Monday, 12 April 2010

University and industrial knowledge: Baxter continued continued

Note that these Baxter posts are VERY rough drafts (...excuses excuses)...

The outstanding characteristic of the civilisation of the twentieth century is that it is that it is derived from and is almost wholly dependent upon the application of scientific knowledge to the affairs of man [sic].[1]
Baxter was convinced that the growth of higher education was central to national planning (an idea he admitted his father’s generation would have thought “odd and my grandfather’s extraordinary”) because:
Our complex, technologically oriented civilisation demands ever increasing numbers of people who can operate within it at various levels of understanding and without whom it cannot continue, let alone expand.[2]
Material progress had long been connected to civilisation as a type of evolution where progress in material culture was assumed as parallel to theories of social evolution.[3] For Baxter, this meant that twentieth century complexity and technological innovation suggested a rapidly evolving civilisation. Civilisation, in this sense, required a conquest of nature:
Man [sic] is involved in a struggle against nature itself. Scientific progress leading to the conquest of disease, vastly greater food production…[4]
Australia’s small population and large land mass made this especially difficult, Baxter said, for sufficient resources to be devoted to support the technological development needed to ensure continuing increase in the nation’s standard of living.[5] This standard of living was underpinned, not by knowledge in a civilising sense of Clunies Ross’ unified truth, but rather in knowledge applied to the problems of industry. Baxter was of the opinion that the division between pure and applied research was overstated:
Discovery and application are not really two separate processes. There are, of course, cases of people who, simply searching for knowledge for its own sake, have made discoveries of great importance but not without any thought or instruction in possible application .. But a vast amount of scientific knowledge comes from situations where the two processes are completely mixed together as a single operation.[6]
It is clear from this statement that to Baxter “important” knowledge was that which had significant application. His description of the interaction between discovery and application was certainly derived from his experience in industry where practical problems and scientific knowledge had interacted seamlessly. So to Baxter, for his university to advance knowledge, connection to industry was essential. This had been the case for the University of New South Wales from its beginnings, since the Council contained members of industry – BHP, for instance – but Baxter was keen for the interaction with industry to occur at the level of research, not just governance.

In 1956, before the university had changed its name or seen any cash from the Murray review, the NSW Premier suggested that the NSW University of Technology should look beyond the state for funding and “actively seek industrial work”.[7] Baxter was only too happy to consider this and chaired an ad hoc committee to consider how the university might provide assistance to industry. This committee suggested that there was a need in Australia for an organisation that would provide research services for industry with fees paid to the university. They recommended the university set up a limited liability company to facilitate this service.[8] Unisearch was established in 1959 and produced revenue from industry-funded research projects, educational testing, academic consulting and leasing laboratory equipment.[9] The potential for innovations to lead to commercialisable research was immediately recognised. This had new implications for the ownership of knowledge.

The question of patents has probably placed more barriers in the way of co-operative research projects between industry and universities overseas than any other single issue. [10]
University and industry collaboration highlights the division between knowledge for its own sake and knowledge for profit:
Some universities have held to the position that a public institution cannot assist in creating a private monopoly and have discouraged any projects whose sponsors desired patent protection.[11]
Unisearch was there to facilitate the interaction between organizations whose focus was profit and the university, whose focus was knowledge. Some sort of compromise, the executive were told, could be made, as long as they had a “realistic attitude”. Indeed, the document the meeting of Directors reviewed suggested that patenting might even be the university’s responsibility:
It is becoming increasingly recognised in the higher technological institutions that it is their duty to assist in accelerating the translation of scientific and technical knowledge into new processes, products and techniques.[12]
Unisearch was more interested in a modest income stream for the university than long-term ownership of patents, however. Unisearch policy thus sought to enable sponsors of research to own either a large share or the patents wholly, or have exclusive rights to any patents that arose from research. The university adopted policies regarding patenting invention in 1963 to enable Unisearch policies to be implemented. This also included a policy regarding ownership of patents by staff. Overseas examples had suggested it is not a good idea for staff to outright own all patents resulting from the work, as this can lead staff to only wish to work on potentially patentable research, skewing the university’s research effort.[13] This policy was based on a simple proposition that staff may not apply for a patent alone and that the university would not apply for a patent for any invention until an agreement had been reached. Thus, reasoned Baxter, both sides had incentive to reach agreement:
The University obviously has little to gain by being mercenary and the inventor has much to gain by working with the university.[14]
Although the Premier had hoped that actively seeking industrial work would relieve some of the State’s responsibility by providing the New South Wales University of Technology, Baxter’s priorities were around establishing structures that would facilitate the highest degrees of cooperation possible. The relationship he saw between industrial problems and science, based on his prior experience with ICI, meant that collaboration was his priority. So, while Baxter established the earliest research commercialisation organisation in Australian – almost 30 years before the majority of commercialisation initiatives in higher education  - he did so to pursue knowledge the way he thought it should be structured.


[1] J.P. Baxter, "The Use of Scientific Knowledge by Governments and Industry. Tenth Congress of the Universities of the Commonwealth. Report of Proceedings. Sydney August 17-23, Pp. 259-265," in Baxter Papers (Sydney: UNSW Archives, 1968), 259.
[2] J.P. Baxter, National Planning and Inter-Governmental Relations Education (Australia: Self-Published. Held in National Library of Australia, 1968), 1-2.
[3] 
[4] J.P. Baxter, "Education for the Nuclear Age," in Baxter Papers UNSW/CN1053/Box16 (Sydney: UNSW Archives, 1957).
[5] Baxter, "The Use of Scientific Knowledge by Governments and Industry. Tenth Congress of the Universities of the Commonwealth. Report of Proceedings. Sydney August 17-23, Pp. 259-265."
[6] Baxter, "The Use of Scientific Knowledge by Governments and Industry. Tenth Congress of the Universities of the Commonwealth. Report of Proceedings. Sydney August 17-23, Pp. 259-265."
[7] Referred to in NSW University of Technology, "Minutes of the Council Meeting 11 March 1957," in Unisearch UNSW/CM366 (Sydney: UNSW Archives, 1957).
[8] NSW University of Technology, "Minutes of the Ad Hoc Committee of Council Chaired by Sir Philip Baxter " in Unisearch UNSW/CM366 (Sydney: UNSW Archives, 1957).
[9] Unisearch, "Report to General Meetings Revenue Graph," in Unisearch UNSW/CM366 (Sydney: UNSW Archives, 1963).
[10] Unisearch, "Attachment 10 of Minutes of Meeting of Board of Directors 7 July 1959 General Patents Policy of Company," in Unisearch UNSW/CM366 (Sydney: UNSW Archives, 1959).
[11] Unisearch, "Attachment 10 of Minutes of Meeting of Board of Directors 7 July 1959 General Patents Policy of Company."
[12] Unisearch, "Attachment 10 of Minutes of Meeting of Board of Directors 7 July 1959 General Patents Policy of Company."
[13] Unisearch, "Attachment 10 of Minutes of Meeting of Board of Directors 7 July 1959 General Patents Policy of Company."
[14] Unisearch, "Proposed University by-Law Relating to Inventions," in Unisearch UNSW/CM366 (Sydney: UNSW Archives, 1963).

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