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Science industry collaboration in Australia: a case study in failure.

Given Australia’s ‘outstanding’ position at the bottom of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) scale for collaboration between science and industry, and the fact that that level of performance is not echoed in the more traditional analyses, involving Australia’s contribution to basic science for example, this note has been designed to achieve two objectives: first, acknowledge and describe one example of a failure at collaboration between science and industry in Australia, and, second, reflect on a sample of the systemic issues that facilitated, and compromised, collaboration in this case. The challenge involved the discovery of the wrecks of two World War II warships. The engineering, maritime and industrial expertise was provided by a private entity, the FSF (Finding Sydney Foundation), in a context that honoured contributions from the RAN (Royal Australian Navy), the WAMM (West Australian Maritime Museum), and the state and federal governments. The collaboration originally involved two senior scientists from UWA (University of Western Australia), scientists with strong track records including in excess of 150 published articles in refereed journals. By mid-2005, three years before the in-water search, the scientists had created the following: a database comprising more than 120 records from archives in Australia, the UK and the USA indicating the absolute or relative locations of the wrecks; two 2004 analyses involving semi-independent procedures specifying the location of the wreck of the German raider Kormoran, each accurate to approximately 3 NM (i.e., Nautical Miles) from the now known position of that wreck; an accurate and efficient search box of 400 SNM (Square Nautical Miles) for the German wreck; one analysis specifying the position of the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney, accurate to 9 NM; and an accurate and efficient search quadrant for that wreck. Four years later, the scientists were utterly invisible. The wreck-hunter, hired by the FSF on the recommendation of the Chief of Navy, re-assigned the scientists to a new position never recommended by them, and the FSF and the WAMM failed to acknowledge the accuracy of the scientist’s early recommendations, all of which passed through their hands.

Author(s): Kim Kirsner