John Evans: Let's take our brains to the world

We have potential to become a nation of new ideas through science and research, writes John Evans

The America's Cup race is an example of how we can sell our knowledge to the world. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The America's Cup race is an example of how we can sell our knowledge to the world. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Science can take us higher than balloons go, and fill a box with light, or warm your toes. But science can't make a town function. A town needs coffee and discussions, facts that are passed on via a book or film or radio programme, a scaffold of opinions. The town will imbibe, like a gulping bear, the multi-faceted conversations in malls and homes, and its life will advance.

Science contributes to those conversations; it divulges the products of notebooks and computers. The citizens then talk of the topics that emerge from clusters of numbers decorated by Greek symbols and joined with an array of "equals" signs. Research is also transported to places of manufacture and transformed by businesses to make us more comfortable (transistors, house insulation, plant breeding). The research outputs are put into a context, often unconsciously, by other things science told us. About hand-held communication, asbestos, the non-neutral effects of food on our bodies.

We learn, too, about the human situation - moon geology, archaeological remnants, cancer, the speeds of stars. The ways we respond to these modules of information are observed and narrated by writers and filmmakers. It is they, very often in humanities departments of universities, who illuminate our state of existence, and thereby the future. That some information will be used by businesses for profit elicits suggestions that increasing a country's science and engineering output will be good, nay imperative, in that prosperity is nourished by knowledge.

A pause, however, is induced in the dance to wealth when such a proposal is applied to New Zealand. The manufacture of things that can be sold requires capital and discretionary funds to develop an idea into an article. In New Zealand, 97 per cent of businesses have fewer than 20 employees.

Of the 1 per cent that have more than 50 employees only 34 per cent (0.3 per cent overall) generate overseas income. In New Zealand relevant discretionary money of substantial volume is very, very short. Nevertheless strategies to encourage businesses to invest in the jig are optimistically developed, but there is a notable scarcity of suitable research-intensive firms.

Therefore the relevant research skills that are going to discover new concepts, as compared with applied development, are largely in universities. Universities were not developed to be, and do not function as, businesses, and they have been nurtured by society to continue undertaking highly-prized, unfettered discoveries.

Science, though, is never knowledge for its own sake - there are always social effects. These nudges and prods on the community must also be valued. If the focus of research becomes narrowed by the imposition of business-related targets on researchers who are employed for other tasks, both the social and scientific outputs become dilapidated and withered.

Over-emphasising the aim of research to be business-associated outputs means that New Zealand society in a while will be bereft of fresh and novel fundamental knowledge, and will be panicked by the inability to find it. Basic science underlies all of our changes in one way or another, sometimes in association with nature's stock of useful assets, and sometimes our activities enhance the poisonous and destructive aspects of nature.

New Zealand is a small cluster of islands a long, long way from the hurley burley of Europe, Asia and the Americas. We are few and cannot accumulate great chests of finance. The names in grand letters on our America's Cup yacht were Emirates, Omega, and Nespresso. Therefore, mathematically, there is little point in hoping for industrial-sized outputs nabbed directly from a research study to make a dramatic change in New Zealand's economy.

We can, however, sell or lease our brains. The America's Cup provided a public example of that process. But we cannot expect to sensibly use science and technology without the wisdom of the humanities to explain it.

The upcoming remembrance events of WWI illustrates their importance. Scientists revealed the chemistry of explosives, the aerodynamics to make specialised aeroplanes, communication by radio. But the soldiers' stories of the trenches are relayed by the archivists and essayists who catalogue our thoughts and emotions and describe the effects of science.

There is plenty of evidence that we, in New Zealand, do have people with scientific skills. The fuss about the two yachts in San Francisco was centred on the disproportionate input by New Zealanders into the two boats.

In New Zealand there are many scientists of renown. The Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) programme, as one measure of international regard, illustrated that. New Zealand scientists research a splendid diversity of topics. But the boundaries between fundamental research and applied development have a new and complex imprecision. Nevertheless the autonomy and openness of university researchers contrasts with the common secrecy requirement of business.

The size of our islands, our geography and our skills suggest we may be advantaged most by selling our brains and patents, not shiploads of machines. We have the potential to become a nation of new ideas and fundamental research but we do not have sufficient industrial mass to be a modern Pittsburgh.

It would be possible, as our major science strategy, to allow the perceptive researchers in our nation to create an international zone for excellent fundamental discovery. The attraction for international scientists to collaborate and visit would be irresistible. Complementary businesses may develop in the wake of emerging novel scientific concepts that meld hitherto disparate disciplines.

Science takes place in a cyclic mode: commentary on our lives enlightens us and identifies a social deficit, an item is designed as remedy, the jewels of basic research are rummaged, and a device manufactured. Our society changes in response and is observed as it does so, which suggests an unexpected material article that is possible because of new knowledge. And the town's conversations change topic. A bear is never satiated, but is sometimes contented.

John Evans is a research professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Otago, Christchurch.

- NZ Herald

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