Dear David, please give us more than science and innovation platitudes

By Peter Kerr 24/04/2012

Dear David (Shearer),

I’m afraid, if you’re trying to outflank National on the science and innovation front, you’re going to have to do much better than your speech to the NZ Association of Scientists (see speech here) on April 16.

As your first major shot from the S&I portfolio you’ve deliberately taken onboard as well as leadership of the opposition, you’ve somewhat underwhelmed.

Which is a pity because I’m not all together sure that Steven Joyce is enjoying or finding he’s able to click the numerous pieces together in the S&I ecosystem.

There simply seems to be a whole lot of nothing happening — unless you call the structural-change absorption of the Ministry of Science & Innovation into a super ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment an inspired piece of strategy-led thinking.

I will give you credit for one good line on that front though Mr Shearer:

‘The latest government idea is not about moving forward, but moving offices.’

That’s about it though I’m afraid, because the rest of your speech simply stated what is, even if you said to the assembled scientists

‘over the coming months we will want to discuss with you how you believe science can be better supported. How our institutions can work more effectively and better together. We want to begin our government in 2014 with a clear plan.’

Might I respectfully suggest we do enough good science (look at the stats for published papers per capita).

It’s what we’re doing, nor rather not doing, beyond the initial research that the missing part of the jigsaw.

That’s the development part, the innovation part (i.e. bringing elements such as capital, management, lean startup methodologies, routes to market) that is a large part of the government’s missing policy or strategy.

And this is where you have quite a degree of freedom Mr Shearer to plant some seeds, show some leadership, grab our hearts and minds.

Because, (unless he’s cunningly planning to soon reveal an innovation genie of some kind), this is unclaimed territory by Mr Joyce.

Merely by stating some fresh thinking in the innovation area (which we’ll define as converting a good idea into something that makes money or is societally advantageous) you’d start front-footing it with the current government.

As to your speech – No one is going to disagree that we should do good science, retain young people and the like. Stating the obvious isn’t going to grab the nation’s hearts and minds, and that is what is up for the taking in the absence of Mr Joyce inspiring us to a better and brighter use of our smart resources.

You’re absolutely right when you said

‘the absence of an overall plan means the science sector is again being turned upside down.’

But you’d better start offering more than what was in this speech if you want to be taken as merely providing platitudes.

In the current S&I climate of all structures and no strategy, you have a golden opportunity to do more than echo comments of the late Sir Paul Callaghan, or state what everyone already knows.

As you also commented in the speech:

‘If we want more innovation and science in our industry, then we need the leadership and co-ordination that will create it.’


The S&I ball is in your court Mr Shearer.

You’ve so-far returned a couple of weak backhands.

A few smashing overhead volleys even if they’re out of court, would make us sit up and take more notice, see if you’re worth more than a cursory glance at.

Yours, etc etc

0 Responses to “Dear David, please give us more than science and innovation platitudes”

  • Peter,

    Alas, I have lost any faith I ever had in politicians to do anything innovative, courageous or even sensible about science funding.
    The name of the new Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (which has absorbed the Ministry of Science and Innovation) makes it clear what the current governments priorities are (and aren’t).
    Labours lack lustre speeches around science (heard one myself at this years SCANZ conference) don’t fill me with joy but then my impression is that most politicians have a maximum attention span of 3 years.

  • Somebody should remind David Shearer that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    Earlier this year I sent him an email quoting from his December address in reply speech in which he said that Labour will turn a page, listen, learn and act – and would support good ideas, no matter where they come from. And continued with the first draft of my initial guest post:

    I got a prompt acknowledgment of receipt, but it was more than two months later that I got a formal response – a pdf copy of a letter with a link to his Wellesley Club speech:

    It would have been nice either to be rubbished or agreed with. I have to say I am with Peter on Mr Shearer’s performance to date. Where’s the beef?

    And Michael – I think you may be a bit optimistic about politicians having a maximum attention span of 3 years – I reckon it’s not much longer than a 140 character tweet.