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Tuesday, 20 May 2014 13:53

The myths of corporate and government innovation Featured


There seems to be a prevailing attitude in some quarters, exemplified by the latest Australian Federal Budget, that R&D and innovation are not the business of governments but should remain solely in the hands of private corporations.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

It may surprise some to discover that many, if not most, of the world’s greatest inventions originated from government agencies and institutes of higher learning that they fund.

Wi-Fi, invented by CSIRO scientists in 1992, is the most recent and obvious example. For its trouble of developing a technology that today is ubiquitous, the CSIRO has belatedly received US$427 million in royalties from the world’s largest tech corporations that basically stole the technology and ripped us off. I say “us” because it is our taxes that help to fund the CSIRO.

I don’t know if it’s just me – and if it is then it’s a worry – but it seems that $427 million is a relatively paltry sum for a technology that is now mandatorily incorporated into every computing device, from mobile phones to desktop computers. What’s more, CSIRO had to spend millions in legal costs to pursue its legal case over 20 years in mostly US courts, only to see its patent expire in 2013.

However, Wi-Fi is just one Australian invention that stemmed from government assisted R&D. There are many others.

In 1926, Dr Mark C Lidwell of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital of Sydney, supported by physicist Edgar H Booth of the University of Sydney, developed the first prototype heart pacemaker!

Has anyone heard of the Atomic Absorption Spectrometer – you know that complex analytical instrument incorporating micro-computer electronics and precision optics and mechanics, used in chemical analysis to determine low concentrations of metals in a wide variety of substances? It was invented at the CSIRO by Sir Alan Walsh in 1952.

In 1954 Australian engineer David Warren, when working with the Defence Science and Technology Organisations' Aeronautical Research Laboratory in Melbourne researched and developed the world’s first Black Box flight recorder.

In 1961 David Robinson and George Kossoff, working at the Ultrasonic Research Group of the Commonwealth Acoustic Laboratories in Adelaide, developed Australia’s and the world’s first commercially practical ultrasound scanner.

Shall we go on? OK

We all know about that great Australian invention the Cochlear implant. In fact, the bionic ear was invented by Professor Graeme Clark at the University of Melbourne in 1979.
How about the CPAP mask used in the treatment of sleep disorders? The CPAP was invented by Professor Colin Sullivan at Sydney University in 1981.

Not many will have heard of Gene Shears – The discovery of gene shears was made by CSIRO scientists, Wayne Gerlach and Jim Haseloff in 1986. This ingenuous bit of biotechnology can be used to cut out genes that cause disease.

Then of course there’s the good old 1988 Australian invention that saw off the use of paper money in 30 countries around the world. The development of the polymer bank note was made by CSIRO scientists led by Dr. David Solomon.

We could go on into the 21st Century with Australian inventions all emanating from government-funded universities and agencies – the scramjet, robotic visual horizon, anti-hacking software kernel (NICTA), and the quantum bit, the basic unit of quantum computing.

Most of the above inventions were eventually commercialised by the private sector but the clear message is that without the government funded R&D organisations there would have been nothing to commercialise. It is with this in mind that we should all let our displeasure be known to any government of whatever colour that tries to make a case for cutting funds for education and Australia’s excellent R&D organisations, in the name of balancing its budget, while in the same breath increasing military spending.


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Stan Beer


Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.



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