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1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2001  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 25/01/2001   
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Dr Keith Boardman

Keith Boardman AO FRS FAA FTSE is a former Chairman and Chief Executive of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. Prior to becoming a Member of the Executive of the CSIRO in 1977, Dr Boardman had a distinguished career as a Chief Research Scientist in the Division of Plant Industry of CSIRO, where his research involved unravelling the mechanisms of photosynthesis in green plants and investigating the adaptation of plants to their light environment.


Science and innovation are now accepted as key elements for the economic advancement, competitiveness and the wellbeing of nations, although the linkages between scientific investigation, technological innovation, national wealth and social wellbeing are complex and involve many interacting elements. Over the 20th century increasing resources were devoted to research and development and to technological innovation in the developed countries, leading to increased mechanisation and capital investment and producing great changes in the use of labour and improvements in the standard of living. The pace of change in innovation, with potential to impact on most facets of our lives, is not showing any signs of diminishing as we enter the 21st century.

Major scientific discoveries of the 20th century were the splitting of the atom in 1932 at Cambridge University, the invention of the transistor at the Bell Laboratories in the USA in 1947, the isolation of penicillin and the discovery of its antibiotic potency in the UK, the elucidation of the structure of DNA at Cambridge University in 1953 followed by the unravelling of the genetic code of all living organisms. The 20th century saw a diminution in the time span between a major scientific discovery and its exploitation for the benefit or disbenefit of mankind. The transistor could be considered to have had the greatest impact on our lives with the revolution of communication, including the development of the personal computer, the Internet, world wide web and electronic mail.

Over the century science in Australia has grown at a pace comparable to that of the industrialised nations, but gains in productivity and improvements in industrial competitiveness have relied mainly on the import of technology with adaptation to meet Australia’s particular needs. Universities of international standard have provided skilled graduates needed by industry and the community as well as performing research that underpins innovation and allows access to international advances in science and technology.

This article contrasts the situation for science and innovation at the time of Federation and now, and identifies events during the century that have most influenced science and innovation in Australia. It outlines some significant Australian discoveries and discusses issues for science and innovation in Australia in the 21st century. The article does not cover medical science and innovations in medicine.

Science and innovation at the time of Federation

At the time of Federation, Australia’s wealth was derived from the export of commodities from the agricultural and pastoral industries and products of the mineral industry. Wool and gold were the leading exports and Australia enjoyed a very high income per capita. The doubling of the area of land under cultivation in the two decades before Federation was greatly assisted by the mechanisation of farming. For instance, the cost and time of vegetation clearance in the Mallee regions of Victoria and South Australia were reduced considerably by the invention of the scrub roller, and the cultivation of partially cleared land was facilitated by the stump-jump plough. The invention of the stripper-harvester independently by James Morrow and Hugh Victor McKay in the mid 1880s allowed the stripping and winnowing operations of wheat to be combined in one operation. The import and development of refrigeration in the late 19th century meant that Australia was able to sell meat and dairy products to the British market and other countries. Innovations in metallurgy in the 1890s greatly assisted the extraction of gold from the complex sulphur-telluride ores of Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie. The Schools of Mines at Ballarat, founded in 1871, Bendigo (1873) and Adelaide (1889) provided trained personnel for the mining operations and mineral processing. The Kalgoorlie School of Mines was founded in 1902 and is still in operation in 2001.

The last decade of the 19th century experienced severe economic recession worldwide. Many banks and other businesses in Australia failed and the prices paid for agricultural produce showed large decreases. The coming of Federation in 1901 generated a climate of optimism. Duties charged on goods transported between the States were eliminated, stimulating trade between the States, and the Commonwealth assumed responsibility for several areas including customs and excise, defence, external affairs, posts and telegraphs and quarantine.

Departments of Agriculture had been established in all States by the time of Federation. The role of a Department of Agriculture included regulation as well as investigation and advisory functions. Much of the effort of Departments of Agriculture was concerned with the control of pests and diseases of livestock and crops.

Proposals to establish a Federal Department of Agriculture or a Federal Bureau of Agriculture were advanced soon after Federation. It was argued that many diseases and pests affecting stock and plants are found in several States and that scientific research could more profitably be controlled by a central authority. A bill was introduced in Federal Parliament in 1909 to establish an Australian Bureau of Agriculture, but it was withdrawn later in the year without a vote being taken. In 1910, the Government invited a group of noted Scottish agriculturists to visit Australia and assess agricultural developments and opportunities. Their report praised the work done by the States but pointed to a considerable amount of overlap and the need for cooperation and coordination. The visiting agriculturists saw many of the problems as being common to the whole of Australia or to a greater part of it. Allowing each State to attempt to find the solution for each agricultural problem by itself was not the most economical method.

In 1913, a Bill, exactly the same as the one of 1909 for a Bureau of Agriculture, was introduced into the House of Representatives by the Prime Minister, Joseph Cook. Speakers opposing the Bill argued that the proposed Bureau would overlap or duplicate the work done by the State Departments of Agriculture. The Bill passed the lower House, but it lapsed without consideration by the Senate when Parliament was prorogued.

The Australian climate and native vegetation were suited to the production of high class wool, but the decade after Federation saw a more extensive use of land with an expansion of wheat and meat production. Extension of cropping to some regions such as the Mallee produced poor crops and led to soil degradation. Drought and diseases like rust had significant effects on yields of the commonly grown varieties of wheat. Painstaking work by William Farrer at his small farm near Canberra produced new varieties of wheat that were resistant to drought and rust and gave spectacular increases in yields. Farrer had a fruitful collaboration with a chemist in the New South Wales Department of Agriculture, F. B. Guthrie, who had developed a laboratory with milling techniques to assess wheat quality from a small quantity of grain. The best of Farrer’s varieties was named Federation in 1901, and by the 1919-20 season Federation accounted for 80% of the wheat harvested in Australia.

