Lessons from the 18th century

by Sir Peter Gluckman
View of a scientist using a pipette to measure out a liquid in a glass container, they are in a laboratory.

While I was in Germany, I met again with Professor Dr Helmut Schwarz, President of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, which supports a very large international scientific exchange programme with Germany. Helmut kindly presented me with Botting’s biography of Alexander von Humbolt, which I have just finished reading. It is an easy and enjoyable read. It tells the extraordinary story of a phenomenal scientist at the start of the scientific revolution and the move to empiricism that happened at the end of the 18th century.

In many ways von Humbolt was the first public scientist who, in his later years with his Cosmos lectures in Berlin, presented the state of knowledge of the natural world to an enthralled public who treated him like a celebrity. At the same time he tried hard to influence policy formation in both France and Germany, and had a major influence on how academies of science developed. A truly extraordinary person but, I am ashamed to say, one about whom we know little in the Anglo tradition, yet who had extraordinary influence on how modern science as we know it evolved. It is a reminder that science is not jurisdictionally bound, and that it is important that we be aware of developments not just within the Anglo–US tradition.

Indeed, for New Zealand science I think the challenge of keeping our entire knowledge system globally connected is too often underestimated. It is more than just supporting scientists to go to occasional meetings. Increasingly, we need to integrate our science and innovation activities with those of other countries if we are to truly contribute and get maximal value from what we do.

A science and innovation community of our small size can rarely create a complete value chain. In many cases we will do better and create more value by being part of trans-national value chains. This will require quite a change in mind-set—we need innovation in our business models too—and might be really challenging.

Update, 17 November:
From the New Zealand Embassy Berlin, Germany: Chief Science Advisor Professor Sir Peter Gluckman strengthens science ties with Germany

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