Table Of Contents

Laboratories after 2000

Dr Edwin Brooks

Emeritis Dean of Commerce, Riverina-Murray Institute of Higher Education

Exercises in Futurology are always a bit presumptuous, as the dictators of the 20th century found to their cost.

Hitler thought his Third Reich would last a thousand years, or sixty times too long. While something nasty happened to Lenin on his way to the next millenium.

I guess the food processing industry is more mundane than totalitarian ideologies, but it is no less influenced by the scientific upheavals which make our forecasts as trustworthy as reading the tea leaves.

Fortunately I come to this daunting task of prophecy in a state of divine innocence.....or maybe sublime ignorance!

I've never worked in a laboratory. My knowledge of the food processing industry is confined to what happens in my lower abdomen. And my chances of surviving much beyond the year 2000 aren't too promising either!

But although I may well be a fool rushing in, it certainly isn't the case that others fear to tread the misty heights of speculation!

Indeed I'm in good company, as can be seen from a string of recent papers by Dr J.G. Zadow, Head of the Dairy Research Laboratory.

In 1987 he had a pretty straightforward look at "New processes and food forms"; the following year his paper looked ahead more ambitiously to "Dairying - 1992 and Beyond"; while by 1989 he had jumped half-a-century and spoke about "Dairy Research - the next Fifty Years"!

At this spanking rate, he should by now be preparing his thoughts on "Dairying in the Fourth Millenium"!

Hopefully he'll prove more accurate than the authors of a book called "Medicines in the 1990s", which was published by the Office of Health Economics in Britain in 1969.

Forty experts had been invited to forecast what would happen in the following twenty years; and as only those guesses which passed muster with various referees were published, the book would have been "a fair reflection of the informed opinion of the time" (D. Gould, New Scientist, 17 August 1991).

Too bad in that case, because the forecasts were pretty hopeless! For example, it was thought that 70% of cancers would be controllable. So would 90% of neurological disorders.

Perfected artificial hearts and pigs' hearts immunised against rejection would have ended the need for human donors. Most sadly of all, I regret to say, it was forecast that medicines would give a youthful appearance to the elderly!

But these were forecasts trying to straddle two decades, and not surprisingly the experts were fooled by their crystal balls.

It will be interesting to see whether the forty experts who were invited to contribute to a book just published by the Australian Institute of Management do any better.

The idea was to get their thoughts on the vital issues for Australia in the next half-century. The reviewer in the Sydney Morning Herald of 31 August 1991 was sceptical.

Indeed, she said the concept was fatuous, and pointed out that fifty years ago nobody really foresaw such issues as atomic energy, the ozone layer or microcomputers.

Of course we sceptics don't take such impossibly long-term forecasts seriously. Yet we never seem to stop talking these days about strategic planning, corporate visions and long-term planning.

Even CSIRO goes in for Five Year Strategic Plans, emulating the misplaced confidence of the Bolsheviks that such plans will work if only the workers and peasants try hard enough!

Seriously though, what I find more disturbing than all the visionary stuff is the inability of our political, economic and commercial experts to forecast correctly what will happen even twelve months ahead! Or even twelve hours, as in the May State election.

The most glaring example - not entirely irrelevant to the future of research in Australia - would have to be last year's Federal Budget, which so misinterpreted things that the Treasury might just as well have used a blindfold and pin to select its figures.

Even more to the point in terms of this particular workshop, was the abject failure of Austrade in 1989 to get it right over anticipated increases in processed food exports during the past couple of years.

As the authors of the Report on Food Processing prepared for the Prime Minister's Science Council last 20 May put it, "it is clear that the (Austrade) forecast that processed food exports would be worth $3.5 billion by 1991-92 will not be realised".

Too true! In fact, in 1989-90 processed food exports - which amounted in value to 20% of Australia's total food exports of $10.9 billion - were only $2.2 billion. In the two years previously they'd been rising by 20% annually, and even more a little earlier; but in the following two years (1988-90) growth slumped to a mere 4% annually.

