To launch our new science section this year we asked a dozen scientists and entrepreneurs how positive we can be that we’re progressing towards Sir Paul Callaghan’s dream of a transformed New Zealand through the use of science and technology.
Originally published November 16, 2016
The Spinoff is thrilled to be launching today a new science section, supported by our friends at the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national network of leading New Zealand scientists. Together we’re excited about bringing stories about science and scientists to a wider audience, and presenting them in an accessible and engaging way. In this week more than any, the importance of science to our lives in New Zealand could hardly be more palpable.
To break the bottle on the bow, we’ve asked a range of scientists, entrepreneurs and experts to contribute their reflections on the state of the late Sir Paul Callaghan’s vision of making New Zealand “the place talent wants to live”. Sir Paul, the MacDiarmid Institute’s founding director, in 2011 issued “a challenge to a new generation to lead New Zealand’s transformation through the use of science, technology and an evidence base for decision making”.
Five years on – notwithstanding Richard Dawkins exhortation, in the wake of Donald Trump and Brexit, that New Zealand become a refuge for the great scientists of the world – how positive can we be that his vision is being realised, and why?
Sir Peter Gluckman: Paul would be pleased – and impatient
Paul was a good friend with whom I had many conversations about the state of the country we love. Our shared thesis was that New Zealand must become a smarter nation to get beyond its real challenges of geo-strategic isolation. There is no doubt that core to meeting this challenge is to develop or attract and retain smart people across the full spectrum of social and natural sciences and the humanities. It was to the sciences that Paul and I gave most of our attention. Science and technology are key to balancing our biological and environmental economies with our conservation sensibilities, and to taking advantage of the digital future.
I think that if we look over the past decade a lot has changed and Paul played a major part in that change, as have many others. New Zealanders, famous for adventure sports, have now opened up to taking risks that could broaden our knowledge and boost our economy. We are finally seeing less of the “tall poppy syndrome” and an excitement around scientific knowledge and technologies that could make a real difference for our country.
More and more young New Zealanders are seeking to join the innovation economy, while important parts of the innovation system such as incubators and venture capital are developing further. Scientists across disciplines are collaborating more often and to greater advantage. High value exports are growing and the primary sector increasingly sees its future in the potential of advanced technologies and data analytics. New technologies will be essential to environmental restoration and protecting our natural heritage – about which Paul was very passionate. The greater investment by scientists, communicators and government in science communication through the Nation of Curious Minds initiative will create a space to have difficult societal conversations about the uses and limits of technologies – both digital and biological. Such conversations will be essential as we seek to define our future.
New Zealand’s science system is being progressively restructured to address our future ambitions and knowledge needs. While more funding has gone into the R&D system over the past five years, our public and private sector funding is still a long way from fully creating the essential conditions that will make it attractive to those who might want to leave the science superpowers of the northern hemisphere. Our research grant system is still too capricious with low success rates, small allocations, and there are difficulties in finding support for the most innovative research across all the sciences although changes signaled in the system should assist. We need to build our international science partnerships more strategically to both reap the benefits of international scientific talent and resources, but also contribute to addressing the global challenges that affect us all. New Zealand science in areas as diverse as biodiversity, agricultural greenhouse gases, biomedical engineering, non-communicable disease, earthquake sciences and marine sciences to name but a few is second to none. We can be doing much more with it at home and on a world stage.
And the growth and diversification of New Zealand’s knowledge production means that there is increasing expertise to apply to important areas in the public interest. Government decision-making is increasingly evidence-informed as we have developed a science advisory ecosystem that is well regarded internationally and has been able to impact on a broad range of domains of government such as in the social sector. In addition, formal processes are under way to examine long-term research needs in diverse areas of public policy. New Zealand is increasingly using science as a diplomatic tool in projecting who we are to the world.
Overall I think Paul would be pleased with the progress that has been made. He would be impatient for it to be faster, but likely to agree that it is moving in the right direction.
Sir Peter Gluckman is chief science advisor to the prime minister of New Zealand
Siouxsie Wiles: Talent wants to live here, but can it thrive?
As an immigrant myself, I’m in no doubt that if New Zealand is not “the place where talent wants to live”, it’s certainly very high on the list (and probably rising, after Brexit and Trump). But when that talent arrives they’ll be shocked to find that our clean green image is a fantasy, our rates of infectious diseases are diabolical and our housing market so overheated that families are living in their cars. And despite all the evidence it’s a bad idea, we continue to rely on exporting dairy as one of our main industries.
