Australian IT researchers stay practical

A representative of National ICT Australia (Nicta), which provides a base for IT and communications research with links into government, research establishments and industry, has been taken on a whistlestop tour of New Zealand ministers and government officials.

The clear hope behind the tour by Mel Slater, who was brought here by Wellington-based R&D consortium MediaLab South Pacific, was that some good Nicta ideas would rub off on our government, whose ICT strategy is still in the making.

Nicta maintains a body of about 250 researchers in Sydney, Canberra and Kensington, and is setting up a campus in Melbourne. Its brief is basic research in ICT, but with a firm view to eventual practical use. Slater describes it as being in the “Pasteur quadrant” of the research continuum. Louis Pasteur did fundamental work in the behavior of bacteria and altered our fundamental concepts of disease and food spoilage agents, but his ultimate aim was practical betterment of humanity. This Slater contrasts with Niels Bohr (pure theory of atomic structure) and Thomas Edison (severely practical invention).

Looking around the world at the emphasis of research, Nicta sought to combine the best characteristics of work in other nations, he says. The Science Foundation in Ireland is strong on collaboration, Korea on commercialization of research results, U.S. research establishments on education and Sweden on basic research. Again, though, practical exploitation is the test of the soundness of research. “In the U.K. status comes from publication; in Sweden it’s research.”

While keeping a research focus, Nicta participates in the educational establishment. “Our researchers are adjunct professors at Sydney and Australian National University”, it keeps strong ties with industry and sources of venture capital with collaboration and eventual commercialization in mind.

Though Nicta owns its researchers’ intellectual property there is a flexible attitude to its disposition, he says. If a good practical application is in view “we may tell the researcher to leave us and found a company to commercialize it. We will give them the IP on a royalty-free license.” Joint ventures have also been launched, with various distributions of equity.

The other crucial contact is with the user. “Only the body of people who will use your innovation practically can tell you where its strengths and weaknesses are,” Slater says.

Nicta conducted a long exploration of appropriate broad areas of research to move into, selected four then narrowed that down to two. Its current work is in: Trust issues on wireless networks: “How can you be sure the data you send will get to where you want it to be and be used only in the way you want it to be?” Conversion of “data into knowledge” with analysis and interpretation tools and strategies and reputation mechanisms, so a searcher after information knows what are, in the judgement of other searchers, the most valuable and accurate sources.

The practical impact of research is hard to measure, he acknowledges. “There are things you can put a number on, like the number of Nicta alumni (in industry and academia) or how many times our innovations have been licensed.” And the more imponderable measures like: is the public aware of us and what we do? But as with all alleged benefits, “it’s a bit hard to measure what would have happened without us.”

“And in seven or eight years’ time,” he adds, “we may (demonstrably) budge Australia’s GDP.” MediaLab also hopes for beneficial “engagement” with the organization out of the trip, says MediaLab chief Michael Gregg.

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