6 Comments

The Dominion Post over the weekend had a set of articles — above the fold, lots of column-inches, full-colour photos — focusing on scientists. That, in itself, is great. The problem is that these scientists were stepping far outside their expertise and the journalists did nothing to rein them in, or at least present an alternative view.

I have previously discussed these problems, but going back over the posts I think I might have been too nuanced. Let me be plain:

  • New Zealand has a better environment than most tourists’ home countries. That’s why they want to come here. Are we 100% Pure? Of course not. Does it matter? Yes, no, maybe. Should we get our knickers in a twist that we haven’t lived up to the hype? Of course not — don’t be daft.
  • All the talk of creating an innovation ecosystem and fostering a high-tech economy is a patter. A patter is what the con man does to keep you distracted from his hand reaching into your pocket. One article (‘Smart means looking beyond clean green’, which I can’t find on the DP site) pointed to the Kapiti Coast and its efforts to get high-tech manufacturing going. Hey, I’ve looked at it. The KC is tiny — there are single university campuses and factories overseas with more people. There is no way to get the scale, scope, agglomeration, etc. necessary for a leading-edge sector. The New Zealand science system does really well: it publishes a lot, it has plenty of researchers, there are some areas in which we are the world’s best. But let’s not kid ourselves. Oh, and just in case you don’t believe me, check out the Growth and Innovation Framework (pdf) from 2002, which was going to solve all these problems by 2011.
  • People live here, and therefore work here, because of the quality of life. I was talking last week with a guy my age who is doing really well in the scientific world in Europe. His work and commute mean that he is away from home 14 hours a day. This is pretty standard in most big cities, where all that great innovation takes place. I’m not interested, and neither are most of the people here. If we wanted that life, we would be living it — elsewhere.
  • Don’t bring up alcohol research to prove how scientific you are, unless you are really willing to engage with it. I’ve just played around the edges and I can see how complicated it is. Yeah, okay, jacking up prices and clamping down on access will reduce harmful drinking amongst adolescents. But, at what cost? That is always the question — at what cost? If you don’t ask and answer that question, you are spouting propaganda.
  • Spare me the martyr talk. I’ve been hassled over my research, too. Heck, some of it is so controversial I can’t get it properly funded. It doesn’t make you more right.

The core problem is uncritical science reporting. These scientists have to deal with robust debate at work. More of that in the newspapers wouldn’t go amiss.