[ASC-media] Media Release: CSIRO Innovation Goes up in Smoke

Australasian Science science at control.com.au
Tue Dec 19 23:08:58 CET 2006

For immediate release

CSIRO Innovation Goes up in Smoke
The inventor of a volcanic ash detector that could save the airline industry
millions of dollars, and potentially the lives of their passengers, says he
was sidelined from the project when ³CSIRO tried to commercialise the
technology before the science was ready².

Dr Fred Prata was made redundant in his post as a Senior Principal Research
Scientist with the CSIRO Division of Marine and Atmospheric Research last
January. He leaves Australia next month to take up a research post offered
to him at NILU, the Norwegian Institute of Air Research.

Writing about his experience in the January/February issue of Australasian
Science magazine, published today, Dr Prata says: ³The process of
innovation, invention and patenting is fraught with difficulty at CSIRO
because there is no clear mandate or incentive for individual scientists to
be involved in the cycle of research, development, innovation, patenting and

Dr Prata¹s volcanic ash detector was developed in response to a number of
airline incidents. For instance, in 1989 the eruption of Mt Redoubt in
Alaska caused loss of power in three engines of a KLM jumbo, costing US$80
million to repair. In 1991, ash from Mt Pinatubo damaged 15 jets.

Dr Prata set about finding how ash clouds could be discriminated from
meteorological clouds. He and a colleague then developed the volcanic ash
detector, testing it near volcanoes and in light aircraft. However, after
publishing the research results in Nature and gaining several patents, a
team of CSIRO managers assigned to the project progressively sidelined Dr
Prata and a postdoctoral student.

When a CSIRO business manager demanded results for a new patent application,
Dr Prata recorded his objections that ³commercial interests were leading the
science, which wasn¹t complete². However, CSIRO had entered into a licensing
agreement with the Australian company, Tenix, and banned Dr Prata from
informing them of his concerns. Dr Prata writes: ³Another business manager
told me that it was not within my delegated work area to even ask about

Dr Prata was declared ³surplus to requirements² and his colleague¹s contract
with CSIRO was not renewed. Even though he was no longer involved in the
project, CSIRO management demanded that Dr Prata ³sign off on various US
trademark and patent office forms, which would be difficult for me to do as
I could not honestly give the assurances required by the forms². He notes:
³A false declaration on these forms is punishable by fine or imprisonment
under US law.²

Dr Prata concludes that CSIRO¹s practices are ³certainly a disincentive for
bright government scientists to be involved in the innovation process².
Summaries and quotations of selected passages for reporting or review are
permissible provided AUSTRALASIAN SCIENCE MAGAZINE is credited as the source
of this story.
Dr Prata can be reached on (03) 9775 4582 or (0417) 304 140.
For permission to reproduce this article (partially or completely) call the
Editor, Guy Nolch, on (03) 9500 0015 or Senior Correspondent, Peter Pockley,
on (02) 9660 6363. 

Photos of Dr Prata on Anatahan volcano and of his volcanic ash detector
monitoring eruptions in Papua New Guinea are available.

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