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Is science the saving hope for NZ's economy?

With our major export sectors under pressure, the science sector could become the saviour of our economy—but first, says Jehan Casinader, it seems we need to save science.

Magazine layout

With our major export sectors under pressure, the science sector could become the saviour of our economy—but first, says , it seems we need to save science

New Zealand has always fancied itself as a land of milk, honey and a nice bit of lamb. Agriculture accounts for more than a third of our exports, but our wool, dairy and meat exporters are facing increasing competition from overseas producers. Meanwhile, the manufacturing sector is taking a hit as Asia ramps up its production, and the tourism industry is still heaving under the weight of the recession. It’s clear that rather than simply flogging our produce, our products or even ourselves offshore, we need to innovate.

In recent years, that message has resonated within the creative sector. Intellectual property is being created in industries such as film and fashion. Those industries have enjoyed a period of good economic weather and political favour. However, the same can’t be said for the science sector. Investment in science is lagging. Student achievement in science is static. Enterprise in some scientific fields is non-existent. The flipside is that research and development could safeguard our economy in the next decade, but despite this, it seems science has been ghettoised in New Zealand.

In laboratories around the country, the alarm bells have been ringing for years. In 2008, the Royal Society of New Zealand wrote a ten-point “recovery plan” for science. The manifesto, penned by senior scientists, paints a bleak picture. It is peppered with phrases like “serious disconnect”, “gradual disempowerment” and “deeply concerned”. The authors claim science has ceased to play a leading role in shaping New Zealand’s future, and it’s possible that we may face a scientific drought.

It’s a prospect that doesn’t rest well with Professor Paul Callaghan, a leading physicist at Victoria University who has spent three decades as a science educator and communicator, and he doesn’t follow the familiar blame-the-government script. Callaghan claims many Kiwi scientists have little or no interest in contributing to economic growth, even though New Zealand needs to lift its GDP by $30 billion per year to match Australia’s on a per capita basis. Callaghan is optimistic about the next generation of Kiwi scientists, but he wants to challenge his long-time colleagues to lift their game.

“If you’re successful scientist, even if you don’t contribute to economic growth, you get to lead a damn good life. You work with talented people, you have funding, and you’re part of global community. It’s too easy to say, ‘Keep the funds coming so I can churn out more papers, have more students, and go to more conferences.’ You get to my age and think, ‘What the hell have I been doing all these years? I have published 250 papers and written a bunch of books, but what value have I added to this country?’”

For years, many Kiwi scientists have been implored to focus on agriculture. Now, the balance is shifting. The Government has scrapped the $700 million Fast Forward fund for the pastoral and food industries. It’s a signal that we need to diversify our investment and, according to

Callaghan, the most promise lies in the hi-tech sector. The problem is that while some scientists are entrepreneurial, others are not creating new intellectual property and their discoveries do not translate into commercial successes. New Zealanders are filing patent requests at a quarter of the average OECD rate. Callaghan says that’s the tip of the iceberg. “If you come up with a bright idea in the lab, you patent it. But that doesn’t produce a damn bit of income at the end of the day. The businesses that have been successful are the ones that have used science to design products, put a bit of packaging around those products, and sent them offshore. Our science is translated into success when we identify niche markets and find customers who are after solutions. But the connection between high-quality science and sellable products can be difficult to find.”

David Brebner knows that challenge well. He founded Unlimited Realities, a Palmerston North tech company that began as a web-development agency. Many of the company’s big clients in the manufacturing and building industries cancelled their contracts once the recession kicked in. However, over the past three years, Unlimited Realities has been developing unique multi-touch software called Fingertapps. The product has caught the attention of tech giants like Dell, and is selling well overseas.

“The multi-touch concept was first popularised by the movie Minority Report,” says Brebner. “We knew there would be a wave of interest in multi-touch software, and we wanted to ride that wave by taking our ideas beyond the lab and commercialising them. It’s an opportunity that will last for three or four years. We have put a lot of time into creating something that we can sell. The reason we have companies like Dell coming after us is because we are focused on creating, developing and innovating.”

