“Just So Science” – The Ways of the Wind

By Elf Eldridge 29/04/2011

As I was lucky enough to attend the Science and Innovation in Education Forum last week I thought I might report back on the sorts of things that were said and my own particular take on them. Ostensibly the forum was set up to discuss:

  1. The role of STEM education in generating innovation.
  2. What employers want of employees.
  3. What support and changes are required to promote a science-based economy.

(STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Although that rapidly devolved as the various sections overlapped. What emerged was a clear idea of the problems, some excellent (but very general) solutions and a few concrete recommendations. The problems that really stood out as central discussion points were:

  • Low rate of transformation of ideas & research into businesses
  • Low levels of Maori and Pacific success in academia
  • Low Engineering graduate numbers
  • STEM is hard
  • Communities (parents, teachers friends) are ill-informed of career pathways
  • Loss of the best students overseas
  • Low engagement of students in science and math at secondary school
  • Skills student lack
  • Societal perceptions of a career in science

bearing in mind that these were just what were discussed, and their presence (or lack thereof) has no bearing on their factuality. The ‘solutions’ proposed where largely what you would expect from heads of the industries involved, with virtually all speakers suggesting that more money or at least more responsible government spending and policies would solve everything, ignoring the small but important fact that the reason many of the above are issues is because of a lack of financial resources.

I was however, impressed by the calibre of the responses given to the question of ‘What Employers Want?” by people like Phil O’Reilly(Business NZ), Chris Kelly (Landcorp) and Richard Blaikie (MacDiarmid Institute), all of whom replied with the obvious: informed, active citizens that are self-motivated, inquisitive and that can work in a team. There were some suggestions on how to best encourage these traits including: celebrating ‘strategic’ science, STEM skills development, entrepreneurship training, ‘increased’ work opportunities and ‘clearer’ education pathways (but the use of comparatives like ‘clearer’ gives no clear endpoint or goal to this, which personally I think makes it unlikely to produce a concrete outcome). Chris Kelly’s request for more genetics, biotechnology and software design graduates for the agricultural industry was delightfully clear and concrete however.

STEM education’s role in producing innovation was never made explicit although several solutions were proposed (to what I have no idea!). These centered around increasing the number of STEM graduates (citing wonderful examples like Finland and Denmark who are apparently direct facsimiles of a more prosperous New Zealand), promoting entrepreneurship though more interaction with industry, reducing commercialization disincentives and changing our ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ culture. One speaker mentioned that ‘real’ innovation is all about the genesis of new ideas rather than the refinement of others, which I guess must be why Google and Apple are doing so incredibly badly these days. The sharing of IP (based on MIT’s success via this mechanism) was clear recommendation from many speakers though.

Finally, support for a science based economy was going to be a difficult topic regardless of the speakers and audience, and many did a reasonable job of noting the big barriers like perception of science as a career, the lack of ‘heroes’ to aspire to in this field (excepting Sir Paul Callaghan of course), the funding and a general misunderstanding of science’s role in the economy. To expand a bit upon that first point, here’s Patrick Walsh’s list of ‘perceptions of a career in science from secondary school students’:

  • Poor pay
  • Limited opportunities
  • Forced into work overseas
  • Constant struggle for funding
  • Little social status
  • Limited to medicine and engineering

which, I must admit, sounds at least partially correct to me – the kids seem better informed than we first thought!

That said, the two standout speakers (in my humble opinion of course!), Jacqueline Rowarth (Massey University) and Graham Le Gros (Malaghan Institute), provided some excellent, concrete suggestions for people to take on board. Prof. Rowarth noted that children value their time, they don’t enjoy failure and that science is hard, so the only way to encourage students is to increase the prospective reward (salary, status, variety or security). Prof. Le Gros gave clear advice on how to retain good students (which was reiterated by Prof. Blaikie) by promoting the Post Doc as a temporary ‘transfer’ position, but encouraging students to complete PhDs here, specifically by improving the self-confidence of students, possibly extending (or making more flexible) the length of a PhD to allow greater industry links through work experience and by publicizing the non-academic opportunities open to PhD graduates, and promoting the world class science where NZ leads the world.

