Science: are we doing it all wrong?

By Peter Griffin 06/03/2012 19

I have to confess to never having heard of the McGuinness Institute before reading their in-depth report into Government-funded science last night.

Science Embraced: Government-funded science under the Microscope didn’t come with the fanfare that recent reports like Powering Innovation did, but it will get people thinking about the science system and how well geared-up we are to undertake the innovation-based transformation of the economy the Government so eagerly seeks.

The report opens a can of worms – it identifies 30 “policy knots” holding back science and outlines a number of “myths” about the science sector in New Zealand, namely:

Myth 1: More New Zealand research leads to more New Zealand development.
Myth 2: New Zealand research informs New Zealand public policy.
Myth 3: Science ethics are embedded in science practice.
Myth 4: ‘Innovation’ is a useful term to drive the government-funded science system.

It suggests that the Crown research institute model of conducting publicly-funded science in New Zealand is wrong:

…over the last twenty years government has wrongly put its effort into creating a dynamic and creative government-funded science system, in particular through the establishment of CRIs. In contrast, we believe the role of government should be two-fold: to create a stable and evidence-based government-funded science system while at the same time working with the private sector to help make it more dynamic and creative.

It also presents what it suggests could be a strategy blueprint for the science sector:

strat info

If you are thinking, as I was, “who are these guys?”, there’s plenty of background on the website. Professor Sir Paul Callaghan penned the foreward to the report concluding:

This document provides the basis for a conversation that needs to be happening across New Zealand.

And I agree. You won’t agree with everything, but this report is the basis for some good discussion about the issues we face in improving our science system and the science-based outcomes we want for the country. I encourage you to read it and to leave her feedback on it in the comments below.

19 Responses to “Science: are we doing it all wrong?”

  • I believe if science is keen to be clean and green they need more of Dr Nikola Tesla’s work and research in the curriculum.

  • Thanks for this Peter. Wendy McGuiness goes from strength to strength. I remember her well from the Royal Commission on GM in 2000-2001. I appreciate the Institute’s interpretation of what has gone wrong with our science system.

  • I, like Peter, had never heard of the McGuinness Institute until I read the report. And I noted that Robert Hickson, a member of the Sciblogs syndicate, is a co-author of the report.

    I fear that in the current climate (of what they used to call a sinking lid on the public service) that government policy advisors are more in the mode of looking over their shoulders – and/or updating their CVs – than willing to address compelling evidence that many of their sacred cows might have mastitis. And those who might agree with conclusions in the McGuinness Report know that those who rock the boat somehow get over represented among the redundant.

    I have been submitting and advocating and now blogging:


    for more than a decade that MED’s patent policy is wrongly focused on protectionism when it should be consistent with and supportive of the government’s science and innovation policies. What I have encountered is an attitude well depicted in the scene in “Yes Minister” when Sir Humphrey cautions Bernard Wooley that any reconsideration of anything might lead to – CHANGE!

    A report released last year looking into the value that government gets from its expenditure on policy advice:

    had this to say about how to get better value:

    – Public servants need to adjust their role to becoming participants in the public policy community – not the sole sources or ultimate arbiters of policy

    – Consultation with outsiders should be conducted to add real value to policy development

    – Consultation with other agencies should be early enough for constructive change

    – Advice should be based on evidence, analysis, debate and peer review rather than on consensus among officials required to be consulted under the cabinet manual rules

    – Policy advice should be aligned with broad strategic objectives, particularly when the issues need to be addressed by more than one agency.

    Wouldn’t it be great if there were enough science advisors left standing to put those recommendations into practice – and that their advice on the McGuinness challenges was based “evidence, analysis, debate and peer review” rather than the current box ticking exercises that meets all the “best practice” policy development “procedures” – pity about the “outcomes”.

  • Doug Calhoun (aka ‘ipmentor’),

    Aren’t you straying towards argumentum ad hominem in places here?

    PS: it’s usual to stick to one alias on any one forum.

  • Grant. I find it disappointing that aliases have to be used at all. It says something about public debate!! I find it difficult to enter discussion when people feel they cannot reveal their identity and please do not take this as criticising the individuals, they may have valid reason for using an alias. In an open society we should all feel safe to offer a view.

    Peter (and Paul C) are right – this, and all the other reports, needs to be discussed, debated, contested. What is it that we want our science to do?

