That was the week that was

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Close up view of solar panels in a city, with skyscrapers in the background.

Rarely has New Zealand science had a week like last week, and one can only hope that it is a portent for the future. Government made a number of announcements regarding the science and innovation system in the launch of its report Building Innovation. While it would appear to be focused on innovation, the report itself addressed many aspects of the science ecosystem and the scientific community should consider it. For example, it makes a commitment to significant expansion of the private sector investment in R&D but also commits to public sector investment rising to 0.8% of GDP as fiscal conditions allow (we are currently spending <0.6%). The report highlights the pending national science challenges, a review of science priorities, and the importance of science and engineering education and of international science. On Thursday I released my report (Science and New Zealand’s Future) to the Prime Minister on my evaluation of the Transit of Venus forum. The report highlights a number of challenges, including the need to support science for multiple reasons beyond economic growth, the need to create funding tools and incentives to promote multidisciplinary research, ways to enhance science to business links, the need to improve the use of science in policy formation and in projecting New Zealand internationally, consideration of how to assist Māori and Pasifika to better use science and innovation, the better use of science in environmental and conservation management, strategies to improve the need to improve science literacy and understandings of risks and technologies, and the need to have a more informed dialogue about how we deal with tradeoffs between resource conservation and utilization and the role of science in improving the dialogue, and the issues of when to limit and when to use technologies. I discussed these latter topics in more detail at a forum on the Hauraki Gulf.

The Prime Minister in receiving my report made a substantive speech to the Royal Society of New Zealand on the role of science in New Zealand’s future. In that speech he announced that I had accepted his invitation to extend my term by another two years. He also announced an initiative that is occupying much of my effort — that of creating a gathering of small advanced nations that invest in science and innovation so that we can learn from each other; in many ways their experiences are much more relevant than those of large countries. I will be co-chairing with MBIE and MFAT the first meeting in Auckland in November.

But other important things happened last week as well. Dr Ian Ferguson’s appointment was announced as departmental science advisor to the Ministry of Primary Industries. I have been arguing for some time that our major ministries need structured independent science advice and a system for integrating scientific inputs. I expanded on this in my discussion paper Towards Better Use of Evidence in Policy Formation and it is pleasing to see the concept developed there now being put into practice by a ministry which depends heavily on science. Also, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment announced the results of its latest science funding round.

And last week a paper was published in Science by a team of psychologists, linguists, evolutionary biologists and computational scientists from the University of Auckland. The paper puts forward the evidence that the proto-language for English arose in Anatolia. This work highlights the value of interdisciplinary research — here we have computational methods developed for molecular and evolutionary biology being applied to a very different question: where does our language come from? And congratulations to Quentin Atkinson and his colleagues for creating a website to make the work accessible to all — I wish many more scientists would do so. And this collaboration shows that when interdisciplinary research occurs, innovation and unexpected interactions appear — as I said in my speech to the Prime Minister. We must look at the science and academic funding systems with the aim of removing impediments to interdisciplinary research; such research should be our strength in a small country.

Beyond the paper demonstrating that New Zealand scientists do undertake very impactful research, it is a timely reminder of why discovery research is so important! It excites us, it informs us, and in this case it helps us all understand what makes us what we are. That alone is a sufficient reason why any serious country must protect basic research.

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