A conversation with Robert Robinson

Science and technology represent the future for human beings. There is the need to find new sustainable energies and change the way people live in order to guarantee the survival for the future generations. According to Robert Robinson, an active participation of the population on sciences issues is fundamental to develop new ideas and work in real terms for the future. Thanks to the several life experiences of our guest we had the chance0to compare different realities of science, research and universities, in particular in Asia and America.

Robert Robinson is the President of the “Australian Institute of Physics”, he studied “Natural Sciences”-Physics in Cambridge UK. As Head of Neutron Scattering, ANSTO, Sydney, Australia he had a lot of experiences all over the world and nowadays he is affiliated with universities in Australia, Japan and Italy.

European science was dominant until the Second World War. They have built new industries based on technology and triggered a huge impact on socio-economic life. At some point, China surpassed the USA. China’s economy is ascendant and will replace the U.S as the largest around 2030. USA and the Asian hemisphere have always competed for the “supremacy” of technological sector; the proof of this can be traced in the run for Nobel Prices in Science.  The first Asian winner the Nobel Prizes in Sciences was C.V Raman in 1939 and several Japanese prizes in Physics, chemistry and Medicine were assigned; respectively 9, 7 and 5.  On the other hand, US has won the 50 % of science prizes: 104 for physics, 80 in chemistry and 112 for medicine.

The first adjective that comes to our mind when we talk about Science in America, is “Big”. We are dealing with a big country, big minds and big ideas. An example is the Manhattan project, it was the code name for the American-led effort to develop a functional atomic weapon during the World War II.

The scientific field is strongly connected to the political one.  There is a strong competition for projects and this can be interpreted as a strong input for every tech industry to develop new projects for the future. “Big projects “is another adjective that describes the American behaviour in scientific affairs. the US has lives different realities about the direction of science according the political point of view: democrats are linked with applied research but less keen on defence research, the federal government stays out of industrially relevant research and funds defence and basic science. The theme of scientific research has been explored since the 19th century; we are talking about the national Academy of Sciences or the Royal society, then newspapers and web actors in a more contemporary era, are influential and important for the race of news all over the world.

The heart of technological research can be found in National Labs, of course, but even in Universities it is possible to trace new paths to build the “future science”.

There some differences between these two institutions. Firstly, the balance between teaching and research is typical of universities and in particular US combines a stronger utilitarian streak (law schools or business schools) and pick up the fingerprints of the historical UK elites, Oxford and Cambridge). On the other hand, in National Labs there is a programmatic research and it tends to be “neutral” with national interest perspective. This kind of attitude is able to avoid the competition among Melbourne and Sydney or East Coast and West Coast. Robert Robinson stressed the point about “making the science as a popular issue”.

The beauty of the multinational reality concerns the active participation of people, students, economists, scientists, to make their own opinions about the attitude of countries in trade and competitions. A student is completely able to analyse the work of its own Nation and understand its limits and merits. Large countries, such as USA and China can afford internal competition (Mission to Mars or the human-genome project) with the help of global partnership, Space Station or Linear Collider.

Another remarkable case concerns the Medium-sized countries. They have to “pick winners”, they can compete at world level in some things but not across the board; be focused on one sector is important. Finally, small countries have to partner and tend to freeload infrastructure is difficult for them. The last part of the conversation was so relevant for GG students thanks to the fact that the guest has explained four models of Governance. Different realities and different countries carry with them different models of research management:“the Traditional model”, “Funding Agency”, DOE, CEO and Board model.

The first one concerns the way research used to be funded in most countries (common in Asia) and the block funding to Government Labs and Leading Universities. There is a little effort for the drafting of grant proposals. National Science Foundation and UK Science agencies are some examples from the “Funding Agency model”. This model is very focused on universities, except for medical research; we are talking about a neutral and fair attitude without a political orientation. The third model provides funding to laboratory through a contract and it includes also Advisory Committees. The last model takes some characteristics from private industries. They are more hierarchical than universities and they tend to bring in expertise from outside of research sector with a dual reporting: expert boards vs. representative boards.

All in all, big countries have more diversity of funding and are more chaotic, USA-Germany-China-Japan, and there is the tendency to try to break down barriers in order to show benefit to society. The process of active science comes from a good organization of internal resources and leadership is fundamental in this case thanks to the establishment of a systematic order in a complex world.











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