Foresight in the United Kingdom brings together industry and academia to identify the research needs and opportunities of the future. In Australia, four eminent scientists have created their own Foursight, coming together to realise a research opportunity today.
Imagine Sir Robert May, the UK's chief scientist, joining forces with Sir Derek Roberts, former vice-chancellor of University College London, and Sir Aaron Klug, to establish a science and technology consultancy, a for-profit think-tank advising businesses on academic research and where developments can be found, and advising universities on industry and venture capital, and you get an idea of the potential relative influence and power, as well as the international contacts, of Foursight Associates.
Established in October 1996, it is run by four of Australia's most prominent scientists: John Stocker, chief scientist from December 1996 until two months ago and previously head of CSIRO; Sir Gustav Nossal, former head of Melbourne's world-renowned Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and professor of medical biology at the University of Melbourne; David Penington, vice-chancellor of Melbourne University until 1995; and Graham Mitchell, former head of the parasite vaccine programme at WEHI, director of Melbourne Zoo and more recently head of research at CSL, one of Australia's largest producers of biological and veterinary products.
"The idea for Foursight came from Graham Mitchell," explains Dr Stocker, a director of Cambridge Antibody Technology Group and a vineyard owner. "He was getting phone calls asking him about investment opportunities and calls from scientists seeking advice. I was also getting calls and would try to think of someone to pass them on to. But there were not many options here.
"With the first call we decided there was a perfect opportunity for a consultancy. By the end of the day we had Foursight nailed. It was a unique model in Australia, although there were one or two think-tanks in Washington."
Dr Stocker was involved with Foursight, advising businesses and scientists, as well as venture capital, throughout his three years as Australia's chief scientist. "I thought there would be a potential conflict of interest. But you have to confront and manage them. It did happen on a few rare occasions, but there were far more synergies than conflicts of interest.
"What we do is to try to advise investors, companies and entrepreneurs about developing interests and technologies. That's exactly what the government wants to do."
Stocker applauds the government's recent increase in funding for medical research. Here, he believes, Australia is much more active in terms of papers and contributions to world science than its population would suggest. But he refers to some difficulties in basic sciences and believes the Australian government needs to focus on improving funding of research and infrastructure in universities. He cites the creation of many new universities in the late 1980s as leading to a fragmentation of effort. "We need to rediscover centres of excellence," he concludes.