Open discussion on the evolution of Australian and New Zealand Thought

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Rural Research in Australia - a note

Another short companion piece, this time to Rafe's story on Jim Vincent. I found the story interesting for a number of reasons.

To begin with, it illustrated how much science has changed.

Our previous scientists lived in a constrained world, one in which scientific endeavour had to be restricted to very limited budgets. The total Australian university spend on scientific research at the time that Jim Vincent began his work was probably less in real terms than the spend today at a single Australian university.

Is this significant? I don't know. I only know that it has struck me a number of times when I read material on Australia's earlier academics and research scientists.

I was also struck, again, by the scale of Australia's success in early applied science.

At national level, the need for an Australian national research institute was first raised in debates about nationhood in the late 1890s. However, the first serious attempt to create a national research institute began in 1916, when Prime Minister Billy Hughes’ Government established an Advisory Council of Science and Industry to advise on the establishment of an Institute of Science and Industry.

The Institute was launched in 1921 to undertake scientific research, review existing research and disseminate scientific information. The Institute had limited funds and failed to develop.

In 1925, under the influence of Deputy PM and Country Party Leader Earle Page, Prime Minister Bruce convened a conference. He invited Sir Frank Heath, head of the British Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, to advise on the reorganisation of the Institute. Their reports led to the passing of new legislation in 1926 to establish the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

With an Executive Committee of George Julius, David Rivett and Arnold Richardson at the helm, CSIR was to become one of the most comprehensive scientific organisations in the world.

Many Australians forget just how much Australia has contributed to scientific research. The national payback and especially in agriculture has been huge.

Modern Australians also forget that debate about environmental issues, about land degradation and improvement, is not new. Wadham and Wood's pioneering study on land utilisation was in fact published first in 1939. Today's debate replicates many elements of the earlier debate.

The description of pasture improvement struck a chord, too. In 1950 in New England the carrying capacity on native pastures was one sheep per acre. Fifteen years later it was three sheep per acre.

We can debate issues associated with the replacement of native pasture. The reality is that in 1950 you could make a decent living off 1,000 merino sheep. Twenty years later you needed three times that number just to survive.

Science allowed Australia to grow so that we continued to feed and cloth more than seventy million people world-wide. Today we debate whether or not this can continue.

My personal view is that we have barely scratched the productive land-mass of the Australian continent. At this point I do not want to debate this, beyond saying that the continued work of scientists such as Jim Vincent are central to our future.

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