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Excellent science spurs productivity

Excellent science spurs productivity

In the first of a series of seminars organized under the TWAS-AAAS International Programme on Science and Diplomacy, Mary O'Kane reviewed how government support for top research centres in Australia has had somewhat unexpected spin-offs.

Excellent science spurs productivityMary O'Kane, Chief Scientist and Engineer of New South Wales (NSW) and  executive chairman of her own company, Mary O'Kane & Associates, made a strong case that governments should invest in high level, high quality research if they wish to increase economic productivity – even though the links between the two may not always be obvious, immediate or direct. She provided pertinent 'real-world' examples, where increased productivity was not the intended outcome of the initial research projects but was the actual outcome. Her examples speak forcefully for investing in excellent research for excellent research's sake, rather than merely focusing on those applied areas that have traditionally been of more interest to industry and sponsors.

At Sydney University, for example, researchers from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, in receipt of a research grant of US$16 million from the Australian Research Council (ARC), were keen to push the boundaries of robotics, building their automated machines on as large a scale as possible. This robotic technology was then taken up by major Australian companies such as Rio Tinto, who used it to create the first fully automated mine. The initial government funding clearly paid off in the long term.

Similarly, O'Kane described how research and innovation in solar energy was initiated by the Solar Photovoltaics Group at the University of New South Wales, headed by Martin Green. Back in the early 1980s, they produced a silicon cell with 20% energy conversion efficiency. Green's group were not able, however, to commercialize this success, although the technology was taken up and used extensively throughout Germany. It took Green’s PhD student from China, Zhengrong Shi, to see the business potential. Shi, using technology developed earlier through the Solar Photovoltaics group – and thus no longer protected by patents – founded Suntech Power, a multibillion dollar solar-energy company and the first of its kind in China, which became the world's biggest producer of solar panels in 2010.

While many Australians are understandably aggrieved that technology developed by a government-funded national research centre has been exported for profit elsewhere, O'Kane argues that aside from the relatively small amounts in licensing fees that Australia continues to accumulate from Shi's commercial success, there remain important long-term productivity gains for Australia too. Shi, who is now the tenth richest man in China, evidently retains close ties with his alma mater and ex-supervisor and 'has been very generous'. But O'Kane stresses that the major gain for Australia is in terms of diplomacy. These close ties with one of China's richest men mean that O'Kane, and other members of the Australian government, have an open door to discussing issues of science policy with the Chinese. And these kinds of opportunities can be invaluable in the long term.

O'Kane enjoys tracing these indirect but convincing links between excellent research and increased economic productivity, and her refreshing 'outside the box' approach brings another example, this time in the field of biotechnology, where Australia has a strong international reputation. At Newcastle University in New South Wales, John Aitken, noticing a higher than usual incidence of male infertility in clusters around the Newcastle area, headed a research group into DNA damage in human spermatozoa.  As a result of this investigation, the centre developed an electrophoretic device for assisting conception. Clinical trials were successful and the device is now being sold commercially. In addition, the research was taken up by another important Australian institution - horse racing. Stud farms in Upper Hunter and Harness Racing are using results from these trials to increase the efficiency of the horse breeding industry - with clear economic gains for horse breeders, and as a knock-on effect, for the national economy which is dependent on horse-racing for a significant part of its revenue.

So, how to stimulate and reproduce successful research projects that then lead to pairings in industry with the resultant long-term productivity gains?

One way, says O'Kane, is through competitions and prizes. She gives the example of an Australian online company, Kaggle is a platform for data prediction competitions that allows organizations to post their data and have it scrutinized by the world's best data scientists. In exchange for a prize, winning competitors provide the algorithms that beat all other methods of solving a data crunching problem. O'Kane cites the example competition of predicting travel times on the M4 freeway from past travel time calculations. The competition was hosted by Australia's NSW Roads and Traffic Authority and sponsored by the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet. Why? Forecasting travel times helps improve road safety and efficiency. Accurate predictions help commuters make informed decisions about when to travel and on what routes. This helps to lower intensity on problem arterial roads by encouraging motorists to use underutilized parts of the grid, and where possible, getting them to select alternative times and modes of travel.

The competition only ran for 3 months, and was extremely popular, with research teams from more than 47 countries taking part. In the end, there were three winners, each of whom received the US$10,000 prize. Insights from the competition have improved the general efficiency of the road transport system in Sydney and increased functionality on the government's live traffic website.  O'Kane estimates that the government spent a total of US$50,000 on setting up, running the competition, rewarding three prize winners and implementing the algorithm. But they predict that an equivalent model sponsored through a private company would have cost upwards of US$100,000.

Another example of unexpected productivity gains through innovative research approaches is through what is now known as 'open research' to source solutions to world health problems. Matthew Todd, a young researcher from the University of Sydney, set up a massive database that scientists and researchers can contribute to, inputting their own localized results, and thus contributing to a wordwide, searchable database that can sometimes provide solutions for chronic disease treatment that drug companies are often reluctant to invest in. Instead, argues O'Kane, improvements in treatments for diseases as widespread and destructive as malaria, for example, could again lead to incalculable long-term productivity gains in terms of a healthy working population, as well as the enormous revenue accumulated through reduced costs of treatment.

O'Kane's 'real-world' examples give refreshing and insightful proof that research in developing countries does not just need to be aimed at 'useful' applied research.  As she argues, the long-term benefits of good research are not easily predictable. What makes far more sense, and what will make the biggest economic difference in the long term, she concludes, is investing in research excellence.

The TWAS-AAAS International Programme on Science and Diplomacy seminar series will address ways in which research scientists and the decision- and policy-making communities should interact to spur development.

Mary O’Kane divides her time more or less equally between science and diplomacy. She spends three days a week as Chief Scientist and Engineer of New South Wales (NSW), Australia’s largest state, where her many responsibilities include improving the quality and level of scientific activity in NSW, providing independent advice to the NSW Government on science and innovation issues, encouraging effective engagement between government, business and the research sector, and representing the state’s science and research sector on the NSW Innovation Council. The other two days are spent as executive chairman of her company, Mary O'Kane & Associates, which advises governments, universities and the private sector on innovation, research, education and development. In addition, O'Kane is a trained computer engineer and an international authority on automatic speech recognition; and was the first woman Vice-Chancellor of the University of Adelaide. She presented her seminar at ICTP on 12 March 2012.


This event was part of the TWAS Science Diplomacy programme, which includes lectures, seminars, workshops, international meetings, and a regional prize. Other seminars and lectures have been held by World Academy of Art & Science President Ivo Šlaus, AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy director Vaughan Turekian and Paul van Gardingen, the director of the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation Programme at the University of Edinburgh, UK. O'Kane's powerpoint presentation and a flyer used to advertise this event are also below.