Chapter 4: In the World of Research

3. Sheep and Woolen Carpets
“What do you think is done here at the Battelle Institute?” The question was put to me in a loud and threatening voice by the big boss of the whole Battelle Foundation, who had come from Columbus in Ohio.
In such moments the memory of my mother comes back to me: I cannot hear anything more terrible than her shouts when I was little and she got angry. Compared to her, the others, the big boss included, seemed fairly benign and this comparison always kept me calm. So I answered calmly, while looking at him in the eye: “Here we do research in the most precise, honest and scientific way possible”.
Next to him was the financial backer who came from the south and who had sponsored a large scale research on the world carpets market. The study, commissioned to Battelle in the United States, had been entrusted to me. Thanks to the fact that at Geneva, after some years of demanding work, and with the support of expert technicians, I had created an outstanding research group widely recognised in the textile field.
The study was particularly concerned with New Zealand where there were at that time, and probably still are, almost fifty sheep for every inhabitant, in a climate that, particularly on the North island, ranged between 12 and 24 degrees over the whole year, and where there was a great deal of natural pasture land. One could easily go into the city to work in an office and invest in land and particularly in the enclosures necessary for the confinement of one’s sheep, which got by on their own, apart from the times when they sometimes fell prey to eagles.
The particular characteristic of New Zealand sheep is that they are good for the meat market as well as for wool. This latter has a rough quality that it makes it especially suitable for carpets. The production of this wool, at least at that time, was very disorganised (there were many small producers) and it was sold through an auction sales system subject to strong variations from year to year. The main purpose of the study was to learn if these variations were due to contingent situations or if wool for carpets was destined to disappear over the more or less long term, and be replaced by synthetic fibres (especially the acrylic fibres). In this case the client, who had strong designs on the world carpet market, expected the New Zealand government to find a solution for financing the sheep farmers’ future, unifying the wool purchasing system for as long as this market survived, and abolishing the auction sales system, considered very disorganised and costly. In other words, a great public and private collaboration project.
After a long economic and technical inquiry it was concluded that wool for floor coverings still had a great future beyond the situation. This did not please the client. I had already had a long discussion in Auckland about the contents of the report but I had not given way on the essentials. After all if studies were encountered where the conclusion had been taken for granted the news would have become common public knowledge and would have stripped our economic research of all credibility. Others have fallen into this trap and in the end no one gained, neither the researcher nor the client.
So, this client had taken the matter to the top and I had been summoned without warning. I resisted, again answered one or two more questions and after a few minutes they let me go. Thank you, mum!
I heard no more of the client nor of his criticisms.
Ultimately the whole story ended in a fair way. It is comical now to think that at that time we perhaps contributed to maintaining a rather important structure of New Zealand society and its farming economy.
At the end of my journey to the Antipodes for the final session on the study there were some interesting secondary aspects. Firstly there was the matter of taking six days off with my colleagues to go on a tour of the two islands from north to south, a trip that an agency suggested we do in 23 days. We flew over the southern fjords and the “Franz Joseph” glacier (for someone from Trieste it was a good omen!) and rented a car in which only the second and fourth gears worked. To go more quickly one of us drove, the second watched and the third got the next map ready. In turns. I remember some southern village street names in French (such as rue Viard) that recalled the first explorers of the place, who had come from France and then had been abandoned to their destiny, to be followed by the Scots and their descendants who currently form more than 70% of the population. The native Maori were fairly visible but formed only 10-20% of the total number of inhabitants.
As a final touch to our working trip a dinner was organised in Auckland and was attended by senior government officials. Another surprise: I discovered links with my childhood in Trieste. In 1945, after having been annexed to Germany as “Adriatische Küstenland”, the city had been occupied by the Jugoslav army of Tito who wanted to make it a seventh republic of his Federation. The Germans had resisted at the top of a hill in the centre of the old city before surrendering to the allied troops formed by battalions of New Zealanders. From the windows of the apartment where I lived I visualised them descending towards the centre with a band and in Scottish kilts. The Germans surrendered to them, forty days after the arrival of the Jugoslavs. Among the New Zealanders there were two officers with whom I found myself at dinner. They explained to me: “Why precisely us? To make things simple. There were fascists, Italian antifascists, Germans, Tito’s army, and dissidents. What do you have? We were told: go and occupy (or rather, liberate) the city and shoot at all those who try to stop you. It is too complicated to distinguish between them.”
We drank a glass of local wine to the memory of those times. New Zealand wine has become much better and is also greatly appreciated these days.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7