OPINION: The Value of Science by Joe Trodahl

The question put to me is “What is the value of science and innovation in/ for New Zealand?” Is my impression correct; does the word “innovation”
 in that question focus on economic advancement? In reality, innovation is required to advance science as well as the economy, and most else as well, but to me the question already carries a bias toward regarding science’s main role as advancing the economy by developing innovative industries. That is only a part of the story, one endpoint, one that runs the risk of stifling other, increasingly valuable contributions that science
 can make. The view that science’s only role is as the birthplace of exploitable innovation is a very narrow one. Despite that, it is a view suggested by discussions in the political sphere. Scientists commit themselves at 
an early age to enormous effort into understanding the physical world surrounding us, with a premium placed on the facility to model and predict
new behaviour quantitatively. The most fortunate among us develop exactly new descriptions of nature that extend our understanding of nature’s secrets; which is enormously satisfying as a personal achievement. Of course, that alone does not justify our continued support and
it is entirely proper that we assess just what we offer to the county’s taxpayers. We must not give the impression of an attitude that says we deserve the support based solely on our innovative science, that we are the elite and deserve our substantial salaries on that basis. However, the understanding of the physical world that follows from our focus does make us valuable beyond the immediate economic innovations.
In a perfect world the NZ population would recognise that, but that world will never eventuate, not unless we take the responsibility to help the country along the road to it. No one can seriously doubt that science has contributed to our well being, with central contributions 
to health, communications, travel, agriculture and beyond. But neither a large fraction of the NZ population nor the government it elects appreciate the cost of those advances in terms of basic underpinning science. This country’s scientists contribute to those advances, and many have contributed to local innovative industries. They include a
few of the large-scale industries, of which the kiwifruit industry is the most widely recognised, and a larger number of smaller industries. Even without a search for them, the very few with which I am familiar include the following: Vega Industries in Porirua has a large fraction of the business supplying high- performing marine navigation lights; Buckley Systems Ltd. in Auckland now supplies a large portion of the precision magnets in ion implantation systems used in the semiconductor industry; HTS110 is a magnet supplier that grew out of a very long-term programme exploring the cuprate superconductors, and was ultimately sold to a commercial company (Scott Technology Ltd.). On a smaller scale Beaglehole Instruments and Magritek have supplied, respectively, especially high-performing optical instruments and magnetic resonance measurement and imaging systems. In most cases there was a delay of some 10-30 years between the start of the research programmes that led to their eventual success; gestation periods of decades are the norm rather than the exception. A funding requirement for short-term economic developments, one based on a view that science is there
 to make quick predictable innovative industries, would have cut them in the bud. In each endeavour, their ultimate success was not immediately predictable, but they were based on excellent science led by outstanding scientists. Having started stating the science
 can contribute so much more than economic innovation, I spent the previous paragraph writing of nothing else. So then, where else does science fit in? Sticking for the moment to economic issues, it provides knowledge support for almost any innovative industry. The enterprises mentioned above have requirements for research-trained scientists on their staff, and most have strong formal or informal collaborative ties with active scientists in universities and CRIs. Similarly trained research scientists are employed by a huge range of enterprises in the country. The need for the techniques and the analytic approach developed in scientific training do not end with the initial innovation. Our current research graduates receive excellent science training; they develop the required skills in spades, but that would not be provided if the scientific community were allowed to slip into mediocrity. We must overcome the lack of belief in the excellence of our science, and inculcate into at least some of the country’s population an appreciation of the fascination of ideas generated by science. An understanding of the natural world has the power to contribute to our self image, to the control of our environment, and, most importantly, it is required to inform our collective decisions. The weakest element in most western nations is not their economy; we are exceedingly comfortable as regards our physical well-being. So long as we believe that science’s contributions are primarily to contribute to only that we are underrating our potential contribution to allay the fear that develops from a lack of understanding. I was impressed by a statement I once heard from Jim Anderton, that there are no votes in science. Would there be votes if the population had at least a rudimentary understanding of its basis and of the power that transcends an immediate economic benefit?

Professor Joe Trodahl is a Emeritus Professor in Physics at Victoria University, after retiring from a Chair in 2002. He joined Victoria University in 1971, having completed a PhD from Michigan State University and a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia. He remains involved in research nearly full time in Wellington, and the freedom of retirement has allowed him to take on work outside New Zealand, as well as to enjoy time sailing and tending his olive grove. His current research includes the intrinsic ferromagnetic rare-earth nitride semiconductors, Raman scattering investigation of
the ferroelectric phases of nanostructured perovskites, ferroelectric/ferromagnetic multiferroic structures and heat flow in sea ice.