By Matin Durrani, Sydney, Australia
Australia is a big country but, as far as science is concerned, it does just about as much one might expect for a country with a population of just 23 million.
But according to Thomas Barlow, a former academic and journalist who is now a kind of freelance policy wonk and science adviser, Australians are far too pessimistic about their scientific future. In other words, while Australians believe they are an inherently inventive people, they are less good, or so the thinking goes, at capitalizing on their smart ideas.
I met Barlow yesterday during my visit to Sydney at the home of Peter Pockley – a veteran Australian science journalist and broadcaster who also regularly reports on Australian science for Physics World.
Barlow has outlined his thoughts in his 2006 book The Australian Miracle, which offers an honest, well written and sober perspective on Australian science.
It’s worth reading if you’re at all interested in the country’s science and Barlow has as good a perspective as any – he’s married to Michelle Simmons, who’s a leading quantum-computing physicist at the University of New South Wales and who directs a successful national Centre for Quantum Computer Technology funded by the Australian Research Council.
Still, I just can’t get away from the nagging feeling that Australia, being physically so far removed from the US, Europe, China, Japan and other centres of power in global science, is destined to always remain one step behind the rest of the world.
In his book, Barlow denies that there is a brain drain of talent from Australia, which may be true. But unless there is a steady flow of people and ideas in and out of the country, true innovation may struggle. And being so far away, that flow is simply hard to sustain.