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Letís have free trade in scientific knowledge too

By Julian Cribb - posted Tuesday, 28 June 2005


Free trade is on everyone’s lips these days and high on the federal Government’s agenda - so it’s a bit of a puzzle why Australia is reverting to protectionism in one vital area: science and technology.

Back in the 1940s, CSIRO founder Sir David Rivett called for “free trade in scientific knowledge” after the secrecy and restrictions imposed in World War II. He was branded a communist sympathiser for his pains, but his message struck home.

The $110 billion income that Australia now enjoys from its farming and mineral sectors is a result of his efforts - publicly-funded science, flowing freely to private operators in industry to help them be innovative and world-competitive. It’s a unique formula, and it has worked brilliantly for Australia, building the prosperity of today.

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So it’s just a little weird that the powers that be, in government, the bureaucracy, parts of industry and science, are driving the national research and development (R&D) effort down a protectionist pathway, trying to keep its findings confidential, for the exclusive use of a handful of companies - local and foreign - who may or may not manage to make anything of it.

I refer to the ruling obsession with intellectual property with patents, spin-offs and commercial confidentiality. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things in moderation - but in excess they end up locking up valuable knowledge that has been paid for in part by taxpayers, to limited or no national benefit. There is more than one route to market - but we seem to have forgotten the one that has always worked best for us.

This obsession with short-term commercialism is fostering a new cult of secrecy in science comparable to the 1940s. It is denying farmers, miners, manufacturers and high-tech startups easy access to the findings of science which they, as taxpayers have helped to fund. Worse, it may place such information exclusively in the hands of a few “commercial partners” and deny its benefits to Australian enterprises in general.

A related issue is the growth in corporate self-promotion by universities and science agencies, their use of commercial hype and their reluctance to communicate the real work of science. This is now widespread in Australian science and engenders three ill-effects:

  • The first is rising public mistrust in science and technology generally, and their institutions;
  • The second is that it substitutes institutional vainglory for the reporting of actual scientific findings and makes people wonder why they should fund public R&D when it emits so many empty boasts and claims; and,
  • The third is that our hard-won knowledge often leaks offshore before Australian companies and users generally are even aware of it, as our scientists usually report their findings to their international peer bodies first, and don’t do much to tell the locals.

Depriving Australians of information about what their scientists achieve with the $9-10 billion we pay for science each year is an obstacle to the progress of our industries and nation as a whole.

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An eminent Australian, Richard Newton, Dean of Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, argues that what counts in research is its beneficial impact on the community, nation and world. That, he says, is best achieved if knowledge is freely and efficiently shared: “It’s about maximising impact, not about dollars.” His faculty measures its impact in jobs created, total market value and industry revenue.

So let’s get some consistency in our policies.  If we are to have free trade with the United States and China, let us first have free trade in cutting-edge science and technology within Australia.

We know it works - and we owe it to ourselves if we wish for a better future.

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Article edited by Kelly Donati.
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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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