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Peddling vision

A cycleway might unite the country. Science would enrich it.

A cycleway might unite the country. Science would enrich it

Bette Flagler

[Science]

There is a bit too much traction for John Key’s proposal for a national cycleway. Don’t get me wrong, I love to ride my bike. I love getting filthy riding in the mud and I love the exhilaration of downhill that comes only after the hard grind up. I even wear with pride the scar on my right calf that is in the shape of a chain ring—earned by a rather spectacular fall I took years ago. Between us, my partner and I have four bikes, one each for the road and one each for the dirt.

So I should embrace the idea of a cycleway. Recession or not, it would be a great thing to have and would be a boost for tourism—look what the Otago Rail Trail has done for that region. But as far as the country is concerned, a bike path is a short-term idea; it is not a focus for the future.

Nick Churchouse wrote about the cycleway in the Dominion Post in March, saying the $50 million ‘back of an envelope’ budget was insufficient and “creating 3,700 jobs, the Prime Minister’s estimate, is possible but it will take years”. In the same month, the PM must have been delighted at the coverage he got in The Wall Street Journal where he said: “We can use this time to transform the economy to make us stronger so that when the world starts growing again we can be running faster than other countries we compete with.”

I agree with Key that we can use this time to prepare for when the world starts growing again, but the priorities seem wrong. I don’t think a cycleway is the stuff of 21st century change. And I have my doubts that the cycleway will ever be completed. It’s a heroic idea that may prove impossible to get off the ground.

It’s not clear that anyone is putting thought into what really could change this country. The verbiage may be about transformation, but the ideas will simply pedal us along, hoping the world fixes itself. There is no evident shifting of gear; there is nothing that says New Zealand will come out of this recession with a different kind of economy, soundbites for the US press aside.

US President Barack Obama has marked an additional US$20 billion for basic research and US$50 billion to support renewable power and energy efficiency. That kind of investment will absolutely change the complexion of that country; at the same time, Singapore has trebled its investment into R&D.

Meanwhile, science in New Zealand is starving. Why don’t we use that biking money for science and technology? How about adding the $50 million to the Marsden fund—nearly doubling the amount going to basic research—or starting a special $50 million fund for research and development into projects related to the environment? The poor old planet has really taken a back seat to the recession, so let’s support projects that look at energy efficiency, sustainability, alternative fuel and energy options and recycling. Instead of rehashing climate change arguments, let’s accept our responsibility and do something about it.

But who am I kidding? This government won’t do that. For heaven’s sake, it’s sticking to its ill-advised decisions to cancel the R&D tax credits and to ditch Fast Forward. And where is the Minister for Science during all this discussion about bike paths?

Last month, I attended an awards dinner for school kids who participated in Realise the Dream. This dinner is on the last night of a six-day event that rewards students from around New Zealand who have demonstrated excellence in science or technology. Professor David Parry, the 2008 Rutherford Medal winner, and Dr Rebecca McLeod, the 2008 MacDiarmid award winner, were there. So was Dr Wayne Mapp, the Minister of Research, Science and Technology. All three spoke. Perhaps the difference in enthusiasm towards science and technology in the speeches given by Parry and McLeod compared to that given by the minister was planned: these school kids no doubt walked away thinking that scientists are a lot more fun, interesting and passionate than lawyers-cum-politicians. Mapp, who seems like a nice enough fellow, blew his chance to inspire young people who had already shown an aptitude for fields covered by his portfolio. The most exciting thing he mentioned was that the government will launch another annual science award.

We don’t need more awards. We need investment, vision, inspiration and bold new 21st-century ideas. The kids at Realise the Dream have realised their young dreams; the scientists who spoke to them told of how they had fulfilled their own. But Mapp didn’t talk about dreams or ambition or hope. He didn’t charge the young men and women sitting in front of him to take the country forward. It’s as if he didn’t realise that science is what can transform this country, make it stronger and get us running faster than the countries we compete with.

Putting that $50 million of bicycle money into the universities, Crown Research Institutes and private research centres may not take away all our woes, but it would make a difference. And it would create the kinds of jobs for the kind of people who really can change our world.