The graph on the right shows how this growth in student numbers has been shared among the disciplines. While the number of graduates in science and applied science has grown modestly, most of the growth has come from outside of the sciences. For instance, in Business and Commerce, the number of PhD graduates has nearly tripled over this period.
If we break down the sciences and applied sciences further, we can see that the number of biological and medical science graduates has grown strongly since 1998. This may be due to the considerable investment in biotechnology research and development made by the New Economy Research Fund (NERF) since 1999. However, the decline in physical sciences PhD graduates since 1998 is alarming. (Although I do know that in the MacDiarmid Institute, our numbers are growing: we currently have more than 140 PhD students enrolled.) The relatively static numbers in engineering and the agricultural sciences should also be a concern.
How important are graduates to an economy? In an earlier post, I discussed the network of inventors that can be identified through the patent portfolio of Finnish mobile phone giant Nokia. The plot on the right shows the number of new inventors that appeared in Nokia’s patent record each year. In 2002, more than 300 new inventors appear in Nokia’s patent record. For comparison I’ve included the number of engineering PhDs graduating per year from Finnish universities. These started growing in the early 90s in advance of the strong demand by Nokia. It seems that these graduates must have played a key role in Nokia’s success. In 2006, the Finns graduated more than 300 PhDs in engineering compared to New Zealand’s 51.
Although the increasing numbers of New Zealand PhD graduates in the biological sciences is encouraging, a scan of the 2008 TIN100 report shows that few of the top 100 technology companies in New Zealand are based on biotechnology. In fact New Zealand’s manufacturing industry today is based heavily on engineering and ICT. Is this industry being held back by New Zealand’s skills deficit in physical sciences and engineering, or does this simply reflect a lack of appetite for research and development in our manufacturing sector?