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Book review: 'The Australian Miracle: An Innovative Nation Revisited'

By Andrew Leigh - posted Thursday, 18 May 2006


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 35-year-old biologist who recently served as science adviser to the then 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 policy-makers.

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 2 per cent of world scientific papers, which is approximately Australia’s share of the total economic output of the developed economies.

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Are our researchers incapable of commercialising their research? Barlow points out that collaboration between industry and public sector researchers is 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 leave by 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:

  1. find the best people through peer review;
  2. divide the available funds to support those people, but let them decide for themselves what research they want to do;
  3. 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.

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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, amid 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 policy-makers responsible for perpetuating 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 has led to bad science policy-making. 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.

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The Australian Miracle: An Innovative Nation Revisited  by Thomas Barlow, Picador Pan-Macmillan, Sydney, 2006. First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 13, 2006.  



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About the Author

Andrew Leigh is the member for Fraser (ACT). Prior to his election in 2010, he was a professor in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University, and has previously worked as associate to Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia, a lawyer for Clifford Chance (London), and a researcher for the Progressive Policy Institute (Washington DC). He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has published three books and over 50 journal articles. His books include Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013) and The Economics of Just About Everything (2014).

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