by Dr Michael Edmonds
On the 21st of October a one day conference entitled ’Re-setting science and innovation (in NZ) for the next 20 years’ was held in Wellington. The conference was organised by the New Zealand Association of Scientists in collaboration with Victoria University’s Institute of Policy Studies and featured presentations from many of the big players — the Minister for Research, Science and Technology, New Zealand’s Chief Science Advisor, the President of the Royal Society, high flying researchers, all providing their perspectives on science and innovation in New Zealand.
In this report, I will try and summarise the key themes emerging from the talks, describe some highlights, low points, and conclude with some of my own observations.
The low point had to be rousing myself at 4.30 am, prying myself into a suit and tie, and taking the red eye flight from Christchurch to Wellington. From there on everything improved, surprisingly for a conference focused on policy. I found the conference to be extremely beneficial in gaining an understanding about where many of the big players seem to want to head with science and innovation, and seeing that, surprisingly, there are significant areas of agreement. Talks by the Minister for Research, Science and Technology, Hon. Dr Wayne Mapp, Struan Little, Deputy Secretary, Dynamic Economy from the Treasury, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor and Dr Garth Carnaby, President of the Royal Society, shared some similar themes. These included:
1) A focus on applied research, technology transfer and innovation
While all the speakers acknowledged there will always be a need for basic ’blue skies’ research, arguments were put forward for the benefits (especially economic benefits) of using applied science to derive benefits from blue skies research as well as to respond to the needs of industry in order for New Zealand to produce more value added products. Dr Mapp gave the examples of Denmark and surprisingly, Queensland as economies worth emulating. Over recent years, Denmark has changed it’s GDP earnings from 64% primary industry, 23% tourism and 13% high tech to 50% primary industry, 25% tourism and 25% high tech through a 400% increase in the high tech industry. Queensland, which is much closer to New Zealand and is similar in both population and city size (a factor described as important in making productivity comparison’s by sciblogs very own Dr Shaun Hendy https://sciblogs.co.nz/a-measure-of-science/2010/09/15/how-do-we-reverse-new-zealands-decline-in-global-competitiveness/ ) has a GDP 30% ahead of New Zealand and has done so by focusing on becoming the ’Smart State’ as well as the ’Sunny State’. Although no specific details were given as to how these transitions were carried out, perhaps further investigation is warranted.
2) Greater collaboration and interaction across the different sectors
Several speakers described how the ’siloing’ of the different sectors (universities, Crown Research Institutes, polytechnics and industry) were creating barriers to innovation. Dr Carnaby spoke from personal experience of the difficulties in moving between the worlds of scientific research (’blue skies’ academia) and applied science. Difficulties include snobbery, the different requirements of each sector (for example, scientific and applied research — see Table 1 below) and measurement systems such as PBRF which fail to recognise these differences.
In order to improve innovation Dr Carnaby would like to see it made easier for scientists to move between scientific and applied research (if they want to). This could include developing a differentiated system for peer review to allow recognition of the different types of outputs achieved in each sector. The point was also made by at least one of the speakers that we need to recognise that scientists are needed in many different roles and to avoid the snobbery that sometime occurs, most often in academia. We need specialists and generalists, ’blue skies’ and applied scientists, scientists in the tertiary sector and industry, and working in scientific communication and government.
At this point you may be thinking that there are already examples of interactions across institutions and sectors, for example Industrial Research Limited, the Auckland Cancer Society Research centre, as well as the Centres of Research Excellence, however my impression is that these are considered to be exceptions rather than the rule and the government would like to see much greater collaboration within the scientific community.
3) Scientists need to listen and engage with industry
This point was made several times and I interpret it as meaning that if innovation is to occur, that scientists, particularly academics need to make sure industry knows what they are doing and in return they need to know what issues are affecting industry. This is probably why the term ’technology transfer’ has been appearing in the more recent government documents and why most tertiary institutions have developed technology transfer positions or commercial arms to handle the interaction between researchers and industry.
4) More funding would be nice (but is unlikely to happen)
Several talks mentioned the percentage of GDP that new Zealand spends on research (0.5) relative to other more successful countries (for example Finland at 0.85). Professor Sir Peter Gluckman identifies a GDP spend of between 0.7 and 0.8% on research as being necessary to boost a countries’ economy. However, the global recession has resulted in many governments cutting back on science funding. In the UK, after much talk about significant cut-backs in science funding the British government has agreed to freeze funding for science over the next four years http://bulletin.sciencebusiness.net/ebulletins/showissue.php3?page=/548/art/20217&ch=1
My impression is that Dr Mapp intends to pursue a similar approach to funding in New Zealand and as a result the focus will now fall on using existing funding efficiently and frugally. This does of course rely on Dr Mapp’s strong advocacy for science (and also that of the Professor Gluckman) being successful in the face of a government that has already introduced funding cuts into other sectors including education and health.
Professor Sir Peter Gluckman gave an eloquent talk as usual, and while most of the talks were interesting and provided food for thought, there were two that stood out for me. The first was by Professor Jacqueline Rowarth, Director of Agriculture at Massey University. Her talk was passionate and idealistic about science, and suggested bold solutions for enabling innovation, drawing on her extensive experience in academia and working in the agricultural industry. Her talk can be found at: http://www.sciencemediacentre.co.nz/, as can Professor Gluckman’s. See what you think.
The second talk that stood out for me was Sciblogs very own Dr Shaun Hendy who presented some of the ideas he has been sharing at Measure of Science (). It struck me that amid all of the rhetoric about what New Zealand needs to do to raise it productivity, Shaun is one of the few who is actually applying science and try and analyse how we measure up to other countries and what the key differences and similarities are. I also appreciated Shaun’s self effacing sense of humour by apologising for not wearing a suit in a room full of suits.
Overall, I thought that the conference was very beneficial in terms of sharing views and experiences and a few key themes emerged as I have described above. However, with so much to think about and so many interesting people to talk to it was a pity that the breaks and question times were so short. I think it would have been useful to have more questions answered and more time for informal discussions and exchange of ideas. And while the conference has signalled the intended direction for New Zealand it still remains for us to see how the government will respond financially, and in terms of policy changes.
The issue of (lack of) funding for science in New Zealand was raised several times by members of the audience, one describing it as the elephant in the room. While it is clear that the best that can probably be expected from the current government is a maintaining of existing funding levels, I cannot help but reflect that greater collaboration amongst scientists is also likely to result in an opportunity for more cohesive advocacy for science. According to a recent survey (http://www.morst.govt.nz/Documents/work/sis/Science-and-the-General-Public-2010.pdf) the general public recognise the benefits of science and trust scientists more than politicians (>64% and 11%, respectively). Perhaps it is time for scientists, as a cohesive group, to start more aggressively lobbying the general public to back the need for increased science funding?