In 1900, the Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations was established by the Queensland Government to improve the cultivation of sugar cane and control the diseases of cane. New cane varieties were developed with improved sugar yields and increased disease resistance. The Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations has now operated for a century, and from its initial work on cultivation it expanded its research to cover all aspects of sugar production and processing. The contributions of the Bureau’s research to the success and high standing of the Australian sugar industry are acknowledged internationally.

Manufacturing industry grew steadily in the first decade of the century, due in large measure to the increasing demand for machinery for agriculture, food processing and refrigeration. The Harvester works of H. V. McKay at Sunshine, a suburb of Melbourne, was the largest factory in Australia at the time.

For several decades after their foundation in the mid-19th century the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne were teaching institutions with very little advanced research. Towards the end of the century there was a determined effort by several of the newly appointed professors in science areas to improve both the teaching of science and the standard of research, and to attract honours graduates into their research programs. By the time of Federation several professors had established small but excellent research groups and received recognition by their peers in Europe and North America. Among the professors of distinction were David Orme Masson (chemistry), W. Baldwin Spencer (biology), Thomas R. Lyle (physics), Charles Martin (physiology) and J.W. Gregory (geology) at Melbourne University, and T. Edgeworth David (geology), William Haswell (biology), Archibald Liversidge (chemistry and mineralogy), and Richard Threlfall (physics) at Sydney University. William Bragg was investigating radioactive substances at Adelaide University with a small but talented group of students. The University of Tasmania was founded in 1890, but Queensland and Western Australia did not inaugurate their universities until 1909 and 1911. Astronomical observatories were an important part of science in Australia with observatories in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide from the 1850s and Perth from 1896. The Melbourne Observatory had the world’s largest telescope, a 48-inch reflector, but after the turn of the century the observatories went into a slow decline.

The research in the universities of Sydney and Melbourne was mostly in areas that reflected trends in Europe, although there were some excellent fundamental studies on Australian marsupials and monotremes. Australian researchers were at a considerable disadvantage because of the isolation from the great centres of learning in Europe and North America. They lacked the opportunities to participate in the international scientific meetings where new discoveries and innovative experimental techniques were discussed, and to establish dialogue with the leading scientists in their field of investigation. Scientific journals took several months to reach Australia and there were similar delays in transmitting Australian scientific papers for publication in European and American journals. Several academics, including William Bragg, who had established their research credentials in Australia, left for the greener scientific pastures in Britain. William Bragg, together with his son Lawrence Bragg, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1915 for their pioneering work at Cambridge University on X-ray crystallography.

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research

The outbreak of war in 1914 made Australia realise how dependent the country was on the import of manufactured goods from Europe. Even Great Britain was in trouble, being dependent on Germany for supplies of chemicals and many manufactured goods. There was an expansion of manufacturing in Australia, including the construction of a steel works at Newcastle by BHP that went into production early in 1915. Construction of ships by the Government and steel products by other manufacturers was carried out near the BHP steel works. Prior to the war aspirin was imported from the German firm Bayer. George Nicholas, a chemist in Melbourne, synthesised an impure form of aspirin in 1914. With the help of Harry Shmith a pure product was produced that was packaged in tablet form and sold under the name ASPRO. The Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) were established in 1916 by the Government to produce much needed vaccines. CSL was retained after the war and it gradually expanded into a large Government-owned pharmaceutical enterprise. It was privatised in 1994 to become a very successful corporation.

In both Great Britain and Australia there was a greater realisation by government of the links between scientific research and industrial and economic strength. Considerable discussion took place in both countries on a role for government in promoting scientific research. In 1915, the Government of Great Britain established the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. The Commonwealth Government, with strong support from the Prime Minister, W. M. Hughes, proposed the establishment of a National Laboratory of Scientific Research, but the universities were concerned about the likely impact of a Commonwealth funded National Laboratory on university research and teaching. The Government convened a conference in January 1916 involving university and business representatives as well as Commonwealth and State Governments to discuss the proposal. The outcome of the conference was the appointment by the Commonwealth Government of an advisory group with representatives from university, business and government to propose a plan for the operation of an Institute of Science and Industry.

The Institute was finally launched in 1921, unfortunately a time of economic recession. Funds provided to the Institute by the Commonwealth Government were inadequate for the proposed research activities and the Institute failed to develop. In 1925 the Prime Minister, S. M. Bruce, saw the need to reorganise the Institute. He convened yet another conference and also invited the Head of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in Great Britain, Sir Frank Heath, to visit Australia and advise on the reorganisation. The governance of the Institute and its relation to the Public Service were prime issues. The report of the conference contained an important and perceptive recommendation that the Institute should be exempt from the provisions of the Commonwealth Public Service Act. It was argued that the mechanisms of the Public Service were inconsistent with the kind of work that should be done at the Institute, and that there was a direct analogy between the Institute and a University. The report recommended that the Institute should be run by an Executive Committee of three full-time Directors, all with scientific qualifications and experience, but that in their selection due regard should be paid to administrative and executive ability. The Government was not in favour of full-time Directors, at least initially. Heath supported the concept of an Executive Committee and suggested that it consist of an engineer, a chemist and a biologist. In his report Heath insisted on the need for cooperation between the Institute and the States. He also emphasised the need to improve the training of research workers and recommended that the Institute of Science and Industry be involved with post-graduate scientific training.

The Government accepted most of the recommendations of the conference and Sir Frank Heath, including a role for the Institute in scientific training. An amending Act establishing a Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) as a Statutory Corporation was passed by Parliament without opposition, and it received Royal Assent on 21 June 1926. An Executive Committee of G. A. Julius, a consulting engineer from Sydney, A. C. D. Rivett, Professor of Chemistry at Melbourne University and W. J. Newbigin, also an engineer from Sydney, was appointed part-time by the Government to run CSIR between full meetings of the Council. The Council consisted of the Executive Committee with Julius as Chairman, the chairman of each of the State Advisory Committees and two coopted members. The aim of the Government, as expressed in the Prime Minister’s second reading speech, was for CSIR to cooperate with existing State agencies and enlist the aid of the pure scientists in the universities. Some professors expected the Council to provide research grants to the universities, but Sir David Orme Masson thought that the CSIR should have its own staff and laboratories.

