Ag and hort scientists eye roles in future economy

Scientists and other researchers in the nation’s primary-production sectors canvassed the role of science and innovation in Wellington during a forum which also featured warm-up head-butting by politicians preparing for November’s general election.

Excerpts from recorded highlights of some presentations delivered at the Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science forum are available for playback.

Dr Carnaby:

Dr Rolleston:

Prof Hendy:

Politicians’ responses and pre-election presentations to the NZIAHS political forum can also be heard below. The panel was moderated by journalist Jon Morgan, from the Dominion Post, and in most cases the panelists spoke in the following order: Damien O’Connor (Labour Party), Kevin Hague (Green Party), Don Nicolson (ACT Party), and David Carter (National Party).

The Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science (NZIAHS) staged its forum at Te Papa on October 4, with a keynote speech from former Agriculture Minister Jim Anderton, minutes before he gave his valedictory speech in Parliament.
Guest speakers — and the political panel — talked through questions such as whether New Zealand could build a first-world economy  by targeting its food production to wealthy markets, with NZIAHS president Associate Professor Jon Hickford suggesting food exports were a safer bet than fashionable consumer technology such as electric bikes. Key speakers included:

Royal Society president, Canterbury Development Corporation chairman, and Entrepreneur in Residence at Lincoln University, Dr Garth Carnaby:

“We are  … lucky to find ourselves surrounded by favourable factors for strong comparative advantage in our main agricultural commodity-producing industries. And we can add to that by using our brains. We should be able to create additional competitive positions in high technology engineering, in the clusters which have grown up around our traditional agricultural commodity businesses, by accelerating the export capacity of our large services sector, and by making available angel and venture capital to companies. If we can further leverage them with Technology NZ funding once they are cashflow positive, we can expect them to keep innovating”.

“There are other high-level public interventions available to New Zealand Inc which will accelerate innovation. The first and most obvious one is the roll out of faster broadband … it is particularly relevant to the group of business services companies. There is no other single intervention more likely to get more of them exporting services and software more quickly”.

Dr Carnaby also spoke on the role of the Royal Society of New Zealand, the SMC’s Kent Atkinson reports.

South Canterbury farmer, biotechnologist and current Federated Farmers Vice President, Dr William Rolleston:

“New Zealand has one of the lowest investments in science research and development at around 1.2% of GDP, about half the OECD average of around 2.3%. We need to aim for 3%, and fast. Funding of this magnitude enables  more expansive research, not just retaining our top scientists, but attracting the world’s best here. This creates a research cluster that attracts not just start-ups, but established companies seeing where the innovation and resources are. But just spending more on R&D would be wasted if we don’t get the implementation right.”

“Creating the right science ecosystem … is about balancing the science portfolio, a balance between discovery and applied science, a balance between industry sectors, a balance between economic, social, cultural and environmental outcomes. It is also about creating an ecosystem where excellence is rewarded”.

Deputy Director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology at Victoria University, Professor Shaun Hendy:

“Scale and connectivity matter: the scale at which you are undertaking an activity and the connectivity that you have actually matter when it comes to innovation. But when you look at how scale and connectivity are being achieved, the connections are often very unpredictable. When we looked at New Zealand’s largest network of inventors, we found links between Fisher and Paykel Healthcare and Fonterra — so these links aren’t always sectoral-based.  And what science did Weta Digital want from the New Zealand science system? You might expect they want ICT or parallel computing, but actually where they’re putting their dollars is into the Auckland Bioengineering Institute — not necessarily something you’d pick based on sectoral reasoning — because to make a convincing animation of an ape or a person, you need to actually have an engineering model of how people and apes move”.

“If we’d sat down 20 years ago and said, if we want to have a film industry in New Zealand, we  wouldn’t have said we should put our public money into bioengineering in Auckland. We need to think laterally, not literally.  When we think about investing in particular sectors, we have to realise that we are going to need capabilities that aren’t necessarily obvious to us. We need a rich and diverse innovation ecosystem … we just don’t know what the knowledge is that we’re going to need to plug in to build particular parts of our economy. A lot of the bits of knowledge that we need will be quite unexpected”.

“Because of the diversity and science system that we need, I think that we should have pretty much a level playing field approach to funding new knowledge, so we should support the generation of new knowledge across the board. That level playing field approach would build diversity and connectivity … something like R&D tax credits, a high level of subsidy that doesn’t depend on the type of R&D that you’re doing. At the moment, we’re using very targeted mechanisms for subsidising R&D activity in firms.”