Blue sky research and lessons form Aboriginal food

P1050893While in Alice Springs we attended a great talk from an Aboriginal woman talking about bush tucker. It got me thinking about just how important blue sky research is.

Basically the talk covered how over thousands of years Aboriginal knowledge of what to eat edged forward. People would try out a food, try to see what happened if they crushed it, cooked it, added water, and so on. Often the food was only edible at the end of a multi-stage process. But imagine if when someone tried out that first, apparently useless, stage they were told their research was pointless and they shouldn’t go any further with it.

Ultimately, all the advances we have today came about because someone thought to try something out. And very often the first step in the process that led ultimately to success was not obvious, was not useful, and may often have only served to cut out false lines of enquiry. Imagine how impoverished the World would be today if Humphry Davy had had to apply for a research grant or Einstein had to demonstrate how his work could be commericalised.

And it’s in this context that our own government’s efforts to make all research have clear measurable outcomes (for which read commercialisation opportunities) are horrifying.

Worse, going back to the Aboriginal analogy, the people who have the curiosity to try something out ought to be encouraged not stamped on and labelled a waste of time. It may look like a waste of time to analyse the composition of the foam at the top of beer, or the way a cup of tea slops out of the cup, or any one of a million other things. But, even leaving aside the fact that that information may well have uses not yet envisaged, we ought to be encouraging the inquisitive nature of the people who see those things as problems worth exploring. Too many of us bury ourselves in day-to-day life without wondering about how the world works, we need the people who raise their heads up and try to find answers. Those are the people who fiddled with the design of a throwing stick until it flew, or took the first bite out of the antelope leg that had fallen into a fire and realised cooked meat was good…

Research is often incremental, often cannot be justified or commercialised; but we need to cherish both the research itself and the curious people who try to find answers. When you look at the complex nature of some of the Aboriginal bush tucker and think ‘how on earth did they work out how to do that?’ the answer was certainly not through having to justify their experiments before trying them out.

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