Collaboration vs. Competition

By Aaron Small 23/09/2009

The first point for improvement from Sir Peter Gluckman’s seminar ’Can Transforming Science Transform New Zealand?’ is a case of collaboration vs. competition. NZ has the most competitive science funding system in the world via too many funding avenues and far too many institutions.

Basically too many people are competing over not enough money, which has reduced scientists to begging and caused the destruction of logical career progressions in science in NZ (and the departure of top scientists overseas). In a country as small as ours, there will always be competition over funding, and so we must look for ways to maximise benefit from what we’ve got.

Sir Peter believes one answer lies in collaboration. He argues that it is hard to share knowledge in a system with so much individual and institutional competition. Individual competition comes about largely because of PBRF funding, while there are over 20 Institutions in NZ in which “RST is a matter of survival not a matter of national interest.” Surely collaborating more, both domestically and internationally would give rise to more innovation. We need a new approach — we need to become an exporter of ideas, similar to countries of our size like Singapore, Denmark, Finland, and Israel who are capable of taking ideas to scale through collaboration.

NZ is in an excellent place to do this for a number of reasons:

  • We have a good reputation
  • A good education system
  • A practical economic base
  • Strength in other sectors (like the Trade, Manufacturing and Service sectors)
  • We are close to a growing Asia
  • And we are small (which is an asset contrary to popular belief)

I believe the problem NZ will have is that we will struggle to let our ideas go: we like the idea of Kiwi people in Kiwi jobs (blogged about here). NZ has made excuses in the past about being too far away from its markets. The biggest market is becoming closer by the day, and I believe the growth of and collaboration with Asia could have a huge impact on NZ — if we choose to grasp it. The old adage of 50% of something large vs. 100% of something small certainly rings true in this instance.