NZAS Conference follow-up

By Elf Eldridge 12/05/2012

So, one month on from the NZAS emerging scientist’s conference, what has come from a conference that aimed to discuss whether emerging scientists have a future in New Zealand? The answer, in this author’s opinion at least, has been a resounding ‘Maybe’.

One publications that highlighted the themes debated at the conference is ‘Callaghan vision stumbles on realities’ published in NBR. I decided to blog (okay rant) a little about this, as it contains rampant examples of the type of short-sightedness that makes the above question all the more relevant.

Starting with the NBR article:

‘The Ministry of Science and Innovation (MSI)…is the holder and supporter of the concept [Paul Callaghan’s vision for NZ]…But despite the best efforts of society, the science community and MSI, the battle for Sir Paul’s vision appears to be losing ground.’

Rubbish. There is not a single part of the above that’s correct in my experience. Paul’s vision for NZ is being held and supported by scientists, businesses and individuals — in fact it’s NZ’s government that only spends <60% of the OECD average on R&D each year. And I can assure you that what we currently experience is far from the ‘best efforts’ of the science community and society. In Wellington alone, I’m aware of now less than 6 groups trying to achieve Paul’s vision in ways that have yet to reach their full potential. And I’m not sure what the author’s definition of ‘losing ground’ is, but with the Transit of Venus conference, the Eureka! Symposium and the future of science being discussed in mainstream, media like Campbell Live — we apparently have very different evaluation techniques.

Dr. Prue Williams from MSI, quoted directly from her Campbell Live interview, states:

‘We need to have great science in New Zealand. Our environment is unique, so is our economy. For economic development to occur we have to understand and work within our unique environment…’

I had the…..fortune….of hearing Dr. Williams speak at the NZAS conference where she gave me the impression of someone stuck doing a job she really doesn’t want to be doing. After a lacklustre performance by both political leaders that addressed the conference, she had a golden opportunity to remind us of what MSI has achieved as we approach their second birthday. An opportunity she passed up. There are a number of causal links missing in the above quote — one linking the first and second sentences would be nice. There’s also the fact that we ALREADY HAVE great science in NZ — and have done for a number of years now. MacDiarmid Institute researchers frequently publish in the highest impact factor journals worldwide, on topics from using proteins to build things from scratch to regularly moving around individual atoms. And this is only one institute! We have hundreds of worldclass researchers nationwide, and it bothers me greatly that Dr. Williams seem either unaware of then or unwilling to acknowledge their prowess (a strange position given that MSI funds much of their research)

The article also states, after mentioning that PhD graduates can expect $65,000+ p.a., the best reaching around $100,000p.a. 4 years after graduation:

‘It doesn’t take much to work out why top students with research potential might not stay on at university — industry sees their potential as well. But worse than the lack of salary is the lack of clear career pathway [sic] in the face of shrinking (at least in real terms) funding.’

The implication that research is only done in universities completely discredits that done by our applied researchers, industry researchers and CRI scientists. The reality is that there are few academic jobs worldwide, not just in NZ, and PhD training is not about generating replacements for existing professors. PhD trained people perform research and contribute from a wide array of fields and disciplines. And I’m not certain about my peers, but $65k possibly growing to $100k in 4 years sounds like a pretty good salary to me! To say nothing of what organisations like Chiasma are doing to make these pathways clearer.

‘Over 30% [doctorally qualified graduates] are now overseas. Although there are theories about the value to New Zealand of the experience they gain, many don’t come back because there are insufficient jobs here.’

I haven’t seen the word ‘theories’ mis-used this badly since reading anti-evolutionary propaganda. Almost every researcher sees the need for graduates to expand their networks and experience offshore at some point in their career. The scientific community is a global one — and not being part of that leads to poor science. To say nothing of graduate’s personal desires to travel as many Kiwis do. Earlier, the author has asserted that industry is competing with academia for high-skilled people. So which is it? Are graduates sought after or are they unemployed? (in my experience it’s almost certainly the former) I have yet to see any evidence answering why many Kiwis don’t return to New Zealand. Granted, it could be the low salaries relative to other countries, but it could also be because graduates are not aware of the current opportunities in NZ, and uninformed articles like this are doing little to change the negative stereotype of the NZ employment environment. This also mentions nothing about graduates starting their own businesses, which many will have the skills to do, and NZ is one of the top countries in the world for that! I would want to see evidence of the real problem before we begin discussing specific solutions here.

MSI has pledged to use their merger  into MoBIE as an:

‘..opportunity to consider the wider issues as they involve other departments.’

One large part of this is ‘labour force planning’ — trying to push students into science and engineering. It’s great to see that MSI is discussing this, however many organisations (FutureinTech, Te Ropu Awhina and MacDiarmid to name 3) have been doing this for years now — so perhaps a good place to start would be to dialogue with them to learn from their mistakes and successes before talking to other politicians about it. On that note, MSI has repeatedly stated that they intend to collaborate with other departments to solve NZ’s problems. That’s great, but if that’s only beginning to happen, WHAT HAVE THEY BEEN DOING TILL NOW?

