Tuesday, November 08, 2011

CSIRO & industrial development

This photo was taken some three years after that in A PhD student, 1983. It is on a CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organisation) lab visit looking, I think, at a new piece of semiconductor equipment. The photo was taken by a CSIRO photographer.

I have lost both the beard and a fair bit of hair! The beard had gone for female, not career reasons. At this stage I was having too much fun to worry about career issues!  The hair loss was involuntary.

It's quite a high powered group. I am sorry that I cannot remember the name of our guide, but from left to right.

At back left, Dennis Cooper. He was then 2IC in CSIRO Radio Physics, and was appointed head in 1988. To his right is Tommy Thomas who ha been appointed Foundation Chief at the new CSIRO  Division of Information Technology in 1985. In front is Dr Bob Frater who was then Chief of the Division of Radiophysics and also Director of the Australia Telescope Project. The Australia Telescope opened in 1988 and is the premier instrument of its kind in the southern hemisphere. Bob Frater maintains that it was the Mills Cross experience that:

  • provided him with the insight to marry up astronomical instrument development and related industry development that proved so important later in obtaining funding and building the Australia Telescope
  • gave him an appreciation of the huge spinout benefits that come from meeting the demanding needs of new instruments.

In 1988 Bob became head of the newly created CSIRO Institute of Information Science and Engineering (a group of CSIRO Divisions) and then Deputy Chief Executive, CSIRO in 1999. Further comments follow the photo.


We had a close working relationship with CSIRO for we regarded it as a critical player in our attempts to build Australia's place in the global electronics, aerospace and information industries. However, our approach was not quite the same as that holding today.

One of the things that used to (and still does) frustrate me about some of official colleagues and especially those in Treasury is the generalised application of universal models.  

I was concerned with a practical question.

The electronics, aerospace and information industries  - all those industries based on electronics and systems and including services as well as manufacturing - were clearly going to be global growth drivers over the next two decades. Australia's performance in these areas had been very poor. What could we do to turn this around?

The four most pernicious universals that we were trying to deal with were:

  • Australia's comparative advantage lay in agricultural and mining. We should not be trying to create new industries outside those areas. They would fail. Australia did have comparative advantage in those traditional areas. However, that of itself need not rule out other options. Our analysis showed that Australia as a whole performed badly on key indicators (trade intensity, trade diversity) as compared with countries with comparable resource endowments. Comparative advantage as such could not explain that performance. Other factors must be involved.
  • Let the market decide. This combined comparative advantage with neoclassical nostrums. Our analysis showed that in an imperfect world, competitive as compared to comparative advantage was often created through state action. There was no evidence that simplistic application of free market nostrums in a globalising world could of itself guarantee any form of optimum outcome.
  • Horizontal is good, vertical bad. Policy measures must be universally applicable, not tailored to varying needs. We tried to point out that diversity meant that a universal measure was in fact vertical because its on-ground application created differential and often persevere results. By contrast, vertical measures could be better tailored. As a current example, look at the continuing failures in policy towards Australia's indigenous people. 
  • Results for individual policies must be measurable in advance. We were trying do new things, to create a climate for growth. We could not be certain that individual things would work in advance. Our focus was on totality with constant adjustment through experience. A measure of failure was inevitable.

There are always questions of balance in these things.

I mentioned in my last post my reaction to existing industry assistance measures, that crazy patchwork quilt of tariffs and other assistance measures that, to our mind, had had such a devastating effect on Australia. We considered that we were dealing with a globalising world, that Australia's best chances lay in a world of reduced trade barriers, that free markets and competition gave the best results. We focused on the best adjustment processes.       

In looking at CSIRO, there were two very different world views.

In the old view, CSIRO was practical, existing to provide the benefits of scientific research to Australian development. The new world view accepted this, but added to it a generalised overlay focused on narrower commercialisation. The question now asked what not whether or not CSIRO research would or had benefited Australia in a general sense, but whether the best direct commercial returns on individual discoveries had been achieved.

We were concerned with general questions, but our focus was on our industries. Just as CSIRO research had so benefited Australian agriculture, we now wanted that research to benefit the electronics, aerospace and information industries. The question of the direct return on specific research activities was related, but different.

The true pioneers, and I would include Messrs Cooper, Thomas and Frater in this, are those who pursue dreams and are driven by passion, by curiosity. They may play the game, but this is a means to an end.

Another such was Ken McCracken. He had a vision of Australia in space, of the benefits that might be offered by things such as remote sensing. I quote:            

As Professor of Physics at Adelaide University between 1966 and 1969, Dr McCracken led a team that pioneered X-ray astronomy of the southern sky with instruments launched on Skylark rockets from the Woomera Rocket Range.

In 1970, Dr McCracken was founding chief of the CSIRO's new Division of Mineral Physics in Sydney. His first official task was to attend a research meeting in Canberra which was preparing Australia's response to a NASA invitation to make use of satellite images of Australia obtained by its recently launched Earth Resources Technology Satellite (later renamed LANDSAT).

"I knew nothing about remote sensing, but I had been building satellites for 15 years and knew of the enormous revolution satellites had brought to communications," he said. "It was clear to me that if somebody could put an eye into a satellite orbiting 800 kilometres above the earth, it would be another sea change in technology. "I was also attracted by the physics involved in satellite images - it seemed to me that it could overcome some of the limitations of conventional aerial photography."

From 1970, Ken pursued his vision. In the early 1980's he became concerned that Australia's space industry was fragmented and lacking direction, and had already missed out on commercial opportunities that had been seized by other Western nations.

In, I think, 1984, Ken persuaded CSIRO to investigate the establishment of a special office of space science and applications. A working party was established. I was invited to join because CSIRO had just been transferred to the industry portfolio. One outcome was the CSIRO Office of Space Science and Applications.

I am not making any claim as to responsibility. Ken selected me because of my official connections, because he knew that I would be sympathetic as indeed I was.

In 1995, Ken won the Australia Prize for his work on remote sensing. And yet, and I am sure that Ken would agree with this, the sense of lost opportunity remains. Perhaps I should let Ken have the last word in his remarks on the prize:

Dr McCracken said the CSIRO administration of the 1970s must take some of the credit for the award of the Australia Prize to his team. "They set the broad research goals and stipulated that I and my colleagues should develop the techniques and instruments the industry would need 10 years into the future," he said.

"At first, much of what we did was against the industry wisdom of the day, yet after half a decade, the industry was using virtually all our research results and making a major financial contribution to the research program".

"Because Australia was among the first countries to develop these new techniques, the minerals exploration industry gained an enormous competitive advantage over the rest of the world".

"It would not have done so if it had been forced to import the technology, or if research had started three years later - in practical research, the early bird really does get the one and only worm".

"Anticipating the technologies of the future is a very tricky business and very few people have the ability to do so. I was lucky to answer to a very small, stable group of scientific managers - leaders, really - who possessed that rare skill and who had the confidence to back young Turks like me".

"I believe Australia has scientists today who are just as good and who are thinking about what their client industries may be doing in the future. Some will be right, others will be wrong, but Australia has to accept this as a cost of progress. Industries must also be prepared to take a chance and invest in their own future".

"Research is the key to the competitive industries of the future. The key to our future is that the very best of our research minds should be harnessed to deliver what our industries will need ten years hence. The challenge for our research managers is to know what to back when everyone seems to disagree with them."

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