With the announcement yesterday of the national science challenges, it’s a blessing that I can now openly talk about being (partially) involved in the process. I’ve watched the process (and the large amount of cynicism that accompanied it almost every step of the way!) evolve and the response from researchers is, in a word – predictable. The Science Media Centre has some excellent comment from experts in the field here if you want a broad overview of New Zealand scientist’s responses. Yet from some of the comments I do get the distinct impression that some hadn’t read anything about what the national science challenges were attempting to achieve.
It’s worth stressing, particularly for the issue of climate change and many of the others, that to be selected for inclusion scientific research HAD to be at the core of the Challenge. Speaking personally, it was horrible to not explicitly include such a global issue as climate change, however responding to our changing climate is simply not primarily a scientific issue. Furthermore the base science behind it is well known, and has been well known for some years now. Part of the panel’s report (which can be read in full here) stresses that exclusion from a challenge does not imply that issues are not of paramount importance.
The two ‘expert’ comments I found most valuable, and interestingly two of the most negative, were from Professors Kate McGrath:
“The National Government released today the ten Challenges to revolutionize, revitalise and redress those areas that will have the most immediate impacts on societal and economic points of tension in New Zealand. Those crucial areas that right now limit our knowledge and our future potential. That essentially cost us the most; the most in immediate financial drains and ongoing future drains and boundaries to slow down or stop our growth. Why then do they feel like the same lists we have seen for years?
“The same focus and the same limited viewpoints? The same thinking that will produce the same results, where is the World After Midnight perspective? Where are the game changers? We pride ourselves on being the ingenious country, ingenuity in a closed small box won’t deliver a full and expansive tomorrow, let alone for future generations.” – Professor Kathryn McGrath
and Shaun Hendy and both from Victoria University and the MacDiarmid Institute:
“I am disappointed that the process has failed to throw up anything that is really new or innovative. The challenges chosen will look like business as usual to many, albeit with a stronger focus on health sciences that perhaps reflects the Peak Panel’s own interest in this sector. Of the 10 science challenges selected, only one really addresses one of the key economic challenges our country faces: namely the over-dependence of our economy on the primary sector.” – Professor Shaun Hendy
I have to concede they make some excellent points – especially pointing out the fact that most of the challenges aren’t particularly ‘innovative’. On this I have to agree. I personally would have given anything to see a challenge how NZ could become a country entirely independent of fossil fuels in 15 years. Or to genetically modify seaweed as a biofuel source. Or to develop New Zealand’s technologies in the space industry.
At the core of the challenges however, were the public submissions and these sent clear messages. Whilst scientists like myself might drool over cutting edge research, when asking a human being about what they want from their scientists, their responses can hardly be seen as surprising. They want their mum’s and dad’s to live healthily for as long as possible. They want their kids to grow up healthy and with the best possible start in life. They want to preserve New Zealand’s environment and species.
To pick anything that didn’t reflect these desires would be tantamount to ignoring what people said they wanted. Can we blame the NSC process or the NZ public for the lack of ‘innovation’ in the challenges? I certainly don’t think so. There is certainly a need for cutting edge science to push us forward – but expecting people to choose this over preserving the country and people they love is an exercise in naivete.
And this is precisely why I’m so excited about the “Science in Society” leadership challenge. Acknowledging that science has a core place in New Zealand’s future is a great first step – but it is my hope that it will also allow scope to develop New Zealand as a nation that embraces science. We cannot expect to attract and retain world-class researchers and students to NZ unless we’re actively involved in innovative, cutting edge science. Yet we have seen people* will not select these as topics of national importance if given the choice. This challenge will allow us space to explore this relationship, as well as to improve the quality of our science education. And as a graduate going out into the world, getting to pick which country I work in – a country that explicitly states the importance of science in its society is a much more attractive proposition than many others.
So I guess now it’s up to scientists to ensure that NZ lives up to this challenge, and it will be our fault if “Science in Society” ends up becoming just political hot air.
* when I say ‘people’ here, I actually mean the subset that participated in the National Science Challenges submission process. Which is different to the NZ public in general.