OPINION: A small, advanced economy?

  I BORROW this title from a Statistics New Zealand commentary, which points out that in terms of the title we are probably not so advanced, despite a regular programme of government-to-government meetings with these economies with which we might like to be compared. As Shaun Hendy and Paul Callaghan’s 2013 book Get off the Grass highlights, our dependence on the primary sector and very limited earnings from ‘complex manufactures’, suggests an unsophisticated economy, reflected in the minimal spend of New Zealand industry on research and development. The Statistics article also makes the point that “New Zealand has some major spending to do to match these other small advanced economies”. Although the October 2013 Technology Investment Network TIN100 report projects a rosier picture with 16.5 percent growth of the high technology sector in the past year—and especially strong growth in ICT—the overall picture shows a very big gap to bridge. This is hardly news, but the breakdown of these numbers does highlight our very weak research culture, particularly in our larger industries.

 

The figure suggests remarkably poor, and perhaps very limited appetites for, relationships between research and industry—particularly between our manufacturing industry and our research community. This is reflected in Manufacturing NZ Executive Director Catherine Beard’s comment to the New Zealand Herald in 2011 (drawn from a US commentator) that “You can get some really good stuff out of a university if you’ve got a million bucks to put in”. Ironically this comment was reported the day before the announcement that the licensing rights to part of the University of Auckland developed inductively coupled power transfer technology, led by Professor John Boys, had been sold for around $70 million. The research had never been Government funded, presumably because it was not perceived as strategically important to New Zealand. Indeed, there is no natural advantage in this research area beyond the world leading excellence of the people who have headed it. The Government (as the voice of New Zealand society) rightly demands efficient spending of its public money, but there is little evidence I am aware of that governments know best where research and development effort should be directed. This is particularly the case should a country need to change direction in its research culture—as I would argue is the current situation in New Zealand. I recall a Radio New Zealand interview some months ago in which an emerging technology leader was asked to explain the emergence of Berlin as Europe’s answer to Silicon Valley—what makes innovation take off in what was considered an unlikely setting? His answer was three good universities, a decent coffee culture and cheap commercial real estate. Coffee apart, that is a remarkably similar recipe to the original Silicon Valley. The Korean ‘bounce’ after the 1997 crash of the Tiger Economies arose not from the recovery of existing industries, but from a highly technically proficient skills base which was rapidly deployed into the new set of industries that emerged from the ashes. Similarly the progressive demise of Nokia has prompted a massive peaking in Finnish start-ups as smart technical people found other outlets for their creativity. An example of such an outlet is the explosion in the Finnish computer gaming industry. Finland is doing rather well against a backdrop of a struggling Europe where, as The Economist points out in an August 2013 article ‘The Enterprise State’, “the profligate countries that are suffering the most from the current crisis (such as Greece and Italy) are those that have spent the least on [research and development] and education”. The same feature points out that the technologies that ‘put the smart into Apple’s smartphones’ were largely derived from ‘academic scientists in publicly funded universities’ … and also points out the irony in Apple then endeavouring to shift its tax liabilities outside of the country whose public funded this research. Similarly, Google’s original search algorithm was developed under an National Science Foundation grant. Which brings us in a roundabout way to our Centres of Research Excellence and The MacDiarmid Institute. The absolute key role of these Centres is to be excellent. The articles quoted above strongly point to the key being not so much what you do but how well (competitively) you do it. There is much more besides, particularly in better engagement with our community and I include our industry. This is part of changing the disconnected science and research culture discussed above. The ambitions need to be large and I have argued that although the thematic targets may need to be narrower, perhaps the skills base should be wider in what will likely be a smaller Institute in terms of the numbers of Principal Investigators. My new role in Wellington makes it difficult to continue to be fully engaged in the Institute, let alone the potential conflicts of interest, so I will relinquish my Principal Investigator role for any new contract.  I have hugely enjoyed my time in the Institute since its inception and the collaborations and friendships it has seeded. It has been truly transformational to careers and indeed to whole sections of our materials science landscape. Let us hope it continues to fulfil these ambitions. The MacDiarmid Institute’s Professor Jim Metson is the newly appointed Chief Science Adviser for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

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