So, one month on from the NZAS emerging scientist’s conference, what has come from a conference that aimed to discuss whether emerging scientists have a future in New Zealand? The answer, in this author’s opinion at least, has been a resounding ‘Maybe’.

One publications that highlighted the themes debated at the conference is ‘Callaghan vision stumbles on realities’ published in NBR. I decided to blog (okay rant) a little about this, as it contains rampant examples of the type of short-sightedness that makes the above question all the more relevant.

Starting with the NBR article:

‘The Ministry of Science and Innovation (MSI)…is the holder and supporter of the concept [Paul Callaghan’s vision for NZ]…But despite the best efforts of society, the science community and MSI, the battle for Sir Paul’s vision appears to be losing ground.’

Rubbish. There is not a single part of the above that’s correct in my experience. Paul’s vision for NZ is being held and supported by scientists, businesses and individuals — in fact it’s NZ’s government that only spends <60% of the OECD average on R&D each year. And I can assure you that what we currently experience is far from the ‘best efforts’ of the science community and society. In Wellington alone, I’m aware of now less than 6 groups trying to achieve Paul’s vision in ways that have yet to reach their full potential. And I’m not sure what the author’s definition of ‘losing ground’ is, but with the Transit of Venus conference, the Eureka! Symposium and the future of science being discussed in mainstream, media like Campbell Live — we apparently have very different evaluation techniques.

Dr. Prue Williams from MSI, quoted directly from her Campbell Live interview, states:

‘We need to have great science in New Zealand. Our environment is unique, so is our economy. For economic development to occur we have to understand and work within our unique environment…’

I had the…..fortune….of hearing Dr. Williams speak at the NZAS conference where she gave me the impression of someone stuck doing a job she really doesn’t want to be doing. After a lacklustre performance by both political leaders that addressed the conference, she had a golden opportunity to remind us of what MSI has achieved as we approach their second birthday. An opportunity she passed up. There are a number of causal links missing in the above quote — one linking the first and second sentences would be nice. There’s also the fact that we ALREADY HAVE great science in NZ — and have done for a number of years now. MacDiarmid Institute researchers frequently publish in the highest impact factor journals worldwide, on topics from using proteins to build things from scratch to regularly moving around individual atoms. And this is only one institute! We have hundreds of worldclass researchers nationwide, and it bothers me greatly that Dr. Williams seem either unaware of then or unwilling to acknowledge their prowess (a strange position given that MSI funds much of their research)

The article also states, after mentioning that PhD graduates can expect $65,000+ p.a., the best reaching around $100,000p.a. 4 years after graduation:

‘It doesn’t take much to work out why top students with research potential might not stay on at university — industry sees their potential as well. But worse than the lack of salary is the lack of clear career pathway [sic] in the face of shrinking (at least in real terms) funding.’

The implication that research is only done in universities completely discredits that done by our applied researchers, industry researchers and CRI scientists. The reality is that there are few academic jobs worldwide, not just in NZ, and PhD training is not about generating replacements for existing professors. PhD trained people perform research and contribute from a wide array of fields and disciplines. And I’m not certain about my peers, but $65k possibly growing to $100k in 4 years sounds like a pretty good salary to me! To say nothing of what organisations like Chiasma are doing to make these pathways clearer.

‘Over 30% [doctorally qualified graduates] are now overseas. Although there are theories about the value to New Zealand of the experience they gain, many don’t come back because there are insufficient jobs here.’

I haven’t seen the word ‘theories’ mis-used this badly since reading anti-evolutionary propaganda. Almost every researcher sees the need for graduates to expand their networks and experience offshore at some point in their career. The scientific community is a global one — and not being part of that leads to poor science. To say nothing of graduate’s personal desires to travel as many Kiwis do. Earlier, the author has asserted that industry is competing with academia for high-skilled people. So which is it? Are graduates sought after or are they unemployed? (in my experience it’s almost certainly the former) I have yet to see any evidence answering why many Kiwis don’t return to New Zealand. Granted, it could be the low salaries relative to other countries, but it could also be because graduates are not aware of the current opportunities in NZ, and uninformed articles like this are doing little to change the negative stereotype of the NZ employment environment. This also mentions nothing about graduates starting their own businesses, which many will have the skills to do, and NZ is one of the top countries in the world for that! I would want to see evidence of the real problem before we begin discussing specific solutions here.

MSI has pledged to use their merger  into MoBIE as an:

‘..opportunity to consider the wider issues as they involve other departments.’

One large part of this is ‘labour force planning’ — trying to push students into science and engineering. It’s great to see that MSI is discussing this, however many organisations (FutureinTech, Te Ropu Awhina and MacDiarmid to name 3) have been doing this for years now — so perhaps a good place to start would be to dialogue with them to learn from their mistakes and successes before talking to other politicians about it. On that note, MSI has repeatedly stated that they intend to collaborate with other departments to solve NZ’s problems. That’s great, but if that’s only beginning to happen, WHAT HAVE THEY BEEN DOING TILL NOW?

In summary, there are challenges in making New Zealand a place where scientists can find a future career, but I contend that the challenges may not be those currently being addressed by MSI. In my view, the most important are:

  • We need strong, vocal leadership with a long-term view of science in the NZ economy. My hunch is that this will have to come from scientists themselves.
  • We need to educate the current graduates worldwide about the opportunities for careers in NZ — rather than only focussing on preparing our labour force for the future (not that this isn’t important)
  • Whilst the post-doc expenses question is important, we cannot allow it to eclipse the more pressing issues facing NZ science. Post-Docs are crucial, however NZ already publishes above the OECD average in science with our current system and we already have great science in NZ, so there’s little incentive for governments to solve this problem. The low commercialization rate in NZ (well below OECD average) is a much more pressing issue that requires our attention, to ensure NZ is prosperous enough to support R&D in the future.

And finally, our leadership, from government business or science, must appreciate that worldclass R&D is contingent on two things: people and our attitude to failure. People, not ideas or specific research, are at the heart of innovation, as anyone from the startup or venture capital community will tell you. Most will support a good team over a brilliant idea any day. If we are to attract and retain talent to New Zealand, it’s not enough to have salaries and great science. We must also have an innovative and engaging community. I am proud to say that, in Wellington at least, the science and tech communities have taken this to heart organising talks, collaboration evenings, makerspaces and more ensuring our capital is a vibrant innovative community in both the arts and sciences. Once we begin to try and attract and appreciate innovative people, rather than ‘just scientists’ or ‘just entrepreneurs’ etc, talent will come to be part of our community. (I ranted about this at Pecha Kucha last year if you want to hear more).

Professor Kate McGrath, director of the MacDiarmid Institute asked in her blog several weeks ago whether we expect too much of our scientists now; expecting them to be world-leading researchers, teachers, communicators, event managers, mentors, political commentators, leaders and visionaries just to earn the right to apply for a job in academic science in NZ. Yes we should set our sights high, compete on the world stage and inspire future students and generations, but perhaps it should be enough for all of us to do some of these rather than all of us trying to master all of them. But for this to happen, both funding and support will be required from government, and unless they up their game — they stand as the main obstacle between myself and my peer emerging scientists creating our own future here in NZ.