So….where will all this lead? Well as I mentioned in my last post – I guess thats up to us. We have been given some excellent and some (quite frankly) awful suggestions, but the only thing that will separate one from the other is trying them. I would appreciate further thoughts and discussion however! As Dr. Seuss said:

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” – The Lorax

Next post = what I’ll be doing to address these concerns (small world, concrete, immediate things!)

0 Responses to ““Just So Science” – The Ways of the Wind”

  • thanks, Elf. I would have gone along myself but had the Biology Olympiad team here & sans cloning can’t be in two places at once! sounds rather like I had expected …

    • Thats a shame Alison! I realize the post sounds a little cynical (that’s just me i’m afraid) but I don’t mean to imply that nothing useful came from it. It will certainly change the way I do things – in some aspects. Unfortunately it’s biggest failure, (apart from the ridiculous cost of participation) was that a physical forum will always have less participation than an online one. Particularly as those people that are actively out making a difference are often to busy to come, yet they have the most to offer! Hence why I am attempting to continue the discussion online.

  • Last October I attended a forum on “Re-setting Science and Innovation for the next 20 years”.
    It seems to me that the event you describe is very similar which makes me wonder if these 6 monthly meetings about science and innovation really do anything productive. The usual format is to have “inspiring” speeches (yawn) from politicians, often comparing us to successful countries overseas, and with a ridiculous over-emphasis on the Kiwi ability with a piece of number 8 wire, in order to overlook the decades of underfunding of science in NZ. Talks are only given by scientists who have succeeded in the current system, while those who have suffered from underfunding or have been unable to get jobs are ignored.

    Also at the forum I attended they tended to cut the question sessions very short, which restricted any useful discussion. Did you find the same thing happened at the forum you attended.

    I look forward to your next post about the more concrete things you plan to do. I think individual and group action at a “grassroots” scientific level is probably going to be far more important than physical “chatterfests”

    • Michael – yes on all accounts. I’ve been lead to believe that these events seldom generate any change or useful ideas. However, that’s everyone’s responsibility, not just the presenters with great ideas and boring speeches. The discussion sessions were cut shirt on a number of occasions, and it would have been nice if someone had taken the time to look at the science that suggests that 18 minute talks are the optimum length (see TED talk design). However, we cant let the fact that things aren’t perfect get in the way of making a change – there were some good ideas and if we take them on board instead of waiting around for it to happen then I still believe these discussions have merit. I’m probably just naive though 🙂

  • I didn’t mean to come across too negative! 🙂
    I do feel, though, that if we genuinely want to encourage more kids to study science in the first place (which is the only way to build up the numbers reallY), then the student perceptions you listed have to be turned around. And that is going to mean some serious investment, not just fluff & spin, at a time when there’s not a lot of money to go around. Sigh.

    • in response to that Alison – take a look at the motivation video in my next post (just tweaking it now). Motivational science seriously questions the validity of just throwing money at things (and people) – which I resonate with quite strongly. If there isn’t any money to go round then, regardless of whether it will solve the problem or not, it’s not a viable solution so we must look elsewhere!

  • Hi – I’m an Auckland expat living in Kyoto. I am responding here to introduce my own response to a training and recruiting problem – how can young science writers (aka graduate students and post docs), editors, and translators get the experience they need to become professional in their fields?

    After working in multilingual research environments here, I came around to the idea, in 2001, of setting up an online NPO social network – The Research Cooperative – for researchers, editors, translators and publishers, with forums for paid and volunteer offers of help, and for help requests.

    The BB system I used at first was clunky. Now we have a customised, generic social networking platform and over 3600 members worldwide, including many from New Zealand.

    The main bottleneck in translating research into useful social outcomes is poor or ineffective communication. What Google has done for Search, I am trying to do for Content, through the Research Cooperative.

    Our membership and activity is a drop in the bucket. I keep hoping for wet weather!