If you think the All Blacks shirt was a rip off, think again.

By Siouxsie Wiles 26/09/2011 21


Much fuss was recently made when New Zealanders found out that Adidas All Blacks shirts could be bought online overseas for less than half the cost they are selling for here. Except fans couldn’t buy them online as Adidas had to put a stop to deliveries to New Zealand.

If you think that’s ‘rip of NZ’, here is some more food for thought. Scientists are being massively overcharged for reagents they need to do their experiments. This was brought rather painfully to my attention today when I asked someone to order some competent cells for me. When we last ordered them from the local distributor back in April, they cost nearly $600 (NZ) for a vial. Recently that local distributor was taken over by another larger company called ThermoFisher Scientific. New price? $1540. I had a quick look at how much they cost in the UK and USA – the equivalent of $295 and $240, respectively. And here we get stung by a $300 MAF import charge too.

What is so sad about this scenario is that science funding is really hard to come by here, and to know that when we do get some money we are paying massively over the odds for the reagents we need to do our experiments, means that in real terms it is even harder to compete with labs overseas. They can do so much more for their money.

The NZ government and public should be outraged. Perhaps this is doing ‘science for profit’, only its the suppliers who are making all the profit.


21 Responses to “If you think the All Blacks shirt was a rip off, think again.”

  • I recall an instrument part that we needed cost $7500 through our normal supplier but could be obtained for less than half that overseas. So not just reagents. We have a joke here that if you say you want something for a lab they’ll triple the price.

  • Siouxsie Wiles said…
    The NZ government and public should be outraged. Perhaps this is doing ’science for profit’, only its the suppliers who are making all the profit.

    No, there shouldn’t be any outraged. It is a private company. It is not owned by Govt/taxpayer. It means we (non-shareholders or owners) have no rights whatsoever to demand them that they adjust their price according to someone’s wishes. It is freemakets and that’s how it should work.

    The problems in underfunding in science is quite obvious, but it has puzzled me that our academics are blind to it.

    There are too many useless courses that are being taught at tertiary institutions & Universities. Drop those courses (including certain departments) and there will be funds available to go into science, engineering & technology.

    I know that some here will jump in to say that I’m advocating elitism, but lets face the facts. Science, Engineering & Technology Departments/Faculties at Universities have been complaining for as long as I can remember since setting foot on Aotearoa about insufficient funding from Govt. At the same time, you see numerous new coarse/papers/departments being established, which in my view, shouldn’t be there at all (eg, Maori Department, Pacific Study Department, Gender Studies, blah, blah, blah,…). These departments should be chopped or folded back into either sociology, anthropology , etc,… It seemed to me that they complain for lack of funding, while having sufficient funding for establishing useless courses.

    Why can’t we have a CalTech or MIT type tertiary institution in NZ, to concentrate mainly in science, engineering & technology?

  • Twenty years ago it was cheaper to buy a plane ticket to LA, stay in town for a week, eat like a king, go to Disneyland and buy an Apple Mac, than it was to buy a computer locally.

    Would it be practical to send a research assistant across the Pacific to bring back a suitcase full of the cells? (My knowledge about the cells is zero, so feel free to laugh).

    • Hi Bill, Sending someone overseas for them is certainly tempting but they need to stay on dry ice so is probably a logistical nightmare! But one i may have to look into at some stage :-).

      Hi Falafulu, Alas what we have here is anything but freemarkets at work. We have a big company buying up all competition and then charging what it likes. And to say that getting rid of departments like Maori, Pacific and Gender studies will free up money for science funding just shows your lack of understanding how higher education and research funding works.

  • Siouxsie Wiles, I had talked to 2 retired staffs from Auck Uni in recent years, Prof John Butcher (Mathematics) who also established the Computer Science Department and Prof. Alan Polleti (Physics) which they think that Auck Uni has been expanding into other areas over the last few decades that divert funding that should have gone into science, engineering and technology. They said that in the 1960s or even before that, science & engineering weren’t complaining too much about underfunding. Today, it is quite common that you hear very often from researchers in science & engineering moan about underfunding. In their opinions, they believe that University is just expanding to other areas (even if those courses or Departments shouldn’t exist at University level) primarily to get bums on seats. This expansion is common to all our Universities and not just Auckland.

