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It's patently clear Kiwi inventors are falling behind

By Eloise Gibson

New Zealand created inventions like the bungy, but lately we are slipping behind. Photo / Supplied
New Zealand created inventions like the bungy, but lately we are slipping behind. Photo / Supplied

We invented the commercial bungy and, arguably, the aeroplane, but a recent study suggests New Zealand is struggling to keep up in the invention stakes.

Theoretical physicist Shaun Hendy trawled through 30 years of patents on an OECD database and found New Zealanders were filing new inventions at about a quarter of the average rate.

It may not be our fault - he also found larger cities had more inventors per head, giving more populous countries an advantage.

But the key factor appeared to be the amount of money spent on research and technology, both by Governments and private companies.

Dr Hendy, the Wellington-based deputy director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, said New Zealand was "just not putting the money in" to keep up with the likes of Finland, which produced nearly 10 times the OECD average number of patents per person.

He said patents were generally a good measure of innovation and economic growth.

For example, when Finland kick-started its economy in the early 1990s, "the number of patents really went through the roof ... and of course Nokia came out of that," he said.

Finland had also poured huge resources into growing its number of engineering PhDs, said Dr Hendy.

In New Zealand, Auckland came out top city, followed by Wellington and Christchurch. That reflected an international trend for bigger cities to have more inventors per capita.

Dr Hendy said it was hard to explain the effect of big cities but it could be the networking effect, or that inventive people gravitated towards cities and each other.

Australia listed more patents than New Zealand although the difference was mostly because of the size of Sydney and Melbourne.

When New Zealand cities were compared to Australian cities of the same size, they had a similar number of patents - although Canberra, home to giant science agency CSIRO, beat all other Australasian cities hands-down.

Dr Hendy, who was helped by research assistant Catriona Sissons, counted only triadic patents - those filed in the three big economies of Europe, Japan and the United States - because they were seen as the most valuable.

The Government has just launched a review of the science sector, including ways to get businesses to invest more money in research.

It attracted the ire of businesses last year when, in Opposition, it decided to scrap 15 per cent tax credits for research and development.

The Government spends 0.51 per cent of GDP on research, science and technology, up from two years ago but low by OECD standards.

The Australian Government spends about 0.77 per cent. A Government taskforce will report back by the end of the year on ways to increase business investment.

- NZ Herald

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