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Technology in Australia 1788-1988Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
Table of Contents

Chapter 9

I Introduction
i The impact of British scientific ethos and technology
ii The science/technology gap

II The Australian Chemical Industry

III Pharmaceuticals

IV Chemists In Other Industries

V The Dawn Of Modern Chemical Industry - High Pressure Synthesis

VI The Growth Of Synthetic Chemicals - Concentration, Rationalisation And International Links

VII Australian Industrial Chemical Research Laboratories

VIII The Plastics Industry

IX The Paint Industry

X Acknowledgements



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The science/technology gap

Australia owes Britain's science and technology a great deal. Yet, the inheritance was not without its burdens. It was perhaps one of the tragedies of Australian science and technology that its science sprang from that period in Britain when there were few bridges between science and technology. The great achievement of the early English university professors was that in one generation they established universities equalling their 'alma maters' and at times even excelling them; yet they also brought with them the ethos of science 'per se', leaving application to the inheritors of the Mechanics Institutes and to industry. Science can be pursued by individuals in small teams. Australian scientists, with generous support from Government until the 1970s, individually and in small teams were able to keep abreast of their peers overseas. Technological research, on the other hand, requires large teams and selective concentration on targets. Most of Australian science was concentrated in public sector organisations such as the CSIRO and universities; they found it difficult to fit into the pattern of modern industrial research, concentrating on selected targets in large teams. It was more in keeping with their inherited ethos to seek individual excellence in narrow profiles; it was also easier and more comforting to keep in contact with peers in science abroad.

Industry, particularly manufacturing, by contrast saw its task broadly: The technologists, engineers, managers and entrepeneurs had to establish a whole industrial economy in a new country; by 1945 it was a technology based economy. A people of ten or even sixteen million clearly could not re-discover the world's technology; it was a matter of comprehending it, selecting from it, condensing, simplifying, adopting it and, finally, grafting onto it Australia's own advances. Just how different this task was from mere research has not often been understood by the public, and, at times, not even by scientists and decision makers. Australia achieved this immense task -the adaptation of, and improvement on, the world's technology -in a few generations, almost apace with its emergence. By the 1970s Australia had a highly developed, diversified industrial structure. By 1980, however, the problems of maintaining competitiveness from a highly diversified, small industrial base had also emerged.

Some industries are more amenable to problem solving by individuals and small teams. Industries based on raw materials such as agriculture add value to a pre-existing, natural product and hence are less research intensive. Even in mining, corporate security and wealth reside primarily in the ore; competitiveness is in exploration more than research and the research expenditure of the industry is relatively low, world-wide. The problem of scale is more serious with multi-step process industries which start with a low value raw material and add technical and high cost labour content, typically the electronics, precision engineering, information, data processing, fine chemcals and biologicals/pharmaceuticals industries. These depend on research and development by large teams. Some like microelectronics or pharmaceuticals can be visualised as the compression of many man-years of research into a minute mass of product -'effect' products. As the international terms of trade changed over decades in favour of these high added value products and against commodity products, the problem of the gap between science and technology in small economies grew.

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© 1988 Print Edition pages 632 - 633, Online Edition 2000
Published by Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, using the Web Academic Resource Publisher