  • Grant,

    Congratulations on outing me – but I did give a few hints – like linking to posts I had made in my own name.

    In my defence I did try to log in as “Doug Calhoun” but the login system of this blog is programmed so that once you have logged in with one name at an email address you are not allowed to change it.

    But to get back to the topic I wonder if speculation on the possible merger of MSI and MED:

    if it is accurate, will help or hinder having a good hard look at the McGuinness recommendations. I have accused the two departments of operating in different silos. A walk up Bowen Street shows that those silos are already housed under the same roof. Maybe if they are under the same management the silo walls might disappear.

  • Congratulations on outing me

    Is this meant to be sarcastic? If it is, my polite comment doesn’t deserve it. Of course it was obvious who were; I was only politely pointing out that it’s not the form to use multiple names on a forum. It was a polite heads-up.

    In my defence I did try to log in as “Doug Calhoun” but the login system of this blog is programmed so that once you have logged in with one name at an email address you are not allowed to change it.

    Sorry, but I can’t follow your explanation (I guess it must be missing something?) – you’ve previously used “Doug Calhoun” on this forum so obviously you were able to login as “Doug Calhoun”.

  • I wonder about you guys, I see an article on saving the energy crisis with an What about cold fusion and the ECAT. You can buy a 1.5 MW generator today and it will be delivered . Is there a science doctrine where you are told what is possible and what is not at school and all investigation is swept aside for blind faith in the doctrine . I thought science was about investigation and questioning. The greatest scientist of the 20th (tesla) has been ignored and the world has been focused on destructive technology ( Fission) and the enterprise of Oil Barons. Meanwhile mainstream science fails to come up with any solutions to the energy crisis, Tesla is ignored and any thing outside of the mainstream (burn more oil, produce nuclear waste) is considered fringe and in the domain of crackpots.? Millions of dollars is spent on particle accelerator coliders to smash things apart, to try and find the next smallest thing.
    What is going on ? Maybe you all earn enough money to keep you compliant to the doctrine. It seems to be that you live in ivory towers where you think you are smarter than the rest of us and how could anybody who doesn’t have a university science degree have anything useful to contribute. Please prove me wrong.

  • electrickiwi,

    perhaps you could elaborate with regards to what of Tesla’s work you think could be useful in solving the energy crisis.

    Cold fusion, after much investigation and questioning, does not appear to occur.

    Major advances are occurring in the areas of solar energy, biofuels, wind and hydroelectric generation of energy.

    If you are expecting science to provide some magic solution to the energy crisis then you are likely to be disappointed. Although occasionally major breakthroughs occur which result in a paradigm shift in scientific thinking most progress comes through gradual improvement.

    As you appear to be most passionate about science and its applications perhaps you should train as a scientist so you can work towards helping solve the energy crisis?

  • Don’t get me wrong, I am passionate about the subject of Energy. It all started when I was told about Dr Tesla and a friend of mine showed me an Adams motor (invented by a New Zealander Robert Adams an electrical engineer). Then after pursuing the subject of “alternatives” came across, Henry Moray, Hans Coler, Howard Johnston, Victor Schauberger, John Bedini, Tom Beardon, Teruo Kawai, John Hutchinson. Too quote the great Dr “Ere many generations pass, our machinery will be driven by a power obtainable at any point of the universe. This idea is mot novel… We find it in the delightful myth of Antaeus, who derives power from the earth; we find it among the subtle speculations of one of your splendid mathematicians… Throughout space there is energy. Is this energy static or kinetic ? If static, our hopes are in vain; if kinetic and this we know for certain, then it is a mere question of time when men will succeed in attaching their machinery to the very wheelwork of nature..”
    So I started experimenting and found electricity to be abundant. Put a Iron stake in the ground and measure the difference between that and a tin roof. It’s not going to power your house but it is there. I built a radiant energizer charger and measured a coefficent of performance greater than 1. Learnt about the heavyside component and Duriac sea holes.
    Stick an antenna up in the air, the higher the better, and wire it to one side of a capacitor, the other going to a good earth ground, and the potential difference will then charge the capacitor. Connect across the capacitor some sort of switching device so that it can be discharged at rhythmic intervals, and you have an oscillating electric output. T.H. Moray simply expanded on Tesla’s idea to use high-voltage to create ionic oscillation.-Tesla’s patent to utilise radiant energy.
    Teslas research into Vacuum tubes, ionized gas, resonant frequencies, plasma discharges, Very high frequency electricity as well as VLF radio waves, electrical longitudinal waves, the list goes on.
    What I am trying to say is I do not understand why people can’t see his genius and why these fields are not being researched into. Why is there so much skepticism involved when I can see there is truth to it.
    Also in terms of the Nickel, hydrogen fusion I still do’t know how you can’t find it. Andrea Rossi, are you using google ?