As for Sir Paul’s vision of a new generation leading New Zealand’s transformation, there are almost no resources here to support the next generation of scientists. We train up our PhD student’s and then wave them off overseas; there’s almost no money for them to stay here as post-doc researchers, the time in their career when they are probably at their most creative and productive.
I think it’s time for a new vision: making New Zealand the place where talent can thrive.
Dr Siouxsie Wiles is a Senior Lecturer and head of the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab at the University of Auckland
Justin Hodgkiss: Scientists are coming out of the ivory tower
Behind Sir Paul’s message was a challenge to scientists to come out of the ivory tower, and get their science and innovation into the marketplace. In founding the hi-tech instrument company Magritek, Sir Paul set the example of how this could be done, and he called for 100 inspired entrepreneurs to take the baton and double New Zealand’s exports through high value manufacturing. Culture change takes time, but I think we’re starting to see it happen.
Scientists in the MacDiarmid Institute have spun out a number of new hi-tech companies in the past two years, which are making a splash on the world stage and providing excellent employment opportunities for our homegrown science graduates. This new generation of scientists are now just as happy pitching their ideas to technology investors as they are to academic journal editors, and their success in the business arena is becoming infectious for other scientists around them. We still have a long way to go before realising Sir Paul’s vision for New Zealand, but I think that he would be proud of the progress that scientists have made in pursuing his bold agenda.
Dr Justin Hodgkiss is a senior lecturer in Physical Chemistry at Victoria University of Wellington, a Rutherford Discovery Fellow, and principal investigator at the MacDiarmid Institute
Derek Handley: Still a void of popularised fact
I think in many ways we are aspiring to live up to this aspiration but we have really only taken the first few steps in what is a long walk ahead. Growing and bubbling pockets of entrepreneurship, innovation and inspiration can be seen everywhere from Rocket Lab to Xero. But these barely scratch the surface and are blown over by a shift of a few cents here and there in the price of milk.
We lack conviction in our leaders that this is the direction we should head so the incumbent economies and models firmly remain entrenched as the bellwethers and barometers of how we fare as a country. In our direction on the environment, housing, immigration and many other critical factors of our future, we are, as a country, being managed – not led – by gut, polls and individual instincts on where the wind will shift next.
There is a void of popularised facts, science, technology and publicly available evidence base to debate, discuss and buy-into the direction we are setting course for. Some are so fearful of science, measurement and evidence to commit to a measurement of how many Kiwi kids live in poverty. Some are so fearful of technology that we still can’t vote without the use of a stamp and an envelope.
An age where science technology and evidence are the fundamental basis for decisions that shape our country is most likely far from here – but I’d so love for it to be proven otherwise.
Derek Handley is an entrepreneur, founder of the Aera Foundation, and AUT adjunct professor
James Renwick: On climate, political will remains lacking
Are we there yet? Are we even on the way? In the field of climate change science, it’s not obvious that much has changed since Sir Paul issued his challenge. Yes, science is being done and, yes, New Zealand policy makers have signed up to the principle that we keep global warming to less than 2°C over pre-industrial temperatures. But there is no sign of evidence-based policy and decision making as there is still no policy around climate change. The best the government is currently offering is to pay other countries to reduce emissions for us while our emissions continue to increase.
New Zealand has some of the world’s leading scientists, from ice sheets to the stratosphere to ocean chemistry to solar panels and cow digestion. We have the knowledge and the potential to be a world leader in the renewable revolution and in enlightened climate policy. What still seems to be lacking is political will, suggesting that the issue is more a failure of imagination and of leadership than it is of scientific excellence. Bringing all of Richard Dawkins’ top scientists here is not the answer. Seeding the corridors of power with scientific understanding, with the vision to see a future vastly different to any past we’ve collectively known, may get us on the road to transformation.
James Renwick is a professor in the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington
Shaun Hendy: We should be cautiously optimistic
Notwithstanding the issues we now face in dealing with a Trumped-up America, I think we should be cautiously optimistic about where we find ourselves today. There is no doubt that Sir Paul would be impressed with the performance of our tech sector (particularly ICT), which is not far from overtaking dairy as our largest revenue earner. It seems pretty clear that our economy is no longer trapped below a grass ceiling.
Paul would also be happy to see that, when the whim takes us, we occasionally choose to make decisions using evidence. The Canterbury District Health Board is leading the world in using data to monitor how it performs in real time, and has empowered its staff to make decisions informed by this data. Informed decision-making is still something that happens to other people as far as most of our current politicians are concerned, but if Chloe Swarbrick is representative of the next generation of leaders then who knows? I, for one, would welcome new informed overlords.
