Restoring science in New Zealand

There is a war on science. It is something that no one in an elected position will admit to being involved with, but because science is about abstract research that has no time for political conventions, there is a certain contempt in parts of the political spectrum for science and scientists.

New Zealand is no different and one glaring example of that is the harm being done to fresh water ecosystems by dairy farming. As a multi-billion dollar industry that in 2014 was worth N.Z.$14 billion and is one of New Zealand’s biggest export dollar earners, dairy is irrigation and land use intensive

Successive Governments have said New Zealand should be a “knowledge economy”, a country with a brighter future. All have had  different ideas about who and how science should be funded. And yet 16 years after Dr Michael Cullen, then Finance spokesperson for Labour said Labour would support a knowledge economy, precious little progress has been made. Yes, it is true that Labour choose biotechnology over information technology as a preferred field of research and it is true that genetic engineering crop trials were allowed to happen at Lincoln University. It is true that some emphasis also by Labour was placed on nanotechnology.

But for all the talk of revolutionizing New Zealand’s economy into a research and development driven one that employs our best and brightest, the job opportunities seem little better than they were when Dr Cullen mentioned the phrase “knowledge economy”. The percentage of the G.D.P. spent on research and development is virtually unchanged. The basic industries that prop up our economy are still the same. The Crown Research Institutes have not significantly grown in terms of their budget or staff and just recently AgResearch announced that it was actually cutting jobs.

I believe it is partially a funding issue, but also a simply lack of political willpower, caused by a – hopefully not terminal – bout of “she’ll be right” thinking in the corridors of power, where problems are simply willed away by thinking that everything will sort itself out in due course. We have the power to change both and so we should.\

Recently in the TIME magazine I was reading about the progress being made in the field of fusion research and how some of the fundamental doubts about its suitability as an energy source might be finally getting answered. As I read I wondered briefly what it would take to set up a small fusion facility for research in New Zealand, with a view that the research might run on two parallel strands – one of actually conducting hard fusion research and another strand looking at potential alternative research ideas born out of failed testing in the lab.

I have also wondered about the possibility of New Zealand having its own small space programme so that we can launch our own satellites instead of relying on other countries to conduct environmental research among other things. I have also wondered if perhaps there might be scope for looking at how dead satellites and other space junk can be recovered, recycled insofar as possible and reused.

Before then though, some basic things need to happen:

  1. New Zealand needs to simplify the research grants programme and their areas of focus, from many little areas into say three or four areas of focus with most available money being directed towards them
  2. A sustained increase in the investment by Government – I view spending in the research and development as an investment rather than expenditure, because in time it will help pay for itself and provide other opportunities
  3. Science is compulsory until Year 11, at which point it stops – I believe in making it compulsory up to Year 12

New Zealand has the means to become a true pioneer nation in sciences. We have a good education system, but we are not doing nearly enough to encourage students to become physicists, chemists, biologists and so forth and that is not good for the country in the long term.

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