By Robert Hickson 03/08/2015

Being an author of one of the articles published last week in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand’s “The future of science in New Zealand” forum (Volume 45, Issue 2; open access for the next month) I was interested to see what futures the other authors came up with.

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 2.40.06 pmI deliberately took a less serious line to explore future possibilities, because that can help the creative spirit. However, most of the other articles are not imagining what science in NZ will be like in 2030, or beyond. That’s not too surprising since, as Juliet Gerrard notes in her article, most predictions fail. No one probably wants to end up looking foolish in the pages of this august Journal. But disappointing that not many new ideas were revealed.

The other articles are generally prescriptive rather than descriptive, or heaven forbid, visionary. They look at what we need to do now to our science system to ensure that we improve our ability to undertake good science that benefits our society, environment, and economy, and to train, attract and retain good researchers (and engineers). Which perhaps tells a lot about where the state of mind in New Zealand science may be at currently.

None of the issues raised will probably be surprising to those familiar with recent discussions about science policy – calls for more funding and scientific freedom, more substantial collaboration, and better connections to communities and firms.

Trust is key

Collaboration and trust are common themes in many of the papers. The latter involving the need for greater trust of scientists by policy makers and funders, and more trust by scientists for other parts of society to be involved in deciding priorities and being more involved in science.

Stevens and O’Callaghan make a good case for thinking more about the oceans that surround us, and the role they will play in our future. Rowarth and Parsons note the benefit of applying more theory and process-based models to aid thinking in how we can better manage resources on the land. McGrath also makes a good point in suggesting that PhD programmes would benefit from looking  at how they can better serve the needs of industries, where many graduates may end up. Gurevitch points out that Weta Digital is fundamentally a computer company rather than purely a visual effects shop, and that in this light there are potentially useful lessons to learn for how other research-intensive firms or industries could succeed globally as well.

What’s missing are prognostications, or wild speculations, about how emerging biotechnologies and materials sciences, developments in neuroscience, new energy systems, the rapidly evolving social sciences, robotics and artificial intelligence may influence life in New Zealand. You don’t get a sense of the current global dynamism of the sciences (of all types).

Some of these topics have been discussed individually elsewhere (such as in some of the emerging issues papers produced by the Royal Society). But it would have been nice to have a few more authors submit speculative pieces about the type of society we may find ourselves in within a few decades to help policy makers and the general public better appreciate the value of science that is being done now, and why the science system needs to improve.

0 Responses to “The future of science in NZ”

  • I was really excited when I heard about the issue and then got a little less than excited when I started reading the articles, which I found a little dry. Apart from yours, which I loved! I even enthused about it with Kathryn Ryan on Radio NZ 🙂

    As a scientist who gets grants rejected almost as often as I dye my hair, I loved the idea of a funding being allocated by lottery and also loved your World Of Wearable Tech (TM) concept.

    Great work!

    • Many thanks Siouxsie! Heard you on Kathryn’s show. I felt the same way about the articles. I had a lot of fun with the creative edges scenario, and am planning to do in a similar vein here at Ariadne. Following the IgNoble prizes line – “make them laugh, and then make them think”

  • “Science” now covers a multitude of sins, and the future of science in NZ will be as religions. The successful ones will have numerous devotees willingly coughing up tithes and offerings just to hear gurus use funny words to describe how to attain specific technical nirvana or to make entertaining toys and computer apps.

    NZ governments and other research funders have already taken literally the “givealittle” policy, and many unfunded misguided scientists have been redirected to socially-acceptable gainful careers.

    After introducing a student tax to complement the capital gains tax on physical assets, higher learning organisations restricted intakes to the top 0.1% of NCEA graduates, and thus finally matched research funding to applications.

    The change was simple and effective, ignore the calls for more funding, just cull the noisy whiners until applications matched available tithes and offerings. “Technology ” will be purchased from offshore as required.

    Some historians wondered how scientists managed to exploit the beliefs of gullible citizens in the value of science for 40 years, and why it took so long to realise science is just another religion.