Anthony Scott: Science funding can help us reach for the stars

Just as in the space race, new scientific knowledge can benefit mankind. Photo / File
Just as in the space race, new scientific knowledge can benefit mankind. Photo / File

"By the end of this decade, we will land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth." President John F Kennedy's challenge to his country in 1961 still thrills with its ambition and imagination.

New Zealand's National Science Challenges do not have the same Kennedy-esque ring, but are as ambitious for New Zealand. Those who see the 10 as "business as usual" overlook the commitment and change they make possible.

The Government has more than doubled funding to $133.5 million over four years. It is the most new money for science (shorthand for science, technology, engineering and related areas) in recent years.

It follows increases across the research and development (R&D) spectrum even during "zero" budgets. Research, science and technology (RS&T) has joined the staples of health and education as a "must-have" investment.

It is even part of the pre-Budget season where governments set out their stall of enticing goodies.

Both the political leadership and the public clearly now see RS&T as vital to New Zealand's economic, environmental and social wealth and wellbeing. While we still sit below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) averages, we are growing our commitment.

The latest R&D Survey shows that businesses, too, are investing heavily in RS&T as a route to greater volume, value or market access - or all three. Business expenditure on RS&T has risen 25 per cent in two years, to $1.2billion.

Crown Research Institutes have particularly noticed this sea change because CRIs undertake three-quarters of the RS&T that businesses contract out.

Businesses with ambition to grow faster, particularly in export areas, want access to external expertise, knowledge, networks and infrastructure.

In 2012, the top 100 globally focused high-tech companies in New Zealand employed nearly 29,000 staff, had revenues of $7.3 billion, with export revenues over $5 billion. All three indicators have been marching upwards.

Notable is where the primary sector technology firms ranked in the 2012 TIN100 Report survey of top tech companies. They were at second, behind IT and ahead of healthcare.

That shows New Zealand is building from existing strengths into new high-value areas, an opportunity the Challenges emphasise. We can lever more value and create new industries from existing areas of expertise by doing things differently.

Research shows that new businesses rarely develop to found new industries when they lack connection with existing areas of knowledge and expertise.

Those links can be ingenious. Our wine industry, for example, owes its distinctive clean taste to the stainless steel expertise developed for our dairy industry.

The Challenges ask what more can be achieved, if done differently and with focus. People of vastly different knowledge areas will work together to tackle big and defined tasks with enduring benefit to New Zealand. The question is: "How can my expertise contribute to the overall goal?"

As in the space race, the new knowledge will add to the stock of public good, and generate ever-more opportunity and benefit to be widely diffused across our society.

The social component is a key element. New Zealanders are backing the Challenges as a means to develop our society, through better health, environmental and economic outcomes. So all of us involved in the identification of need, defining the research and the applications that result, have to work extremely closely with the public.

These challenges are from and for the public in a way that is different from other public-funded research. There is an emotional investment to achieve the outcome, be it healthier children or better environment. The momentum built up around the development of the Challenge ideas has to be recaptured and re-energised as we develop the specific challenges within each of the set of 10. That is where those Kennedy-esque calls will be defined and made real.

The dialogue between scientists and public along the way will be exciting and challenging, and we will find new ways of doing things as befits imaginative, creative thinkers. That dynamic and New Zealand's expectations will ensure that the National Science Challenges will never become "business as usual".

Anthony Scott is chief executive of Science New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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