Lies, damned lies, and statistics, and how I can’t escape my job even on holiday

I was lucky enough to recently find myself diving on the Great Barrier Reef, up around Lizard Island for my holidays. This was around the time that the press started talking about coral bleaching with quotes such as “An aerial survey of the northern Great Barrier Reef has shown that 95 per cent of the reefs are now severely bleached — far worse than previously thought.” I was expecting to see a wasteland under the water, but while there were a small number of certain coral species that did exhibit severe bleaching, the reef was still spectacular, with the vast majority of coral looking healthy. Indeed recent surveys have shown that the southern reef is now in its best shape for years, following recovery after a series of cyclones. What should have been reported was something like “Up to 95% of the northern reefs had evidence of some coral being bleached”. On each reef that is a small percentage of the total coral, but that doesn’t make a good headline.

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There are now rebuttals with this week a detailed underwater survey reporting “Recent underwater surveys, looking at 32 reefs between Cairns and Lizard Island, found less than five per cent were suffering severe bleaching or coral mortality”. However, the damage has been done and the global headlines were about the death of the Great Barrier Reef, although misuse of data. What has this got to do with technology transfer or commercialisation, you may ask?  Well, I believe that we suffer from the same type of statistical misuse. The commonly held view is that Australia is poor at commercialisation of our research and the OECD stat that we are 29th out of 29, or 33rd out of 33 for industry who collaborate with universities is used to back this up. The fact that the OECD stat is referring to Australian business research activity, not university commercialisation activity is ignored, as well as ignoring all the research activities that we undertake with overseas businesses. If it backs up the common view we will keep quoting it. I, and many others, have tried to point this out, but with limited success.

So, what can we do about it? Quoting stats has had, and will have no effect. What we need to do is back up our case with more examples of the great work we are doing, and the genuine impact we are having on society, only a small portion of which is can be counted in dollar returns to our organisations. The greatest benefits are to the businesses, investors and society who take what we have developed and apply it, often globally.

Which brings me onto the second part of my story. Also on the boat was Dr Angel Yanagihara from the University of Hawaii who studies box jellyfish, their stings and how to treat them. She has developed barrier creams and treatments (both first aid and hospital based) to deal with what can be a deadly encounter. She is now in the process of commercialising this, initially through a licensing partner, who failed to deliver, and now through her own company Alatalab Solutions. This will save lives, mostly in less developed countries. What a great story to demonstrate why we do our job. It is not going to make loads of money, but it will save lives.

What we need to be doing to telling more of our own stories in Australia of the great things that we have done and are doing. Some may make a lot of money, like WiFi, Gardisil or IVF, whereas others will have positive impacts on society through different mechanisms, such as the Triple P Parenting Program, Low FODMAP diet and many other similar things. So let’s celebrate more of our success by sharing them through KCA, with your colleagues and collaborators and through any other mechanisms you care to think of.  This is how we will change the perception of what we do, not through “Lies, damn lies and statistics.”

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Alastair Hick
Chair, Knowledge Commercialisation Australasia

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