*  ESSAY *


Summary.  This article suggests that the economic goals which are being sought by bureaucratic reforms in higher education and research may be better achieved by promoting the tradition of wide ranging scholarship, and by fostering links between agencies involved in ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ research.  Free trade also  promotes effective research and development by forcing firms to become efficient or fall by the wayside.

These meditations predate websites and the blogosphere so they never went anywhere although some of the ideas leaked into a couple of book reviews, one of  a collection of papers in honour of a leading microbiologist and another of a collection on Australian Science.

They are based on the experience of Australian rural research which supports some very efficient farmers on some of the world’s worst soils. This has been achieved by a combination of factors, starting with smart farmers and local inventors who started the process of innovation in technology (the stump jump plough etc) and also soils and pasture management. Then came rural researchers, many from the country with experience on farms and a lifelong interest in practical problems even when their research was “pure” or “basic”. And then the personal and institutional linkages through the extension services, the industry associations, country shows and field days. And the rural broadcasting service.

The text from this point is untouched since 1989.

Making Resarch Pay

The ‘cultural cringe’ is very out of place in many fields of Australian endeavour, one of which is agricultural science. Our farming is often depicted as a heroic triumph of  the human  spirit  over  the  obstacles  mounted  by  fires,  floods, droughts  and long distances.    This  leaves  out  of  account  the  problem  of  our terrible soils.  Short of wastes such  as  the Gobi  Desert it is hard to find less fertile tracts  of   land than  most of this continent ,  quite apart  from  the  shortage  of rainfall.  

With some exceptions, Australian soils are seriously deficient in the major plant foods (nitrogen and phosphorus) and often enough  they lack other minerals as well, such as potassium and sulphur, and  the ‘trace elements’ such as zinc and molybdenum which are required in minute quantities.  It seems that we have  the  remarkable combination of the worst soils  in  the world  with some of the most efficient farmers.    This  has  come  about through  innovations  in farm practice based on a number of triumphs in pure and applied biological science.

The traditions and institutions which generated these achievements are especially worthy of study at a time when the federal government is embarking upon a massive re-organization of education and research in the interests of efficiency and economic returns.

It is almost certain that anything which the bureaucracy puts in place will do more harm than good, but up to date the loyal intellectual opposition has not taken the battle into the territory of the economic rationalists. It has tried to hold the line with grand abstractions such as ‘the autonomy of the academies’ and ‘the sanctity of knowledge for its own sake’. But the most crushing rejoinder would show that there is no conflict in principle between the best forms of fundamental and applied research, as they have been practiced in the existing system.  Work is required on the ‘ecology of excellence’  to find  the conditions which help  good research and subsequent commercial development of the findings.

The work described in  Microbiology in Action (W. G. Murrell and I. R. Kennedy eds. Research Studies Press, Letchworth, Herts. England, $180) provides a case study where basic research produced spectacular economic returns.  One of the most significant  achievements in applied agricultural science  is the partnership between superphosphate fertilizer (‘super’), subterranean (‘sub’) clover   and nitrogen fixing bacteria that colonise the clover roots.  The ‘super’ provides phosphorus and the bacteria extract nitrogen from the air which is first used by the clover, then recycled to the soil when the plant dies or is eaten by an animal. It may be noted that the work in this field marks a transition from the “sharp-eyed farmer” period to the “white lab coat” era of research.

Around the turn of the century Amos Howard, a farmer in the Adelaide Hills, noticed that grass often grew better in the vicinity of sub clover.  Howard   reported his observations in a series of letters  to  The   Adelaide Advertiser and farmers at Naracoorte in South Australia  obtained similar results in  experimental trials. They were lucky because subsequent experience  revealed that the  clover did not always help. Some apparently occult influences were at work and so improving pastures by sowing sub clover was a hit and miss affair for some decades. This is where the microbiologists made their mark when they discovered the function of the bacterial colonies on the clover roots and they explored the factors which determined whether or not the partnership between the plant and the microbes worked effectively. A decisive advance occurred with the introduction of techniques to  innoculate the clover seed with varieties of bacteria that are appropriate for the particular soil and climate.  

