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Business should join science

Date

Cathy Foley

'We are somewhat risk-averse in Australia, which is odd for a country that likes a bet.'

'We are somewhat risk-averse in Australia, which is odd for a country that likes a bet.'

If you believe the hype, a war is brewing in Australia. Not a battle of territory or ideals, but a war between science and business.

There have been claims that science is a watchdog on the prowl, looking at environmental mishaps as opportunities to bring down big corporations. Similarly, it has been suggested business is out to discredit scientists, ignoring the evidence and ruthlessly putting economic gain before people and the planet.

While this rhetoric is dramatic, it does a disservice to the symbiotic relationship between science and business. We are not at war. Quite the opposite: we are two camps that depend on each other to survive and thrive.

As a scientist, I can say we rely on business to make sure our hard work sees the light of day. I am also well aware business needs us in order to innovate, remain competitive and develop new products and services.

You do not need to cast your mind back too far to see how interdependent we really are.

Last week, I was sifting through the newly released cabinet papers from 1986, and reflecting on how much our political landscape has changed in such a short time. Bob Hawke was (arguably) spending more time running the country than downing beer at the cricket. And our treasurer, Paul Keating, was warning that if we were not careful, Australia could soon become a banana republic.

But what was happening in the world of science in 1986?

This was the year IBM unveiled its PC Convertible, the world's first laptop, which weighed in at 5.8 kilograms and had a whole 256 kilobytes of RAM and a DOS operating system. The first internet mail access protocol - the basis of email - was invented. We also saw the launch of the Human Genome Project, which was completed in 2003 at a cost of $US3 billion.

Looking back, it is evident how the world - and business in particular - has been transformed by these scientific advances. Computers are now lightweight and have incredible power, as well as gigabytes upon gigabytes of RAM. Email is the main method for communication and essential for running a business.

You can even get your genome mapped for a few grand. It has been reported the research and commercial activities of the Human Genome Project, which began as a scientific activity, have generated $65 billion in one year alone for the US economy and created more than 270,000 jobs. It does not matter what your business background is; that is a healthy return on investment.

Not only have these technologies evolved in response to the needs of business, but business has been transformed because of the existence of these technologies.

This is happening in Australia, too. At the CSIRO, we have a long history of delivering innovations that have led to new products, spin-off companies and prosperity for our industry partners. Some products you use every day, such as plastic banknotes, the Relenza flu drug and extended-wear contact lenses, to name a few.

As a recent example, we have entered into a technology agreement with Medical Developments International, an Australian company that manufactures Penthrox, which is commonly known as the pain-relieving ''green whistle''. We are investing $750,000, with the aim of developing a smarter production process to support the company's plans to enter British and European markets.

This shows how investing in industrially focused research can often lead to immediate applications and economic benefits. While this type of science is incredibly important, it cannot be the only way we approach innovation, because at the outset, science's goal is not always that obvious, especially given it takes an average of 20 years to convert a scientific breakthrough into a product.

You have only to look at the home-grown example of wireless LAN, an invention that has given us the freedom to work wirelessly through our laptops and smartphones. This technology came out of the CSIRO's radio astronomy research in the 1990s. Who could have predicted in 1986 that, by setting out to improve the way we studied celestial objects, we would invent technology that would end up in 5 billion devices worldwide and form the backbone of a new industry?

We are somewhat risk-averse in Australia, which is odd for a country that likes a bet. We must learn to accept that we will not always be able to back a winner. But what we can do is back brilliance. This starts with fundamental research, which over time can create the unexpected.

So, let us drop the adversarial rhetoric. Australia is too small and exposed for science and business to be at loggerheads. Rather, let us continue to work together, licensing intellectual property, raising venture capital, commercialising new technologies and making the most of the investment in scientific discovery and wonderment.

By doing this, we will avoid becoming Keating's banana republic and continue to grow into the clever country I know we can be.

Dr Cathy Foley is the CSIRO's chief of materials science and engineering.

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