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For a large number of New Zealanders, and (also unfortunately) the media, the announcement of a high-tech transformation of the science sector will be a ‘so what’ experience.

For those looking for science and innovation led means to improve the country’s wealth, the declaration and its nuances are significant.

First the statement was from John Key, rather than the Minister of Science and Innovation, and secondly by government, rather than as National Party election manifesto statement.

Admittedly Key’s announcement came at the same time that about to retire Minister of Science and Innovation, and acting Minister of Economic Development David Carter released (a very late) ‘Powering Innovation’ report kicked off in March.

There had been an expectation that the report’s panel members, John Raine, Mina Teicher and Phil O’Reilly, would find a level of dissatisfaction from the services offered by the CRI, IRL, most closely involved with the high value manufacturing sector.

Instead the general consensus was, IRL’s doing good, its just not big enough to handle the increasing demands from industry.

The raw bones of the Key announcement is that there is to be a $150 million additional operating expenditure for a newly named IRL (as an advanced technology institute, a ‘high-tech HQ’), and $80 million capital expenditure allocation.

This will effectively double IRL’s present number of scientists to 700. And while the CRI’s Auckland and Christchurch presence is to be increased, it is still unclear how and what will happen to its main Gracefield campus.

This is the current centre of IRL’s chemistry, physics, mathematics and applied engineering skills, and the site could definitely do with a new, purpose built building instead of hotch-potch of pre-fabs and bits and pieces that it currently has.

Given the small size of New Zealand though, it makes sense to increase certain areas of technological excellence here — and some of the $80 million must surely be allocated for new construction at Gracefield.

The Powering Innovation document made a number of recommendations — but the most important one in sticK’s opinion, hinted at by the transformation announcement being made by John Key, is #13 — (but this will be lucky for the country).

This recommendation is for a Science and Innovation Council, led from a very senior ministerial level, with representatives from universities, researchers, and industry.

It is a model adopted in the Finlands, Denmarks and Singapores of the world, suggested in other sticK blogs (see here, and here).

The expectation must be that John Key will head this council, devolving the policy and MSI oversight to another minister(s) — perhaps Stephen Joyce who lately has been another to put his hand up for the role.

Such a move, and leadership, will be critical for New Zealand clawing its way into higher value and niche manufacturing (much of it based on our biological resources).

In the meantime IRL will be working on much of the devilish detail in putting many of the Powering Innovation recommendations into practice and transforming itself into a high-tech HQ.

IRL has been champing at the bit to get on with significant growth, and Key’s announcement will enable it to let loose on its contingency plans (which ironically formed much of the Powering Innovation document). The government’s decision and the report reflects the public position and submissions that IRL made to the high value manufacturing review.

To double in size over the next five years, it is going to have to bring onboard some bright young minds, as well as bring in some from overseas.

Don’t be surprised to find it announcing an increasing number of joint graduate schools with universities as a collaborative approach is taken to pumping out PhD scientists and engineers.

Don’t be surprised to see a new campus at Gracefield, and different types of collaborations in Christchurch and Auckland.

Don’t be surprised to see a kick-started innovation ecosystem roar into life, as a Science and Innovation Council, allied to invigorated industry sectors and researchers start pointing research outcomes to a shared goal — increased wealth.

About blinking time!