The essays collected in Microbiology in Action indicate the current state of the art in research on  bacterial nitrogen fixation. This is still a growth area due to the complexity of the biological mechanisms and the need to develop new varieties of microbes and plants for the tropical and sub-tropical parts of the continent. The volume contains 22 chapters, based on papers which were presented at a conference in 1986 to honour the 75th birthday of Jim Vincent, a much respected teacher and researcher in this field. 

Most of the contributors were either students of Vincent, or worked with him in one or more areas of pure and applied work. His range of interests was immense and extended to  hard-headed political action to protect the  industry from defective products that threatened the credibility of the whole enterprise of innoculating clover seeds with bacteria. Early in the 1950s some firms began to distribute clover seed innoculated by a method which practically guaranteed failure. Vincent convened a conference and produced evidence that this approach  could not work; further he requested the assistance of all manufacturers to establish a fund to monitor the quality of seed. Nutman’s Foreword to this book describes the merchants coming forward “like the saved at a revivalist meeting”  to pledge their assistance to the scheme and promising to to better in future.

Returning to the ‘ecology of excellence’, what is to be learned from Vincent and others engaged in this line of work?  Gibson,  in some preliminary comments to his paper on the genetics of  the host/bacteria relationship, stated. 

‘The words “applied”, “tactical”, “strategic” and “basic” did not appear in Vincent’s lexicon. The emphasis was on the selection of problems of relevance, and having chosen the problem, to then utilise whatever skills and approaches were required to effect their resolution. The over-riding tenet was that the work should be sound, significant and relevant science. The impact this has had on Australian, and international, studies with the nodulation of legumes, and other aspects of agricultural microbiology, is self-evident’.

This approach defies the segregation of pure and applied work which can, and perhaps should, proceed by mutual cross-fertilisation. Medawar suggested something of this nature in his critique of the traditional approach where unfettered pure research was supposed to generate an automatic (if somewhat delayed ) trickle-down effect.

‘Might not the converse approach be equally effective – to start wtih a concrete problem, but then to allow the research to open out in the direction of greater generality. Research done in this style is always in focus.’ ( Pluto’s Republic  page 39).

One can postulate some features of Australian rural research that has paid dividends.  First the existence of some (if not all, or even most) researchers who emulate Vincent in taking equal notice of  practical and theoretical  problems. Second, the existence of institutional arrangements where these people can  provoke or direct others to pursue both the fundamental and the applied aspects of promising ideas. Thirdly, in the domain of  political economy, an environment which rewards innovation and enterprise, especially by exporting to tap world markets.

As  for  sensitivity to problems, especially practical  problems,  many   agricultural scientists  used  to come off the land,  or at   least  from  the country, so they  never  entirely forgot about problems on the farm,   however rarified their own research became. Can the same be said of  people  in other branches of science which might have profound implications for engineering and industry?  People such as Jim Vincent, who  are sensitive to problems at all levels, will probably find that  they are  working along a wide segment of the pure – applied spectrum, or  they will be able to communicate  usefully with  people  at all points on it.  They  will  also  move freely across  the boundaries of ‘disciplines’ because the  problem  has not been invented that sticks inside a subject.

Moving on to the  institutional linkage  between research  and  application, an example of an effective arrangement exists in the school of Agriculture at the University of Adelaide. This is located at the Waite Agricultral Research Institute on the outskirts of Adelaide, adjacent to the CSIRO Soils Division and the CSIRO wine research unit.  People doing ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ research work side by side, with two-way traffic across the road to the CSIRO for seminars and working lunches.   Many  academics at Waite have trials under way  on farms  in  various parts of the state and most have  good contacts with people in the State Department of  Agriculture  which has the major responsibility for  extension services to the farming community. Similar linkages occur in other states, though few can boast the concentration of resources which exists at the Waite/CSIRO complex.

It seems that Australian agriculture has been well served by many individual scientists and by the institutional environment which they inhabit. But another factor has probably  played a  part, namely the extent of free trade and competition in the marketplace. It may not be accidental that our great exporters, the miners, wheat farmers and wool growers, are also our most efficient and technologically progressive industries. Exporters, almost by definition, are exposed to the  full brunt of competition in the international marketplace. They are truly internationals, like our leading sports players, and unlike other enterprises that  demand protection to wade in a relaxed fashion in the shallow waters of the domestic market.  This prompts the somewhat unexpected conclusion that free trade may be a useful part of science policy.

Rafe Champion, February 1989