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The fact we produce a high proportion of business graduates, most only studying general skills, and relatively few technical graduates is one reason for our country’s poor innovation performance according to IPENZ.

The Institution of Professional Engineers of NZ’s recent document and thought piece ‘Catalysing economic growth – boosting innovation expertise in the private sector’ says we need to boost expertise in our private sector to develop, adapt and adopt new technologies

We also need to make the NZ economy more ‘sticky’ to high technology companies so they remain here the document says.

“We lack international business expertise, technically-literate management expertise and commercially-literate technical expertise in our private sector,” it says.

“The new tiger economies have lifted their economic performance by flooding their economies with technical graduates, and then at their mid-career converting many of the more able to them to become managers of high technology businesses. A diverse management stock including a proportion whose origins were in technical roles, enriches companies.”

IPENZ contends that too many of our top brains end up in the spending economy such as health, law, accountancy, banking, infrastructural engineering, and environmental science, and too few in the earning economy. In effect the tradeable sector or earning industries, are making do with too little of our top talent.

It suggests that a boost in government spending ($500 million) firstly be targeted at modified outputs for universities (and polytechs) and CRIs, with less emphasis on the output of scientific papers, and more emphasis on engagement with the private sector. The second part of IPENZ’s proposal is to provide direct co-funding for the early years employment of R&D workers in new positions in industry.

The outcomes of these policy proposals would be:

• Academics being strongly incentivised to go out into industry, build strategic partnerships with companies, and to transfer skilled people to the company at the end of the project. Clustering would be enhanced. The net change would rebalance the engineering schools, ICT faculties and even parts of science faculties to be industry-focused, rather than predominantly focused on academic outputs

• Incentivises small private businesses to take on R&D staff, thereby having R&D expertise in-house. It lowers the barrier of high initial cost to get a research worker established. This in turn encourages R&D to become part of a business as usual occurrence, thus leading to ongoing R&D and opportunities being developed for businesses.

These proposals would make it less likely that our brightest graduates drifting offshore to look for jobs associated with cutting edge technologies and innovation. It would also attract our country’s brightest graduates into R&D.

The IPENZ document mirrors and reinforces recent NZ Institute discussion papers. Many of these ideas are worthy of more debate, particularly among (obviously) policy-makers.

As the new Ministry of Science and Innovation gets its feet under the table, presumably with the mandate that the country can’t carry on with business as usual, let’s hope these ideas get a decent airing.