In fact, in terms of "value-added consumer food products", which are the most highly processed foods and which amounted to $974 million in 1989-90, exports had actually declined that year.

Australia by the end of the decade was actually losing market share in a number of key Asian markets.

So what went wrong? Frankly I don't really know, because the Report is silent on the matter. Austrade doesn't even get the ritual slap with a feather-duster.

There's not a scrap of explanation offered to the PM and his Science Council, although the same Report blithely went on to say that once an "Industry Specific Policy" is put in place, then we'll be back to a 20% growth rate in exports.

How so? Well, according to the authors it should happen for precisely the reasons identified by Austrade when it came up with its false prediction in the dim and distant days of 1989!

For example, we have a "low level of environmental pollution".

There is our "proximity to the high growth markets in Asia and location in the same time-zone".

We have the "capacity to supply off-season products".

And so on and so forth. Splendid stuff, but all qualitative background opportunities rather than operational imperatives.

In any case the background hasn't suddenly changed. If geography is truly on our side, then why didn't it work better for us in 1989 and 1990?

More to the point, why should it work any better for us in the coming decade? Especially when (apparently) we can't be bothered to identify and then grapple with the specific reasons which invalidated Austrade's prediction!

How on earth are we going to achieve what the Industry Specific Policy (ISP) is apparently going to urge - a boost in processed food exports to $9 billion by the end of the nineties?

In crude overall terms this means adding something approaching another one billion dollars of exports of processed foods per year, each year, for the next seven or eight years.

It would call for a sustained compound growth rate of at least 20% per year, when our growth rate as the nineties dawned was only one-fifth as high.

Of course I'm being a bit unfair. Well, a bit, because the really decisive, bold and challenging steps have yet to be announced!

According to the May Report, the ISP was to be refined and referred to a special Subcommittee of Cabinet, which was to "develop a plan for (its) implementation by 1 September 1991".

Which, you will note, was last Sunday, surely a day of rest in Canberra?

Today is Tuesday, and the problem is, where is Yesterday's Plan?

Indeed, where is the campaigning to get that $9 billion worth of exports? I'm sure that few of us in this room would have known that this urgent and so terribly important plan of implementation was even being devised, had we not chanced upon an article in the Sydney Morning Herald by the indefatigable Peter Smark last 31 May.

After reading the article I wrote to the Office of the Chief Scientist in Canberra who kindly sent me a copy of the May Science Council Report which Smark had mentioned.

But to my immediate follow-up letter requesting information about the Cabinet Subcommittee's work, and which included a specific request that this workshop be given some information about the outcome of the top secret deliberations, I have yet to receive an answer or even acknowledgement.

All very hush hush! It's no secret, however, that the Regional Office of the NSW Department of State Development, under whose auspices the approach to our CSIRO guests was originally made, knew nothing of the May Report to the Science Council.

Let me say that I'm not criticising our Regional Office in any way, because in such a matter it's obvious that the communication must come from those who know to those who otherwise wouldn't!

And who more needs to find out - and act - than a body responsible for over a quarter of the State of NSW including some of the most important food producing areas of our country?

Particularly a State instrumentality whose Riverina Development Board recently formulated a Strategy Plan which boldly (and why not?) called for this region to become the Pure Food Centre of Australia!

At any rate, if a distinguished, if unknown, Subcommittee in Canberra feels competent to peer ahead to the year 2000, and even envisage $9 billion worth of processed food flowing to those same Asian markets where we're currently losing market share, perhaps even us humble amateurs of the Bush might offer our tuppence worth about how things may go in scientific research during the nineties.

Let me begin with an easy one! Applied scientific research, like any other industrial activity, tends to develop a locational geography based on minimising costs, maximising profits, and satisfying customers. Equally obviously, these pressures are closely interrelated, and the geographical pattern they invoke depends on factors specific to the politics and technology of a given period of history.

