Will science and technology drive New Zealand’s future thinking?

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Close up of a liquid being pipitted into a test tube

Speech to the Life Sciences Summit, Wellington
Thursday 23 March, 2023

President of the International Science Council
Director, Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, University of Auckland.

I am President of the International Science Council, which is the global body comprising national academies and disciplinary bodies in the natural and social sciences and is the core interface between science, broadly defined, and the multilateral community. I am also the Director of Koi Tū: the Centre for Informed Futures. We were intentionally set up to be non-partisan, transdisciplinary and systems-focused to examine the longer-term dimensions of what we will confront as a society and us as a nation. Wearing both hats, I will make rather general comments today about the state of science and technology in Aotearoa New Zealand and its role in its future development.

New Zealand has a proud but generally poorly understood history in both discovery and applied research despite significant international contributions in many areas. Our primary sector has been built on decades of excellent science. We confront a biological future while needing to enhance our environment. Can we really do so without the very technological tools needed to deal with it? What will be acceptable tradeoffs?

We need to start the discussion with a rather frank look at attitudes to science and technology. They are never simple. For example, science has been denied by some who reject genetic tools, yet many in the same constituencies urge the world to accept the science of climate change. And the reverse occurs, but these two cases are not equivalent. In the case of genetic modification of crops, there can be philosophical or other reasons to reject the prospect, but not necessarily reject the science underpinning it. But sadly, and in general, it was the science that was debated and manipulated rather than appropriately debate the values-perspective. In the case of climate change, the very existential nature of the risk should override individual, commercial, and national interests, but instead arguments about the validity of the science has stymied the recognition of the urgency to act.

We must be honest; the achievements of science and its technological offspring are not unequivocally positive. Climate change largely results from the development of industrial technologies. The broader global challenges to sustainability are in no small part due to public health advances leading to greater survival, longer lives and population growth. The paradoxes of science go further; given the pace of technological development, science, and technology are central to the nationalistic and geostrategic narrative. War has always been a technological competition.

The implications are that those involved in technological innovation must think about the societal implications of their work from the outset and ensure that they have social license. Equally it is critical we have good science and technology journalism across all modalities – the Science Media Centre is an important asset, but the media themselves need to do better in engaging in New Zealand relevant stores without hyperbole. Because overclaiming and hyperbole themselves play a role in undermining trust in science. Hype is never good for investors, the public or the science community itself. Good science advisory processes with government are also critical. While we have made some useful steps forward in the last 15 years, I still worry that there are many places where science could assist in resolving complex issues where it is not obvious that it is being used optimally. We saw in Covid worldwide, the importance of many more disciplines being involved. It was an economic, educational, mental health, and social care crisis as much as it was a virological and epidemiological crisis. But the nature of compounding risk was late to be understood. In climate change, as we peer at the precipice, short-term thinking still abounds, and risk assessments are too often not fully understood or taken into account.

‘Science’ is a difficult word so before I go further let us define what is science because the discourse has become at times somewhat confused and polarised when it need not be, perhaps because language use has not been precise. If we are to use science wisely, we need to know what it is and what it is not. It is not the answer to everything. As the relations between science and society have become more contested, there is a need for clarity. Attempts to describe science in a purely methodological sense as Popper did with his concept of falsification have been long surpassed. Only recently have disciplines emerged that we now consider as science. There is a strong consensus that the boundary between science and non-science requires science to be defined by its core principles as UNESCO has done – most recently updated in 2017 in its recommendations on science and scientific research to which New Zealand is a signatory. The International Science Council uses an effectively identical definition encompassing natural and social sciences and indeed, many of the humanities. I will paraphrase.

Science is an organised system of knowledge – one based on observation and experiments. Explanations can only be based on reality, logic and past observations – what is termed by some philosophers of science as shallow explanations. Explanations based on merely subjective and non-empirical considerations – be they from religion, mythology or tradition – that is, so-called deep explanations – are excluded. However, scientific claims are not science without quality assessment by expert peers. To this extent, scientific knowledge is not definitive but evolves through progressive modification as new observations are accrued and incorporated. Such a principles-based description encompasses the physical, natural, data, health, engineering, the social sciences and many of the humanities. It is why science is distinctive as a universal knowledge system with respect to what it can answer.

Science is of its greatest value when its limits are recognised such that the results of science can be trusted. But critically it must also be recognised that other knowledge systems and values all play a role in how we all live and make decisions. Values is a complex word with complex meaning. Science has embedded values of which the most critical value judgment relates to the sufficiency and quality of evidence on which to reach conclusions. But as we will discuss, this principles-based definition of science must be distinguished from that of how science systems are organised and distinct in turn from how science is used by a society, which is always societal values rich.

Importantly these principles of science thus define science as a universal knowledge system with its origins across many societies – perhaps first codified by Arab scholars more than a millennium ago.

To reiterate, science and science systems are not synonymous. The latter are not universal and vary enormously and are influenced by culture, and motive. They include institutes of State that fund, teach, publish or use science, higher education and research, the vastly important private sector and other components of civil society that fund or use science.

