Land, air and beyond

The Government asked Kiwis about our big issues in its Great New Zealand Science Project. We look at eight areas suggested as science challenge candidates.

Investment in healthier foods will benefit the population and the economy, experts say. Photo / Getty Images
Investment in healthier foods will benefit the population and the economy, experts say. Photo / Getty Images

Advanced materials and manufacturing

Science has noticeably enhanced our agriculture sector, but is it positioned well enough to enhance our manufacturing industry?

Professor Shaun Hendy sees room for improvement.

"We do have a growing high-tech manufacturing sector, but we tend not to put our research and science dollars into those areas," said Professor Hendy, a researcher with the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology at Victoria University.

Advanced materials were critical elements of emerging technologies and operation systems such as robotics.

"There are certainly clusters of companies, for example, in magnetic resonance imaging and magnet manufacturing - so we could invest in that area to get more out of inventions and high-temperature super-conductibility."

Nano-technology especially held broad application for manufacturing.

Foods for health

With better scientific investment in food, one of our biggest export areas, the benefits stretched from a healthier economy to a healthier population.

Even a small proportional investment in our food and beverage industry could bring a huge pay-off, said Professor Paul Moughan, director of Massey University's Riddet Institute.

Worth more than $20 billion in exports, the food and beverages we send overseas represent half of all New Zealand's merchandise exports by value.

Professor Moughan felt its importance made the area an unmistakable candidate area for the challenges.

"Here, we've got an amazing marriage made in heaven, with a large, innovative food industry and high-quality research in the science sector - get those two together and there is a big opportunity for New Zealand."

Specifically, science played a crucial role in healthy foods and "functional" foods - those that had benefits over and above nutrition such as pro-biotics. Gourmet markets also offered exciting possibilities to capitalise on.

Fighting disease

Science is the best weapon against our biggest health threats - but where should New Zealand spend its science dollars?

The biggest killer of Kiwis is cancer, contributing to nearly 30 per cent of all deaths.

But Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health at the University of Otago, believed investment should be made where it could domestically add more value.

There was more scope for research into chronic diseases - more than 200,000 Kiwis have been diagnosed with diabetes - along with cardiovascular diseases and mental health.

The country faced a "double whammy" of a rising burden of serious chronic diseases when it still had infectious diseases to eradicate.

"Another major factor is looking at health inequality - particularly ethnic inequality - so I think any challenge really needs to address those," he said.

The field of child health also demanded more attention.

He said consideration should look beyond risk factors in front of us now - smoking, lack of exercise and poor dieting - to distal threats such as climate change and sustainability issues.

Land and water

Finding ways to boost productivity on our land while trying to reduce the fouling of waterways is one of the most difficult - and controversial - hurdles the country faces.

One scientist recently claimed that cleaning up our fresh waterways was the single biggest issue for New Zealand.

The question was how to retain our clean, green image while remaining the world's biggest dairy exporter.

Exports from dairying are worth $13.7 billion and exports from pastoral farming are worth $22.8 billion.

Jenny Webster-Brown, director of the Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management, believed a balance could be struck with smart investment.

"The Land and Water challenge recognises that we can't grow our agricultural economy at the expense of the natural environment, and neither can we protect our environment at the expense of economic growth ... .

"There is a balance that needs to be struck between economic growth and environmental conservation, but divided opinions on economic or environmental agendas have not helped us identify an effective balance point.

"Agricultural and environmental science can provide the facts we need to move beyond opinion and get to the finish line."

She suggested investment in developing more efficient water and land use technologies. Focus should also be made on reducing pollutant leaching from land and water.

Resilience to natural hazards

Straddling a tectonic plate boundary, our geographical profile makes us one of the most vulnerable countries to natural disasters in the world.

From near-sourced tsunamis capable of wiping out coastal communities, to myriad faults undiscovered beneath us, the threat of natural disasters comes with a low probability - but maximum risk.

One clear ripple effect from the Christchurch disaster was the wave of earthquake strengthening in buildings across the country.

Alongside building resilience, natural hazards would always pose a level of uncertainty for scientists trying to gauge threats.

Little is known of the off-shore subduction zones that could send tsunamis surging toward us at any moment, while deep-drilling projects in the Alpine Fault are attempting to shed more light on our most threatening fault line.

Our changing climate

Climate change - projected to lift our average temperature by 3C by the next century - holds serious ramifications that will affect all of us.

In New Zealand, we can expect greater risk of flooding and heavy rainfalls, and at the other extreme, long and severe droughts like the country got a taste of this summer.

A sea level rise of 1m would have obvious consequences for low-lying areas, and make some places uninhabitable.

Some industries would feel the impacts more than others. Certain horticulture operations would no longer be able to plant their crops when a warmer climate ruined growing conditions.

In the meantime, there was much New Zealand science could do, said Auckland climate scientist Jim Salinger, whose book Living in a Warmer World is to be released this year. "We need to keep improving our projections of a future climate - and we are talking about from 10 years out to 50 years - so communities can plan."

Protecting New Zealand's biodiversity

New Zealand spends nearly $750 million each year on managing and eradicating pests that threaten our precious ecology, accounting for nearly 0.5 per cent of GDP.

But there was a vast amount scientists still don't know about the native wildlife and plants which all of that money goes toward protecting.

Dr Luis Ortiz-Catedral, of Massey University's Institute of Natural Sciences, saw an obvious benefit in investment to find more effective ways to investigate animal populations.

A better understanding of differences between possum populations in the North and South Islands, for example, could see money more strategically spent on control programmes. More insight was also needed into diseases, and many pathogens affecting endemic species were not even well known.

Our rich seas

The 4.4 million square kilometres of marine waters that surround New Zealand are held to be our most under-utilised natural resource.

Our wild fisheries yield more than $1 billion in exports each fishing year, with hundreds of millions of dollars more from aquaculture.

Tidal and wave power could offer possible renewable energy sources - and potential undiscovered deposits of minerals, gas and oil held the ability to transform our economy. But how could we reap the ocean's bounty without damaging any of the precious marine eco-systems that we hold dear?

Any large-scale venture off our coast, whether in fisheries or oil, demanded input from a breadth of scientific expertise from oceanographers to geologists, said Victoria University's Professor of Fisheries Matthew Dunn.

- NZ Herald

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