Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Richard Dawkins: NZ could be Trump-era 'Athens'

A world-famous thinker says New Zealand could be the "Athens of the modern world" in a post-election love letter urging our country to gobble up the globe's brightest minds amid fallout from the US election and Brexit.

Writing for Scientific American alongside other prominent scientists in a piece reacting to Donald Trump's election win this week, Richard Dawkins wrote our "deeply civilised small nation" should try to lure top scientists from the UK and US eager to escape their countries.

The British ethologist and author of the book The God Delusion wrote how "the two largest nations in the English-speaking world have just suffered catastrophes at the hands of voters - in both cases the uneducated, anti-intellectual portion of voters".

President-elect Donald Trump. Photo / AP
President-elect Donald Trump. Photo / AP

Science in both countries would be hit "extremely hard".

"In the one case, by the xenophobically inspired severing of painstakingly built-up relationships with European partners; in the other case by the election of an unqualified, narcissistic, misogynistic sick joke as president.

"In neither case is the disaster going to be short-lived: in America because of the non-retirement rule of the Supreme Court; in Britain because Brexit is irreversible."

Dawkins wrote there were top scientists in the US and the UK - "talented, creative people, desperate to escape the redneck bigotry of their home countries".

"Dear New Zealand, you are a deeply civilized small nation, with a low population in a pair of beautiful, spacious islands," he wrote.

"You care about climate change, the future of the planet and other scientifically important issues."

Richard Dawkins. Photo / Supplied
Richard Dawkins. Photo / Supplied

He suggested the New Zealand should write to all American and British Nobel Prize winners, Fields medalists, Kyoto and Crafoord Prize and International Cosmos Prize winners, the Fellows of the Royal Society, the elite scientists in the National Academy of Sciences, the Fellows of the British Academy and similar bodies in America.

"Offer them citizenship," Dawkins wrote.

The contribution that creative intellectuals could make to the prosperity and cultural life of a nation was out of all proportion to their numbers, he argued.

"You could make New Zealand the Athens of the modern world.

"Yes, dear New Zealand, I know it's an unrealistic, surreal pipe dream.

"But on the day after US election day, in the year of Brexit, the distinction between the surreal and the awfulness of the real seems to merge in a bad trip from which a pipe dream is the only refuge."

The letter comes as major media outlets like Time magazine and The Guardian are reporting a surge in people showing a fresh interest in moving to New Zealand.

Within just a 24-hour period, the Immigration New Zealand website received 56,300 visit from the US - up 2500 per cent from its daily average of 2,300 visits.

If you value tolerance, 'NZ is the place for you'

Science commentator and Auckland University physicist Professor Shaun Hendy said many people were trying to "look for hope" in the developments that had happened in the UK and US in the last six months.

"If you're a scientist, it's quite bewildering, really, that large parts of the Western world are backing candidates and voting for things that most scientists say are not based on evidence," Hendy said.

"It really does seem like the use of evidence, the scientific process and the role of experts has been put on the scrap heap to come extent."

Hendy agreed that New Zealand, a small bicultural country with a strong tradition of liberal democracy, was a place that could set a good example.

Auckland University physicist and science commentator Professor Shaun Hendy welcomes Dawkins' suggestion. Photo / File
Auckland University physicist and science commentator Professor Shaun Hendy welcomes Dawkins' suggestion. Photo / File

"We don't do everything perfectly, but I think in New Zealand, we do have a chance to be a bit of an exemplar to the rest of the world."

He backed Dawkins' idea of bringing top thinkers here.

"If you want to come to a tolerant, civilised country that does hold science in high esteem, then New Zealand is the place for you."

But he noted the obvious point that New Zealand has limited funding for science.

The Government this year included $410.5 million in its Budget for science and innovation; that compared with the $30 billion the US federal government spent on science last year.

Victoria University climate scientist Dr James Renwick meanwhile disagreed with the notion that New Zealand's efforts to curb climate change should be revered.

"We might seem clean and green and on to climate change from the outside world, but if you actually come here, you'll find that our per-capita greenhouse gas emissions are pretty high," he said.

"And there really isn't any government policy around reducing emissions, it's all about trading in overseas credits."

Do we really need more 'old white men'?

Dawkins' letter however wasn't welcomed by one of New Zealand's best-known scientists, Dr Nicola Gaston, of Auckland University's Department of Physics.

"The idea that we should make an offer of citizenship to a group of privileged, wealthy, and overwhelmingly white scientists as 'intellectual refugees' when we have stubbornly refused to pull our weight in accepting non-white refugees despite serious recent need is obscene," she said.

"It also completely misses the point: we lead the world in measures of scientists per dollar or scientific productivity per dollar, and many scientists in New Zealand would certainly like to do better funded science."

Gaston, a former president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists and author of the book Science is Sexist, said while these refugees were welcome, they'd require money to do research if they were to come here for anything other than retirement.

"But a lot of New Zealand scientists are engaged in work that is addressing New Zealand specific needs, from our society to our ecology and broader environment, and those people - that knowledge - can not be replaced by international superstars."

Kate Hannah, executive manager of Auckland University-based Centre of Research Excellence Te Punaha Matatini, also noted the talent pool Dawkins was suggesting New Zealand could draw upon was largely male.

"With New Zealand only just having managed to appoint its first two Maori women Fellows of the Royal Society of NZ, Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Jacinta Ruru, only a couple of weeks ago, I'm not sure that importing more old white men would indeed make for better science in New Zealand."

Hannah added that with an international refugee crisis that was worse than that which followed World War 2, to suggest that New Zealand target those scientists who would already be eligible as skilled migrants - and whose status was discontented as opposed to refugee - seemed "morally repugnant".

"Right now, scientists in the UK and US might be worried, as many are, for the future of science in those countries," Hannah said.

"But minorities are being actually targeted on the street, and the refugee numbers are increasing, is it right for New Zealand to focus on attracting those scientists who are largely very well protected by their status and privilege?"

- NZ Herald

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