“Just So Science” – The Nation that Talked

By Elf Eldridge 22/04/2011

Much has been said recently about New Zealand’s desire to create a knowledge-based economy rather than a manufacturing one. Much has also been said about the structure of the PhD, its purpose and relevance to a modern society, and how to keep the best graduates in New Zealand. Much has been said about the low number of Maori and Pacifica students succeeding at tertiary education, and the fact that these are the two fastest growing ethnic groups in New Zealand (arguably the only two ethnic groups that are actively growing). Much has been said about the dire need for innovation in both business and science. Much has been said about the New Zealand Government’s relatively low spending on Research and Development and Education  as a function of GDP compared to other more ‘prosperous’ nations.

taken from a talk by Dr Andrew West
taken from a talk by Dr Andrew West

All of these topics were mulled over at the (ridiculously overpriced) Science and Innovation in Education Forum help in Wellington over the 19th and 20th April and as expected, the main points to come from the conference was that, yes, these are, in fact, problems. What occurred that was unexpected, was that the concept of solutions were not only discussed, but in several situations were actually settled upon with some concrete directives. It remains to be seen whether anything actually comes from this (I’ll summaries the details in the next post), but one thing it drove home is our nature that Terry Pratchett brilliantly summarizes by anointing us with the name Pan narrans (storytelling chimpanzee) rather then Homo sapiens (Wise Man).

We love to talk.

We also love to blame.

And both are pointless without action associated with them. Okay they might still be pointless even WITH action associated with them. What they are both great at is wasting time.

NZ Government Expenses 2009
NZ Government Expenses 2009 (read 'Government Values')

My point is that in our country of 4,408,384 people with a GDP of USD$135.723 billion (2010) (or ~$31,000 per capita), is totally unique and can’t be modeled by the economy of any other nation. Instead of looking at what we don’t have and focusing on how to get it, we need to look at what we do have and how to use it. Personally I believe that is the core of Kiwi ingenuity alluded to by Ernest Rutherford“We’ve got no money, so we’ve got to think”. Now, we can blame the government’s funding, we can blame the economic emphasis on tourism and dairy, we can blame the Treaty of Waitangi, we can blame the academic environment for stamping out innovation, we can blame each other, but it doesn’t make a lick of difference in the long run.

If we want to change things we need people. If it’s not already obvious let me spell it out for you:

“If you desire change you must make it. Stop wasting time talking about it.”

We can’t wait for government funding or investment from the private sector. We can’t wait for policy change to facilitate a ‘more positive growth environment’. If we do we’ll all be dead and fossilized by the time any change happens.  Want an example? Look at an entrepreneur, to begin something it takes one person with drive and passion. Yes, money and contacts help, and a “positive growth environment” is great for positively growing things but the best and brightest are simply those that had the guts to go out and do something. Think Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook CEO), Sam Morgan (Trademe Founder) or a little closer to home Nik Wakelin (Code to Customer CEO), the list goes on and on…

I do appreciate the irony in this article – a lot of criticism (from a nobody no less!) without saying anything about what individuals can do.

So here’s what you need to do: develop and extend your whanau. Find out about Te Ropu Awhina and talk to your community.

Someone talking to their community!

I’ll explain in detail what social and economic effects this may have in a later post, but suffice to say it provides a method to change the innovation climate, low Maori and Pacific success numbers, small business development, academic/industry relations, retaining and producing excellent PhD students and movement towards a knowledge based economy. All in a short time frame and with no reliance on government or private funding. It’s not perfect – it doesn’t immediately allow everyone to have six-figure salaries or generate 30 millionaires under 30 overnight, indeed it actively apposes individual success that is not shared with the community, but the data suggests that it works, and not just for Maori and Pacifica. (just ask if you want a copy of the article)

Now that I’ve ranted about the solution (in my opinion) – lets take a closer look at some of the problems noted by the Science and Innovation in Education Forum.

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