National Science Challenge winners underwhelm


There’s only one word really to describe the winners of the National Science Challenge – ‘wow’ writ small.

Or, perhaps it is just me that is completely underwhelmed by the announcement of 10 research areas that can comfortably be binned as business as usual.

Though, pity the team tasked with coming up with an overview of the NSC considering there were only 200 entries from greater New Zealand on where and what we should research.

Right from the get-go the challenge lacked direction, had a sort of what is it all about non-rationale.

As chairman of the NSC, the prime minister’s chief science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman is obliged to put a positive spin on the challenge.

As he commented recently:

“The intent is to invigorate the science system, allowing it to become more collaborative and strategic in its approach.”

As the Tui billboards say,

‘Yeh, right’

But firstly, a reminder of the challenges selected.

  • Aging well – harnessing science to sustain health and wellbeing into the later years of life
  • A better start – improving the potential of young New Zealanders to have a healthy and successful life
  • Healthier lives – research to reduce the burden of major New Zealand health problems
  • High value nutrition – developing high value foods with validated health benefits
  • New Zealand’s biological heritage – protecting and managing our biodiversity, improving our biosecurity, and enhancing our resilience to harmful organisms
  • Our land and water – Research to enhance primary sector production and productivity while maintaining and improving our land and water quality for future generations
  • Life in a changing ocean – understanding how we can exploit our marine resources within environmental and biological constraints
  • The deep south – understanding the role of the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean in determining our climate and our future environment
  • Science for technological innovation – enhancing the capacity of New Zealand to use physical and engineering sciences for economic growth
  • Resilience to nature’s challenges – research into enhancing our resilience to natural disasters

They’re all worthy, but.

The trouble is, they’re just another ad-hoc add-on to a science and innovation system that has no clear idea of what we, NZ Inc, are trying to do, or of what particular piece(s) of a very large pie we should/could concentrate on.

At the same time (and I appreciate this is dirty-type talk) – these challenges don’t address where and how are we going to make more money for our country by clever use of R&D, and taking such new products and services to market?

There’s no connectedness between science and the economic health of our country. It means there a lack of relationships and countrywide partnering linking everything.

The NSC will achieve nothing. The public will have no more engagement with science, business is none the wiser, scientists will simply keep on keeping on.

Amongst comment, from my point of view, the best came from Prof Shaun Hendy – who was courageous enough to call a whole lot of nothing exactly that. Shaun’s a professor at Victoria University’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, as well as deputy director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology. He also a regular answer-provider on National Radio’s evening show. Original story is here.

“Of the 10 science challenges selected, only one really addresses one of the key economic challenges our country faces: namely the over-dependence of our economy on the primary sector,” he said.

“Our government invests far less in physical sciences and engineering than those of other small advanced economies, leaving our economy perilously exposed to volatile commodity markets.”

Having one of the challenges “simply aimed at making better use of physical science and engineering research is disappointing, given that we have just created a new organisation, Callaghan Innovation, to do exactly this”, Prof Hendy said.

Exactly.

We have MBIE, Callaghan Innovation, the Marsden Fund, these challenges – but no clear idea of what we’re doing.

Certainly is business as usual.

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About sticknz

sticK is by Peter Kerr, a writer for hire. I have a broad science and technology background and interest, with an original degree in agricultural science. My writing speciality is making the complex understandable. I am available for outside consultancy work, and for general discussions of converting a good idea into something positive
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