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catallaxy in technical exile

How to make research pay

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This is related to the theme of Andrew’s post on the attempted commercialisation of university research. It was written in 1989 as an extension of a review of a book of essays dedicated to a great agricultural scientist, Jim Vincent, who I subsequently interviewed.

To summarise, the economic goals which are being sought by bureaucratic reforms in higher education and research may be better achieved in other ways. For example, by promoting the tradition of wide ranging scholarship, and by fostering links between agencies involved in ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ research. At the level of political economy, free trade promotes effective research and development by forcing firms to become efficient or fall by the wayside.

The triumph of Australian agriculture

The ‘cultural cringe’ is very out of place in many fields of endeavour, one of which is agricultural science. Australian farming is often depicted as a heroic triumph of the human spirit over the obstacles mounted by fires, floods, droughts and long distances. This leaves out of account the problem of our terrible soils. Short of wastes such as the Gobi Desert it is hard to find less fertile tracts of land than most of this continent, quite apart from the shortage of rainfall.

With some exceptions, Australian soils are seriously deficient in the major plant foods (nitrogen and phosphorus) and often enough they lack other minerals as well, such as potassium and sulphur, and the ‘trace elements’ such as zinc and molybdenum which are required in minute quantities. It seems that we have the remarkable combination of the worst soils in the world with some of the most efficient farmers. This has come about through innovations in farm practice based on a number of triumphs in pure and applied biological science.

These triumphs represent an intellectual movement of great interest and immense practical value. The traditions and institutions which generated these achievements are especially worthy of study at a time when the federal government is embarking upon a massive re-organization of education and research in the interests of efficiency and economic returns.

It is almost certain that anything which the bureaucracy puts in place will do more harm than good, but up to date the loyal intellectual opposition has not taken the battle into the territory of the bean counters. It has sometimes tried to hold the line with grand abstractions such as ‘the autonomy of the academies’ and ‘the sanctity of knowledge for its own sake’. But the most crushing rejoinder would show that there is no conflict in principle between the best forms of fundamental and applied research, as they have been practiced in the existing system. Perhaps the answer to the follies and waste which exist in parts of the system is to lift the level of critical discussion in academic circles, admittedly a formidable aim, and one that will certainly not be achieved by bureaucratic fiat. In any case, more work is required on the ecology of excellence to find the conditions which help good research and subsequent commercial development of the findings.

The work in microbiology described in the essays dedicated to Jim Vincent provides case studies where basic research produced spectacular economic returns. One of the most significant achievements in applied agricultural science is the partnership between superphosphate fertilizer (‘super’), subterranean (‘sub’) clover and nitrogen fixing bacteria that colonise the clover roots. The ‘super’ provides phosphorus and the bacteria extract nitrogen from the air which is first used by the clover, then recycled to the soil when the plant dies or is eaten by an animal. It may be noted that the work in this field marks a transition from the “sharp-eyed farmer” period to the “white lab coat” era of research.

Around the turn of the century Amos Howard, a farmer in the Adelaide Hills, noticed that grass often grew better in the vicinity of sub clover. The clover is a native of the Mediterranean and it probably came to this country in the form of seeds contaminating packing materials. Howard reported his observations in a series of letters to The Adelaide Advertiser and farmers at Naracoorte in South Australia obtained similar results in experimental trials. They were lucky because subsequent experience revealed that the clover did not always help. Some apparently occult influences were at work and so improving pastures by sowing sub clover was a hit and miss affair for some decades. This is where the microbiologists made their mark when they discovered the function of the bacterial colonies on the clover roots and they explored the factors which determined whether or not the partnership between the plant and the microbes worked effectively. A decisive advance occurred with the introduction of techniques to inoculate the clover seed with varieties of bacteria that are appropriate for the particular soil and climate.