What is happening in today's world is undoubtedly revolutionary rather than evolutionary; but like the recent events in the former Soviet Union it is also oddly reactionary - a sort of return to a pre-revolutionary age.

What we see is not so much history repeating itself either as tragedy or farce, but history repeating itself at a much more sophisticated level of scientific knowledge and technological abilities.

More paradoxically still, I venture to say, the return to the pre-revolutionary past is made necessary by the new demands posed by human achievement and ingenuity.

This may begin to sound like me talking in tongues, but the Soviet analogy may clarify what I mean!

The communist system simply couldn't accommodate the world of late-20th century science. To accommodate this world it was found necessary to return to the old flag and what it has come to mean - the pre-1917 market economy.

But of course this doesn't mean bringing back the Czar, whatever Mr Yeltsin may think! Rather, it's going to be a case of bringing on the computers and all they symbolise in today's market system.

Now, to come closer to home and this workshop, the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century was a lot more gradual than the storming of the Winter Palace. But it equally transformed the way human beings lived and worked together.

It made our forbears move from dispersed settlements to nucleated settlements.

The machines of the steam and iron age were eventually to need large factories and closely adjacent workers. But originally, before the great mills and their surrounding cities clustered in the dales of Lancashire and Yorkshire, the early machines were serviced by the so-called "putting-out system".

Workers stayed in their cottages but worked for the Masters down the valley. The finishing work was brought to them, rather than the other way about.

Of course, as time went on the economies of scale worked their magic - as did a few timely peasant evictions - the industrial societies came to mean smoking chimneys and grimy streets.

However much the satanic mills were deplored at first, the logic of the mechanical industrial revolution came to dominate the world we have known.

So much so that we take it for granted that human society must be located in huge agglomerations of people, conurbations and super-cities.

But just as the puffing billies were to undermine the geography of peasant society, so our humming computers are undermining the geography of proletarian clustering.

The diseconomies of scale are becoming more and more evident in the giant cities.

Indeed, the centres of our urban galaxies - if I may use the language of metaphor - are beginning to collapse under their gravitational pull. It is not entirely fanciful - certainly in the UK and the USA - to see black holes beginning to form among the swirling underclass who call the night-time inner cities Home.

But coincidentally, it is precisely at this moment in the deepening crisis of the cities - a worldwide phenomenon - that we have developed the technology which not only permits the disaggregation of economic functions, but positively encourages such dispersal.

We are returning, in a sense, to the "putting-out system", not for sentiment but for hard-headed economic reasons.

The process of abandoning the metropolis has been occurring long before the computer, with multi-national enterprises investing in Third World countries where costs of labour are significantly lower. Indeed, collaborative work by corporate giants is located in whatever place seems optimal, irrespective of national sentiment.

An example quoted in June's Scientific American concerns IBM and Toshiba, currently working together on developing flat-panel display technologies for use in the computing and television industries.The plant is in western Japan, selected for various reasons including the lower cost of capital.

This is one of thousands of such examples, but until recently we've basically seen this industrial diaspora in terms of countries competing for investment.

Sweated labour versus feather-bedded labour!

However, the extraordinary advance of the PC in the past decade has a quite different geographical potential. It has fundamentally undermined the urban hierarchy of the whole industrialised world, producing a burgeoning information industry which is inherently disaggregated.

Its modus operandi is most efficiently seen in the use of linked networks of remote collaborators rather than in their physical proximity.

An example in the UK is the so-called telecottage, a workplace-cum-training centre in the heart of a village where erstwhile commuters can work while linked to head office in the more-or-less remote city. In principle, of course, the head office could be on the other side of the globe.

The pace of development in the emerging planetary constellation of electronic villages (or sites) is accelerating fast.