Like other aspects of material and intellectual culture, such as religion, systems of science have resulted in both good and bad outcomes. It has been both an excuse for and a tool of colonisation and its echoes are everywhere. It has been associated with gender and minority exclusion, biased examples in education and in experimental design, all of which are persistent relics of that history. Thus we can rightly talk about decolonising science systems, but it is illogical to talk about decolonising science itself.

We all live with multiple knowledge systems and we use these in our decision making. We frame things through different lens and often that leads us to explore things in different ways and creates challenges to our choices, leading sometimes to cognitive dissonance. But that diversity enriches our lives and compels us to think in different ways.

For example, religion and science are different knowledge systems, yet many scientists are comfortable in living with both. We all have tacit knowledge which we use every day in our lives, which is not based on science such as how to ride a bike or be an entrepreneur. Mātauranga Māori is its own knowledge system which, like all other knowledge systems at its base, is a blend of deep observation and informal experimentation along with tradition and culture. So, it will have components that are a form of science, but it is more than that as a culturally rich knowledge system. It is a taonga that should be invested in and protected, and it can have value as indigenous and local knowledge has proven in many environments globally. Conflating knowledge systems is neither possible nor wise. But adjusting science systems to reflect inequities of the past and to assist societal progress is essential. But in doing so, the principles that define science itself should not be compromised.

If Covid-19, climate change and conflict have taught us nothing else, they remind us that economic development, environmental, social, and political health are intimately intertwined. Science broadly defined – including both the natural and social sciences – is key to understanding this nexus and to mapping our path ahead. Yet New Zealand has shown a strange ambivalence regarding what science can do for our future. Despite repeated political declarations of support for investing in R&D by governments over the last 30 years, our investment by the state is still lower than any other relevant comparator small, advanced economy. OECD figures show a sad story. Science as a percent of GDP has not grown much over decades and recent growth reflects private sector investment. Our research intensity which is the sum of private sector and public sector investment grew from 1.25% of GDP in 2009 to 1.41% of GDP in 2019.

But most comparator small countries now have a research intensity well in excess of 2.5%. Most of our comparator countries aim for 1% of GDP towards science from the public purse and see that this is more than matched by investment from the private sector, often now reaching in excess of 2% of GDP. But when we look in more detail, it is even more worrisome. Over that decade prior to Covid, public sector investment fell by 20% relative to GDP to now be at .57% of GDP. By comparison, Austria, Denmark and Finland hover around the 0.9 to1% range and Singapore at 0.8% range. In the same time, private sector grew by 61% to now be 0.84% of GDP – it is much higher in comparator countries. This recent growth in private sector research is great, but given the critical role of public sector investment in all aspects of national development, we should be worried given the long lead time from science to exploitation.

Our corporate mix makes things even more difficult – we do not have defense, pharma and heavy industry at scale, yet outside the digital technology space they are the major investors in R&D. And while it is well understood everywhere else that multinational corporations are core to an innovation ecosystem, for a variety of reasons we still do not create conditions to attract them here, particularly at the present time.

To compound matters, New Zealand is beset with a grossly over-competitive and sub-optimally collaborative science system. Here the funding of long-term and large-scale projects in relative terms, has declined in favour of small, disconnected grants. So we have developed a low-trust, high-compliance environment with layers of bureaucracy, some imposed by the institutions themselves but much by the government and the agencies involved. Funding is fragmented across a mix of ministries. The New Zealand science ecosystem is inefficient and unattractive. Structural change is needed, yet the Green and White papers have failed to look strategically at the system as a whole and focused on the plethora of operational issues.

There are no major differences between our two major political parties on science – they both claim to support further science investment but their actions since the 1980s have shown little effective process. Every time a policy paper is written, the messaging is that greater investment will be left until economic times are better, a constant view of Treasury, rather than understanding science is a core underpinning of economic development – something all our comparator countries well understand. Deferral leads to the same challenges we now see in infrastructural underinvestment.

Beyond fiscal issues, there are structural issues. Is the CRI model of seven small corporate entities, largely separate from the university sector, best suited for the next decades? The university sector is increasingly seen as simply a vocational training system rather than an instrument of knowledge development and expertise for the benefit of society. The Productivity Commission did not even refer to the research role in its review. The major research incentive system in the university sector, the PBRF, is built around individuals and bibliometric indices. Yet globally, research performance assessment is rapidly moving away from these two components to look more holistically at impacts by collaborative groups and the behaviour of the institution as a whole.

We have policy weaknesses in both science and in higher education. They are rather detached from each other. In many countries, policy between these two domains of public activity making is joined at the hip. Yet science is buried in a giant MBIE, and the Ministry of Education manages higher education alongside and through the same mechanism as apprenticeship training. There is no longer a minister of tertiary education. No wonder there is little progress on what must be a core policy domain – how to develop and exploit new knowledge. Many countries have seen the need to bring these two arms of policy together by combining them into a single ministry of higher education, research, and innovation. I have argued to both the government and opposition that we need to refresh our policies in both these domains and think about a merger.