Rivett was a strong advocate of scientific autonomy in the conduct of scientific investigations. He held the view that the Executive Committee should decide from the best available advice what problems should be tackled by the CSIR and then find the best scientists to take charge of the investigations. This strategy was agreed by the Executive Committee and was the basic philosophy that guided the CSIR and its successor CSIRO to become a great research organisation. Rivett was appointed full-time Chief Executive Officer in November 1926 and A. E. V. Richardson, Director of the Waite Agricultural Research Institute in Adelaide, was appointed part-time to the Executive Committee on the death of Newbigin in 1927.

The Executive Committee decided that the research of CSIR should be concentrated in a limited number of areas of national importance. Australia’s wealth was still derived from the export of products from the rural and mining industries. There was scope to significantly improve the productivity of rural production, which was adversely affected by many pests and diseases, nutrient deficient soils and climate variations that led often to severe drought. Irrigation schemes in Victoria and New South Wales were causing problems with rising salt. The Executive Committee believed that several of the problems affecting rural production could be overcome or at least ameliorated by scientific investigation and application of up-to-date scientific knowledge. European practices were often ineffective for improving productivity in many regions of Australia.

The research of CSIR in the first decade was devoted almost entirely to the rural industries. An exception was financial support, with the Post Office and the Defence Department, for a Radio Research Board that would award grants mainly to university scientists for research on radio transmission. The priority areas of research for CSIR agreed by the Council were animal pests and diseases, plant pests and diseases, forests products, food (especially cold storage) and liquid fuels. The proposed investigations on liquid fuels from coal and shale were not started, but animal nutrition and soils were added. Some of the State Departments of Agriculture showed hostility to CSIR, but an agreement was reached which preserved the role of the States: investigations of a more or less fundamental character and which were national in scope should be conducted by CSIR, while problems of a more or less local character and which involve the applications of existing knowledge should be undertaken by the State Departments of Agriculture. It was agreed that research on wheat and sugar would remain with the States.

CSIR decided that it needed to establish its own laboratories to perform its role, but it saw advantages in close cooperation with the universities. Of the six divisions established by CSIR in 1928-30 three were located on the grounds of universities. The laboratory for the Division of Animal Health (named the McMaster Laboratory) was erected at Sydney University with the support of a generous gift of 20,000 from a grazier, F. D. McMaster. The Animal Nutrition Division was located at the University of Adelaide and the Soils Division at the site of the Waite Agricultural Research Institute. Laboratories for the Divisions of Economic Botany and Economic Entomology were erected at a site in Canberra, but Forests Products research was located in Melbourne rather than near the Forestry School in Canberra. CSIR was successful in appointing well-qualified and experienced researchers to lead the divisions, but the severe economic depression of 1929 and the early 1930s resulted in cuts in CSIR appropriation and a severe curtailment in the build-up of staff.

Relations between CSIR and the universities were excellent in the pre-war period.

CSIR established a studentship scheme for overseas research training. The studentships, which were funded from a trust fund provided by the Government, were highly sought by graduates. The scheme was small but it was later expanded and many future leaders of science in Australia were studentship holders.

A significant discovery of CSIR in the years between its establishment and the war was the cure for 'coast disease' of sheep and cattle. Coast disease was prevalent along the coast from Cape Otway in Victoria to the west of South Australia. Sheep grazed on pastures in the zone lost their appetite and their wool became steely. If the animals were not moved they became anaemic and died. A similar disease, Denmark disease, was observed in cattle in Western Australia where it was under study by the Western Department of Agriculture. Dick Thomas, a chemist with a background in geology, recognised that the areas in South Australia had calcareous soils that he believed would be short of heavy metal trace elements. Experiments with penned sheep at the Animal Nutrition Division of CSIR showed that the disease could be cured by supplementing a coast diet with cobalt nitrate. Further experiments in Western Australia confirmed that the addition of cobalt cured Denmark disease. Unfortunately, the addition of cobalt to fertilisers applied to the pastures did not work, but CSIR research was successful in developing a cobalt pellet that was administered to animals and resulted in the slow release of cobalt in the stomach of sheep and cattle. A decade later investigations in the United States and Britain showed that vitamin B12, which is essential for animals but not plants, contains cobalt.

A successful treatment for bovine pleuropneumonia and its eradication in New South Wales was another achievement for CSIR research in the period before the war. The scientists at the Division of Animal Health isolated a less virulent strain of the bovine pleuropneumonia and developed a method for its mass production for use as a vaccine. A reliable diagnostic test for bovine pleuropneumonia was also developed for use in the successful eradication program.

CSIR entomologists were involved in the successful program to control prickly pear by the Prickly Pear Board that had been formed by the Commonwealth and the Governments of Queensland and New South Wales. The first successful release of the biological control agent Cactoblastus cactorum coincided with the creation of CSIR.

An increasing role for manufacturing industry in Australia’s economic performance, standard of living and employment opportunities was becoming apparent in the mid 1930s. The Acts under which CSIR operated enabled it to carry out scientific researches for the benefit of primary or secondary industries but, as indicated earlier in this article, the research in the first decade of the existence of CSIR was almost entirely for primary industry. The first involvement of CSIR in research for secondary industry arose from the establishment of the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation for aircraft manufacture and the decision to form an aeronautics research laboratory. The outbreak of war hastened the construction of the Aeronautics Research Laboratory that played an important technological role in the design and manufacture of aircraft in Australia.

By the mid 1930s it became very clear that the provision of adequate reference standards in Australia was necessary for quality mass production in the expanding manufacturing sector. CSIR received approval to establish a National Standards Laboratory (NSL) along the lines of the National Physical Laboratory in England and the Bureau of Standards in the United States. NSL, which was located at the University of Sydney, was not completed until September 1940. During the war, NSL was heavily involved in the manufacture of precision gauges, with routine calibration, refractive measurements of optical glass for munitions and improving existing manufacturing processes. It had not been intended that NSL would be involved in routine testing, but the demands of wartime production meant a delay for its main role as a research laboratory in establishing and improving standards.

