Anthony Scott: Research vital to making headway

As the New Zealand economy seems set to enter a rough patch, the Crown Research Institutes will face a critical test of their central task of developing knowledge into benefit for New Zealand.

Will this year demonstrate that public and private sector entities regard R&D as an optional extra - a cost which can be jettisoned - or an investment which underpins performance and spurs advance?

Advanced economies understand that it is almost impossible to stay in business, let alone get ahead of the game, without R&D investment.

Companies in software, consumer electronics, and biotechnology endorse the value of R&D. Smaller companies see R&D as a route to riches.

Ours is the only first world economy reliant upon primary production. It isn't sexy, and so the R&D it relies on is overlooked.

What grabbed your attention this summer: the story on the clover root weevil parasite AgResearch is trialling, or the new iPod? If, like most, it was the iPod, you will have missed the fact that the research will save the country hundreds of millions of dollars.

Nevertheless, at a corporate level, R&D has been gathering pace. Investment in R&D through the Government (including CRIs), universities and the private sector rose 13 per cent between 2002 and 2004 to $1.6 billion.

Can we be confident that this indicates R&D is seen as a long-term investment, not to be derailed by a little "rough patch"?

But I worry when, in a Herald report this month, Owen Hembry quotes a businessman asking what is the most significant output of Crown Research Institutes. It's as if R&D is all about big-ticket, prominently branded things - just what gets cut when rough patches come along.

Ironically, it is the success in integrating knowledge into products, processes, jobs and our environment that sells the value of CRI R&D short.

It is not our job to become billion-dollar companies, subsidiaries of multi-nationals, develop companies to compete against the private sector or enter global deals solely for revenue.

We help sectors to develop and succeed, usually staying in the background.

So I offer a proposal - only partly tongue in cheek - to bring R&D from the shadows.

It would apply to knowledge forming part of a much larger output - much as the clover root weevil parasite contributes to the wealth and welfare of each of us.

It would also apply to R&D output commissioned by someone else (increasingly, private sector firms). It could be applied retrospectively to things we now routinely use that owe their origins to CRI science.

My model is Intel. Its R&D knowledge is embedded in the Pentium chips that power most PCs - hidden except for the sticker "Intel inside".

Now apply that to CRIs. Our brand values are a plus to marketers: we are ethically and socially responsible, good employers, do research to benefit New Zealand, and pursue excellence.

The benefits of the little sticker (CRI inside?) to New Zealand would be immense. It would indicate how dependent this country is upon R&D, stimulate national pride, encourage investment, and inspire study and career choices.

Imagine seeing that stamped on milk factories, timber mills, meat processor, furniture plant, fishing boats, hospitals, office blocks, museums, packing houses, ski fields and vineyards, dams, cafes, police station and policy documents.

The list is as big as our economy. Imagine it on each tree, fish, wine bottle, grass, fruit, machinery and material.

Hundreds of thousands of jobs are dependent upon the R&D that keep provincial New Zealand producing and exporting, and our metropolitan areas servicing.

And how do you stamp cleaner air, water and pure birdsong and undamaged trees with the underlying intellectual property which has either restored or conserved such environmental wealth for recreation and tourism?

So the challenge is to begin this year not just anticipating rough patches but knowing that what has got us through, and will again, is the quality of our R&D. Just look around you.

* Anthony Scott is executive director of the Association of Crown Research Institutes.

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