academic olympics fail to gain government support

By Alison Campbell 16/08/2012

This is a guest post – I’m running it on behalf of my friend & colleague Dr Angela Sharples. Angela is the current chair of OlympiaNZ (the umbrella organisation for the various NZ Olympiad committees) and leads NZ International Biology Olympiad. She received the Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Award in 2011.

At a time when we celebrate all things sporting we should reflect on our attitudes towards success in all forms of endeavour in New Zealand. The Olympics showcase the world’s best in sporting endeavour and we rightly look up to these elite athletes and admire the effort and dedication it took for each and every one of these athletes to reach the top of their field. The personal attributes required for them to even participate at the Olympics are transferable to all areas of performance in life and so we celebrate these athletes, admire them and aspire to like them. They are role models that encourage younger athletes from primary school to university level to participate in the sport of their choice and to dream that with hard work and dedication they too may reach Olympic level.

The government recognises this social benefit of elite sports and funds it accordingly, through SPARC and the high performance programmes. They have their eye on the long term benefits that participation in sport at the elite level provides to the wider New Zealand community. The government also recognises that New Zealand must foster innovation through a responsive, high performance education system if New Zealand is to remain globally competitive in a rapidly changing world.  Unfortunately, whilst the government has
published any number of reports on the importance of Science and innovation in New Zealand we see very little action on establishing and supporting programmes which foster such excellence.

Just last week, the New Zealand International Biology Olympiad withdrew from hosting the International Biology Olympiad here in New Zealand in July 2014. This prestigious international event challenges and inspires the brightest young secondary school students from 60 countries (and the number of member countries continues to grow) to deepen their understanding of biology and promotes a career in science. The focus is on the importance of biology for society, especially in areas such as biotech, agriculture and horticulture, environmental protection and biodiversity. These are all areas of academic endeavour crucial for New Zealand’s economic success in the future. Hosting this event in New Zealand was a chance to showcase our innovative education system and biological research to some of the world’s top academics and to inspire our own students to develop the dedication and put in the sheer hard work required to reach this highest level of academic endeavour. It is an opportunity lost!

Unlike our sporting Olympians our academic Olympians receive little support from the government and even less acknowledgement and celebration of their success. New Zealand has performed outstandingly well in the International competitions since we first competed in 2005, winning 16 Bronze medals, 7 Silver and 1 Gold Medal. These high performing students are New Zealand’s economic future and yet few in the country are even aware of their achievement.

Until we apply the same high performance strategies to our science and innovation system in New Zealand that we utilise in sports we will continue to talk about the importance of fostering excellence in science and innovation whilst we watch our competitors on the global stage outperform us. And we will continue to lose our best young minds to countries where their contribution is valued.

0 Responses to “academic olympics fail to gain government support”

  • The thing that has been driving me up the wall since the Olympics is the call from various people to put more funding into sports to improve our medal tally.
    New Zealand’s athletes did spectacularly at the London Olympics, and while it would be nice to provide them with more funding, we are apparently still in a recession and the government is providing little additional funding for key areas such as education and science. Not a good time to be increasing funding to sports.

  • There’s some discussion of this in various places on Facebook (NZIBO alumni are quite active there). At one point I commented that OlympiaNZ receives $90,000 via the RSNZ, which is shared between the 6 member organisations & is tagged to support the students’ travel. (Angela Sharples will correct me if I’ve got the details wrong.) The various Olympiad groups are very grateful for this but the fact remains that they still operate on a shoestring budget, & yet manage to produce teams that can compete successfully on the world stage. Not to mention that the spinoffs – tutorial programs etc – are much wider in their effect ie it’s not just about the 4 students who go to each international competition! The benefits are so much greater. Think where we could be if international academic success received the same recognition as international sporting success.

  • Alison. You seem to be conflating two very different things; the cost of preparing and sending people to go to the Olympics, versus the cost of hosting the Olympics.

  • I guess the comment was a bit out of context. There are two things here. One is the complete lack of attention paid when our students do so well in academic terms on the international stage – our gold medal winner was placed 25th in the world among year 12/13 biology students, yet none of the media picked it up. And our overall medal tally is impressive in anyone’s books.

    The cost of preparing a team each year is around $70-80,000, a fair bit of which is in “in-kind” support from various tertiary institutions, including Waikato. The funding via RSNZ helps but can only go towards travel costs. Most funding agencies will support sports teams but not, it seems, things like the Olympiads, so a lot of hard graft goes on each year.

    The other is the subject of Angela’s post. Each member country is expected to host an Olympiad, as part of the terms of the competition. Most teams are accompanied by some fairly senior academics (ours is one of the few where most of the organizing committee are secondary teachers), so hosting is a good chance to showcase export education opportunities, plus there’s quite a tourism spin-off as many teams stay on afterwards (the competition’s always held in the northern hemisphere summer break). In other words, there are benefits to the country from hosting. With an estimated 60 countries attending we would have had around $600,000 coming in from registration fees. My institution was willing to underwrite part of the cost; we had hoped that (as the Swiss government is doing for the 2013 event) our government would underwrite the remaining $700,000) & were confident that, with that signal of support, the sponsorship would have been there (as has been the case in Switzerland, where 1 year out 70% of the funding is secured). Unfortunately that didn’t happen & the decision was made to withdraw sufficiently early that another country might be able to step in & fill the gap.

  • One of the major benefits of hosting the International Biology Olympiad here in NZ is creating a culture where excellence in Science is fostered and valued. It provides an aspirational facet to the NZ Olympiad programmes. Just like participation by our elite athletes in the Olympics results in young athletes aspiring to be like their successful sporting Olympians. To really change the culture in NZ we need both inspirational aspects to our high performance academic programmes (the best teachers and teaching to support our young scientists to become critcally thinking scientists) and aspirational aspects (where students want to be as successful as those who compete in the International competitions. Alison also raises a really important point about showcasing our research institutions and research opportunities (export education) to world class academics who influence the post graduate choices of students every year.

  • “Unfortunately that didn’t happen & the decision was made to withdraw sufficiently early that another country might be able to step in & fill the gap.”

    NZ has already withdrawn?

    I’m in the middle of writing a post to support this, pointing out an aspect I think should have been in the government’s eye. Guess I’ll have to rephrase it to a missed opportunity, past tense – that’s pretty sad (and rather stupid to my mind). I hope to get my post up before the week is out. (He says wishing that’d work out!)

    • Discussions with the Ministry & other agencies began in early 2010; Angela led those & will be able to give precise dates.

  • Yes New Zealand has already withdrawn. At the International Coordinators meeting two years prior to the event the host country must confirm that they are in a position to fulfill all responsibilities. Without the government or other organisation prepared to underwrite the remaining funds needed for this event we were not in a position to make this confirmation. At present, the IBO Coordinating Centre has not found another host country for 2014. They would love it if New Zealand could proceed.

    As you can imagine, planning an international event involving 60 countries is a significant undertaking. Early discussions with possible host organisations began in January 2010 and the first contact with a government representative was in March 2010. These initial meetings in the first half of 2010 were to gauge support and for NZIBO to decide whether to proceed with a hosting bid for 2014. At the time that New Zealand lodged our successful bid in July 2011 we had already been working on it for 18 months. The initial bid must be accompanied by a letter from the Minister of Education indicating support for this event which is provided to the International Coordinators meeting at the IBO together with a presentation outlining the state of the host countries preparations and stating which University will be acting as the host institution.