Article—Owning a mobile phone isn’t everything

On 4 March 2002, the following article by Professor B D O Anderson was published in The Australian.

In 1885, students at Yale University chopped down an electric light pole when they were getting 'more light than they relished'. In 1885, there were only a few hundred light posts in the United States, but by 1899 there were millions.

Such is the pattern of technological change: a slow and cautious uptake at the beginning, with the advantages and disadvantages being assessed by the community; then rapid uptake as technology becomes cheaper and accessible, if it is seen to improve the quality of life. Technology evolves in response to human needs; it is dynamic and is invigorated by feedback loops between the scientists and the community.

Unlike the students at Yale, Australians have been quick to seize on and adapt new technologies to suit their own purposes. Perhaps this springs in part from the profound isolation of Australia in the time before modern communications, when the only means of communication with the outside world was by ship. The first telephones were in Australia by 1877, not long after Alexander Bell’s invention in 1876. The first telephones were used for communication between two fixed points, but only three years later the first telephone exchange opened in Melbourne with 44 subscribers.

Like most new technologies, telephones were initially very expensive and the customer paid not only for construction of the line to the exchange, but also a rental of 16 pounds a year. The Australian Sketcher, Melbourne, assessed this new technology and reported on 29 January 1881: 'Of its utility there can be no two opinions. An invention which enables a man send his wife any reasonable excuse for his non-appearance at home at the usual hour, deserves a first-class certificate in the direction of usefulness.'

Disadvantages of the technology became apparent when the telephone proliferated, and overburdened telephone poles made for an ugly urban landscape, but in cities, most lines were eventually placed undergound. This is another feature of new technology; the feedback loops into the community can, in time, reduce any associated risks and disadvantages.

Australians continue to have a high rate of uptake of new technology. In May 2001, Australian Bureau of Statistics survey said that Australia was now the third-highest per capita user of the internet, behind Sweden and the United States, with 52 per cent of all households having a computer, while 33 per cent of all homes had internet access. This represents an extraordinary pace of technological change, when one reflects that at the end of World War II, in 1945, there were no computers as we understand them today, but only two electronic digital calculators, built near the end of the war: Colossus, built by the British to crack German codes, and ENIAC, built to calculate ballistic tables for the US Army. In 1945, the Chairman of IBM forecast that the world might need four or five computers! Today, computers are embedded in our lives, in everyday products as well as on our desks.

It is science and technology that have revolutionised the quality of Australian lives in so many respects; biotechnology, including vaccination, antibiotics and imaging techniques, has led to shrinking numbers of beds in childrens’ hospitals and increasing healthy life expectancy. Australians are second only to the Japanese, among 191 countries, in having a healthy life expectancy of 73.2 years, according to the World Health Organisation in a report issued in June 2000. ('Healthy life' expectancy summarises the expected number of years to be lived in what might be termed 'full health'.) In biotechnology, Australia has an excellent track record in research and some aspects of application but this area must be nurtured carefully because the international competition is intense.

It is science and technology that have paved the way towards opportunity and sustainable prosperity in Australia, and indeed in the rest of the industrialized world. The pace of technological change is accelerating, creating new wealth and new jobs for those countries that can participate not only as users but also as innovators.

The challenge for policy makers is to understand in a profound way that that the nation needs a well-developed scientific skills base and scientific infrastructure if we are to benefit from the accumulating global stockpile of knowledge. Public and private investment in research and development is the only way to ensure Australia’s continued access to global knowledge. The Federal Government spends no more on ALL the Cooperative Research Centres per annum than in grants to firms in the textile, clothing and footwear areas. CRCs are likely, in the medium term, to create far more jobs and real wealth.

The science policy outlined by the Federal Government in the document Backing Australia’s Ability provides a fine set of programs that have been supported by the Australian Academy of Science. However, the Academy cautions that a close watch should be kept on business investment in R&D. The Government should respond rapidly if new initiatives in this area do not reverse the downward trend of Australian business investment in R&D. The Academy also would applaud the speeding up of increased expenditure on Australian Research Council programs, especially given the recent instructions with respect to research priority setting by the ARC.

We must not forget the fundamentals upon which a solid and sustainable knowledge-based economy is built. The foundations of good research and innovation are still to be found in the enabling sciences. We should not be too self-congratulatory that more than 60 per cent of Australian households have access to mobile phones. Our information technology tools and toys are largely imported; we have not created the right foundation to underpin vigorous indigenous industry.

© 2021 Australian Academy of Science