Take the Australian Academic and Research Network, or AARNet, which since April of last year has been providing digital computer network communications services on a domestic basis between our Higher Educational institutions and at least 32 CSIRO sites. It also connects to a number of other electronic mail networks in Australia, including ACSnet (the Australian Computer Science network), Earthnet, and Telecom's Keylink.

The Australian Vice-Chancellor's Committee has described AARNet as already "a vital component of the research infrastructure of this nation". Not least it will provide researchers throughout the country with access to Australian supercomputers such as CSIRO's Cray supercomputer in Melbourne and ANU's supercomputing facilities in Canberra.

Internationally it links with the US Internet Exchange in California - which itself will be linked as from October 1991 with JANET, the Joint Academic Network which connects most of the universities and polytechnics in the UK.

In other words the facilities af AARNet, especially its capacity for Remote Access, enables Australian users to connect their terminals, PCs or workstations to any remote computer system linked to Internet, JANET or their like throughout the world.

We are rapidly moving towards a world network of linked electronic villages, with Internet already connecting well over half-a-million computers in every continent including Antarctica.

Around two million people use it every day, and the growth is exponential.

Weekly traffic levels in AARNet increased by 50% in the first three months of 1991, and its last quarterly report identified more than 1000 simultaneous users at any single moment.

It is apparent that we are at the dawn of a new age in communication, whose social consequences will be at least comparable to the dramatic events which followed the invention of printing in the 15th century.

Take educaton, particularly in Charles Sturt University which incorporates the two leading distance teaching colleges to emerge in NSW during the last two decades.

It is now ten years since the first Riverina librarianship students were enrolled in Singapore, and since then courses have been offered via correspondence to overseas Asian and South Pacific students in many other disciplines, including a Master's program in Accountancy.

The traditional term "correspondence" is already looking a bit dated, with the former Riverina College having pioneered some years ago a postgraduate course in computing taught on-line.

Such on-line courses, with their scope for speedy interactive learning, will be increasingly offered on a commerecial basis during the nineties, as for example the course in freelance journalism which was reported last week on offer via the Pegasus network with a tutor working from home in the Blue Mountains.

Tertiary courses themselves are also changing rapidly as computers become steadily more powerful and easy to use.

Librarianship is a good example, with graduate librarians conducting on-line database searches for customers who can then summon up the articles and have them laser printed immediately.

The NSW State Library, for example, has "Business Periodicals on Desk", a database of CD-Rom indexes to 800 international journals. Full copies of the 320 most popular journals are already on disk, and are capable of being accessed instantly.

Soon the Library will be installing a similar system called "General Periodicals on Disk", and the implications for future researchers anywhere in Australia are enormous as such services become accessible through the huge computer networks of the future.

The tyranny of distance is being overthrown as dramatically and as completely as the tyranny of communist totalitarianism has passed into history. Even the Siberias of the Australian Bush are as close to Moscow as is Sydney....

And still the pace of change quickens. Last week Robert Barrett of Stanford announced a new technique for storing data which could store 10 billion bits of data (or over 30,000 pages of text) per square centimetre of the recording medium. This compares to 10 million bits which magnetic disks squeeze into one square centimetre. The increase is a thousand-fold.

A few days earlier, on 15 August, Don Eigler of IBM announced in "Nature" a so-called atom switch - a switch that depends on the position of a single atom. Using the tungsten tip of a scanning tunnelling microscope, an atom of xenon was made to jump from a nickel surface half-a-billionth of a metre below the tip, enabling a current to pass across the gap.

Such developments may be a long way from commercial applications, but they show how the science of the incredibly small is becoming the technology of the incredibly powerful. A bit like the human brain....

It's a far cry from Babbage and his 19th century prototype computer which weighed 3 tonnes and had 4000 parts.

If I haven't mentioned laboratories for some time, it's not that I've forgotten! It's just that the onus is really on those working in laboratories to peer into the future geography of global networks and specialist nodes - the world already inhabited by trans-national corporations and international banks.

