ScienceBrought to you by

Ziggy Stardust and the scientists from New Zealand

With a little help from David Bowie, Craig Stevens, president of the NZ Association of Scientists, surveys the challenges and possibilities of the moment, and the need for science to reach beyond the usual suspects. 

Five Years

I started my schooling in London in the brief four-year space between Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon and David Bowie breaking up the Spiders from Mars. We lived proverbially just up the road from where, and when, Bowie was recording the Ziggy Stardust album. It opened with a song about the end of the world: Five Years.

It was only a few years later, but half a world away in sun-bleached Adelaide, that I actually bought the album. Though never stated, it was clear in my 12-year-old head that the Five Years time limit was due to an unstoppable asteroid heading our way. It was something inexorable, the whole planet knew about it, but could do nothing to stop it. That Bowie got such complexity across in only a few lines speaks volumes for the power of music and song.

Meanwhile, in 2017, notwithstanding an actual asteroid, we’ve still got big issues to deal with. Focusing on CO2 or population growth, the change between when I started school and now, far outweighs the changes in the prior two centuries. Clearly, in this accelerating world, we as a species and as a nation are going to have to be smart about things. Science is fundamental to how we will meet these challenges.

The New Zealand Association of Scientists held their annual conference on June 21 – the shortest day of the year. In the crowded NZ science conference scene it is a little unusual in that it is not so much about The Science, but about the Scientist and ways of doing Science. So rather than talk about a collection of particular science results, we look at issues affecting science and scientists in NZ. Over recent years we’ve looked at things like diversity, speaking out, postdoctoral careers and more. This year we looked at science that happens outside the Universities and crown research institutes – so going beyond the Usual Suspects.

The Research Ecosystem – or box-diagram-heaven

The Minister for Science and Innovation, Paul Goldsmith, opened the conference. He introduced the term for the day – the research ecosystem. “Ecosystem” gets thrown about whenever someone wants to invoke a complicated, but connected, bunch of things – forest ecosystem, marine ecosystem, desert ecosystem, business ecosystem … and the research ecosystem. Like any ecosystem in a changing world, aspects of its operation are under threat, while some components do pretty well, at least for a while.

The ecosystem provides a service to society through knowledge, awareness and foresight. But to drive this, any ecosystem needs raw material. In NZ science, the Marsden Fund generates those random breakthroughs and skills that give the holder the competitive edge. A recent MBIE review, while mostly positive, managed to miss the point of the fund entirely. It suggested that it needed to get more with the programme and be more explicit about what the ideas were going to produce. This is wrong. Like any cultivation, some resources have to go into raw ideas.

NZ science happens at a tricky scale. With modest funding you might be tempted to do a few things well and skip the rest. But the truth is, we need science to cover most things, if only to respond knowledgably to challenges. The result is that, where internationally you’d see 10 people on a task, here one person juggles 10 tasks. I’m possibly taking a liberty with the factor of 10, but the immediate feedback suggested I wasn’t far off.

A central component in the research ecosystem is the Endeavour Fund. Big enough to get something done, but contained enough to not get bogged down. In a previous incarnation it languished as a static, slowly evolving process. Now it finds itself substantially larger and opened up to many more ideas. This is very healthy for the ecosystem.

But there’s hidden cost: we are sending a whole cohort of scientists into a death-spiral of proposal writing. Many, if not most, mid-senior researchers are losing months of their working year to proposals that have very little chance of success. Then, when they finally get back to science, they find that costs have gone up, cruelly in order to pay for the proposal writing.

Perhaps an extreme example, the recently announced Australia-New Zealand collaborative fund, the Strategic Catalyst Fund, invested around $4.5 million to cement new connections with Australian science. Three deserving groups got through. However, indications are that at least 100 proposals were submitted. So let’s say 97 proposals fell on the scrap heap. A rough calculation indicates that this represents five years (there’s that Bowie song again) of lost science productivity.

