The Australian ABC television programme Lateline is a unique news analysis and investigative programme, somewhat akin to the BBC’s Panorama except that it is on every weeknight. Following my Ockham’s Razor radio programme “Precious Petals,” where I criticized ‘targeted’ research funding as being unproductive, I was asked to appear on Lateline and expand on my views. I did not know that the minister whose views I was criticizing would be on first, but as it turned out he set up some ideals targets to aim at, and my argument that we should be funding research networks rather than targeted areas was widely reported, and elicited many supportive emails

You can watch the interview on:

There were, of course, many other stories, points and different ways of putting things that I was not able to bring in in a ten-minute interview. Here are a few that I had in mind:


  • As I said in the interview, many (if not most) of the major advances in science have come through discoveries that seemed at the time to have no obvious relevance to the eventual application. What I wish I had added is that these are not exceptional cases, or luck, or blind serendipity. THIS IS THE MAINSTREAM, and needs to be recognized and supported as such.
  • Targeted research sounds as though it should work, and it would be nice if it did. Unfortunately, it’s a bit like killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. Cut it open, get the good bits out, ignore the rest. But then you don’t get any more eggs.
  • Personally speaking, I see science as one of the arts, contributing to our understanding of the world and our place in it. But science offers something more – it offers concrete, material things like communication, transport, safer food, medical treatments …. . The real question is how you can get those most efficiently.
  • I hate terms like “blue sky” research or “curiosity-driven” research. What is research if it is not curiosity-driven? It’s just research, trying to understand how the world works.
  • More on the Dave Solomon story. I met him when I was networking, looking for ways to treat polymer surfaces to stop cells from sticking. That originally came from a food problem, but I thought it might have useful biomedical applications. In the course of our conversation I discovered that he was trying to find ways to use polymers to capture optical images, such as holograms. It was a very interesting, basic problem. Then along came the bank wanting a new secure bank note. They weren’t looking for plastic banknotes – in fact, there was a lot of resistance … …
  • Many of the discoveries that have emerged from CSIRO (listed in the wonderful CSIROpedia ( emerged from networking in the days when communication was open, and actively encouraged. One story that I particularly like concerns the insect repellant known as Aerogard. The bald story does not reveal the many productive interactions that went on in the course of the research, but the punchline is a cracker:

During the period 1938 to 1961 Doug Waterhouse carried out pioneering studies on the sheep blowfly, a major pest. Through interaction with chemists, entomologists and others, he worked out a chemical way, not to kill the flies, but to stop them from landing and laying their eggs in the first place.

This work was interrupted by the Second World War where his attention turned to ways of protecting allied troops from the mosquitoes responsible for malarial transmission. By 1943 the repellent was widely deployed in the Pacific and Doug was considered a hero for his development of the repellent referred to by the troops as ‘Mary’. However it took the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Australia in 1963 for the repellent to become a household name. Although the Queen was meant to be sprayed with the repellent at a garden party held at Government House in Canberra, the aide responsible lost his nerve and the Queen was left madly swatting flies.

The next day was a different story, when Government House staff made sure the Queen was liberally sprayed before heading off for a game of golf. Journalists following the Queen noted the absence of flies around the official party, and word about CSIRO’s new fly-repellent spread. A few days later the good people at Mortein called Doug Waterhouse for his formula, which he passed on freely, as was CSIRO’s policy at the time. The rest, as they say, is history with Mortein’s Aerogard going on to become an Australian icon, ensuring that we all ‘avagoodweekend’.

  • I could also have used many of the stories that I have told in my Mini Stories from Science, such as the one about the birth control pill. When Carl Djerassi was asked how he chose his research problem that led to the birth control pill, his answer would have been surprising to most politicians, and indeed to most people who are concerned with the funding of science. He said: “To be quite honest, at the time that we chose it, the problem was not really directly connected to birth control. … at the time (1950 – 1951) we began working on this problem, progesterone was not used for birth control, but to treat menstrual disorders and infertility. Also, and most importantly for us, it was thought to be a potential treatment for certain forms of cancer … .”

See also stories about the polymerase chain reaction, Viagra, and a host of others.


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