    You said…
    shows your lack of understanding how higher education and research funding works.

    Now, I can pull up some researches from certain Departments at Auck Uni, that are worthless. Had that funding been diverted to your Department, that would have been a taxpayer $ well spent.

    There is useful higher education and useless ones. You should differentiate between the 2. There are certainly some Universities from around the world that fund researches into paranormal which is higher education according to you, but it is useless and you should know that. I hope that non of our Universities are doing this kind of (higher education) useless research. At the end of the day, taxpayers don’t expect their dollar to be wasted on various useless researches.

    Maori Studies and Pacific studies are pretty useless. I know an Island person who’s doing a PhD in Pacific studies and she doing her thesis on basket weaving. I have asked her once if she knows how to weave a basket (using coconut or pandanus leaves) and she said no. She just reads about it of how Islanders make them. I advised her to turnup at the Otara Tongan Methodist church hall every Saturday afternoon, because the women in that community teach their children of how to weave baskets and perhaps she can learn from them. This kind of higher education (basket weaving) is a waste of taxpayer $.

  • Faculty of Arts – Department of Film, Television and Media Studies.

    A PhD candidate, who’s doing her thesis on:

    Queer Timing: The emergence of lesbian representation in early cinema

    I hope that such PhD thesis research is a taxpayer dollar well spent.

  • Falafulu Fisi,

    In science it isn’t always possible to work out what the potential applications and benefits of a particular line of research is before it is done. Neither is it particularly easy these days to judge the merits of work done in an area in which one has little expertise. These same principles can be applied to wider areas of research including anthropology, queer studies and basket weaving (Did you discuss this enough with the student to fully understand the purpose of the PhD? Is she looking at the history/ related culture etc?)
    Also given that the resources required in science and technology are often so much more expensive than for the arts, shutting down all of these areas you consider to be unproductive would probably not amount to much.

    Luckily in my area of research there are usually at least two companies who sell similar products so we can get some sort of deal through negotiation. Having said that I have just looked at the cost of some filters to use with our HPLC ($1000 for 100) which nearly made me fall off my chair.

    At a guess the “Queer Timing” project may provide an interesting examination of an aspect of lesbian history which may inform, in one way or another, current soical policy.

    My PhD project was on the syntheis of part of an antibiotic molecule, which in itself had limited value. However, it was an opportunity for me to hone my synthetic skills and it also reveal some interesting chemical reactions.

    Who knows, which project in the long run, might benefit society more?

  • The solution to the problem of increased prices is to go elsewhere- that’s how the market works. if there is no ‘elsewhere’, get into the business yourself, because you are sure to make huge profits!
    Clearly, funds for both higher education and research have to be rationed. it is interesting that
    1. NZ has very high tertiary participation rates cf the OECD
    2. We also have very high dropout rates.
    3. We have difficulty attracting good quality entrants to trade and technician level careers.
    Something not quite right there. The incentives on the TEIs seem to be perverse. Perhaps they should be rewarded with a share of the salaries earned by thier graduates.

    On what basis should research funds be rationed?
    I agree with Falafulu that the taxpayer might have a legitimate view about that. If money is tight it seems reasonable to direct it into useful areas. I agree that you usually can’t predict the payoff from a research project. That doesn’t mean that you should fund research which seems highly unlikely to be useful, such as the examples given above. Rationing should be based on good judgement.
    Be hard-nosed, or be forever bleating for more money, which never arrives.

  • Michael asked…
    (Did you discuss this enough with the student to fully understand the purpose of the PhD? Is she looking at the history/ related culture etc?)

    Yes, she wants to be a diplomat, such as a consulate posting overseas such as in the US, Japan, UK, China, etc,… She said that it’s important to just get the Dr title, whether her study is relevant or not to being a diplomat. Usually this is how Govt ministers in the Pacific Islands are being hand-picked. They go for someone who’s got an MA or a PhD to take the position of say, Minister of Tourism, Minister of Justice, etc,.. If you look at their field of study/qualification, they’re unrelated to their portfolio.

    kemo sabe, I dig around at the Auckland University , Department of Film, Television and Media Studies and I’m started to get interested different courses that they offer. Now I’ve learnt that there is something called Orgasmology and there is a Professor in that Department who specializes in that area. I thought that this is a domain of psychology rather than film/media study. Does University pay twice (from 2 different departments) for the same research? I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the case.

