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The Rankin Thursday Column: Valuing Scientists

22 July 1999

Keith Rankin is an Auckland-based political economist and social commentator. He teaches political economy, economics, public policy and statistics at Unitec Institute of Technology and Massey University (Albany campus).

The latest fad in New Zealand politics is the "Knowledge Economy". Science has seemingly become respectable again, and our senior government politicians are bemoaning the lack of scientists that our universities are "producing". (One of many reports on this phenomenon is Vernon Small's feature in the 15 July NZ Herald "Intervention no longer a dirty word".)

For me, the terms "scientist" and "knowledge worker" are synonymous. A scientist is a person educated to at least Masters level in a university or an institute of technology, and who pursues a paid or unpaid vocation that builds upon that education. A scientist's education instils capacities for critical reflection and innovative thought, plus a concept of wellbeing that is more sophisticated than the maximisation of profit.

It is easy to complain that New Zealand universities educate too many accountants and too few scientists. Well, that's the market economy; the economic system that this government remains devoted to. Our dwindling supplies of scientists have few career opportunities here. The much larger numbers of accountants we train continue to find well-paid jobs in New Zealand. Intervention in this market - to educate more unwanted scientists - will not create a knowledge economy. To create a knowledge economy, we have to invest not in scientists, but in scientific careers. We have to create the market forces that will encourage young people once again, to want to be scientists.

In 1970, when I left Palmerston North Boys High School, it was assumed that most of the top scholars would seek degrees in science and engineering. The New Zealand of those days provided plenty of career opportunities for scientists and engineers. We had a knowledge economy. Much of that knowledge fed into the scientific development of the food producing industries that some of our public servants now find passé.

Half a generation later, science sucked. The government saw employing scientists as a disrespect for the market. The private sector showed little interest in research and development. The pure market economy had too short a time horizon to allow firms to invest in product or process development. Treasury philistines even suggested that New Zealand companies should seek funding from Australian government sources, as part of the CER arrangement.

The Government still has the cart before the horse. Why would we want to invest in scientists if we don't want to invest in scientific careers. We have unemployed scientists in New Zealand; and we have science graduates taking up non-science careers.

A few weeks ago I was drawn to an item in the local Central Leader about an unemployed scientist - Anwarul Kabir, an immigrant from Bangladesh - who is trying to experiment with rice strains that would grow well in New Zealand. He cannot get a job, let alone research funding for a project that could have great benefits for New Zealand.

Scientists are a part of the global labour market. Most scientific endeavour is, directly or indirectly, a gift not to the nation but to the world. New Zealand scientists are gratefully accepted in the academies and laboratories of rest of the world. Yet many scientists would work in New Zealand for half of what scientists earn in Boston or Baltimore. We live under the pure market model, but we will not buy the talents of our talented.

The only Government Department that is buying knowledge workers is the Immigration Department. Because we still have a higher social wage than Bangladesh and other third world countries, scientists that such countries can ill afford to lose come here, and give us the benefit of their knowledge. We buy scientists and we produce scientists, but we don't buy much science.

It is the practice of science - a nation's willingness to support intelligent creative educated minds - that creates an exciting economy; an economy with positive feedback between scientists and between scientists and their host communities. We need to demand science, not just supply scientists.

Because science is a global career, a nation like New Zealand (or Bangladesh) must expect to lose many of the scientists that it educates. Nevertheless, it can and should support as many scientists as it educates. That way the immigration swings balance the emigration roundabouts.

When New Zealand politicians get onto a new fad, they tend to do it all wrong. They set about removing supports for the people working in activities deemed to be passé. They see economic change as a destructive rather than a creative process. In 1999, as in 1985, we are taking to knocking our role as a food-producing country, as if a food-producing economy and a knowledge-economy are mutually exclusive. Who could we need more than a scientist who knows a lot about the production of the world's principal staple food? We should be paying royalties to the government of Bangladesh for having invested in a knowledge worker who lives in and wants to stay in New Zealand.

In the new global economy, there will always be a flow of scientists towards the centres of critical mass in their disciplines. New Zealand can be one of those centres, just as Ireland can be. But New Zealand should not try to become a knowledge economy at the expense of other would-be knowledge economies. And all knowledge economies should pay for the scientists that they import. New Zealand and Bangladesh supply scientists, gratis, to other countries. Generosity is laudable, but it has its limits. We should not invest in scientists unless we can expect a public dividend from that investment.

The global market for scientists is riddled with market failure. Science flourishes, despite rather than because of market forces. Science flourishes through a hidden gift economy. Little is known about the way modern capitalist economies really work.

Most knowledge workers don't want to be millionaires. Rather they want economic security and an opportunity to use their knowledge in imaginative ways. They want, to a large extent, to be able to set their own agendas. That's how creativity works. We need to provide opportunities for New Zealand educated scientists to work as scientists in New Zealand. Further, we should secure the services of Anwarul Kabir, paying him to do what he wants to do, while paying the government of Bangladesh a royalty. When we do those things, we will have a knowledge economy.

© 1999 Keith Rankin

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