Jeff Tallon: If research is sidelined our best minds will leave

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"Sir Paul Callaghan (above) would not lend his name to any institution that lost its focus on science and research, especially in the physical sciences" (Jeff Tallon). Photo / Supplied
"Sir Paul Callaghan (above) would not lend his name to any institution that lost its focus on science and research, especially in the physical sciences" (Jeff Tallon). Photo / Supplied

Cabinet minister Steven Joyce has announced the name of his soon-to-be-established Advanced Technology Institute - "Callaghan Innovation".

This, appropriately, recognises the wide-ranging contributions of Sir Paul Callaghan to New Zealand research, science and technology. Moreover, the goal of the institute is to catalyse innovation more effectively in the manufacturing and services sector, which is generally perceived to be underperforming. That is a laudable goal and was one of Sir Paul's passions.

What is astonishing, however, is the near complete absence of debate around this major restructure of one of our leading research institutions. Industrial Research Ltd, a Crown research institute, with its whakapapa stretching back into the old DSIR, is to be disestablished as such and subsumed into the new institute in a very different guise.

Now you may say, what is the problem if restructuring will make things more effective? Well it is clear from all the background documentation that Callaghan Innovation will be required to wind back on scientific research in order to become a mere broker of technical knowledge - a middle player between industry and university. It will no longer be a scientific research institution.

Industrial Research Ltd is currently the Government's primary research provider covering the physical sciences. It emerged successively from DSIR physical sciences, physics and engineering laboratory, and the Dominion physical laboratory. Its taonga taunaha include: earthquake dampers now in Parliament buildings, Te Papa and more than $100 billion worth of structures around the world; synthetic drugs for a range of therapeutic treatments; high temperature superconductors with two world-leading spinout companies; active acoustic systems installed in more than 100 public and concert halls around the globe; major contributions to Antarctic research; and many others.

Consistently, it has been the best basic research scientists who have been the most successful in commercialising their research.

Again the documentation is clear: there will be no basic research in "Callaghan Innovation".

The proposed restructuring clearly has major implications for the physical sciences in New Zealand, the very science sector that Paul Callaghan championed.

I am certain that he would have been shocked by these developments and it is highly likely that he would not lend his name to any institution that lost its focus on science and research, especially in the physical sciences.

Of course the science community wants to make its contribution to industry and society more effective. That is a question of alignment and ensuring that the right drivers are in place. Government can manage this by any number of initiatives and most importantly through appropriate appointments and instructions to the board of directors.

But this much is inescapable. It requires a highly sophisticated resource in the form of skilled researchers to carry this forward. It takes these dedicated people 11 years to get their basic university training to doctorate level. This is followed by two, four or even six years of post-doctoral positions in New Zealand or overseas before they can ever hope to gain medium to long-term employment. In the course of this they also need to acquire business and management skills. It is a long journey. But it is tried and true around the globe and we mess with this at our peril.

It did not need a restructuring to achieve the Government's declared goals. The way forward was very clear. Instead, the entire staff at a premier national institution is thrust into uncertainty, and some will be lost.

It is difficult enough for young researchers to claw their way into some level of career security without having to cope with unnecessary setbacks like this. Some are already applying for jobs elsewhere. But it will be the best and most marketable that we lose. In the longer term, if research continues to be downplayed we will continue to bleed our best.

We need to get this right. It is too late to reverse the process. But before the final legislation is passed in Parliament, before the establishment board sets an irreversible direction, before a new CEO is appointed we must make sure that science and scientific research are not set aside in some vague hope of creating economic value through mere innovation in packaging and marketing. If we don't, it will take a decade, perhaps two, to fix.

Dr Jeff Tallon is a physicist specialising in the field of superconductivity.

- NZ Herald

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