So why do it? Why try and scramble over the barricades when the outcome is futile? One, scientists are attracted like a moth to a flame when it comes to birthing a new idea. Two, in a near-vacuum you’ll gasp in any sniff of oxygen. Three, from a science management point of view, these larger grants are substantial so good motivation to buying a lottery ticket (especially if someone else is paying the ticket). We have to find a way to not waste science time.

There is an interesting cross-generational aspect to this is. The burden of proposal writing is not unique to New Zealand (although the roughly 3% Catalyst success rate was pretty remarkable). However, because the postdoctoral career stage is so muted in our science system, lead scientists don’t always have a dedicated team backing them up, and increasing costs makes future postdocs even less likely. Key boxes in the ecosystem are being removed.

Beyond the usual suspects

In order to define an ecosystem you have to decide on its boundaries – what’s inside and outside of the ecosystem. This is where the conference theme focused. The idea was to hear from science voices in industry, regional and central government, small consultancies, independent research laboratories, defence, museums, education and more. It cast the net wide to see how science connected to the humanities – how art and literature could be “scientific” and draw from, or help explain, science.

It’s an election year, and science will take a back-seat to immediate things like affordable housing, education, living wage, health and the best start in life we can give all citizens. Certainly, though, it is likely that voters will have an opinion on things like climate, swimmable rivers and vaccination rates. But it is also true that voters will hopefully look to knowledge-based policies and initiatives.

The March for Science was about knowledge. Held in mid-April, it was a sequence of protest marches that took place in centres across the globe. The first people to march were here in New Zealand. There was a bit of to-and-fro in the weeks leading up to the march. People were asking questions. What would a march achieve? What was being protested? Why are you politicising science? It achieved a great many things, in NZ it was a celebration more than a protest, and science, and how it is used, has always been political.

Politics meets science

When discussing how to promote New Zealand science I’m repeatedly told not to “ask for more money” as if science walks around with a hat held out. It has to be acknowledged that OECD numbers for R&D put us consistently around half the rate per GDP than, say, Australia. Either these economies are incredibly wasteful with their money, or we are lagging. Parking that, but keeping it in mind, the real issue is for us all to understand what science brings us.

A better science system will come through the voters actually wanting to see more of it done and better. The science community has to communicate science more, better and wider. Focusing on talking with politicians, we have the Speaker’s Science Forum where every six weeks a couple of scientists present their work to a handful of MPs. This is fine, but we can do more.

I was invited to attend the Australian Science Meets Parliament event in Canberra in March. Two hundred scientists descended on parliament for a two-day science-and-politics jamboree. They learn about the political process, politicians are exposed to a deluge of science and the city is festooned with science branding. Let’s do that here.

A nice thing about the Australian event was the apparent genuine diversity across a number of dimensions – age, culture, gender and research focus. It’s the future of science and we shouldn’t be defensive, we have to embrace it. Looking at the students that came along to the NZAS conference, the majority were women. I wonder what they think when they see the Royal Society Te Apārangi almost exclusively male programme for speakers for their regional experts lectures as part of their 150 year celebrations? They’d be better to look to the latest group of new fellows for inspiration.

The next five years

A number of speakers through the day highlighted the fantastic things happening in MBIE’s Curious Minds projects – dozens of mostly small efforts across the nation (with a lot of donated time) are targeting the next generation and trying to instil wonder from an early age. Related to this, it is clearly very difficult providing career advice around science to young people, when many aspects of science are evolving so rapidly and when the ecosystem itself thinks mainly in terms of the Usual Suspects.

There was an accidental-genius moment in the conference planning. We offered some free places to high school science students so that a handful of students from a couple of Wellington high schools could come along. They were fantastic, they asked questions, they gave ideas, they were enthusiastic and they made the rest of the audience remember what science is for – about supporting thinking and making the world a better place for the generations to come. The voices in Bowie’s Five Years are young and, unlike in 1972, they’re going to figure out a way to make things better.

Craig Stevens is president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists and holds a joint CRI/University position.

This is article is adapted by the author from his Presidential Address at this year’s NZAS Conferenc,e held in Wellington on June 21. The address is archived here.


The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.