    In summary sorry to have used such strong words but are we on the same planet ? Can you see where I am coming from ?

  • electrickiwi

    I think you are making an error in assuming that cold fusion and some of the other technologies yourdescribe are not in use because conventional science is ignoring them. It is far more likely that conventional science has tested them and found they are little use.
    The ecat website you linked to seems to me to contain a lot of hype but very little verifiable evidence that cold fusion works, though am happy to be proved wrong in this, given the potential benefits to humankind. If you can find any scientific evidence supporting that cold fusion can produce significant amounts of usable energy I’m sure everyone here will be interested.

    However, here is a less than optimistic view of the ecat project.

  • Ok well if we forget about Rossi and go to an American company doing research on Controlled Electron Capture Reactor (CECR) . Which involves an electric pulse through palladium or nickel lattice and deutronium (hydrogen) from seawater, producing excess heat. Sounds relatively easy for a serious research company to do. Anyway don’t take my word for it, here are the professionals. The 60 minutes documentary is quite informative.
    Apparently the American company has a better reputation than Rossi. They explained the process better than Rossi ( I suspect he does not want to be “tesla’d”, which explains the secrecy).
    I find it interesting to see that an electric pulse system is being used, since this is what the radiant energy capture’s use ( based on Tesla’s impulse technology).

  • Ok, well I’ve read the report. And I agree that there is an important public conversation to be had here. But really, did they need to take 190 pages of densely worded prose to make this point? It took me three hours and several cups of coffee to get through this – how many “members of the public” will have the motivation or stamina?

    In amongst a lot of barely intelligible flannel and corporate strategy double-speak, they seem to make three main points:

    1) McGuinness and co-authors are very concerned about the ethical standards within the science community. They want us to become more like accountants and lawyers with compulsory membership of a professional body. I find this rather curious given recent public trust surveys have consistently ranked scientists amongst the most trusted professions in NZ, whilst the public are far more distrustful of accountants and lawyers( but interestingly not judges). It would appear that the authors are happy to allow their personal ideologies to trump actual evidence in pushing this case. Mind you, I’m sure the Royal Society would enjoy the boost to their coffers compulsory membership would bring…..

    2) The report’s authors have decided that we need to reduce the number of CRI’s to merely 3. They’re brooking no argument, and don’t tell them that the government has looked at it twice in the last 2 years and turned this down. Once again the argument presented is ideological, rather than based upon any form of empirical evidence. This is a shame, because they actually might be right, even if for the wrong reasons….

    3) They note that long term strategy and stability (funding and otherwise) is very important in the science sector, and NZ has had a very poor record at this over the last 20 years. Well, they got that one right…..

    In conclusion, the new MoBIE* means events have overtaken this report almost before it was released, and the key goal of starting a public conversation on “why NZ needs and funds public science” has got completely lost in the telling. So I’ll award points for trying, but few for the execution.

    To finish – my favourite line in the whole report, is a quote from Sam Morgan that, “talent hates filling in forms”. As I sit here buried in a deluge of MSI proposal documents, I say Amen to that…….

    * – it’s a whale of a department!

  • ” it’s a whale of a department!”

    Brilliant, Chris, brilliant! The Key governments great white whale.

  • I would like to be a scientist at university but unfortunately they do not teach (as far as I know) at university what interests me. All the science I am interested in apparently isn’t possible in mainstream, even though I have proved it to myself as have other small groups of inventive open minded people. So I do consider myself a scientist but am an amateur and all the research I do is off my own back and spare time. I have no one to talk to and explore ideas with apart from internet groups. I do respect you guys but I do not respect the “doctrine”.
    I do have one pupil I am teaching the concepts I have learned and he is helping with my machines. Thank goodness for the internet as I now have a vast collection of resources that explain the energy concepts.

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