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New Zealand is poor because it chooses to be poor according to Professor Sir Paul Callaghan, who packed out Te Papa’s Soundings Theatre last week..

The witty and amusing scientist, perhaps just as well known as being an excellent science and innovation communicator gave a presentation entitled; ‘New Zealand — The place where talent wants to live’.

In his optimistic way, , he gave his broad view of how we can give ourselves a prosperous future. in spite of some kiwi short-comings, mostly around our lack of self-belief.

Our future won’t, can’t be about more dairy cows. As a couple of graphs pointed out, if it wasn’t for dairying/Fonterra, our country would have even less wealth — but the environmental degradation caused by cows and the difficulty of adding value to milk makes making money on that front too difficult.

Our best hope is using our brains much better he says, but he’s wary of politicians and bureaucrats trying to pick winners.

‘We will be good at what we’re good at,’ he says.

This mostly will be about a niche within a niche. A $500 million market isn’t going to be that appealing to the General Electrics or Samsungs of the world he reckons, but it wouldn’t take too many of these types of markets to really start making an impact on New Zealand’s economy.

Callaghan gave the example of such niche/niche players as Fisher & Paykel Healthcare and their dominant position in hospital respiratory products and Rakon who make oscillating crystals for use in mobile phones. The Wellington company he helped set up, Magritek, who make small nuclear magnetic resonance imagers was another.

He didn’t gloss over some of the negative aspects about New Zealand in comparison to some of our OECD compatriots. Among some hard to digest figures are the fact of the very wide disparities of wealth in this country, and the high rate of imprisonment.

The same table of indicators also pointed out that, comparatively speaking, New Zealand’s level of scientific and mathematical literacy is up near the top — though Callaghan was pretty scathing of media’s understanding or reporting of such issues.

Along the way he was very scathing of what he described as ‘egregious hypocrisy’. (sticKhad to look this up). Who is New Zealand or the rest of the developed world to criticize countries like Indonesia for cutting down forest in order to grow palm oil, when the past 500-1000 history of western countries has seem them do exactly the same thing he asked?

That was the negatives — at least some of them.

One interesting point, one that as a nation we could change is that as such, New Zealand is not a small country.

‘We have the fifth largest economic zone in the world,’ he says. Under the waters under our control is much more potential wealth. Callaghan says we should mine our assets, selectively and when it would help produce wealth.

With reference to our territorial waters, ‘we need to lift our eyes beyond the land,’ he says.

And, increasingly, if we aspire to be wealthier as a nation, New Zealand has a lot going for it says Callaghan.

He listed our advantages:
• Water
• Renewable energy
• Multiple climatic zones
• An abundant and natural environment
• Excellent education
• A civil society

These are all aspects that people from other countries deem as highly desirable says Callaghan; and heading down a more enlightened economic path, we could easily attract them.

‘Without even trying, we’re already doing $5 billion a year in high technology exports,’ he says.

‘Imagine if we inspired our kids to think about entrepreneurship, to be engineers and scientists and not lawyers and accountants. Our children need to understand what and how they can use their creativity.’