Antarctic team shows NZ's edge

By Joe Dodgshun

Kiwi scientists in Antarctica have demonstrated a spirit of collaboration, says NZ's chief science adviser. Photo / Martin Sykes
Kiwi scientists in Antarctica have demonstrated a spirit of collaboration, says NZ's chief science adviser. Photo / Martin Sykes

ANTARCTICA - New Zealand's Antarctic research is a microcosm of how the country's scientific future should unfold, says the Prime Minister's chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman.

Sir Peter made a short trip to New Zealand's Scott Base last week, visiting scientists in the Dry Valleys, on the sea ice and at America's McMurdo base.

"This is an exciting demonstration of what New Zealand can do on remarkably small amounts of money put into science," he said.

"There's no doubt that what's been done down here has been recognised as being the cutting edge - particularly in ice core research, atmospheric research and dry valley research."

Sir Peter, who accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary on an expedition to Nepal to study goitre and cretinism from iodine deficiency in Himalayan Sherpas in the 1970s, was impressed by the calibre of research he saw.

Antarctic scientists were breaking a lot of mythology about New Zealand science through their high levels of international and cross-discipline collaboration, he said.

"Our collective capacity to think differently and not be wrapped up in big science but bring lots of different disciplines together is the advantage of a small country doing leading science. I think there's a microcosm down here in the Antarctic of how New Zealand should be doing science in the future."

However, "blue skies research" is a term Sir Peter dislikes. He said current research was important regardless of what real-life applications it might produce, partly because of the respect and relevance it brought New Zealand internationally.

"There are really only two types of research - applied research and not-yet applied research," said Sir Peter, whose medical research in the 1980s unexpectedly yielded a method of treating brain damage at birth almost 20 years later.

"In terms of direct application, I'm not in a position to judge yet, but clearly the fisheries research done by Niwa and others is very important in managing the ice fish fishery, and work associated with climate change research is important in thinking ahead about how New Zealand plans to respond in the future.

"Not all research New Zealand does has to have application today in the area where the scientists think it will be applied. I think it would be a terrible mistake if New Zealand thought that every bit of research it paid for had to have application tomorrow, next year, or the year afterwards."

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