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A few words for our sponsor

By Julian Cribb - posted Tuesday, 8 April 2008

In the unceasing quest for knowledge, each year Australian scientists carry out more than 12,000 individual research projects, more than half of them funded by the public. However, in the combined public announcements of the universities and science agencies, only about 1,200 outcomes are reported.

Like the elusive dark matter that makes up most of the universe, the dark matter of Australian science accounts for about 90 per cent of the research performed here.

Or, put another way, we invest roughly $12 billion a year on discovering new knowledge and perhaps $250 million on promulgating it. We highly value knowledge in a scientific journal article but accord little value to its transmission to the wider society or to users.


Worse still, if you look at the section on communication of results in most grant applications, you will find that many Australian scientists are happy to run and tell their latest findings to their peers in the US or Europe but are reluctant to inform the Australians who paid for it and who may benefit from it. Quite why we should be in such a rush to give away our best knowledge before having a chance to use it ourselves is not clear, but it probably has something to do with the academic career path.

Almost none of the main science funding agencies insist on effective communication to Australians as a condition of their grants. A creditable exception is the Grains Research and Development Corporation, which invests about 15 per cent of its annual budget in science transfer. Among the agencies, only CSIRO and a tiny handful of co-operative research centres and other centres make a serious endeavour to share their findings with the shareholders.

As a result, Australia has a science flood but a knowledge drought. Large parts of our science moulder in the yellowing leaves of journals, never to be delivered, never to be used.

A smart society is not just one that has excellent science. It is one that can best distribute and adopt excellent science. Unfortunately, for several decades Australia has fallen into the trap of assuming research quality alone is sufficient. Dissemination of scientific findings is one of the lowest priorities on the agenda, as is perfectly evident in the budgets of the commonwealth or practically any of its agencies and universities.

Two great Australians were outstanding advocates for better communication of scientific findings.

Peter Cullen, who died last month, was the leading exponent of engaging the community in informed debate about water, knowing this was the only sure way to influence government.


And Richard Newton, dean of engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, who died last year, advocated the free dissemination of scientific knowledge, arguing that societal impact was much more important than a few dollars of institutional income.

Innovation, Industry, Science and Research Minister Kim Carr has touched on the issue of the obstructed knowledge flow a couple of times since his ascendancy. If he's serious about commitment to innovation, it needs to be front and centre in the new policy.

Carr is shaping a charter for scientists in public institutions that permits, indeed encourages, them to speak more freely and openly about their work to public audiences, following a decade in which many researchers discovered that to do so meant political persecution and, in some cases, career death.

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First published in The Australian on April 2, 2008.

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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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