I’ve just watched TV One’s interview with Robert, Lord Winston, who was here to open the new Fertility Associates buildings, receive an honorary degree from Auckland University, & probably much else besides. And he had some important, provocative things to say about the state of science in New Zealand, and the country’s attitudes to science.
He opened as he intended to go on: New Zealanders rate things like the America’s Cup, and the All Blacks, too highly; above other things that probably make a more material difference to our way of life. There are probably people who would love to see him run out of town for that. But – & I realise that I am risking being added to the queue for tarring-&-feathering – I agree with him. We are healthier, live longer, generally have a better quality of life than previous generations, because of science & technology. (Sport’s fun to watch – I like soccer, myself – but it does bug me to hear all that hyperbole about ‘the nation’ willing them to win, or whatever. It’s a game, guys. Besides, where would today’s America’s Cup boats be without a good dollop of science & technology?)
But we spend only a very small proportion of our GDP on research & development. Lord Winston pointed out that, to be fair, NZ is a rather small country (our total population is rather less than that of many cities in Europe), and that we can’t spend money the way other, larger economies do. So, he said, spend it wisely. For example, we’re historically very good in areas of science & technology to do with reproductive technology & agriculture. For example, we’re probably world-leaders in some aspects of ag-related reproductive technology – so why not focus on that, look at translating that expertise across to human reproductive technology (where we are also doing some good things)? We need to look for more value-added outputs. And we certainly shouldn’t rely on being the food bowl of a hungry world. (Victoria University’s Prof Paul Callaghan is saying pretty much the same thing – that if we want to maintain our standard of living, we must go down that value-added high-tech route.)
Lord Winston went on to say that genetic modification is of real significance in today’s world. In his view it has the potential to deal with many of the problems we are facing or will face e.g. developing new crops to meet the demands of a rapidly-changing environment. But he perceives us, as a nation, of being frightened of science (giving GM & nuclear power as examples). Yet, he said, we do "some fantastically good science" – but we export our scientists: the very people we should be holding on to. (He has young Kiwi scientists working in his own research lab, back in the UK. You could argue that this is just part of their big OE – but many of our young scientists stay overseas, & do their science there.)
In other words, he said, we have some things whose real value to society we over-inflate, and other things we should value a bit more – things like science & technology, which are important in a modern world and will become increasingly more so. And we shouldn’t be afraid of being clever.
And I agree with him. What do you think?