But more cogently let us look to our future. If we consider a generation hence let us ask a few questions. Firstly, will pastoral agriculture in the face of climate change, consumer attitudinal changes and so forth look like it does now? Climate change and altered rainfall will affect all our pastoral ecosystems and our cropping and horticultural production. Can these production systems be adapted quickly enough, and what kinds of environmental challenges, diseases and pests will need to be confronted? At present and understandably, the focus is on methane and nitrous oxide production, but there are deeper trends that must be considered combined. For example, will there have to be appropriate and radical land use changes? Currently, while we claim to be a biological economy, we have a regulatory framework that essentially removes the core genetic technologies from application, particularly in forage production. This merits revisiting.

The next three questions are all linked. How will the metaverse and climate change affect the shape of tourism – our other big industry? My own sense is that it is a risk that we should not dismiss. Further, given my earlier remarks about science and education, a question we must ask is how will we retain bright young people in New Zealand unless we are seen to be real players in a technological but environmentally sensitive ecosystem? We are already seeing an exodus, especially to Australia, where the incentives are very different. But the core question must be where will New Zealand’s economic growth come from if not through science and innovation in both the life sciences and the post-digital domains?

This requires addressing an underlying question – how can we promote long-term thinking? How can we gain real progress? The Pakeha culture is largely shaped by short-termism both in our politics and in our thinking. Infrastructure failures and our failure to prepare adequately for events ranging from pandemics to climate change reflect this characteristic. There are sound evolutionary arguments why we are biased to the short-term, but compared to the countries, we have very short time horizon preferences.

Science-based innovation must be seen as far more than simply precursors to commercial products. It must take in many broader aspects of innovation, from how we manage the environment to how social services are applied and policies are set. Technological developments both empower such change and make the need so compelling.

Yet we have our ambivalent and sometimes contradictory relationship with science and technology. Generally, most of us respect it, like it when we need it, and mostly trust it. But that still leaves much room for debate, confusion, and contest. And science can sometimes be rather inconvenient when it challenges predetermined views or challenges interests or influences partisan politics.

We have had two general approaches to technology regulation in New Zealand – one is to tightly regulate as we have seen in genetic modification. The other has been to leave it almost entirely up to the market in the case of the digital/social media milieu. Neither is a sufficient or satisfactory approach. We live in a fast-changing world driven by technologies that overnight can be revolutionary like Chat-GPT. Every technology has risks and benefits. The original precautionary principle was never meant to be fixed in time; rather, it implied the need for adaptive revision as understanding further developed. Yet this has not happened in the case of the genetic technologies. Society must have the right to determine its future, but that should always be an iterative process as we learn more about concomitant risk and benefit. The risks presented by GM have turned out to be low, but the risks in the digital/social media space have come to dominate everything from how society and democracy functions to cybercrime and mental health. New forms of adaptive regulation are needed rapidly, particularly as the gap between digital and life sciences technology closes, for example, with synthetic biology.

In our short-term thinking, we have no capacity beyond a few individual thinkers with anticipatory foresight, especially in relation to technologies and risk. Foresight is not prediction but it allows us to prepare for different possible scenarios. Systems thinking is critical, and new modes of analysis are upon us using AI and its derivatives. We need to pull our heads out of the sand and invest in longer-term thinking such as that we undertake at Koi Tū. No country of 5 million people can develop all the knowledge and application it needs alone. We thus need to have much more active part in the global knowledge community. However, our international science commitments are small and usually narrowly targeted. This situation underplays enormous opportunities offered by international collaboration intellectually, economically and as a form of soft diplomacy.

The private sector, too, must play its role. We have seen a welcome emergence of an angel and startup industry. But where is its role in lobbying for more public investment in ideas generation that will lead to more deal flow. Too many corporate boards have minimal engagement of scientists or technology developers, instead thinking accountants and lawyers are sufficient, contrast this to other countries. While our science advisory system has evolved well, there is little appropriate use of scientists on many government boards. Countries we like to compare ourselves to do indeed recognise the contributions scientists can make in these ways.

There are some core issues for the New Zealand science and innovation system. We need to give greater recognition to the diversity of sciences, including social science and to find a way to promote transdisciplinarity, as well as diversity in our knowledge workforce. Without conflating two distinct considerations, there is an obvious need for more Māori to enter science as well as to promote studies into our indigenous knowledge system, mātauranga Māori, both in its own right and because, as I have said, no knowledge system sits in isolation.

As a nation, we face a plethora of wicked problems that must call for science. To name but a few there is climate change, issues of water availability, energy futures, food futures, ageing population, growing global resistance to ruminant products, pandemics, declining ecosystems, the challenges for our economy in a post-digital world, the challenges presented by intergenerational inequity and disadvantage, the implications of a multicultural society built on bicultural underpinnings, and emerging technologies affecting our position be in the world. These are some of the things we will face over the coming decades. To tackle them, New Zealand needs a properly organised and well-funded science system that can be translated and supported by industry, public and policy.

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