The manufacturing industry in Australia in the 1930s was fragmented, and production was directed to a small local market. It was protected by tariffs and most of the technology was imported. Only the large firms were in a position to perform significant applied research and technological development. Small firms often needed information or assistance to solve problems on the production line. CSIR conceded that an information service would be more suited to their needs than the sort of applied or basic research appropriate for CSIR. Rivett was convinced that applied research for a competitive secondary industry must include a component of basic research, but he doubted whether industry in Australia would have the need for such research. However, Rivett saw a role for research in the physical sciences in improving the utilisation of Australia’s mineral and agricultural resources. A Division of Industrial Chemistry was established in March 1940 with preference for research in the following areas: mineral chemistry, alloys, ceramics and cement, and the processing of wool, hides, leather and dairy products. Ian Wark, who had extensive industrial as well as academic research experience, was appointed to lead the division. He had achieved considerable international acclaim for his work on the flotation process for mineral purification.

The contribution of science and technology to the 1939-45 war effort

Science and technology made a vital contribution to the war effort, especially in the production of munitions, aircraft and other defence equipment, but it had an important role in many areas including radio communication, meteorology, the synthesis, isolation and manufacture of drugs and vitamins, the formulation and testing of insect repellents, the proofing of textiles and equipment for tropical conditions, and the composition and processing of army food. Scientists and technical staff in industrial laboratories, as well as in the CSIR, the Munitions Supply Laboratories and other State and Commonwealth Departments, transferred to war-related projects. University academics played leadership roles in several projects and many new graduates were obliged to join industrial or laboratory work. The war led to a growth in Australian industry and a considerable increase in its technological sophistication. The staff in CSIR increased almost four-fold between 1940 and 1945, with the percentage of staff in secondary industry divisions increasing from 5.6 to 23.1%. Basic research and longer term projects in both the universities and CSIR were severely curtailed.

The story of Australia’s involvement with Britain in the development of radar systems has been told many times. The work in Australia was carried out secretly at the newly formed CSIR Division of Radiophysics that was accommodated in an extension to the National Physics Laboratory at Sydney University. Another vital wartime project was the manufacture and precision grinding of optical glass for gun sights and binoculars. It involved the cooperation of Australian Consolidated Industries, the Universities of Melbourne and Tasmania, the Mt Stromlo Observatory and the Munitions Supply Laboratories. The CSIR set up a Lubricants and Bearings Section at Melbourne University to take advantage of a visit in 1939 of an expatriate Australian, F. P. Bowden, who was lecturer in physical chemistry at Cambridge University. Bowden had established a considerable reputation for his research on the physics of friction and lubrication, and it was considered that his expertise would be extremely valuable for the production of munitions and aircraft. The expertise provided by Bowden and his team proved to be critical to aircraft production and important for the testing of munitions and weapons.

The synthesis and production of drugs and antibiotics received high priority during the war. Scientists at Sydney and Adelaide Universities and at Monsanto were successful in the synthesis and scale-up production of sulpha drugs, and the Commonwealth Serum laboratories developed the fermentation facilities needed for the large scale production of penicillin and streptomycin. The production of morphine from opium poppy and hyoscine and hyoscyamine from Duboisia was a cooperative effort of scientists and technologists from the pharmaceutical firm Felton Grimwade and Duerdin and CSIR. Academics at the University of Melbourne had the difficult task of devising a satisfactory method for the proofing of clothing and equipment for the tropics against microbiological attack.

The post-war era

The 1939-45 war demonstrated probably for the first time the enormous value of effectively harnessing science and innovation on a national scale and the crucial role of advanced technology for a successful war outcome. After the war the industrial nations turned their attention to harnessing science for peaceful purposes and the benefit of mankind. In the USA the National Science Foundation was established as an independent Federal Government agency with the charter to strengthen research in the universities by the award of competitive grants to academics. In the 50 years since the establishment of the National Science Foundation the USA has dominated the world in outputs of basic research and its flow through to innovation by industry.

During the war years in Australia there was an increase in the technological sophistication of Australian industry and a considerable growth in a range of scientific skills. As indicated earlier, CSIR expanded into new areas in the physical sciences and there was growth of the defence laboratories and the telecommunication laboratories of the Australian Post Office. In contrast, basic research in the universities was curtailed during the war, so that in 1946 CSIR was in a position to dominate Australian science. The war made Australia realise that it needed a much larger basic research effort of international standard and more innovative secondary industries if it was to keep up with developments in other countries.

Discussions had already taken place during the war on a proposal to establish a post-graduate research university funded by the Commonwealth Government. The proposal became a reality in 1946 with the establishment of the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. Initially, there were four research schools with a high degree of autonomy for each school. The foundation schools were the Research School of Physical Sciences, the Research School of Medical Research named The John Curtain School of Medical Research, the Research School of Social Sciences and the Research School of Pacific Studies. Freedom from undergraduate teaching, generous funding (by Australian university standards) for the building of research teams, and very generous study leave provisions for academics, were the incentives used to persuade leading academics to come to the ANU. Mark Oliphant, eminent nuclear physicist at Birmingham University, accepted the university’s invitation to be Director of the Research School of Physical Sciences, but efforts to entice Sir Howard Florey as Director of the John Curtain School of Medical Research failed after he had shown interest. The ANU was successful in recruiting to professorial and other positions in the Schools several leading researchers who were to achieve outstanding international reputations. The most notable was John Eccles who shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1963.

