Sir Paul Callaghan’s legacy

A opinion article by technology writer Pat Pilcher highlights the challenge that “scientific rock star” Sir Paul Callaghan has left for New Zealand society.

An excerpt (read in full here):

Sir Paul’s legacy: invest in the future

Sir Paul Callaghan’s passing marks a very sad moment not only for New Zealanders now, but also for future generations.

You may have already read about Sir Paul’s background and long history of scientific endeavours, I won’t go into these, but suffice to say, he was a great man, and his passing really got me thinking.

Sir Paul was New Zealand’s only scientific rock star, but why was that?

Why is it that we seem to have a nearly inexhaustible supply of sports people to idolise, yet only one high profile scientist? I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as being more than a little bit alarming.

If you’re in any doubt as to how behind New Zealand is in the science/technology stakes, check out the NZ Ahead report, which last year benchmarked the country’s overall performance across a range of economic, social and environmental categories, giving us a C rating overall and scoring us even lower for innovation.

This is pretty bizarre as the technology sector now represents one of our biggest industries. So how has it remained largely unrecognised?

Perhaps policy and decision makers could use Sir Paul’s passing to take stock of the current situation with a view to developing a long-term strategy aimed at bolstering the industry?

The sector may be large, but it tends to compare poorly with other OECD nations. While the research done in New Zealand is of a high standard, the sad truth is we don’t do enough of it, especially in the private sector.

Compared to other countries, such as Finland or Denmark, our businesses tend to spend less on research and development by almost a factor of ten.

This is not only shameful, but it also has a big effect on our productivity, which is why we scored so poorly on innovation.

That New Zealand’s GDP per capita has been overtaken by economic basket-cases such as Spain and Greece, (and is about to be overtaken by Slovenia, Israel, Korea and Taiwan) all comes down to the fact that these countries have made science and technology a focus of their economies.

Sir Paul was adamant that both sectors were going to play a pivotal role in growing the economy and helping to slow the brain-drain that has seen record numbers of professionals leaving New Zealand for a better paying career off-shore.

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