that the most innovative thinkers are unlikely to be identified by peer review). What a shame, though, that he seems to have been singularly unsuccessful in influencing Nelson’s centralist approaches.

  3. Peter says:

    I don’t have access to the book, but the 1946 US policy guideline you quote from it sounds like a report written by Vannevar Bush (originator of the idea of the hyper-link, the WWW, and of what is now DARPA), who co-ordinated science policy under Franklin Roosevelt during WW II. If any one person could be said to be responsible for the military-industrial complex, he’s the man. I’m not sure that a society where research is so oriented towards military applications is at all desirable. Even apart from ethical considerations, military applications tend not to be typical of other applications. Thus, the US, for example, leads the world in manufacture of space-craft and aircraft (processes in which each craft is unique), but not in vehicles made on assembly-lines (eg, cars).

  4. Patrick says:

    No, but they did invent those assembly-lines.

    btw, aircraft aren’t unique, just bigger, and in fact military applications are irrelevant, the technology is the same. Things like microwave ovens spring to mind.

    I think that a world where America retains an effective monopoly on the projection of power is very desirable, and that the technological fringe benefits are a fantastic derivative benefit. Or, confining your thoughts to planet Earth, would you prefer China to be a serious competitor in that regard?

  5. Andrew Leigh says:

    I can feel an “Is America the greatest country on earth?” debate starting up…..

  6. Peter says:

    Just because the US invented the assembly line (if indeed, they did), does not mean they are currently the best practitioners of it.

    Large aircraft (and spacecraft, and large ships) are not manufactured on assembly lines. Each one is manufactured, one by one, usually standing in one position, with the components being brought to the site. The main reason for this is that each craft *is* unique. Each has slightly different dimensions, different customizations, different on-board equipment requirements, etc. Only with the development in the 1990s of global mobile satellite systems requiring hundreds of satellites did the satellite industry adopt something approaching an assembly line, but only for these handful of customers (Iridium, ICO, Globalstar, etc).

  7. Patrick says:

    Aircraft are really hardly more unique than cars these days. I don’t know if you have ever had a look at the production line of eg Ford, but their biggest headache (apart from not being able to scale down their wheelbases!) is that they are producing the majority of, say, Territories, to order. So at each post they have a bucket of different versions of the same thing, and they have to work out the numbers of each thing they need and the workers have to get the right ones on, etc. Pretty much every vehicle coming down is different.

    Sure, the actual plane bodies move less (but they still do), but all the principles of assembly-line manufacture are still there. The advantage of planes is that their size means that you don’t lose the efficiency by having to go to the plane rather than have it come to you, since there is necessarily a lot of space anyway.

    Ships are more customised, but they are a very different industry – very low costs of development compared to cars and planes, notably – a lot to do with that being a quite mature industry and ships being much much bigger than planes or cars (standard pleasure boats are, of course, built on assembly lines!). They are mainly built in Korea, with Chinese production set to lift considerably as soon as they finish off a new shipyard in Shanghai (where else? I’m surprised they only built one!).

    But the complete lack of merit of your supporting arguments to one side, you are right – no-one pretends that America are the best practitioners of assembly-line manufacture. The Chinese, Japanese and Koreans are.
    But although the actual assembly line originated in Britain, it was Ford who added the conveyor belt and took the idea to its potential, and his countrymen who ran with that idea. Among other things American assembly lines won two world wars.

    For once at least, I am glad to be disappointing Andrew 😉

  8. Peter says:

    Patrick — I guess we disagree on what constitutes an assembly-line process. Whether the vehicles or the parts move is, as you say, irrelevant. But, since each large aircraft is unique, I cannot see how their manufacture can be assembly-line manufacturing.

  9. Patrick says:

    Easy. Nothing that unique – just part x instead of part y here, part theta instead of part beta there. Soon, you have a unique combination of the elements of a specified set, just as is the case with cars.

    That’s the whole point behind the economics of modern large aircraft. How else could they recoup the billions of dollars of development costs (greater tax breaks, obviously – ed). Small aircraft are even more homogenous, although there is of course the luxury end of the market.

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