“No thanks” to Ask the economists. But I suppose I might put economist’s opinions marginally ahead of (ex-)diplomats, but that would be several steps below taxi drivers.

To be fair I agree with at least two of the three economists Crikey asked to comment.  Adam Carr wrote: ” We need to encourage a generation of independent and critical thinkers — to lift standards. It is these people who drive innovation. Then we need to encourage research and development.”

This is exactly what Australia does not do.  We are far down the list of OECD countries on all counts especially academic research funding per capita and industrial R&D.  If you weeded out the fake R&D by the mining industries and the military, it would be even more lamentable.  Most Australians do not seem to realise how bad it is.  In 2009 when I last compared our biomedical research, National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) funding of $634 million was, on a per capita basis, 23% (about one quarter) of  the US (NIH only that excludes some other substantial funding bodies).  This was actually artificially high due to the current high exchange rate;  at historical forex rates it would be even worse: less than one fifth the per cap rate of funding.  If you looked too hard at the absolute dollar amount (NIH budget was almost $30 billion) you would give up or emigrate, which leads me to …

No accident that our most recent Nobel prize-winner (Elizabeth Blackburn) is firmly ensconced at UCSF (University of California at San Francisco).  Several years ago she was offered the directorship of my institute but after difficult agonising declined for obvious reasons. And ditto for other leading researchers such as Alan Trounson (head of the California stem cell institute in SF) and David Mills of Ausra (solar power) now effectively a Californian company based in San Jose just south of SF. Even the bloke who developed the Mythbusters TV success (in San Francisco, catching my theme here?) is an Australian expat.

Remember that those sandgropers Barry Marshall and Robin Warren had their research grant application (for work that led to their 2005 Nobel for Helicobacter causation of stomach ulcers) rejected by NHMRC, which is typical of hidebound, timid Australian funding institutions who actively shun anything truly innovative because it obviously entails risk of failure.  Perhaps they should fund research into how to innovate without any risk — that would be Nobel worthy if it was possible. Or how Kevin Rudd is ever going to achieve something/anything with zero risk.

In other fields, if the bean counters had their way, we would not provide any government support for any local arts or drama since it obviously interferes with free market competitive forces.  Yesterday The Australian ran an absurd editorial saying that the Oz-USA free-trade agreement is wonderful because of all the Australians working in US television, including Toni Collette, who won a Golden Globe for her role in an American TV series. I mean, are they nuts or being obscurely ironic in a way that escapes me?  We should thank John Howard for all that Australian talent infesting American television and Hollywood?  Just don’t ask Anthony LaPaglia his opinion on that theory!  Maybe one of the economists can explain to me how expat Australians, earning megabucks while living and working in the US, help the Australian economy or local creative industries.  Except in rather trivial ways such as Mel Gibson donating to NIDA or LaPaglia lending his name and influence to get Balibo made.

The trouble is not in having the independent thinkers or talent (like everywhere they are pretty rare) but in giving them opportunities here rather than the token support typical of Australian governments, which almost ensures their ideas, developments and talent go overseas for others to benefit.

But I suspect Rudd’s ideas of how to improve productivity measures are more along the lines of  “performance targets”, compliance mechanisms and other specious quantitative trickery, as indirectly implied by John Daley in the Crikey piece.  Daley said: “The current debate over school testing will be an acid test of whether the Rudd government can make the hard decisions needed for long-term productivity growth.”  Yes, that is exactly the sort of paper exercise that will create more innovative thinkers and creative types (actually it might create a few in a Kafkaesque-Orwellian way).   If only the real world responded to simplistic quantitative measures that economists love.  More likely it will cause even more motivated teachers — if any with their self-respect intact remain — out of their profession and leave behind those with the energy to game the system to climb the ladder.

Instead of spending billions on fake and almost certainly totally unproductive R&D on Clean Coal (by that paragon of innovation, the coal mining and burning industries), it would be better to give it to researchers and entrepreneurs without too much drama (ie. no “key performance indicators” etc). Sure, in yer dreams, so Steve Keen is right in his pessimism, we will continue to promote property speculation instead of any genuine investment in innovation.

If one thinks too far ahead about this one would not only do the Keen thing (sell your house) but the next logical thing — move offshore permanently.

Peter Fray

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