CSIRO Image: Earth Receiving Satellite Dish in Tasmania
Australia’s premier public applied science institution, the CSIRO, is appointing a new CEO, Dr. Larry Marshall. He seems an impressive man with an impressive resume. An Australian Physicist (excellent) that has become a serial entrepreneur (fantastic, a true hero of capitalism) and venture capitalist (the angels and the predators of capitalism) based in Palo Alto, Silicon Valley (ahhh!). Kind of begs the question why he has come back to a public institution in Australia? Well he did and he has history with CSIRO (or at least it’s associated enterprises) as a cadet and understands the position is ‘kind of like being handed a national treasure’. Good start. There is a stated and clear intention to be more commercial. Fair enough, especially given the governments view of the relationship between science and business. In fact, on the surface he appears to be a poster boy for what the government believes and wants. At Dr. Marshall’s first public interview since accepting the position he made clear some of his personal worldview. Scientists need to, and indeed have an obligation to be entrepreneurs. In short, they have an obligation to be more like him. It seems he is not only to be their CEO, he is to be the role model for our scientists. Of course, he is not saying the CSIRO scientists are failures and haven’t met their obligations, though I’m guessing a few of them will think this is exactly what they heard. I’m also sure he doesn’t mean the scientists should all leave Australia and start businesses in other countries that have more entrepreneurial cultures. What we can be thankful for is that he is not a colorless grey suit.
Context Drives Behavior
Dr. Marshall took himself off to the entrepreneurial, venture, technology startup capital of the Western World. That is very adventurous! He with time became an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurial organizations are driven by a need for survival, to find the Continue reading
Science (Noun): the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.
Science Is To Be Ruled & Managed
In Australia lawyers, economists and accountants rule, while the media (journalists, bloggers, talk back radio and others) filter and shape opinion (see The Corporate Classes). Scientists do not rule and are therefore ruled. Hence, science is not judged in the non-scientific community by the peer review of other scientists but by those in power – the lawyers, economists etcetera. The media love an Aussie winning a science prize because for just a few minutes it seems like sport.Then it is back to business as usual. This situation is made easier for the public by one important characteristic of science. That is despite all the benefits science has delivered, including economic, health, lifestyle and aesthetic, it is not directly associated with most of the benefits. People do not look at their iPhone and see all the amazing science that was done to make it possible or for that matter the engineering. What most people do see is a consumer product defined by it’s function, ‘Apple’ PR & marketing and popular culture. (Medical science may be an exception because of certain characteristics – more on that later.)
Is Science Progressive?
Science by it’s nature implies progression and change and the possibility that what we now believe to be true is possibly wrong. Could it be that at the heart of science is a ‘progressive’ philosophy? Could it be that political conservatives conflate the ‘progressive’ nature of science with a ‘progressive’ political view – and if so, then if you are a scientist, you are by definition a ‘progressive’ and so you might as well be a lefty. Is it any wonder that conservative Australians, starting with the conservative government, treat science with suspicion – especially any ‘soft’, social science (it’s even worse for disciplines not considered science such as philosophy, history and art which can be openly mocked). Until science has been bought under managerial control, evaluated using managerial values (e.g. efficiency, productivity, profitability etc.) and turned into ‘moneytorised’ technology or activity it is treated as a marginal, lefty activity for nerdy eccentrics and the socially challenged with no legitimate experience of the real world. Only when plainly obvious to an investment banker how research will create financial benefits does it become of value.* This is not done at all well in Australia (2011 OECD rankings: 21st for R&D expenditure,26th for % large firms with new to market products and only 2.6% of innovations are University research related). Business and University partnerships are much touted by governments but in reality are very shallow. As such many if not most opportunities are lost or taken up by other countries including areas such as solar power and renewable energy.