Paul was very passionate about the idea of a predator-free New Zealand. Thanks to his legacy and the vision of many like-minded Kiwis, the discussion has gone from “should we?” to “how?”. And if Paul was still with us today, he would be laying down fresh challenges. Tolerance, a belief in social justice, and the partnership between Māori and Pākehā were all things he prized about New Zealand. In light of recent events in the UK and the US, the biggest challenge facing us today is to make Aotearoa a place for all its people, not just the lucky few.
Professor Shaun Hendy is Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini at the University of Auckland
Cate Macinnnis-Ng: We need to make space for voice that are missing
In the fields of ecology and conservation, Aotearoa is a world-beater in eradication of invasive mammals. Rats, stoats and possums have pushed many of our unique bird species to the brink of extinction because they kill millions of birds every year. Happily, the kākāpō recovery programme is a shining example of conservation success. Through pest management and a breeding programme, population numbers have increased from 51 in 1995 to 125 in July 2015 and numbers continue to grow. The highly ambitious goal of a predator free New Zealand (PFNZ) by 2050 announced by the government earlier this year will help conserve all birds and other endemic organisms including plants, lizards and invertebrates but it will require development of as yet unknown technologies.
Existing innovation provides a solid foundation for PFNZ but we need to boost and enhance innovation to address this grand challenge. We know that diversity increases quantity and quality of innovative outputs and there is plenty of scope to increase diversity in research in New Zealand where the workforce remains dominated by white males, particularly in senior roles. It was heartening to see the cohort of new fellows of the Royal Society of NZ for 2016 included the most diverse mix of ethnicities and the highest proportion of women ever. The appointment of the first two female Māori fellows was a long time coming and we need to be more active about enhancing diversity of researchers at all levels of their careers. The Rutherford Discovery Fellowship scheme is intended to “support the development of future research leaders” but in 2016, there were no applications from researchers identifying as Māori.
The Royal Society of NZ does not publish the statistics on ethnicities of appointed RDFs on its website but I don’t know of any of the existing 72 current or completed RDFs who identify as Māori. Even if there were one or two, this clearly does not represent the proportion of Māori in the general population. If the RDF scheme is about the future of research in Aotearoa, we need to make a space for the voices that are missing. This is not about charity or lowering the bar but it is about valuing diversity and the different perspectives people with different backgrounds bring. It is also about fairness because the current system is clearly favouring an already privileged group. If we don’t take affirmative action in cases like this, the status quo will remain, innovation will suffer and we will fail to address our biggest challenges across all fields of research.
Cate Macinnnis-Ng is Senior Lecturer and Rutherford Discovery Fellow, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland.
Mike Joy: Free science from politics and vested interests
Sadly I see no sign of Paul’s challenge being taken up, and the need for transformation is even more pressing now. In my research area – investigating the state of freshwaters, the science is clearly losing out to politics. The science is unambiguous, the biggest drivers of the freshwater issues we have come from agriculture; nutrients and pathogens from dairy with sediment from hill country farming and forestry. Now after two decades of research I can see clearly there is no real attempt to address the fundamental flaws with the current industrial agricultural model. While there have been many successful small research projects they have mostly been uncoordinated and just attempt to tweak the current system. Undoubtedly, they have resulted in wins, a few percent here and there, but delivered no net gain because the industry model is based on growth, so the impacts outrun the gains.
The problem stems from the fact that most research is controlled and funded by the agricultural industry and a pro-industry government who are vested in the unsustainable status quo or further intensification. This government’s attitude to science was revealed by Prime Minister Key, who famously said in a BBC interview that scientists are “like lawyers” and “I can provide you with another one that will give you a counterview”. This from the government plus a palpable lack of leadership from agriculture “leaders” whose inertia has failed both farmers and the environment is why we stumble on degrading water and the atmosphere. The social licence for this degradation has almost gone, the world is demanding clean, healthy sustainable food production, and a paradigm shift is inevitable.
Five years on from Sir Paul’s challenge the need for leaders to completely disrupt and redesign our food production systems is even greater but the influence of the old guard makes change seems even less likely. The challenge is to completely redesign our agricultural production systems away from greenhouse gas emitting ruminant animals and fossil fuel dependent input farming to plant based agroecology with mono-gastric animals and no fossil fuel fertilisers. To meet his challenge we must find a way to support science independent of the industry vested interests and politics, so that a new generation of scientists can show how to feed the world without destroying it.
