Thursday, 29 October 2015

Cutting edge: can New Zealand hold its own as an innovation nation?

On a recent trip to MOTAT (for those not in the know, Auckland's Museum of Transport and Technology) I was looking around a restored Edwardian period school room when I came across a list of classroom rules. One in particular stood out: 'Do not ask questions'. How times have changed! As the late New Zealand physicist Sir Paul Callaghan once said: "You don't need to teach a child curiosity. Curiosity is innate. You just have to be careful not to quash it. This is the challenge for the teacher - to foster and guide that curiosity." But are there enough resources in New Zealand today to support that curiosity, not just in children but for science and technology professionals too?

In the shadow of the seemingly endless Rugby World Cup coverage, the New Zealand Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce has launched the National Statement of Science Investment (NSSI). Although investment in the science and technology sector has increased within the past decade, I've come across various kiwi scientists with prominent social media profiles who constantly vent their frustration at the amount of timing spent bidding for funds - only for the majority of those bids to fail.

New Zealand is somewhat towards the lower end of the scale in government investment in research and development, but the nation appears even more hampered by apathy from the private sector. A key aim of the NSSI is to attract more private funding towards science, technology and engineering but with a very small internal market and many of the larger corporations controlled from overseas, the record to date hasn't been particularly good. Comparisons to other small developed nations bear this out. For example, the Republic of Ireland has only a slightly larger population than New Zealand but double the industrial research and development spend as a percentage of GDP. Other European countries fare even better, with Finland spending correspondingly more than quadruple New Zealand's figure!

Perhaps it is not surprising then to hear that after a comparatively high quality education, many New Zealand post-graduates and science professionals seek opportunities abroad. Not that this is a recent phenomenon; all three New Zealand-born science Nobel laureates spent their professional lives working in the UK, USA or Canada. For a nation that produces a relatively large output of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) articles, the impression is that kiwi ingenuity can only make limited resources go so far. As long as industry fails to support more than a paltry amount of research, there just won't be enough funding to support native talent.

But it isn't all doom and gloom. In addition to projects aimed at short-term improvements in native sectors such as the dairy industry, New Zealand is one of ten nations involved in the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope. However, investment for this long-term project - one apparently lacking immediate practical benefits too - appears to be primarily via public rather than private finance.

You have only to consider New Zealand retail prices compared to other developed nations to understand that a combination of a remote geographic location and low population size and density are prime economic movers. This doesn't prevent canny kiwis from attempting STEM innovations, although it frequently ends with large-scale development implemented in larger, wealthier nations.

Two recent examples show these issues in vivid detail. Award-winning high school student Ayla Hutchinson invented the Kindling Cracker, a much safer way to split wood kindling than the traditional axe-on-a-stump method. However, when her Auckland-based manufacturers were unable to produce the device without a large cost increase, the young inventor was forced to seek an overseas company to produce it.

Another success story of Kiwi ingenuity is the field-leading wireless power technology firm PowerbyProxi, which in the past few years has formed a business relationship with international giants such as Samsung and Texas Instruments. One key issue they have faced in their home nation has been a shortage of skilled staff, further evidence that a brain drain on a small population can lead to the ultimate irony of having to recruit specialists from abroad. The NSSI and last year's strategic plan A Nation of Curious Minds - He Whenua Hihiri i te Mahara are aiming to address this via changes within state education and citizen science. But will the private sector follow suit and step up to the mark in order to give the next generation of New Zealand scientists a 'fair go'?

New Zealand has long been acclaimed as punching above its weight in many arenas, not just rugby, but its future in STEM fields seems uncertain. I wonder if the canny kiwi/pioneer attitude (think: number eight fencing wire solutions) that has been so successful in the past is still suitable at a time when even if not requiring LHC mega-budgets, much science and technology innovation requires stable funding sources? The Government clearly have the country's long-term prospects in mind with the new strategies, but without adequate private sector finance the next generation of STEM graduates might well consider pursuing their careers abroad. Considering the nation-specific developments in science and technology that the future clearly requires, this would not be a good thing!