The software lets users interact within many virtual environments, from sports fields to operating theatres. Unlimited Realities employs 20 staff, including a team of five who are dedicated to research and development. Brebner collaborates with university academics, publishes papers at graphics conferences, and is actively involved in the research, science and development community. With the assistance of some grants, Unlimited Realities has funded much of its own research, which is now leading to results.

Magazine layoutEverything we touch is affected by science, yet science hasn’t got the right street cred. Scientists are seen as people with propellerheads and white coats and beards. We don’t work hard enough to communicate the value of science to New Zealand. Scientists lock themselves off in a land of gobbledegook, technical language and jargon. And, too often, they remind us that they can never be certain about anything

- Professor Lloyd Davis

The issue of funding, however, looms large over the science community. New Zealand invests less in science than other OECD nations, but the current funding levels are not catastrophically low: the government invests $800 million each year through the research, science and technology budget. As a fraction of GDP, that’s 0.52 percent, compared with the international average of 0.68 percent. High-performing economies like Finland and Singapore invest between one and two percent of their GDP in science and technology.

Callaghan says those who complain that scientists are under-funded are “selfish grizzlers”. He often asks fellow scientists to calculate how much funding they have received, and how many hip replacements or breast cancer treatments could have been bought with those taxpayer funds. Callaghan says all scientists should explain the value of their work, “beyond a vague cultural value”. For our scientists to be taken seriously by the wider public, he says, they must prove what they do is worthwhile.

That’s no easy task. Scientists are expected to woo investors, politicians, business leaders and the public. According to Professor Lloyd Davis of Otago University, many scientists are seen as boring backroom boffins because they fail to excite others about their work. Last year, Otago launched a Master of Science Communication programme. Students can major in science filmmaking, creative non-fiction writing about science, and the popularisation of science. Davis, the director of the programme, wants to change public perceptions.

“Everything we touch is affected by science, yet science hasn’t got the right street cred. Scientists are seen as people with propellerheads and white coats and beards. The reason is that we don’t work hard enough to communicate the value of science to New Zealand. Science is undervalued because people are uninformed. The scientists lock themselves off in a land of gobbledegook, technical language and jargon. And, too often, they remind us that they can never be dead certain about anything.”

Scientists are reliant on creative people to make their discoveries easier to grasp. Davis believes there is room for more collaboration between science industries and creative industries that wouldn’t often sit side-by side. A graphic designer’s model of how the brain functions could greatly enhance a neuroscientist’s conclusions. Davis also believes there is a strong need for good storytellers who can make science accessible and attractive to the business sector. He is on the hunt for those individuals.

Magazine layout Callaghan says those who complain that scientists are under-funded are “selfish grizzlers”. He often asks fellow scientists to calculate how much funding they have received, and how many hip replacements or breast cancer treatments could have been bought with those taxpayer funds. For scientists to be taken seriously by the wider public, he says, they must prove what they do is worthwhile

“When we began the course at Otago, we expected to take a group of science students and give them communication skills. In fact, we are working with many students who don’t have a science background, but have knowledge of the creative industries, arts or humanities. Whether they are designers, writers or web developers, they can help us to repackage science and tell science stories in new ways. Blogs, films and even animation can help us to make science more entertaining and informative.”

An appreciation for science is valuable, but can that appreciation be translated into cash? Mario Wynands thinks so. He is the head of Wellington gaming company Sidhe, which has received a $500,000 grant from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology to develop a software platform that will allow Sidhe to “take bigger risks, accelerate development and reduce compliance”. Wynands points out that rapid growth in countries like China is partly due to investment in science and research.

“Our company is very reliant on development, and we are actively seeking to collaborate with the research sector. But scientists need to be more understanding about how the business marketplace works. What is in fashion in terms of creativity can change from month to month, or week to week, but science institutes and universities can be quite slow-moving. If we’re working with the science sector, we need quick solutions to our current challenges within days, weeks or months, not within years.”