Jim Vincent was one of the pioneers in that field and several others because his range of interests was immense and extended to hard-headed political action to protect the industry from defective products that threatened the credibility of the whole enterprise of inoculating clover seeds with bacteria. Early in the 1950s some firms began to distribute clover seed inoculated by a method which practically guaranteed failure. Vincent convened a conference and produced evidence that this approach could not work; further he requested the assistance of all manufacturers to establish a fund to monitor the quality of seed. Nutman’s Foreword to this book describes the merchants coming forward “like the saved at a revivalist meeting” to pledge their assistance to the scheme and promising to do better in future. Returning to the ‘ecology of excellence’, what is to be learned from Vincent and others engaged in this line of work? Gibson, in some preliminary comments to his paper on the genetics of the host/bacteria relationship, stated.

The words “applied”, “tactical”, “strategic” and “basic” did not appear in Vincent’s lexicon. The emphasis was on the selection of problems of relevance, and having chosen the problem, to then utilise whatever skills and approaches were required to effect their resolution. The over-riding tenet was that the work should be sound, significant and relevant science. The impact this has had on Australian, and international, studies with the nodulation of legumes, and other aspects of agricultural microbiology, is self-evident.

This approach defies the segregation of pure and applied work which can, and perhaps should, proceed by mutual cross-fertilisation. Medawar suggested something of this nature in his critique of the traditional approach where unfettered pure research was supposed to generate an automatic (if somewhat delayed) trickle-down effect.

Might not the converse approach be equally effective – to start wtih a concrete problem, but then to allow the research to open out in the direction of greater generality. Research done in this style is always in focus

One can postulate some features of Australian rural research that has paid dividends. First the existence of some (if not all, or even most) researchers who emulate Vincent in taking equal notice of practical and theoretical problems. Second, the existence of institutional arrangements where these people can provoke or direct others to pursue both the fundamental and the applied aspects of promising ideas. Thirdly, in the domain of political economy, an environment which rewards innovation and enterprise, especially by exporting to tap world markets.

As for sensitivity to problems, especially practical problems, many agricultural scientists used to come off the land, or at least from the country, so they never entirely forgot about problems on the farm, however rarified their own research became. Can the same be said of people in other branches of science which might have profound implications for engineering and industry? People such as Jim Vincent, who are sensitive to problems at all levels, will probably find that they are working along a wide segment of the pure – applied spectrum, or they will be able to communicate usefully with people at all points on it. They will also move freely across the boundaries of ‘disciplines’ because the problem has not been invented that sticks inside a subject.

Moving on to the institutional linkage between research and application, an example of an effective arrangement exists in the school of Agriculture at the University of Adelaide. This is located at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute on the outskirts of Adelaide, adjacent to the CSIRO Soils Division and the CSIRO wine research unit. People doing ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ research work side by side, with two-way traffic across the road to the CSIRO for seminars and working lunches. Many academics at Waite have trials under way on farms in various parts of the state and most have good contacts with people in the State Department of Agriculture which has the major responsibility for extension services to the farming community. Similar linkages occur in other states, though few can boast the concentration of resources which exists at the Waite/CSIRO complex.

It seems that Australian agriculture has been well served by many individual scientists and by the institutional environment which they inhabit. But another factor has probably played a part, namely the extent of free trade and competition in the marketplace. It may not be accidental that our great exporters, the miners, wheat farmers and wool growers, are also our most efficient and technologically progressive industries. Exporters, almost by definition, are exposed to the full brunt of competition in the international marketplace. They are truly internationals, like our leading sports players, and unlike other enterprises that demand protection to wade in a relaxed fashion in the shallow waters of the domestic market. [Not quite true, some of our exporters have ventured into protection like the wool support price scheme, with resulting disaster]. This prompts the somewhat unexpected conclusion that free trade may be our best science policy, though it is unlikely that this will cut much ice in the Canberra-based bureaucracies where such policies are decided. To support this thesis, check out the example of Sweden where the absence of tariff protection has contributed to the development of a dynamic and export oriented manufacturing sector.


Written by Admin

January 18, 2006 at 10:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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