Mike Joy is senior lecturer in ecology and zoology at the Institute of Agriculture and Environment, Massey University
Andrea Byrom: to achieve Sir Paul’s pest-free-NZ vision, we must invest more
Five years ago, Sir Paul Callaghan suggested that New Zealand could be a leading light internationally: a place to attact new talent from offshore, nurture our own talent, and transform our economy into a powerhouse of science and innovation, exporting to the world. Five years on, how are we doing? This is a topical question. The year 2016 has been a year in which Brexit and Trump voters have made their views loud and clear: evidence-based policies and respect for the opinions of “intellectuals” have been replaced with slogans and fact-free judgement. Suddenly, New Zealand – ostensibly free of such judgemental attitudes – seems like a very attractive option for “intellectuals” like Richard Dawkins.
Sir Paul was a physicist, and an excellent one by international standards. Yet his is a very familiar name in my own field (management of animal pests such as possums, rats and stoats), because of his vision for a Predator-Free New Zealand: in the same speech in 2012, he famously said: “It’s crazy and ambitious but I think it might be worth a shot.” How could we not be inspired and motivated by such a vision? Sir Paul’s legacy – in a field well outside his own – has galvanised a generation of Kiwis to apply innovative thinking to building better mousetraps, making use of wireless and mobile technologies to reduce the labour costs of checking those traps, creating electronic trackpads and sensors to detect animal pests in the bush, and developing new super-attractive, smelly compounds designed to lure pests to their inevitable fate. Many of these innovations can be (and some have been) exported worldwide.
However, if we are to achieve Sir Paul’s vision of a Predator-Free New Zealand, significantly greater investment will be needed to tackle the pest problem. This was recognised by the Government in July this year, with seed funding of $28M designed to incentivise significant investment by local government and the philanthropic sector. I suspect it’s exactly the same with Sir Paul’s vision of New Zealand as an exporter of innovation to the world: there is no doubt that we could make good on the desire, but sustained, realistic and hard-headed investment will be required to turn the vision into a reality.
Investment in emerging talent is something in which New Zealand has a patchy record. We currently have just five postdoctoral fellowships available per year via the Royal Society’s Rutherford scheme; we invest in just a handful of Rutherford Discovery Fellowships; our emerging talent is continuously lured offshore to better and brighter opportunites; and both government and industry investment in science is low by OECD standards. We will need to do something radical to achieve Sir Paul’s vision. There are glimmers of hope: earlier this year, the Government announced investment in the Entrepeunerial Universities Fund, a scheme designed to lure top young talent from overseas laboratories to work in this country. And we have also seen sustained increases in funding administered by the Marsden Fund and MBIE’s Endeavour Fund.
Could NZ be the place where talent wants to live? Undoubtedly. Are we there yet? Probably not. Can we achieve the vision through attacting the likes of Professor Richard Dawkins, with his peculiar brand of evangelical atheism? Unlikely. Let’s invest in the future instead, blending our home-grown emerging talent with the best and brightest minds internationally, and funding them properly – at all points along the innovation pieline – to achieve great things.
Dr Andrea Byrom is a wildlife ecologist and Director of New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge
Vaughan Rowsell: Paul’s words inspired us to take on the world
Sir Paul’s words moved me a lot, as I was launching Vend at the time. I believed, and with good reason, that with the right talent New Zealand can do anything, like take on global giants building world changing software.
We have since developed and imported a lot of talent now with 200 Venders, but Paul also inspired me to take the next step to found OMGTech! An initiative with the goal to introduce every kid in NZ to science, technology, and innovation by letting them learn, play and invent with future technologies: robots, drones, VR, game development and 3D printing. That way in 10 years’ time when they start their first job it will be in a field that is part of innovating the future.
It is something we should tackle from both ends: take more big leaps and build more great companies today applying talent like a hammer to make a dent in the universe, then at the same time making sure our 10-year-olds are dreaming about making that hammer bigger, with robots or rockets. So, yeah, I am feeling fairly positive because I am part of the change but to be sure we need more people joining in doing awesome stuff.
Vaughan Rowsell is the founder of Vend
Nicola Gaston: A legacy that permeates our culture
There is cause for hope, and also pain caused by the need to stuff hope back in its box from time to time, which is bloody hard. Sir Paul’s vision was also a plea for us to reconsider “the farm and the theme park” – aka dairy and tourism – as the bases of our economy. It has become very clear in the last 12 months, both on economic grounds and environmental, that he was right about the limits of the dairy industry, in particular.
On the other hand, there are a lot of things that we are doing well in New Zealand, and in New Zealand science in particular. I still get irrationally excited at the end-of-year announcements of the Rutherford Foundation International PhD studentships and postdoctoral research fellowships, and the Rutherford Discovery Fellowships awarded by the Royal Society of NZ. (Yes, you heard that right; they are two completely separate schemes both named after Rutherford – I love the guy, don’t get me wrong, but really?!)
