The positive wisdom of Winston

Originally published in The New Zealand Herald on July 1

The reaction to the apparent suggestion from Lord Robert Winston that New Zealand should dump agriculture and embrace biotechnology was illuminating.

Both the reporting and the responses fell into the dichotomy of either sheep or science, as if agriculture is solely dependent upon Kiwi ingenuity and No 8 technology.

This may reflect that many New Zealanders are unaware of how science-intensive our primary sectors are, as well as concern from rural sectors that townies overlook the nation’s dependence upon them for our wealth and wellbeing.

More than two-thirds of New Zealand’s merchandise exports come from the primary sector – $25 billion last year. Tourism brings in over $8 billion.

Both are science-intensive. Air, water, landscapes, grasses, soils, forests, coastal and marine environments underpin tourism, dairy, meat, horticulture, cropping, forestry, fishing and aquaculture and, in turn, much manufacturing.

The hard work of these industries is complemented by their science knowledge and use. It enables New Zealand to keep ahead in globally competitive sectors.

So suggestions that science should abandon agriculture are a nonsense, even if accompanied by airy assertions of unspecified future benefits from bounding off into unrelated areas.

Lord Winston, in fact, praised our agricultural heritage as a strength; not something to abandon, but to build on.

It has created world-leading science taking us into areas of potential high value seemingly far removed from the farm. This includes biotechnologies, biomaterials, human health, functional foods, robotics, stainless steel and nano-engineering.

Increasingly, the knowledge used to develop products and processes here is being applied overseas by New Zealand firms. This is the weightless economy in action – the export of ideas, which are typically worth much more than physical goods and without vulnerabilities such as weather, shipping costs and non-tariff barriers.

So the issue is not how to reallocate current science investment but the willingness of New Zealanders to expand it.

The need is obvious. An OECD report last year said the most important economic challenge [for New Zealand] is to raise income per capita sustainably by boosting productivity growth.

New Zealanders work some of the longest hours in the developed world; there are more of us in work than anywhere else in the OECD. Yet from being the third richest nation, we are now in the bottom third.

The 21 countries ahead of us earn more for each hour worked than we do. Why? Principally through science and technology.

Our research, science and technology spend is half that of the OECD average. The government spend is 75 per cent of the OECD average and the private sector is 25 per cent.

Lord Winston makes a direct connection between RS&T and the wealth and wellbeing of the nation. He calls science a moral investment.

Without adequate investment to raise our productivity, we will be unable to afford the health and welfare we take for granted. Our children will go overseas and never return.

The New Zealand Institute projects that if we continue as is, we shall slip from 70 per cent of Australia’s GDP per capita, to 40 per cent by 2030.

Unlike some science advocates, Winston is not advocating open slather research and funding. In a small economy, he says, you have to focus your efforts and build on areas of excellence.

This insight challenges those lobbying for a trebling of the Marsden Fund whilst bemoaning the investment into the Fast Forward Fund for innovation in the pastoral and food sectors.

Utility and benefit to New Zealand are not considered by the Marsden Fund. Should the Fund really be the first priority for increased science investment by this small economy?

Winston also advises avoiding the stultifying requirement to identify the economic value of all research before beginning. Sometimes science must lead a sector. It needs space and funding to explore ideas that may disrupt and challenge existing practices and products.

That brings us to Winston’s vital insight – that scientific knowledge is important and it can be very profitable. Other countries believe this; we do not.

This is the message that science, business and political leaders must take to the people of New Zealand, to build a constituency of support for real action. The Crown Research Institutes established Science New Zealand this year to do just this.

A world-class science system for New Zealand will have a balance of investment that delivers on existing needs; explores the future and creates choices; and reaches into the blue skies around our areas of excellence. Lets focus our efforts on that.

* Anthony Scott is chief executive of Science New Zealand Inc, representing the nine Crown Research institutes. Last year government, business, sectors and communities invested $625 million with them.