The Research School of Chemistry and Research School of Biological Sciences were added in 1967, and the Research School of Earth Sciences was formed from the Research School of Physical Sciences in 1973. Professors Arthur Birch and David Craig, very distinguished expatriate chemists, returned from the U.K to head the Research School of Chemistry. A Research School of Information Sciences and Engineering was created in 1994. The Mount Stromlo Observatory, which had its beginning as the Commonwealth Solar Observatory in 1924, was transferred to the ANU in 1955, the year in which a new 74-inch telescope was commissioned.

The ANU established an observatory at Siding Spring in Northern New South Wales in the mid 1960s and was successful in having the joint 150-inch Anglo-Australian telescope located there in 1975. The Mount Stromlo and Siding Spring Observatories were part of the Research School of Physical Sciences until 1986 when they became autonomous. They are now the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

In the post-war period there was a large increase in undergraduate numbers in the State universities and more post-graduate students after the introduction of the PhD degree. The Commonwealth provided scholarships and some financial assistance to the State universities but funds for research were meagre. The CSIR provided some grants for research projects, but it was not until 1966 that the Commonwealth founded the Australian Research Grants Committee and provided the funding for competitive research grants to university academics.

The Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology and Geophysics was founded in 1946 as a division of the Department of National Development, with H. Raggatt as Director and with the primary functions to research exploration techniques and survey the continent at a broad scale for prospective areas for minerals and oil. The broad surveys of the Bureau were of considerable value to exploration companies in their choice of prospective areas for investigation. The Australian Atomic Energy Commission was created in 1953 to assist in the mining and treatment of uranium deposits and develop practical uses of atomic energy. A laboratory and nuclear reactor were built at Lucas Heights near Sydney for research and the production of short-lived radioactive isotopes for medicine and other uses.

CSIR emerged from the war years stronger and more diversified, and with an enhanced reputation. The contributions of its scientists to the war effort were widely recognised, and in the post-war years the Commonwealth Government provided increases in appropriation funding to CSIR in successive budgets. CSIR also was the major beneficiary in the allocation of substantial research funds from the Wool Research Trust Account. There was a compulsory levy on wool growers for research and publicity, and the Government paid a matching amount to the Wool Research Trust Account for the conduct of scientific research. In addition, a separate Wool Industry Fund was established from the profit on the sale of surplus wool bought by the Government during the war. This fund was reserved for equipment and the construction of laboratories for wool research.

Before the war there was an arrangement with the Wool Industries Research Association at Leeds in England, that wool production research would be done in Australia and research on wool processing research in England. In 1945 CSIR decided to expand its wool research to include basic investigations into the chemical and physical properties of wool and wool processing. There was concern with the competition from synthetic fibres, where the manufacturing process had advantages over wool processing. The Executive Committee had intended to form a single new Division to conduct the research, but failed to attract a suitable person to head the Division. Instead it established three separate laboratories, a protein chemistry laboratory in Melbourne to investigate the properties of wool keratin, a wool physics laboratory in Sydney to study the physical properties of wool fibres and fabrics, and a wool textile laboratory at Geelong for wool processing.

After the war there was also a significant expansion of wool related production research in several of the existing primary industry divisions. A new Division of Animal Production was also established at Prospect. CSIR also formed new sections for research in meteorological physics, building materials and coal, and the increases in appropriation funding also enabled the rapid expansion of existing Divisions.

Rivett strongly felt that all CSIR Divisions should have an appropriate balance between longer-term basic research and the more applied research. The basic research was essential to underpin the applied programs and ensure that CSIR scientists remained in touch with relevant overseas developments in their field. The 1950s saw a revitalisation of the Division of Plant Industry in Canberra under a new chief, O. H. Frankel. There was an expansion in basic research in areas of plant genetics, physiology, biochemistry, ecology, microbiology and soil physics. The Division achieved international recognition as one of the world’s leading plant research laboratories for its significant advances in several areas of plant biology. A section of the Division under the leadership of J. Griffith Davies was established in Brisbane to introduce new pastures to the tropical regions. It later became the Division of Tropical Crops and Pastures. A land research and regional survey section under C. S. Christian was established to survey the northern part of Australia for agricultural development. It became the Division of Land Research. The Division of Industrial Chemistry was split into six separate divisions. Eventually, the large number of divisions in CSIRO led to problems for the coordination and management of the research and the allocation of resources.

At the end of the war, the Division of Radiophysics had a large team of scientists that had acquired considerable expertise with advanced microwave technology from the wartime work on radar. The Division was keen to apply the new radar techniques to peacetime activities such as radio propagation, navigation and the study of weather and climate. Among the programs selected was a new area of radioastronomy. The Division attracted other young scientists and the radioastronomy group, under the inspired leadership of J. L. Pawsey, pioneered the development of radioastronomy. Several of the scientists received considerable international recognition, including election to Fellowship of The Royal Society for the discovery of radio stars and research on the radio emissions of the sun, which transformed the perception of the solar corona. The giant 64 metre radio telescope, which was commissioned at Parkes in 1961, proved to be a very successful research instrument and was the tool for pioneering studies on the Magellanic Clouds.

The Cold War period in the late 1940s created problems for CSIR, due mainly to its involvement with defence related research work in the Aeronautics Division. Rivett was strongly in favour of freedom in the search for and exchange of knowledge and opposed to secrecy. The Australian Government was keen to demonstrate to the United States and the UK that it could protect classified information. CSIR also came under attack from opposition politicians for its failure to introduce adequate security arrangements for sensitive defence related research, including the lack of security screening of staff. There were moves to place CSIR under bureaucratic control within a Government Department. The Chifley Government resisted these but decided to change the management of CSIR. Under the new Science and Industry Research Act of 1949, CSIR became the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), and responsibility for the management was transferred from a Council to an Executive of five members with three full-time and two part-time. The Chairman was one of the full-time members.

In the 1950s several industrial companies in Australia established large new research laboratories, including ICI Australia, Monsanto, BHP, CSR, Australian Paper Manufacturers, Australian Consolidated Industries and Repco. It augured well for an increase in private sector research in Australia which was low by comparison with the industrial nations of Europe.