In summary, there are challenges in making New Zealand a place where scientists can find a future career, but I contend that the challenges may not be those currently being addressed by MSI. In my view, the most important are:

  • We need strong, vocal leadership with a long-term view of science in the NZ economy. My hunch is that this will have to come from scientists themselves.
  • We need to educate the current graduates worldwide about the opportunities for careers in NZ — rather than only focussing on preparing our labour force for the future (not that this isn’t important)
  • Whilst the post-doc expenses question is important, we cannot allow it to eclipse the more pressing issues facing NZ science. Post-Docs are crucial, however NZ already publishes above the OECD average in science with our current system and we already have great science in NZ, so there’s little incentive for governments to solve this problem. The low commercialization rate in NZ (well below OECD average) is a much more pressing issue that requires our attention, to ensure NZ is prosperous enough to support R&D in the future.

And finally, our leadership, from government business or science, must appreciate that worldclass R&D is contingent on two things: people and our attitude to failure. People, not ideas or specific research, are at the heart of innovation, as anyone from the startup or venture capital community will tell you. Most will support a good team over a brilliant idea any day. If we are to attract and retain talent to New Zealand, it’s not enough to have salaries and great science. We must also have an innovative and engaging community. I am proud to say that, in Wellington at least, the science and tech communities have taken this to heart organising talks, collaboration evenings, makerspaces and more ensuring our capital is a vibrant innovative community in both the arts and sciences. Once we begin to try and attract and appreciate innovative people, rather than ‘just scientists’ or ‘just entrepreneurs’ etc, talent will come to be part of our community. (I ranted about this at Pecha Kucha last year if you want to hear more).

Professor Kate McGrath, director of the MacDiarmid Institute asked in her blog several weeks ago whether we expect too much of our scientists now; expecting them to be world-leading researchers, teachers, communicators, event managers, mentors, political commentators, leaders and visionaries just to earn the right to apply for a job in academic science in NZ. Yes we should set our sights high, compete on the world stage and inspire future students and generations, but perhaps it should be enough for all of us to do some of these rather than all of us trying to master all of them. But for this to happen, both funding and support will be required from government, and unless they up their game — they stand as the main obstacle between myself and my peer emerging scientists creating our own future here in NZ.

0 Responses to “NZAS Conference follow-up”

  • Nice article, thank you.

    The link to the NBR article did not work for me. The NBR piece was not written by an MSI spokesperson and it can hardly be seen as an accurate description of what MSI does or should do.

    Personally, I think that MSI focuses way too much on the economical and business aspects of project applications, which is reflected in the application forms and also clearly mentioned in the many ‘guiding’ documents that they produce.

    While reading your article for some reason I started thinking about “Modern Times” by Charlie Chaplin. Academic institutions are an ‘assembly line’ producing higher and higher numbers of graduates, which leads to degree inflation. At the same time, conditions in the outside world are deteriorating for these fresh deliveries and thus a lot of good effort goes to waste. As in the movie the big machinery (a brainless and soul-less entity) that is society keeps on doing the same thing with a bit of tinkering and lubrication here and there. So, I agree with you that it comes down to new leadership to throw a spanner in the works (pun intended). I am a natural follower (!) but I am also getting more frustrated with the position of science here in NZ; quite possibly this week’s announcement of the results of the preliminary proposal round by the Marsden Fund has contributed to my pessimism.

    • Hi Frederick – thanks for the heads up about the broken link, I have since fixed it.

      You’re bang on about the NBR article not being representative of MSI’s goals – but what it DOES do is highlight that there really isn’t a clear goal for MSI’s future, especially with their merger into MoBIE. Whilst the article picks and chooses excepts of interviews and quotes etc to make their point (I am guilty of exactly the same above), it did highlight many of the points that Prue raised during her speech at the conference. I should also point out that it is far too easy to simply criticize MSI (and yes i’m guilty of that too) when they are a few under-resourced people trying to solve a huge social problem. Or perhaps I’m simply naive in my expectations of leadership from those that control funding.

      I should have also added one thing – whilst I don’t have a great deal of faith in leadership coming from government in this area (and i feel your pain with the Marsden application – my sympathies!) – I take heart in the leadership that IS blossoming from scientists and businesses across the board that’s actively addressing many of the concerns I raised above. I wont belabour the point by rehashing the organisations that are actively tackling these issues, but people ARE taking the initiative and trying to improve things. And that’s a start. Perhaps that’s all we need, perhaps not. Only time will tell.

      Many people are calling for someone (or several someones) to fill Paul Callaghan’s shoes to fix this, which at first glance seems a good solution. However, I’ll share the words of wisdom my supervisor shared with me “We don’t need a replacement Sir Paul. We need a new someone else.” Which, if nothing else, warrant keeping in mind as we move forward.

  • Thanks for the reply. I was going to follow up with more comments about MSI as I am a long-term beneficiary (a professional bludger) of NERF funding but it is perhaps better left for another day (some things posted on the internet can come to haunt you in later life…).

    Having a leader(s) would make our cause easier to identify with for the lay people (and politicians) but a bottom-up strategy in which we all lift our game would be more powerful. This is very much what you wrote in your last paragraph. It is essential though that this is matched by politicians across the spectrum. So far, nobody has ventured past the rhetoric and it might not be till the next elections before we see something tangible happening. Still, we might get a (tiny) surprise at the Budget on 24 May.