    I’m seriously thinking about taking some papers from the Department of Film, Television and Media Studies next year, since their research topics are very interesting and these include:
    Counterfeit Pleasures: Fake Orgasm and Queer Agency
    Critical Extasy’: Orgasm and Sensibility in Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure

  • Falafulu
    I understand your frustration.
    The universities are strongly driven by their performance in the PBRF, and they get credit for ‘PhD completions’, whether or not the PhD is of any use.
    The best example (of many) I have found in a NZ context is research into the ecology of polar bears.
    Of course, who is to say that researching polar bears might not throw up something relevant to sheep farming? (To which I would reply: if that’s your answer, spend your own money!)

  • I generally lean toward Michael’s point of view that it is difficult to judge the value of one discipline from the perspective of another discipline (massively paraphrasing and probably poorly). And you would probably have to do a lot of explaining to convey what the point of these things are, but I would be very uncomfortable to write them off a priori.

    Second, Kemo sabe, are you saying that to get a PhD in a country the topic must be of direct relevance to that country rather than of general scientific or cultural interest? I don’t think I can get behind that at all.

  • I agree, Darcy. Just to name a couple of examples, a lot of excellent volcanology and glaciology research is carried out in the United Kingdom, where there is no direct relevance, and the world would be a poorer place without it.

  • Falafulu Fisi.

    “Yes, she wants to be a diplomat, such as a consulate posting overseas such as in the US, Japan, UK, China, etc,… She said that it’s important to just get the Dr title, whether her study is relevant or not to being a diplomat.”

    Well that seems to me to be a frustrating waste of everyone’s time.

    “I thought that this is a domain of psychology rather than film/media study. Does University pay twice (from 2 different departments) for the same research? I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the case.”

    I would be very surprised if the university paid twice. Cross-disciplinary research is fairly common these days.

  • Darcy & Carol
    In a perfect world you would be right.
    I don’t think it is legitimate to complain about the lack of funding (which will always be with us) while at the same time ducking the issue of how you would ration it.

  • kemo sabe, I see no ducking going on.
    Your comment appeared to be about the uselessness (or irrelevance) of certain research. Not about how research might be funded. Presumably the unstated premise of you comment is that research should in itself be commercially viable or lead to commercially viable results?
    Could you clarify, I’m obviously not getting something.

  • Darcy
    The ducking works like this: when it is suggested that perhaps a project is less worthy of funding support, there is a closing of the ranks behind the project. The premise seems to be that if a researcher wants to do, it should be done. I’m not just talking about commercial viability. I just don’t want polar bear research done in NZ. Let them do it somewhere else.
    I remember questioning (in a public meeting) why $US750,000 pa was being spent on researching a condition which affected only one child in 50,000. I was nearly lynched. Who was right?

  • kemo sabe, I don’t know, if I did I’d be much more intelligent than I really am.

    I just get really uncomfortable when people start deciding that certain things are inherently not worth knowing or researching.

    BTW I have no dog in this fight, I’m not a publicly funded researcher.

  • kemo sabe

    I would like to think that when the value of a project is challenged that the researcher and supervisor can in one way or another justify it.

    With regards to researching a condition that affects one child in 50,000 it would be interesting to know how that disease fits in to the bigger picture of other diseases. If it is a genetic disease then studying it may reveal important genetic concepts that inform other diseases as well as a fundamental understanding of disease.
    I am very wary of those who try to assign value to research before it is done because they seldom get it right. Many scientific breakthroughs come from unexpected twists and turns in a project.
    My second postdoc was looking at HIV protease inhibitors, one of the most effective treatments for HIV, however, the work didn’t produce any potential drugs. It did however allow me to develop a whole new method for synthesising organofluorine chemistry which then lead to potential methods for exploring proteins structures.
    One of the key skills a PhD student can learn it to spot and examine the unusual.

    I can’t remember who said it but to paraphrase “most scientific breakthroughs do not begin with the word “eureka” rather they begin with the words “that’s funny ….””