In the grand scale of things, New Zealand may be a mere speck at the bottom of the globe – but we’ve got a role to play on the world stage, if we’re prepared to seize the opportunity.
According to Sir Peter Gluckman, science lies at the very heart of the 21st-century economy. And that’s where we need to be in order to move away from commodity-based trading and retain our international relevance.
In a speech to the Agricultural and Horticultural Outlook Summit earlier this year, the chief science advisor to the Prime Minister reinforced the “growing nexus between science and diplomacy”.
Which is all well and good – but how can New Zealand play a part in that?
Gluckman says the key is forming international alliances in order to tap into the value chain.
“We could develop strategic partnerships at every level in the knowledge value chain, both pre-commercial and commercial, generally with small advanced economies where there is an equity of interest,” he says.
While Kiwis do well with generating ideas, we fall down on marketing and going to scale.
“We need partners who can do what we cannot do, be it access to markets, going to scale and/or expertise. We are better to own a fraction of something large than stay small.”
The Macdiarmid Institute's deputy director Shaun Hendy says science is becoming more internationalised as researchers – many of whom are linked with overseas companies – work in bigger teams to solve increasingly complex problems.
“Inevitably, some of the skills you’re going to need in your team are overseas – whether they’re business skills or particular technical skills,” he says.
“More and more, I think we’re going to be involved in these international collaborations, and having a share of the IP is one way we can get value from them.”
He cites Sweden as an example of a country that earns revenue from exporting its science IP, and says New Zealand could do the same in areas like pharmaceuticals and drug design.
Size is not an excuse for poor performance, says Gluckman. New Zealand has a well-educated population and is well placed to participate in the increasingly weightless global economy.
“If one looks at other small advanced economies such as Singapore, Israel, Denmark, Norway and Finland, all have seen science and innovation as central to their viability and growth and these countries took this approach at least 1-2 decades ago. All are now reaping dividends as a result.”
Indeed, all these countries (except Norway) rank above us on the Global Innovation Index as compiled by international business school Insead. After climbing from 27th on the list to 9th last year, New Zealand slid back to 15th place in 2011.
What’s holding us back?
Gluckman, who recently returned from Denmark, says the country is benefiting from investing 1 percent of GDP in publicly funded research and 2.5 percent of GDP in privately funded R&D.
“In Israel, a country not much larger than ours, it is accepted that only 1 in 100 ideas leaving a university or institute will make it to the first phase of commercialisation and of those, 50 percent, if well managed and governed, will succeed.”
That amounts to more than 10,000 ideas per annum, he says.
“We are nowhere near that.”
Gluckman asserts that government-led investment in R&D has been key to transforming these small economies, and drives even greater private sector investment.
The problem is that science and technology doesn’t win votes.
“Politicians will tell you quite explicitly that they understand why it’s important, but if they can’t win votes with it, they’re never going to put it at the centre of things,” says Hendy.
But he believes Gluckman’s appointment has brought science into the political discussion, and along with other relentless champions such as Sir Paul Callaghan, is forcing our leaders to pay attention.
Prior to the Canterbury earthquakes, he says, government support had appeared to be swinging behind the industry. And as the Christchurch rebuild gains momentum, the issue may well gain more traction.