Scientists need to be more understanding about how the business marketplace works. We need quick solutions to our current challenges within days, weeks or months, not within years

- Mario Wynands

Those challenges can be tackled using smart engineering. The Gibson Group, a multimedia production house, is harnessing the power of good research and good design. It has created interactive environments for museums in France and New Caledonia. The latest project is for Te Papa, a public exhibition called ArtSpace. It celebrates user-created content, and allows visitors to upload their own photos, videos and content, which are put on public display. The place is loaded with infrared lasers, cameras, optics and web.

Computing in the classroom

Canterbury educators are struggling to put computer science on students’ radars

If the hi-tech sector is going to boost New Zealand’s economy, it makes sense to protect and promote computer science. In many schools, that’s not the case. Computer science seems to be the poor relation of the physical sciences: NZQA offers no achievement standards for computer science, which makes it an unattractive option for highly academic students who want to receive NCEA with merit or excellence. In October, Californian e-learning expert Gary Stager told a Christchurch audience that schools’ “narrow thinking” is preventing students from making the most of computer technology.

Vilna Gough-Jones is the assistant head of computer science at Burnside High School. She helped to create the Christchurch College of Computing, a separate school for computer-minded year-13 students. The college had 35 students and aimed to give them practical skills in areas like programming, hardware and networks. The college ran for four years, but shut due to low enrolments. A new model, attempted by Hagley College, closed in December 2008. Gough-Jones says many students are being underserved.

“At the College of Computing, we didn’t have support from the IT industry. The college became uneconomical to run. I was very sorry to see it go, because it was doing good stuff for scienceminded kids who were slipping through the gaps at school. Many computing teachers aren’t teaching computer science or programming; they only teach the things they are comfortable with. For that reason, we aren’t attracting or retaining the really bright kids who may go on to do great things. It’s a real battle.”

Bevan Rudge liked computer science at school, but didn’t jump into tertiary study. First, he spent a few years overseas, and began working as a web developer before he even began a degree. Now, he’s back in Christchurch and working for CivicActions, a US-based company that builds websites for non-profit groups like Amnesty International. Rudge is studying computer science at Canterbury University part time. He hopes his lecturers will teach him the things he hasn’t been able to teach himself.

“Most universities, including Canterbury University, focus on setting students up for careers in traditional corporate IT jobs,” he says. “That’s not useful for someone like me who wants to build websites or work with open-source software. I have met many people who have done computer science at university and moved into corporate IT jobs. Almost all of them have come to hate computer science, and they have sworn never to go back to it. We need to make science relevant to retain young people.”

Many people are trying to make that happen. Christchurch professor Tim Bell has designed Computer Science Unplugged, a classroom programme that teaches concepts like algorithms, binary and data compression without the use of computers. The teaching is done through hands-on group activities. The initiative has been a success in Christchurch schools and now, with sponsorship from Google, the resources are being translated and used overseas.

Rudge says we need more innovative educators like Bell in the computer science field. “There is no shortage of Kiwi young people who show an interest in computer science. Many kids know how to configure their PlayStation backwards, forwards and inside out. They have the skills and the inquisitiveness to be computer scientists, but they don’t want to study or work in that field because of the stereotypes around it. I’m convinced that we are missing out on a whole lot of young computer scientists and programmers who have the potential to revolutionise the way we use technology.”

The jewel in the crown is a wand device with inertial sensors. When pointed at the screen it not only allows you to point and click, it allows you to push, pull and re-layer. The Gibson Group designed it specifically for this exhibition. The tool doesn’t exist elsewhere, and the company is now fielding enquiries from other countries. David Crossan, the company’s technical director, has a background in science engineering. He says it’s about making local research and development attractive to a range of clients.

“When you go to Europe, engineering is all around you; it’s pervasive and it’s beautifully integrated. Here, we think of engineering as something a mechanic does; we don’t see it on a grand scale. Where are our great bridges? Where are our feats of engineering? We need to understand that engineers can enhance the contribution of scientists and developers. There is a huge amount of creativity in the engineering process and if we can harness that, we will get much more value out of our science.”

