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Chasing Knowledge - Pete Hodgson Speech

Wednesday, 31 January 2001 Hon Pete Hodgson Speech Notes

Victoria University of Wellington


Chasing Knowledge
An Address to the NZ University Students Association Annual Conference


Every now and then, politics gives you a treat to keep you going.

I got one last week, when I went to Antarctica. It's an incredible place, not many people get to go there and I feel really, really lucky to have made it.

I mention it not to gloat, but because it was exciting for more than the scenery. I got a buzz out of being investigated by Emperor penguins, but also out of the science that's going on down there.

Antarctica is the world's natural laboratory. The air, the water, the ice are so clean that researchers get results from studying them that are unclouded by the kind of environmental noise they find elsewhere.

Antarctica is also like Lego box number one. You find life there in its most elemental forms, and evidence of evolutionary processes that is startlingly clear.

I met some scientists who are studying blue-green algae and cyanobacteria that grow in short-lived freshwater and saltwater ponds. These things survive in one of the most extreme environments on Earth. It's not just unbelievably cold. It's a desert, because it's so cold that every drop of moisture freezes.

But the really interesting thing about these organisms – which are basically pond scum – is not how tough they are. The interesting thing is that they produce oxygen, rather than consuming it like we do. They are believed to be one of the original forms of life on Earth. And over millions of years, when they were far more numerous than they are now, they are believed to have created this planet's atmosphere.

Antarctica serves up lots of mind-boggling stuff like that. The Antarctic Treaty designates it "a natural reserve devoted to peace and science" and it is truly a scientists' paradise. It is a fantastic place for both generating and testing knowledge.

The wonderful thing about science is the excitement of ideas. I visit a lot of labs and research centres and I always come away happy, because I've met people who really love what they do. They're creating new knowledge, or new things, or both at the same time, and there can’t be many more satisfying things to do with your life.

I think it's important to remember that when thinking about science policy and getting into questions about costs and benefits, public and private goods, funding strategies and infrastructure. It's important to remember that chasing knowledge is one of the finest things that people do, and science is one of the best ways we do it. The way we value the pursuit and advancement of knowledge is a defining factor in our quality of life and the quality of our society.

You've probably heard politicians and others talking about the knowledge society or the knowledge economy. You've probably wondered what it means. So have I.

I think it does have meaning, but it is a remarkably difficult thing to articulate – especially in media-friendly soundbites. I think maybe the difficulty is quite similar to the difficulty that psychologists and philosophers have in saying what moods are. We know what we mean when we say someone is melancholy, or restless, but it is famously difficult to unpack that meaning in any clinically accurate fashion.

Maybe one way to look at it is that the phrases "knowledge economy" or knowledge society" describe directions rather than destinations. They describe the character of a desirable society or economy rather than a particular state of affairs.

If you ask me what that means, I'd say it there is no single defining characteristic, but rather a bunch of them.

For one thing, the knowledge economy or society must be one in which the value of knowledge is recognised and celebrated. We haven't always been very good at that in this country. Part of our culture and history is coloured by a respect for practical skills whose flipside is anti-intellectualism.

To go back to Antarctica for a quick example, the Scott Base staff's term for the scientists who go there is "beakers" – after the lab-coated Muppet of the same name, I believe, rather than the glass jar. It's affectionate, but it's dismissive too.

I think that attitude is changing as a tertiary education becomes more and more common in New Zealand. But it still needs to change more.

I think we need to get more excited about knowledge and innovation as components of a satisfying life, not just a satisfying pay packet – although the two are, of course, related.

So perhaps we could say that another of the characteristics of a New Zealand knowledge society would be that our people get more ambitious for a life and career bound up with knowledge and innovation. That would be our young people, particularly – like you.

At the same time we need to be clear that we are not talking about some kind of "revenge of the nerds". If we are to shift the direction in which our society and economy are growing, it cannot be towards a more exclusive model where scientists, technologists and innovative entrepreneurs are heralded as a new elite, while those who have no hope of joining their ranks are left behind or made to feel irrelevant.

There are many different ways to contribute to an economy and society, and many ways to motivate and include people. Perhaps most importantly, knowledge and innovation provide jobs, and those jobs are not just for the highly educated and the expert.

In my home town, Dunedin, there is a fish factory making a product called hoki fry. It's snap frozen and processed in a particularly clever way and sold into Japan. It's an innovation: the Japanese didn't know they wanted New Zealand hoki fry until somebody invented it and gave it to them. Now there are more than 100 people making it in Dunedin and Nelson and the company is confident there will be a lot more in the next couple of years.

So what about the quality of those jobs? Are those workers developing new skills? Are they managed in a way that encourages them to see themselves as contributors to a process and a business subject to continuous improvement? Do they place any value on being part of an innovative business?

In this case I haven't studied the place and I'd be guessing. But I would say that positive answers to those questions would be another characteristic of a knowledge economy. And I would say that in many New Zealand workplaces the answers need to change.

I've gone out on a bit of a curve from science policy, which you asked me to speak about, because these are good times for thinking laterally. We have been through 15 years of a failed economic experiment in this country and it is time to re-imagine our future. These ideas I'm throwing at you have to be applied to the nuts and bolts and dollars and cents of public policy, but we have to think large before we think small. We need some excitement and optimism about our future as a nation.

I can give you nuts and bolts. I can tell you that in last year's Budget this Government increasing its total investment in research, science and technology by about 10 percent, which is double the increase in total Government spending.

We included in that the largest ever injection of support for private sector research and development, because private R&D is very low in this country by developed nation standards.

We've set up a group called the Science and Innovation Advisory Council, which is a high-powered think-tank feeding ideas directly to the Prime Minister on what could be done to transform our economy and society.

We've developed an e-commerce strategy, set up Industry New Zealand to support business and industry development and launched a flexible Modern Apprenticeship Programme that can help people learn how to crunch computer code as well as metal or wood.

We've cut the cost to students of tertiary education by stabilising fees and dropping interest on loans while you're studying. For the first time in a decade, the costs of study here have gone down a bit instead of up a bit.

We've increased public investment in the arts – and if you're asking yourself what that's got to do with a knowledge economy, think about building national identity and ask yourself these questions instead:

When innovation is more than ever the key to economic survival, what future is there for a country that tells itself creativity has nothing to do with prosperity?

What future is there in the mindset that business and imagination are polar opposites?

What future is there in raising generations with the assumption that New Zealand is too small, too anonymous, too culturally empty to hold its own in the world?

To succeed as a nation we must believe that we can, and that we deserve it. This Government believes that, as many New Zealanders do.

I'm back to the big picture again, but maybe you don't mind. Maybe you're here because you're also excited about ideas and about this country's future. If you want detail about how science funding works, or how New Zealand compares internationally on various indicators of science effort, or maybe just about how to get to Antarctica without going into politics, ask me now.

You're students, so you must have questions.


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