The culture of New Zealanders undervalues thinkers and idolises sports stars, a world-leading scientist and BBC broadcaster says.

Robert Winston, best known here for presenting the BBC science show Child of Our Time, said New Zealand celebrated attributes which weren't "really important".

"You do it with sportsmen and you don't do it particularly with intellectuals, for example," he told the Dominion Post.

"In New Zealand, being an intellectual is slightly disadvantageous and is often seen by the press as being something which is rather well, not to be celebrated.

"On the other hand, if you are a great rugby player, maybe parts of your private life which are pretty appalling, will go ignored."

Lord Winston, who is in New Zealand to deliver the opening address at the 2nd International Symposium of Performance Science in Auckland tomorrow, said New Zealand was a society which "tends to be driven by sailing, by the All Blacks and by the Bledisloe Cup".

However New Zealanders did, however, have some "fantastic" cultural values that they should protect including freedom, the environment, self-reliance, courage and caring for each other.

He cited the country's lionisation of Edmund Hillary as an "example of celebrating celebrity which is justified".