Many of the implications remain unclear, but it's already obvious that the opportunities and dilemmas affecting scientific laboratories will be shared by many other enterprises. Especially the universities of the brave new Unified National System!

I can vividly recall the challenges this embryonic rural university of CSU faced in its early years - notably isolation and a small student hinterland.

Yet this difficult environment was to stimulate an innovative thrust which led us to see Asia as our back yard - the same theme stressed in the report to the Science Council.

500 Asian students now study full-time and face-to-face in Wagga Wagga. Charles Sturt University takes it for granted that Australia's future lies in the links we establish with our giant neighbours to the north.

The necessary stress on distance education had itself been a powerful antidote to parochialism, and by having to go out and sell education to mature age students - and increasingly to students of different nationalities and civilisations - a genuine enterprise culture grew here in the Riverina.

We began to talk demand-side education rather than the patronising and complacent supply-side education still found in many traditional universities. Our customers were king....and queen....and courtiers too! And boy, did we have to court them!

Yet all this bravura would have been of little use had the technological changes I discussed earlier not occurred.

It was Peter Drucker who first suggested that the age of great cities would pass into the age of the city as medieval cathedral. The gothic edifices of the late Middle Ages, like the skyscrapers of the CBD, are still splendid to view from afar - but the peasants of the surrounding countryside only travelled to them on special occasions. Mostly they got on with their work in the fields.

The CBD, with its conspicuous consumption of expensive land and resources, may similarly become a place of occasional pilgrimage in search of Mammon; but it will also be increasingly seen as a fossil structure left behind by technological evolution.

Of course laboratories will continue to work together closely. CSIRO will continue to - and indeed must - work closely with industry too - but the industry will not be just down the road, or in the next suburb. It may be thousands of miles away in northern Asia; and just as money can be shunted electronically around the world twenty or thirty times a day, so too will flow the ideas, requests, replies and decisions which go to make up a day in the life of a working scientist.

Nothing I've said in these brief remarks will be unfamiliar to such working scientists. They already take it for granted that the world is their oyster. Yet there is still a failure (or perhaps inertia) of imagination on the prat of so many of our political leaders - who in NSW are still talking of putting another million people into Sydney in the next twenty years.

The signs of urban malaise are obvious - pollution, crime, housing costs, traffic congestion. It can take as long to travel from the suburbs to the centre as it takes to fly from Wagga to the centre. If 80% or more of our leisure now focusses on the home, why not buy a splendid home in the country and have enough money left over to enjoy one's leisure?

Why should a big-city location be so necessary for the laboratories of the 21st century? Is the facility inherently more efficient in a place like Ryde than in a place like Wagga Wagga? If we were starting from scratch, on a green-field site, would we necessarily want to locate in a crowded metropolis?

Admittedly one plausible argument might be that of critical mass - the exuberance and stimulus of day-to-day contacts with colleagues in cognate fields.

Yet this is not to be equated with a metropolitan location as such. Furthermore, the need increasingly is for scientists to liaise less with their immediate colleagues across the corridor, as with their joint authors across the oceans. Which is done not by having cups of coffee together, but by communicating by fax or electronic mail perhaps several times a day.

In any case, if the total complex of laboratories were to be moved to a rural setting, the critical mass associated with the original need not get lost.

My point is not to deny that advantages and economies can flow from the proximity to one another of people with common interests, attitudes and objectives.

It is rather to challenge the conventional wisdom that sophisticated scientific laboratories can only function properly in a metropolitan location.

In other words, by all means pursue a single site option for all or many of the laboratories within the Division. It probably makes good sense in terms of a collegial spirit of cooperation.

But when looking ahead to the 21st century, and the sort of global electronic networks which will make today's AARNet seem antediluvian, I suggest that a country location easily accessed physically from Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, and electronically from literally anywhere on Earth, might well repay serious consideration by CSIRO.

Previous PageTop Of Page