The Australian Academy of Science, modelled on the Royal Society of Great Britain, was founded under Royal Charter in 1954 to promote the natural sciences in Australia and recognise outstanding contributions to the advancement of knowledge by scientists resident in Australia.

In 1950 the budgets of the universities for research totalled only 350,000 compared to the CSIRO budget of 2.35m. The contrast between CSIRO, with its quality staff and good conditions, and the universities, with high teaching loads and poor facilities and equipment for research, was very noticeable and resented by the universities. After considerable lobbying by the universities as well as by the Chairman of CSIRO, Sir Ian Clunies Ross, the Prime Minister, R. G. Menzies, established a Committee of Inquiry into the universities in 1957. It was chaired by Sir Keith Murray, Chairman of the Universities Grants Commission in the UK. The report of the Committee recommended a large increase in funding for the universities and the establishment of an Australian Universities Commission. The Government supported the recommendations, but it meant the beginning of Commonwealth control of the universities.

The 1960s and 1970s

Public sector support for research continued to increase. There was a large increase in the number of universities during the 1960s and 1970s to meet the demand for undergraduate places, and by 1980 there were 19 universities. Resources for research and postgraduate training were part of the block grants to universities. University research of international standard was boosted by the establishment of the Australian Research Grants Committee in 1965. The ARGC was run along the lines of the National Science Foundation in the United States, with the award of competitively peer-assessed grants to individual academics for equipment, supplies and research assistance. The world prominence of the Great Barrier Reef prompted the Commonwealth Government to establish the Australian Institute of Marine Science as a statutory authority for research on the Great Barrier Reef and marine systems in tropical Australia.

Research related to rural production and processing still dominated the research portfolio of CSIRO. In the mid-1970s, there was increasing concern about land degradation and the longer implications of land management practices. The CSIRO responded by shifting the emphasis of the work of the Division of Land Research in Canberra, and diverting some resources from rural production to form a Division of Land Resource Management in Western Australia.

By the mid-1970s, CSIRO was a large and diverse organisation with a staff of 7,000 and 37 Divisions and 5 Units at locations in all States, the Northern Territory and the ACT. It was managed by an Executive of five full-time members, all with scientific qualifications, and four part-time members. Some critics thought that CSIRO was too large to manage effectively and should be split into at least two organisations. The counter arguments were that a single organisation has more flexibility in moving resources between research areas and is in a better position to form interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary teams. In 1976 the Government decided on an independent inquiry into CSIRO by a small committee chaired by Professor Arthur Birch. The report of the inquiry recommended that CSIRO remain a single organisation. It considered that the existing role of CSIRO in conducting longer-term research in support of primary, secondary and tertiary industry and in areas of community interest such as the environment and conservation was appropriate. During the conduct of the inquiry the committee was made well aware of the gap between CSIRO and manufacturing industry and the reasons for it. The report made a number of recommendations to improve the relationship with manufacturing industry that included the dissemination of CSIRO information. To improve the management of CSIRO the committee of inquiry recommended that the Divisions should be grouped into not more than six institutes, each headed by a Director. The Government accepted all the recommendations of the committee.

The Australian Science and Technology Council (ASTEC) was established in 1978 to advise the Government on matters relating to the conduct and application of science and technology. It was composed of leading academics and industrialists, but for some unknown reason leading scientists from CSIRO and other government agencies were excluded. Matters investigated by ASTEC either were selected by itself or referred by the Government. ASTEC reports were tabled in Parliament, but their influence on the decisions of Government varied considerably.

Applied scientists and technologists in Australia were disappointed that so few of their number were being elected to the Australian Academy of Science. In 1976 an applied science academy was inaugurated as the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences. Engineering was added to the name in 1987.

Science and innovation in the 1980s

The quarter century before 1980 saw a very large increase in public funded research in Australia, but the R & D performance of the private sector was disappointing. Secondary industry was protected by tariffs, much of the technology for manufacturing was imported and the Australian currency was fixed. The optimism after the war that successful outcomes of research in CSIRO and the universities would flow to the private sector and be developed for the nation’s benefit was not realised. This led to a shift in government thinking and a number of initiatives were introduced to stimulate the level of R&D in existing industry and encourage new ventures. These included the 150% tax deduction for R&D and the Grants for Industrial R&D (GIRD). The latter were of particular value for companies which were not yet profitable and therefore unable to benefit from the tax concession. The R&D tax concession was reduced to 125% in 1996 and the GIRD scheme was replaced by an R&D Start Program. Innovation in Australia suffered from a shortage of venture capital for R&D and start-up companies. Initiatives from the Government to stimulate the flow of venture capital from the private sector for R&D were by way of tax advantages for Management Investment Companies and Syndicated R&D. Both schemes were abandoned after several years, but an Innovation Investment Fund was set up by the Government in 1997 to assist small, technology-based companies. Most State Governments provided infrastructure for science and technology parks, for technology incubation centres and for promoting the commercialisation of research.

Budgetary constraints in the 1980s meant that CSIRO needed to operate for the first time in thirty years under zero or slightly negative growth. New areas or directions of research, which often required different skills, were supported at the expense of existing activities. Towards the end of the 1980s CSIRO initiated a study to improve the methodology of priority setting. Priority setting by CSIRO now includes the assessment of the attractiveness of programs in terms of potential benefits to Australia and the ability to capture the benefits, and the feasibility in terms of R&D potential and the availability of the R&D expertise. In order to improve the interaction of CSIRO with commercial and other customers the Government decided that CSIRO should obtain a greater proportion of its funds from sources other than by diirect parliamentary appropriation. The organisation was required to work to a target of 30% of funds from non-appropriation sources. The Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation also were given targets for funds from non-appropriation sources.

The 1980s saw a more pluralistic approach to Commonwealth government funding of research, with Departments such as Environment providing substantial funds for contract research to universities and research agencies in areas of priority to the Department. The funding of rural R&D was reorganised by the Commonwealth Government in 1989 through a number of rural industries R&D corporations and councils. Each corporation or council is funded through a statutory levy on output at the farm gate and matched by the Government up to 0.5% of the gross value of production. The corporations and councils support R&D by contracting out to universities, CSIRO, State government departments and agencies, and others.