In October, the Government announced a major review of the science sector, with the aim of improving the research system and making the eight Crown Research Institutes more productive. In the same month, Massey University announced that it will shave $5.5 million off its science faculty budget for 2010, while Canterbury University wants to raise $50 million by issuing bonds, part of which will be used to refurbish its science facilities.

Where does the future lie? The prospects for our next crop of scientists are mixed. A global study released in December 2008 showed that science achievement levels for Kiwi nine-yearolds had dropped back to 1994 levels. But another OECD study, released in April 2009, suggests our secondary school students are among the best young scientists in the world, second only to students in Finland. The bad news? Forty percent of our top science students have no interest in pursuing science as a career.

Callaghan, who has spent three decades lecturing in physics at Victoria University, isn’t worried. He says today’s students are as bright as ever, and they want their work to count for something. He has roped in some of his PhD students to launch a company that sells nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers. Doesn’t ring a bell? Don’t worry; it’s advanced stuff. The product is doing well, and sales will reach $1.5 million this year—in no small part due to the hard work of Callaghan’s team of young scientists. He believes the only thing that can ‘save’ science is good science itself.

“I walked into Tait Electronics the other day. They have wonderful machines producing six-layer printed circuit boards, which make fabulous electronics that are exported around the world. I find that sexy. Am I strange? I don’t know. But what turns people on is the fact that smart New Zealanders are making things that are up there with the best in the world. We can’t beat what’s happening in industries like fashion, design and entertainment. The science sector needs to find its own success stories.”

Making science sexy

Fashionistas are forging links with scientists, and it’s proving a win-win

Professor Peter Gluckman, the prime minister’s chief science advisor, began his tenure in April by announcing that it was time “to make science sexy and attractive”. Gluckman isn’t the first person to have that aim. The fashion industry has already begun to forge links with the science community, with some interesting results. Last year, when state research body AgResearch announced it was hosting a full catwalk show at Air New Zealand Fashion Week, a few well-groomed eyebrows were raised.

“I wasn’t quite sure what to expect,” wrote one fashion commentator. “Would there be demonstrations with test tubes? Dresses made out of grass? Mouse pads and pocket protectors in the goody bags? Scientists taking to the catwalk in lab coats?” In short, none of the above. AgResearch had invited a range of top Kiwi designers, including Annah Stretton and Cybèle, to create mini-collections of garments using new, versatile, woolbased textiles. The show was well received by the fashion community.

Elizabeth Tennet, director of Textiles New Zealand, doesn’t just want scientists to promote their work, she also wants them to commercialise it. Tennet says we have forgotten that the agriculture sector has made New Zealand a first-world economy, and that there are still gains to be made in collaboration with the creative sector. Firms like Stansborough and Designer Textiles have been working with scientists to find new uses for basic wool products, with the potential to diversify and differentiate their exports.

“There are new fire-resistant and stab-resistant fabrics that are unique to New Zealand,” says Tennet. “Some companies are experimenting with new fabrics, and how those fabrics can be used in different lifestyles and different industrial settings. But we don’t do enough of that. There’s a real disconnect between what is happening at the research and development end and what is happening at the commercial end. We need to get closer to the science community because the world is crying out for new fabric products.”

A current point of collaboration is the blending of merino with possum fur. The combination is unique to New Zealand, and Tennet says it can provide Kiwi designers with a competitive advantage. Possum wool is light, warm and well-suited to luxury garments. Possum fur products are already in demand among tourists who come to New Zealand, but there is scope to refine the product and explore export potential. Tennet says these will be lost opportunities unless business leaders can work with scientists.

“Science helps businesses to stay ahead of the game. Our businesses need to be more inquisitive and more curious about the value that science can add to what we are already doing. The scientists themselves need access to capital through the business community, so they can afford to do work that leads to the creation of commercial products that we can sell. There are exciting opportunities out there, but we need to show scientists that what they are doing can have practical benefits for New Zealand.”