Emerging NZ Scientists – Jayne Ihaka, Chair of VUW’s Science Society

By Elf Eldridge 07/04/2012 1

There’s also a huge population of undergraduate science students in NZ with a vested interest in seeing the country grow and appreciate science. Here we ask Jayne Ihaka and other members of the Victoria University Science Society their views on the conference from the perspective of NZ’s future researchers.

1. NZAS has picked emerging scientists as the topic of their yearly conference. What does that say about the current climate for emerging scientists in NZ?

This shows that scientific innovation is coming into greater focus as a significant part of New Zealand’s future. It demonstrates that both business people and laypersons outside of the ‘science sphere’ are realising the value in supporting emerging scientists.

2. Do emerging scientists want a future in NZ? Why would they choose NZ instead of overseas?

New Zealand provides an ideal lifestyle for many. To begin with, we are not at war; we have food, water and electricity. New Zealand is considered to be relatively free of corruption and a friendly place to do business. We have a vibrant and diverse culture. There are beautiful natural surroundings and plenty of space for our small population. The quality of life here is excellent.

However, there is obviously a desire for many New Zealanders to venture beyond our shores. To lure us back, New Zealand must maintain its attractiveness in other ways, too. We’ll want to come home to a thriving economy, where there are career prospects in hi-tech industries, good salaries and fertile ground for start-ups. Further strengthening the incentives to return is vital in reducing the current ‘brain drain’.

3. What paths, realistically, are there for emerging scientists in NZ?

Many science students are under the impression that they have few career options in New Zealand. Due to shrinking funding, the life of an academic is one available to few. In terms of commercial opportunities, they see a limited number of jobs which mostly involve cows, sheep or pine trees.

This is a dangerous misconception. As we discovered at the Chiasma launch last week, there is an exciting variety of science happening right here in New Zealand. We undergraduates do not tend to be exposed to all the possibilities in industry, making us jump to the conclusion that going overseas is the only option. The opportunities are there once we look outside our academic bubble and think laterally about how our skill-sets can be applied.

4. Is working/studying overseas an important part of being an emerging scientist?

Overseas experience is an important part of any career: it gives us a broader perspective and teaches us to be adaptable.

The science community is a worldwide community. Many great scientific developments have been achieved through international collaboration. It is essential that we take opportunities to engage with other scientists and gain insight into new ways of doing things. No matter how attractive the research funding or job prospects are here, bright young scientists will always want to venture elsewhere. It’s part of our curious nature.

But educating scientists is a costly endeavour. As mentioned above, it is critical that scientists ultimately bring their skills and knowledge home, and give the taxpayers a return on their investment. We’ll need scientists to come back and help grow the economy. We’ll need scientists to keep improving New Zealand’s quality of life. And getting them back here is easier said than done!

5. Do you have a vision for NZ’s emerging scientist population?

A science degree equips us to carry out sound research – but New Zealand needs more than sound research.  New Zealand needs sound research coupled with creativity, ‘people’ skills and an appetite for risk. We envision that emerging scientists will be able to take the skills we develop from university and translate them into new products, medicines, software, etc. We will be motivated to collaborate with scientists in other disciplines and other countries. We will keep looking to carry out science that actually meets a demand and ultimately increases our standard of living.

6. What problems do you see with this vision coming to fruition?

As one of our members put it: ‘limited minds and limited funds’. Firstly, science graduates are failing to notice the many and varied ways in which their science background can be put to use in industry. Additionally, things are looking pretty dismal at the moment for academics in search of funding. Scientists who choose the academic road may see going overseas as a far more appealing option.

7. Do you think the NZAS conference will address all or some of these?

Ideally it would provide a discussion forum around how we can better support the transition from university to the workplace. Our hope is for emerging scientists to have closer links to the wider science community and businesses, before they even graduate. This might include opportunities to experience first-hand how the science we learn about is applied in the ‘real’ world.  It could involve connecting with mentors, who are already using their science knowledge to create awesome stuff and commercialise it. Valuing science, and the capabilities of emerging scientists, is the way for our economy to advance beyond its current reliance on primary industries. We hope the conference can spark further action towards this.

One Response to “Emerging NZ Scientists – Jayne Ihaka, Chair of VUW’s Science Society”

  • To this reader the views expressed in Jayne Ihaka’s presentation reflect academia’s commitment to optimism despite the perception that those labelled as ’emerging scientists’ face many difficult choices on entering a challenging environment. [The real world?] Undoubtedly, the NZAS Conference will provide (a) a forum for individual stakeholders to express their views and (b) will enable small groups to interchange their thoughts re the conference outcomes.

    But any expectation that a 1-day conference will resolve fundamental issues is not credible. Why? Because (a) the perceived issues must first be competently and objectively validated and (b) conclusions based on analysis of the validated issues must reflect a full and incisive understanding of NZ’s current techno-economic condition.

    What must be avoided is triviality and obfuscation, both of which characterized past initiatives in this arena including the the ‘1991 Porter Project’, and the ‘1999 Blueprint for Change’. [In this regard one can only wonder how many scientists will find time to read, let alone digest, the recently released ‘191-page McGuinness Institute Report 9′.]

    Fortunately, a logical and cost-effective solution to the dilemma as described above, and one which would better serve the legitimate needs of the body politic, would be the establishment of a permanent public forum whereby the key stakeholders [academia, government, industry] would be obligated to meet periodically and publicly discuss and debate NZ’s techno-economic issues before policy is formulated and adopted.

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