In 1989 the Prime Minister created the position of Chief Scientist to be located within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and a Prime Minister’s Science Council with himself as Chair and with Ministers from portfolios with a significant science component. The Council included the Chief Executive of CSIRO, the Chairs of ASTEC and the Australian Research Council and representatives from business. The Chief Scientist was the Executive Officer of the Council and responsible for the agenda papers and follow-up of decisions and matters discussed by Council. The main purpose of the Council, which held its first meeting in 1989, was as an information forum for the Prime Minister and the other Ministers and to involve them in discussion of emerging science topics. It was replaced in 1997 by a new Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council and the abolition of ASTEC.

A revolutionary change in arrangements for higher education occurred in 1989 when the Government supported the proposal by the Minister of Employment, Education and Training, John Dawkins, to abolish the binary system of universities and colleges of advanced education and replace it with fewer institutions in a unified national system. The colleges were not funded for research, so that the formation of 38 universities in the unified system required a substantial increase in funding for research and research training. There was some increase in resources for research infrastructure in the new universities, but not a commensurate increase in funding for the Australian Research Grants Committee. There was concern that the quality of basic research in the universities could suffer through a dilution of effort.

Focus on research collaboration in the 1990s

By the 1990s it was realised that there was scope to strengthen Australian science and innovation by building larger research groups of critical mass through improved collaboration between the universities, CSIRO and other government research agencies and industry. In 1990 the Government launched the Cooperative Research Centre Scheme with the aims to build centres of research concentration, to capture the benefits of research, and to improve postgraduate research training through the active involvement of researchers from outside the higher education system. There was a requirement that a centre must include at least one higher education institution. Commonwealth funding provided under the CRC program was limited to 50% of the cost of establishing and operating a centre.

The first selection round was held in 1990 when 20 CRCs were established with Commonwealth funding for 5-7 years. There are now 63 centres covering areas of manufacturing technology, information and communication technology, mining and energy, environment, and medical science and technology. As well as universities, participation in the CRC program includes CSIRO and other Commonwealth research agencies, State government departments and agencies, companies and Rural R&D corporations. Some CRCs are incorporated bodies, but the majority are unincorporated. Commonwealth funding under the CRC program is about 30% of the overall resources. Each CRC has a governing Board with an independent Chair.

Reviews of the CRC program conducted in 1995 and 1999 were very supportive. The program is fulfilling its objectives of strengthening the links between research organisations and bridging the gap between public researchers and companies or other users of the research. It has played a major role in changing the research culture within Australia to include an appreciation in the universities of the importance of research outcomes and their commercialisation or utilisation for economic benefit or public good. Postgraduate students have benefited from interaction with supervisors from outside their universities.

The changes outlined above in the organisation and orientation of science, the improved interaction between public sector research and the private sector, the initiatives of Government to stimulate industrial R&D, and the radical reshaping of the tertiary education system, illustrate the very significant changes which have occurred in Australian Science and Technology over the last two decades. These have been in response to an increasing realisation of the need for Australia to develop a more diverse and internationally competitive economy and the crucial importance of science and innovation to its achievement.

Significant Australian inventions

Some of the earlier Australian inventions have been mentioned already: the development of disease resistant wheat varieties at the turn of the century by William Farrer, the flotation of minerals, cobalt as the cure for coast disease of sheep and cattle, improved diagnostic tests and a vaccine for cattle pleuropneumonia, and the control of prickly pear. These discoveries were directed at Australian problems, although minerals flotation is widely used for mineral ore treatment around the world.

Another significant invention in the 1920s was the development by G. K. Williams at Port Pirie of the first continuous refining process for lead. The control of rabbit populations by the introduction of myxomatosis in 1950 had a major impact on wool and meat production.

Basic research at the chemical physics laboratory of CSIRO by Alan Walsh led to the development of atomic absorption spectroscopy in 1953 as a revolutionary and sensitive method for chemical analysis. Atomic absorption spectrometers are used around the world in hospitals, factories and laboratories to measure traces of metallic elements in an enormous range of substances as diverse as soil, blood, minerals, wine, and plant and animal tissues. The development of the spectrometer was a commercial success, with design and manufacture in Australia for export and eventually licence for manufacture overseas. Another Australian instrument invention was the flame ionisation detector for the sensitive detection of volatile substances by gas liquid chromatography. It was invented by Ian McWilliam at the central research laboratory of ICI in Melbourne.

CSIRO discoveries greatly assisted the wool industry to survive in the face of intense competition from synthetic fibres. The most significant was a spinning technique named Sirospun which enabled the production of a fine wool worsted yarn in a single stage, at a cost saving of 40% over conventional processes.

Examples of significant high technology inventions which were successfully commercialised are the heart pacemaker and defibrillator developed by Telectronics in conjunction with research aid from CSIRO, and the bionic ear, an implantable hearing prosthesis conceived by Graeme Clark of the University of Melbourne and developed in collaboration with Cochlear. Telectronics and Cochlear were subsidiaries of Nucleus Limited, founded in 1965 by Paul Trainor to develop, manufacture and market innovative medical technology. The bionic ear has captured most of the world market for such a device, and the pacemaker has substantial overseas markets.

A new smelting technology, Sirosmelt, that cuts energy costs and increases metal recovery, was devised and tested by CSIRO and further developed by Mount Isa Mines as Isasmelt.

Among other novel Australian inventions are the plastic banknote with a novel inbuilt security device, the result of collaboration between the CSIRO and the Reserve Bank, and the membrane filtration technology of Memtec.

