The New Zealand Association of Scientists has defended the public funding of science against a New Zealand Herald accusation that taxpayers’ money is being poured into a black hole.
The Herald editorial (here) continued by noting that “the money is scattered around like water on dry soil in the hope that it finds some seeds of inquiry that will turn out to have social and economic benefits”.
NZAS president Shaun Hendy says the Herald may not like it, but that is the process behind a significant fraction of global economic growth and the well-being of society.
“The question is not whether New Zealanders spend too much on discovery-driven science,” said NZAS President Shaun Hendy, “but why we spend so little.”
In this country, as in all advanced economies, publicly funded scientific enquiry has been vital to the economy, Hendy said.
Our agricultural exports have depended critically on the serendipitous findings of taxpayer-funded science for more than 100 years.
Fisher and Paykel Healthcare, one of New Zealand’s largest manufacturing companies, was an unforeseen consequence of the work of publicly funded researchers. Even the worldwide web originated as a spill-over from physicists’ hunt for tiny sub-atomic particles.
In evaluating the outcomes of science, Hendy said, it is important to realise the difference between science that has a direct commercial benefit and science that adds benefit to the wider economy over longer timeframes.
Science with a commercial focus typically was low risk and short term in nature – it had to be if it was to respond to the market.
Many studies showed that this type of research was best done by the private sector, and that was why our government devoted a considerable sum of money directly funding research in our companies.
Science with a longer-term focus or aimed at developing new sectors of the economy must be carried out by scientists at our universities and Crown Research Institutes.
The market simply did not fund this type of science, despite the fact it was vital to the long term growth of advanced economies.
One of the big challenges facing New Zealand is its need to diversify its economy, Hendy said.
“Our dependence on our primary sector contributes to the volatility of our exchange rate, and means that New Zealanders earn less and work harder than the citizens of almost any other country in the developed world”, said Professor Hendy.
“To move beyond farming and tourism, we need new ideas and new areas of scientific expertise”.
Scientists around the country were working hard to ensure that each of the National Science Challenges would stretch their abilities and their imaginations.
Scientific discovery was not a “nice to have”, Hendy said – “it is a must have!”