In Australia

I’ve been to Australia for a brief trip, attending a closed public policy conference run by the Australian think-tank the Centre for Independent Studies. The terms of engagement of the conference prevent me from reporting on it in detail; it’s meant to be unreported and off-the-record. The attendance list was certainly a cut above the usual scientific conferences I go to; it included present and former cabinet ministers from the Australian and New Zealand governments, central bankers and senior judges, industry CEOs and prominent journalists.

A session of the conference was devoted to nanotechnology; I spoke, together with a couple of prominent Australian nanoscientists and the science correspondent of one of Australia’s major dailies. I was nervous about how I would be received, and I think many of the audience, more used to hearing about terrorism in Indonesia or commodity price fluctuations, were similarly nervous about whether they would find anything to interest them in such a specialised and futuristic sounding topic. In the event, I think, everyone was very pleasantly surprised at the success of the session and the lively debate it sparked.

I don’t want to divert this blog too much into discussing politics, but I can’t help observing that the tone of the meeting was a little bit more right wing than I am used to. The CIS clearly occupies rather a different part of think-tank space to my centrist friends in Demos, for example, and I regretted having left my Ayn Rand t-shirts at home. Nonetheless, I think it’s hugely important that science and technology do start to play a larger role in policy discussions.

11 thoughts on “In Australia”

  1. Hi Richard,

    The website has this saying as its banner:

    ‘We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. If we can regain that belief in the power of ideas which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost.’
    F.A. Hayek

    Did you not know that Hayek is a conservative icon? Actually, Hayek called himself a Liberal of the European sort by the way!

    As you work in this country which is politically Social Democratic, how is working with foreign political organisations going to furthur Nanotech in the UK?!!!


  2. Zelah, I’ll let you in on a secret – there are some things I do in my life for fun and for the experience, rather than out of my duty to promote UK nanotech at all times.

    Having said that, I’ll be pleased if I’ve done my australian nanoscientist friends and colleagues a favour, and since there were people there with influence across the English speaking world I don’t think it was a waste of time to raise their consciousness about nanotech a bit as well.

  3. Hi Prof Jones

    I just thought I’d share my experience of nanotech research in Australia as it seems relevant to your last post. I spent some time earlier this year working at the University of Queensland in Brisbane on a collaboration between the Gentle group and Prof Ashwell’s group, based here at Cranfield, I was there to help with the molecular electronics project and do some XPS surface analysis.

    It was my impression, admittedly based upon one months stay, that the general approach to nanotech in Australia is rather stricter, ‘right wing’ if you will, than we’d expect here; I can’t explain why this would be, especially for such a seemingly easy going country. My suspicion is that this is due to the, historically, greater control exerted by the right wing Australian government on the Australian Research Council. This was reflected in an incident that occurred during my visit: a young researcher – trained at UQ as an undergraduate chemist and subsequently PhD – was refused an ARC funded postdoc position based upon the fact he was not Australian but of Asian nationality, a result of which saw the researcher having to return home as he was now in breach of his visa.

    What I would say though, and you may well have greater insight in to this after your recent trip than I, is that the Australian approach to nanotech seems far more centrally coordinated than that of the UK. If this is true then maybe a little bit conservatism in science policy makers/discussions is not such a bad thing.

    Ben Robinson

    Cranfield University

  4. Oi Oi Oi, glad you didn’t get eaten by a dingo or a crocodile. This just an addenum to the locked “Grey goo won’t get you across the valley of death” thread (because you appear to be interacting with alot of industry/finance types):
    I’m just finishing an ’80s book called “Industrial Innovation”, where a study in a book “The Production and Application of New Industrial Technology” is referenced. Over the time period from 1959-1973, 17 different process and product innovations are analyzed. The median private RoR (profit + royalties + uncommercialized R&D) on cashflow is 25% for the whole time period. But the median public (consumer surplus gains + net private benefit) RoR is a whopping 56%.

    I know the study is ancient but in all my finance/economics readings I’ve never before seen public benefits from industrial innovation quantitized. The 2006 public return on (capital funded) innovation is even greater now considering global GDP growth is twice now what it was 40 yrs ago. Of course, any British government funded (nanotech) innovations would acrue all private gains to her own companies, and spread the over half (25/56) of the public productivity gains among the rest of the world’s economy.

  5. typo: (56-25)/56 x (2006 GDP growth rate)/(1960s GDP growth rate) is the % of public spinoffs from any potential British innovation investment, that are shared with the other 95% of the world’s economy, thx to globalization.

  6. Hi

    Just to let you know. I left a comment, about my experiences of nanotech in Australia, yesterday that appears to have been junked somewhere in the system.


  7. Phillip, thanks for that reference – that looks very interesting. Didn’t the American Physical Society produce some more recent study that set out to quantify the return on R&D investment? The point about the widespread distribution of benefits in a globalised economy is a very important one, though.

    Ben, there was a session in the meeting about the problem of failing states in the Pacific region (e.g. PNG and the Solomons) that left me with no doubt that the long established Australian fear of being swamped by immigrants from Asia is still fairly prominent. It doesn’t seem very sensible to me if that’s translating into their science policies in the way you describe; one might have thought that Australia’s relative proximity to the established and rising science powers of Asia ought to be exploited.

  8. Richard, do you know any details about that APS study? I’m very interested in any information quantifying public ROIs over different sectors. I made a half-hearted attempt to Google the study but there were too many matches to sift through.

    I don’t understand why Australian politics tands to be “red-necked”. It would make sense a decade or two from now when Indonesian and Chinese regional naval influence grows. At least Aussie girls aren’t so conservative. 🙂

  9. Phillip, I’ll try and look it up when I’m back from the camping trip I’m just about to go on.

  10. Dear Richard,

    what exactly do you mean by “right-wing” regarding NT policy? Old-school technocracy paired with capitalist profit maximizing? A “neo-Victorian” deterministic word view as portrayed in Neil Stephenson’s nano-SF novel “Diamond Age”? I just ask because I’ve never thought about NT in terms of right-/left-wing.

  11. Niels, I was talking about politics in general rather than specifically in connection with NT policy – I suppose I was simply expressing a certain amount of culture shock about the centre of gravity of the political views expressed, coming from a country where there currently seems to be an overwhelming social democratic consensus. Nonetheless, though, I think you do raise an interesting question about the way people think about NT in relation to their general political worldview. It’s clear, for example, that there is a strong connection in the USA between right wing/libertarian thinking and enthusiasm for the Drexlerian vision, as most clearly seen in the writings of Glenn Harlan Reynolds.

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