Laser zone

It was 1917 when Albert Einstein first proposed the possibility of lasers. When the first true laser was built in 1960, the technology seemed esoteric and expensive, good only for space age weapons in sci-fi movies. Lasers have since become an integral part of everyday consumer products; play a central role in telecommunications and measurement; and are used for imaging and intricate surgery. It is hard to imagine life without them.

It’s also becoming difficult to imagine how such technology could be developed in Australia today. Given our approach to research—the competition for funds, the need for return on investment, and the drive for efficiency—we cannot afford to have people, equipment and ideas sitting around without profit for 50 years.

Recently, Federal Education Minister Dr Brendan Nelson released three reviews of research funding and infrastructure. They dealt with the efficiency of using public funds in universities and government research bodies, such as the CSIRO and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. One review examined closer collaboration between universities and research agencies. It proposed putting hundreds of millions of dollars (that now goes directly to institutions) into a competitive ‘collaborative fund’ for cooperative ventures. While closer collaboration between institutions deserves to be funded, diverting that money from direct grants to research institutions decreases the funds universities can be assured of receiving. And the greater the uncertainty of funding, the lower the level of long-term research undertaken. The more governments drive research towards competitive funding, the less curiosity-driven or ‘blue-sky’ research can be done.

For all the protestations of support for long-term research, the trend towards short-term research in universities is evident. The amount of money they directly receive from government for research is dependent on the income they attract, the number of students they graduate in higher degrees and the number of papers published. This encourages an increased level of research activity and performance. It also encourages short-term application of research to solving practical problems, at the expense of long-term accumulation of knowledge.

The bigger, research-based universities are pouring resources into collaborative problem-solving centres, attractive to business and government, both of which have horizons measured in years rather than decades. Melbourne University will open a $100 million Molecular and Biotechnology Institute this year, aimed at collaborating with companies and other research institutions in commercialising research. It has also announced the Centre for Water Research and signed a memorandum of understanding for joint research with Melbourne Water.

This investment and activity is admirable. But Archimedes is concerned lest we throw the long-term, ‘blue-sky’ research baby, out with the short-term, problem solving bathwater. The connection between American innovation, consumer products, and research, is clear. But in the flash and glitz of marketing, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the US supports a strong academic culture and that American business and community invest heavily in non-commercial research. The Americans know that the lifeblood of innovation is the knowledge generated by curiosity-driven studies.

Australians have been brilliant at ideas, and poor at using them to practical purposes. In our rush to generate a more productive research culture, we must guard against cutting off the well-spring of ideas.

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.



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