Eureka! Symposium synopsis

By Elf Eldridge 20/07/2012

Last Thursday I had the honour of attending the first annual Eureka! young science orator’s awards, an event born out of a collaboration between the late great Sir Paul Callaghan and Rotary. The premise is deceptively simple, get 12 young erudite people, passionate about some aspect of science, bring them to Wellington and get them to speak directly to some of the movers and shakers of science in New Zealand – and so the Eureka! awards came to fruition. Throughout the course of the day we heard challenges criticism, but most interestingly, hope about New Zealand’s future as a nation that not only appreciates, but entirely embraces science and its methodology.

I could condemn the typical lack-lustre political addresses that bookended the day (although I admit I was presently surprised with parts of Steven Joyce’s closing) , but instead I wish to focus on the contestant’s themselves. I have paraphrased some of their messages below – do take the time to watch their entire presentations (here) if you’re curious about even a little part of what they speak about!

Lisa Craw opened the day, with a simply gorgeous combination of seriousness and comedy explaining how crucial good science communication is to New Zealand’s future and calling for novel science funding models such as RocketHub. Eugene Young, imagined a future where meat was clean , green and lab grown asking us to not fall back into the human trap of “fearing what we do not understand.” Oliver ter Ellen looked into the details of some of the solar cell research being done at Victoria University, whilst noting the success of feed-in tariffs to encourage adoption of new technologies like these in overseas countries. William Guzzo asked us to “show courage” and position New Zealand as a world leader in GE research, leading by example of experimentally evaluating safety concerns rather than cowering behind archaic prejudices. Yanni Cowie prompted serious consideration of integrating second generation biofuels into New Zealand’s transport system. Emma Livingstone gave us a glimpse into her wonderful world of drug design, and discussed the difficulties of procuring a funding model for science steeped in serendipity. Scott Thomas transported us to the edge of the universe on the back of his observations using NASA’s Fermi satellite and discussed two ‘space age’ companies thriving right here in NZ: Rocketlab and Kiwistar Optics. Ben Guerin explained his vision for converting a large part of Aotearoa’s power grid to using distributed power systems that utilize a combination of wind, hydro, solar and novel storage technologies to allow communities to sell their generated power back to the national grid. Sylvia English cleared the air around reversible male contraception as a possible method to reduce some of New Zealand’s 16,000 abortions per year. Thomas Moore dispelled some common misconceptions about fracking, asking the hard questions about the public’s reaction to it. Toby Hendy rallied against New Zealand’s IQ gap between social groups and suggested a plethora of ways to address this and other issues. The final speaker, Hadleigh Frost, wowed the audience with his insight into the intersection of  psychology, neuroscience and artificial intelligence.

Keep and eye out on sciblogs ‘guest work’ for short summaries of these talks.

I’ll just end on a personal note, that these young people are exactly the sort of visionaries we need to keep propelling New Zealand’s science forward. They may be young, in some cases they may be naive. We may criticise them for their ‘wide-eyed optimisim’, but we cannot fault any of these students on their passion for their chosen topics – and I believe for that reason alone, for their ability to inspire, and to encourage even the most jaded of us to reconsider what is possible here in Aotearoa, that their messages warrant listening to.