I get excited for good reason, though: these awards go to some of our brightest young researchers (though not to enough of them; I still believe we need to bring back something like the old NZS&T postdoc scheme – but hey, why not name it after someone like Lucy Cranwell this time) and go a long way towards keeping those people in NZ. On the other hand, much of my enthusiasm is based on an awareness of what is on the other end of the precipice: for many of those young scientists, this funding success is what makes or breaks their career in research.
Our funding success rates are simply too low for this to be fair. So there are systemic issues that need fixing – and first and foremost among those are the level of government science funding (still really unimpressive by OECD standards), and the extent to which it actually gets through to researchers doing research, rather than getting eaten up by admin and the time it takes to write the damn applications in the first place! Secondly, I have to mention issues of equity and representation: who is it that gets funded to do science in NZ, and what are the consequences of cultural biases embedded in the science system?
I have no issues with Richard Dawkins’ recent suggestion that international immigration is good for science, and that NZ has the civic society required for science to flourish – one of the privileges of working in our science system is that it brings you into direct contact with young students from a range of cultures, many of whom eventually settle here. (I did have some issues with the colonialist, privileged tone of his suggestion, but that’s another story.)
Paul’s genius lay in his understanding that everything is connected – that economic, environmental, and social progress go hand in hand. In this sense, I believe that predator-free NZ is one of his biggest achievements – not because the current government commitment is sufficient, which is isn’t, but because he stepped outside his comfort zone as a physicist and advocated for something he believed in. The same goes for his advice to scientists that we should consider how many hip operations our research grants could fund: not because he didn’t believe in the value of our research, but because he understood that culture eats strategy for breakfast, and you can only achieve culture change by taking others along with you.
The cause for hope is that, done well, you can achieve culture change without – or even in spite of – government strategy.
I think of the quote from Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations that Paul used in his book Wool to Weta: “In this world, the optimists have it, not because they are always right, but because they are positive. Even when wrong, they are positive, and that is the way of achievement, correction, improvement, success. Educated, eyes-open optimism pays; pessimism can only after the consolation of being right. The one lesson that emerges is the need to keep trying. No miracles, no perfection, no millennium, no apocalypse. We must cultivate a sceptical faith, avoid dogma, listen and watch well, try to clarify and define ends, the better to choose means”
So I might be wrong, but I see Paul’s legacy in many places in NZ culture. And long may it continue.
Dr Nicola Gaston is Associate Professor in the Department of Physics at The University of Auckland and principal investigator in the MacDiarmid Institute
Geoff Willmott: Paul’s message matters more than ever
Sir Paul Callaghan’s vision can and should hold enduring appeal for New Zealanders. Videos of his presentations should be replayed in classrooms, boardrooms, and anywhere kiwis gather to think about ourselves. His key messages carried universal appeal, because they addressed poverty (“we are poor because we choose to be poor”), what we can do about it (“we are good at what we are good at”), and how we can make it work (“a place where talent wants to live”). His methods and manner were clear, straightforward, and inspirational. Very few of New Zealand’s designated leaders have so clearly demonstrated actual leadership skills, and have accrued such respect.
Messages with universal appeal are more important now than ever: Sir Paul’s stories would resonate with even the most disenchanted, ignored, and angry New Zealander – someone who might approach a ballot box justifiably intent on upsetting political order. He railed against the politicians’ habit of spending on ideas which sound or look good, but lack substance. His messages were unashamedly parochial – patriotic, engaged with Māori aspirations, or drawing on a small-town upbringing – while remaining enlightened. He often used lack of public healthcare funding to exemplify our national wealth, a discussion point to cut through the most partisan of attitudes. He championed do-ers, rather than chatterers. He was open-minded and brave in a way that Dawkins, for example, emphatically is not.
In terms of progress, there is much to do. On the bright side, we’re fencing off cattle from our rivers, the TIN100 report is more interesting every year, and technological entrepreneurship is now strongly encouraged by many institutions. However, quality of education and lack of corruption are often viewed as particular strengths of this country, and we have probably regressed in these areas since 2011. Politicians have indeed been busy investing in things which might sound good but are ineffective – one of them bears Sir Paul’s name. The same prime minister is still cheerleading for the farm and the theme park. The same science minister continues to focus on spin over substance. It is perhaps best remembered that Sir Paul carried the peer respect associated with 25 years of world-leading research prior to seriously engaging in public life. Recent experience has shown how rare it is to find someone with such gravitas who possesses similar empathy and vision.
Geoff Willmott is Senior Lecturer and Rutherford Discovery Fellow in the Departments of Physics and Chemistry at the University of Auckland
The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, which is a national institute devoted to scientific research.