Australia has made a large contribution to the advancement of knowledge proportional to its population. Australian science over all fields produced 2.7% of world science papers in the five years to 1997, but it has particular strengths and excellence in the geosciences, plant and animal sciences, agricultural sciences, ecology and environmental sciences. For example, over this period Australia produced just over 5% of world papers in the geosciences and just under 5% in plant and animal sciences. Although Australia produced only a little under 2% of world papers in materials sciences and just over 2% of those in engineering, the Australian papers had above average rates of citation by world researchers in the areas (DISR 2000, pp. 55-59).

Issues for the 21st century

Increased globalisation of trade and the further lowering of tariff barriers will mean greater competition for Australian industry, but it would also provide opportunities to expand exports of goods and services. Science and innovation will be a crucial element in enhancing the competitiveness of Australian industry and improving the nation’s economic and social prosperity. Science and innovation also have an important role to play in overcoming environmental problems, such as land degradation, marine and water pollution, retention of biodiversity and the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

In spite of the efforts of the last decade to broaden the base of the economy, Australia is well below advanced industrial countries in the production of high technology goods and services, that constitute the fastest growing area of world trade. Australia with its small population cannot hope to mount an internationally competitive science and innovation effort in too many areas and urgent attention needs to be paid to selecting priority areas for the concentration of resources. Governments in Australia have avoided the ‘picking of winners’ and have preferred to leave the selection of priorities to the market. Modern biotechnology based on cell biology and the identification, isolation, manipulation and transfer of genes is predicted to be a dominant and far reaching technology of the 21st century. The biological science base is relatively strong in Australia and it provides a springboard for the creation of new industry. There are already a few small firms in the biotechnology area which have been spun off from public sector research. A major impediment to growth of new enterprises in high technology areas, particularly biotechnology, has been the shortage of venture capital for such enterprises. Investors often require a credible market plan and good commercial management skills in the company before they are willing to take the risk of a substantial investment. Strategic alliances with foreign companies would seem to be an attractive and viable option for high technology companies to access the global market. It is very likely that there will be many instances in the biotechnology area where the development of a product and its global marketing can only be achieved in this way. It is important that an Australian enterprise has a strong patent position for its products in order to strengthen its negotiations with a prospective partner.

Several elements of the Australian innovation system need to be strengthened if Australia is to compete successfully in the global market in the trade of high technology goods and services, as well as improving export earnings from the mining and rural industries. Important issues for the innovation system are the education system, the research base, international networks, business R&D, capital markets and tax structures. The last two will not be discussed in this article.

There are concerns that interest in science has declined among school students, and fewer students are choosing science and engineering as a career. The main reason for the poor image of science and engineering is the lack of attractive career opportunities, particularly in the private sector. An improved skill base in science and technology will be crucial to increasing Australia’s share of world trade in high technology goods and services, but it is a chicken and egg situation. Without the career opportunities the best students will not be attracted to tertiary studies in science and engineering, but without a pool of experienced researchers and a competitive skill base international companies will not be attracted to establishing more of their operations including R&D activities in Australia.

It is imperative that Australia maintains a strong science research base in the universities, CSIRO and the other Government research agencies. The internationally accepted measure of the quality of the basic research of a country is the number and impact of papers published in peer-reviewed international journals. An article in the American journal Science Watch in 1993 showed a decline in the impact of Australian scientific publications as measured by the decrease in their citation in the papers of other scientists. This study was confirmed by the work of Bourke and Butler, and by a report by the Bureau of Industry Economics that also examined possible reasons for the decline factors without being able to come to a clear-cut conclusion. A study by the Australian Academy of Science concluded that the likeliest cause of the declining impact was a weakening of the networks connecting Australia’s younger researchers with their colleagues overseas. The Academy of Science published a follow-up report that examined the various mechanisms by which international scientific networks are established and maintained. The report called for the establishment of a national overseas postdoctoral scheme to significantly increase the opportunities for early career researchers to gain research experience overseas. It recommended that the fellowships be tenable in both public and private sector laboratories.

Another matter of concern for the science base is the low success rate of high quality applications by university researchers for grants from the Australian Research Council because of the limited resources available to the Council. The science base in CSIRO has declined over the past decade with the increase in funding from industry and other external sources and the diversion of resources to support the short-term projects.

The main issue for innovation in Australia in the 21st century is the low level of business expenditure on R&D (BERD) (table 25.1 of the chapter Science and Innovation shows expenditure on R&D by sector, including BERD, from 1993-94 to 1998-99). After the introduction of the 150% tax concession BERD showed a steady increase, with an annual growth rate of 17.6% between 1984-85 and 1995-96. Since 1995-96 BERD has fallen from 0.86% of GDP to 0.67% in 1998-99 at a time when the private sector in many other countries in the OECD and the Asian region is increasing R&D (see table 25.3 of the chapter for expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP in OECD countries for 1998-99). The reduction in the R&D tax concession in 1996 from 150% to 125% may have contributed to the fall in BERD, but others factors, such as the generally poor international competitiveness of Australian secondary industry and the small size of the local market, may also have contributed to the lack of greater investment by the private sector in R&D.

The pace of change in science and technology is showing no signs of diminishing, and Australia has no choice but to improve its innovation system and broaden the base of its economy. Australia can no longer rely on its natural resources and the competitiveness of the rural and mining industries to maintain a high standard of living. Australia must become more competitive in the supply of high-technology goods and services and gain a fair share of the expanding world markets for them. The ideas emanating from the Innovation Summit held in Melbourne in February 2000 and the follow-up studies will provide the basis for a report to government on ways to improve innovation in Australia.


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Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering 1988, Technology in Australia 1788-1988, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, Melbourne.

Blainey, Geoffrey 1957, A Centenary History of The University of Melbourne, Melbourne University Press.

Branagan, David and Holland, Graham (eds) 1985, Ever Reaping Something New - A Science Centenary, University of Sydney.

Bourke, Paul and Butler, Linda 1993, A Crisis for Australian Science?, Performance Indicators Project, Monograph Series No. 1, Australian National University, Canberra.

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Currie, George and Graham, John 1966, The Origins of CSIRO, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Melbourne.

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