Scientists lament NZ’s slide in the Global Innovation Index rankings

The appreciation of sound science advice and economic importance of investment in research and development in New Zealand –  or lack of it – was  examined in an article published in the New Zealand Herald at the weekend

Authored by Dr Jim Salinger and the late Dr James (Jim) Watson, the article was developed from a chapter in Dr Watson’s book,  A Walk on the Science Side,completed just before his death..

The quality of New Zealand’s research and development is extremely high and is often the pioneering nature of that R&D which sets it apart, the authors say.

It has a distinctive character which is robust and resourceful, often multi-disciplinary, breaks boundaries, challenges preconceptions and tackles traditional problems in innovative ways.

This character may be the result of New Zealand’s distance from world centres, with the unique mix of freedoms and constraints that distance brings.

It may result from learning to make do with the relatively few resources that we have, “the No 8 wire” approach.

It may reflect our creative responses to chronic under-funding or the can-do attitude that is inevitable in a small society.

And because our R&D is carried out in relatively small institutions, it has a certain practical intimacy to it.

But New Zealand sits in the lower range of OECD metrics on researchers and science spending — eight researchers per thousand employed, with 1.2% of GDP spent on R&D.

The top country, Israel, employs 18 out of 1000 and 4.3% respectively.

The article recalls how NZ leaders, in two tough economic times, had the vision to establish the New Zealand University Act of 1874 to build the nation’s knowledge capacity and, in 1926, to establish the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) to build science that supported industry and economic development.

The DSIR surveyed, identified and classified the country’s animal, vegetable and mineral resources; worked on ways to increase the utilisation of natural resources and reduce the risks of natural disasters; bred better plant varieties; developed better pest and disease control methods for agriculture and horticulture; provided advice for industrial developments; standards for commerce and industry; and data for the maintenance of public health.

In 1989, the Government restructured and partially commercialised R&D institutes (including the DSIR, Ministry of Agriculture and Technology, Research Division of the NZ Meteorological Service, and others) into corporatised new Crown Research Institutes (CRIs).

Their funding allocations were placed in the Public Good Science Fund for competitive funding.

The article says:

In the absence of strategic planning we tend to allow the system to meander wherever the funding takes us.

This puts pressure on science culture, institutions and commercialisation.

Compared to New Zealand’s sports icons, our scientific community is perhaps not held in high regard.

For example, there is not one agricultural scientist on the primary production (agriculture) committee.

In the 2018 Queens Birthday Honours there were few scientists, but plenty of sportspeople, community carers and of course medical professionals received awards.

The article says the failed attempt to develop New Zealand’s biotechnology economy has been a core theme of national and regional economic development strategies since the publication of “Growing an Innovative NZ”.

This is reflected in our slide down the rankings in the Global Innovation Index:

In 2012, we ranked as the 13th most innovative economy in the world — now we are 22nd.

Israel has climbed from 17th to 11th.

Agriculture in Israel is now only three per cent of the GNP.

New Zealand ranks 22nd in R&D and Israel is third.

Israel is now a high-tech nation.

Ultimately, no science strategy can work unless it is led by a partnership between the leading scientists and government, the article says.

We must develop a science-driven model of policy setting, in which scientists are involved and respected from the very beginning.

Science is a common good, and it is in the national interest that our capability be better directed, maintained, resourced and utilised in support of national economic, environmental and social goals.

  • Dr Salinger is a Visiting Professor at the University of Haifa, Israel. The late Dr James (Jim) Watson, founder of New Zealand’s first biotech company, Genesis Research and Development, was a passionate advocate for science in New Zealand and former President of the Royal Society of New Zealand.