September 21, 2009

Can Transforming Science Transform New Zealand?

Sir Peter Gluckman is the Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of NZ. His appointment in early 2008 was a good signal that the NZ government wishes to re-examine the role of science in NZ's political decision making - something that has been lacking for quite sometime now.

On Monday I saw Sir Peter speak on "Can Transforming Science Transform New Zealand?" He said that in NZ we have missed the boat on the valuation of science research. We were a lucky country until the 70's, with our commodity exports (meat, dairy, wood, wool etc.) earning us prosperity (until recently), and because of that we've valued science only as a nice to have not a must have.

Consequently, we now have a cultural barrier to substantial Research, Science and Technology (RST) commitment, whereas other countries that invested in RS&T in the early days see it as a must have. Sir Peter has pointed out before that we seem to have forgotten the important role science played in making our primary sectors as strong as they once were.

In essence Finance Minister English wants to know what “bang-for-buck” he is getting. Sir Peter rephrased this as a question to the audience: “is science relevant to NZ’s economic growth?” [the answer is yes!], and so how can we shift the attitude from science being a nice to have, to science being a must have.

Changing this view will be incredibly challenging, but Sir Peter is the right man for the job, because he is well respected in scientific, business and media circles, and is not afraid to speak his mind!

Two main areas (of many) he highlighted for improvement are:

  • collaboration vs. competition; and
  • the blurred boundary between science and business

In the next couple of posts I’ll explain what I think he means by these points and add a few of my own.

Stay tuned…


  1. As well as the higher profile that Sir Peter can provide, we need to achieve a bit of a sea-change in society's attitudes to science. When you have science described as 'just' another way of looking at the world, when we're told that scientists can't be relied upon because they get things wrong or keep changing their stories (both hallmarks of science, given that we are always gaining new information), & when students need take science only till the end of year 10 (& not even that, in at least one school I know of), then we have a problem.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Alison. I couldn't agree more! This is also no easy task, and there are a number of great things going on at the moment that a step in the right direction - the NZ Science Media Centre (which was mentioned in Sir Peter's speech) are doing a great job of providing unbiased scientific information to the NZ media, Nanocamp to be at held at Canterbury University is fantastic for inspiring young school students about a career in science, and the New Science Journalism Project is great at encouraging scientists to become better communicators. I'm sure there are many more you can tell me about too - they're all a step in the right direction!



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