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Labour lobs science and innovation agenda at National – watch out Stephen Joyce

Among the (little) talk of Labour’s shadow cabinet line-up, one small fact has escaped general notice.

New Opposition leader David Shearer has retained the Science & Innovation portfolio.

Excellent.

This is the first time since the 1930s that either the Prime Minister or the leader of the opposition has held this role. (George Forbes had it back then).

For one thing, it indicates that Shearer wasn’t just seat warming when he had the shadow S&I portfolio pre-election.

Secondly, it indicates that, given he could’ve presumably taken any shadow-portfolio role he wanted, he sees S&I as being important, by definition the most important aspect, in the whole scheme of lifting New Zealand’s wealth.

With deputy Grant Robertson taking on the tertiary education, skills and training role, and David Cunliffe fronting up on economic development, Stephen Joyce is going to find some welcome (from the country’s point of view) pressure to deliver on the super-portfolios he’s taken onboard.

In fact, having a strong income-creating, as opposed to money-spending shadow ministers at the top of his caucus, will be a powerful indicator to middle NZ that Labour’s looking for a new direction.

Shearer’s new mini-mantra, "clean, green, clever and innovative" also has the welcome look of an agenda (we won’t use the word strategy) about it.

As National kicks off the New Year, it will have to be careful it isn’t outflanked in the Science & Innovation stakes.

Sure, IRL’s going to morph into a High-Tech HQ (or Advanced Technology Institute or whatever it will be called), with double the number of staff over the next few years.

But, it can’t be expected to, nor should it be lumbered with, having to create a de facto S&I strategy on behalf of the country. It is part of the solution – a big part – but part of a whole.

That whole should, as has happened in Denmark, Finland, Singapore and Switzerland, start with a Science & Innovation Council headed by a very senior minister (Key preferably, otherwise Joyce).

Such a council, in conjunction with wider industry, research and academia, is the best place – really the only place – from which to drive a collective sense of "this is what we’re trying to do/this is where we’re heading" (note the lack of use of the word strategy – a bit of a no-no word in National parlance, so we’ll just call it an "action plan").

The need for a collective sense of action and a wider ownership is also why the Ministry of Science and Innovation can’t come up with such an action plan.

And though "clean, green, clever and innovative" isn’t anywhere near being a plan of action, it slips off the tongue quite well, and could serve Shearer well if Joyce doesn’t deliver.

So, David Shearer, a big ups for the surprise of keeping the S&I portfolio to yourself.

In reality, being much cleverer, using our biological resources better and figuring out the niche high-tech areas in which we can succeed is the only way for New Zealand to get itself out of (what is still, essentially) a commodity mindset.

In other words, the notion that agriculture et al are sunset industries is wrong. Everything’s complementary in today and tomorrow’s economy – let’s just do it all much better. Have a look at the latest Bioscience report to see how well we’re doing on some of these fronts.

As Shearer gets out and talks to those he’d want to attract as voters, talking science and innovation will be a way for Labour to differentiate itself from its past, and potentially differentiate itself from National – if National’s not too careful.

The ball’s back in your court now, Mr Joyce.

This post originally appeared on Sciblogs.

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