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Innovation, GM And New Zealand’s Science Future

Hon Pete Hodgson Speech Notes
11.00am Friday 21 June 2002

[Address to Department of Physics and Astronomy open forum, University of Canterbury]

Thank you for the invitation to speak today. It’s always a pleasure to visit working scientists.

You’ve asked me to talk about government policy and the future of science in this country.

Let me begin by stating what to you will be obvious. A strong, growing and well-supported scientific community is absolutely vital to New Zealand’s future.

This government is determined to be an active player in the transformation of the New Zealand economy. That transformation means moving beyond our traditional dependence on primary production and generating new wealth from knowledge and innovation. And it requires government to do more than stand back and trust the market to deliver.

My priorities as science minister have been to increase support for basic research, to increase private sector investment in R&D, and to help develop an innovation system that is more collaborative and better at reaping the rewards of new discoveries.

I’m pleased with what we’ve been able to deliver.

For basic research, the Marsden fund and the New Economy Research Fund have both grown significantly in each of this government’s three Budgets.

That matters because most major scientific advances come from basic research, usually unpredictably. We don’t know where work like that going in nanostructure engineering at this university, for example, will lead. But history tells us it is exactly that kind of investment that pays the greatest dividends in new knowledge and technology.

Increasing private sector R&D is harder.

We have introduced the Grants for Private Sector R&D scheme to raise it by about ten percent. We have improved the tax treatment of R&D to make it fully deductible. We have established the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund to provide seed and early-stage capital for new businesses that will typically have a strong R&D focus. We have introduced funding this year for research consortia, which is designed to get companies, research organisations and government agencies working together on research projects.

But less tangible initiatives, some from outside government or in partnership with us, have been just as important in raising the level of commitment to R&D in the business sector.

The Knowledge Wave and Innovate conferences, the arrival of business incubators, the development of business clusters like Christchurch high-tech and private initiatives like Auckland’s Innovation Harbour and the Smartnet workshops have all helped change attitudes.

There is more excitement about research and innovation in the business sector. That is good news for scientists, even those who are not focused on commercial research, because the scientific community as a whole is lifted when it gets more of the respect it deserves.

The third priority I mentioned was strengthening the innovation system by making it more collaborative and effective at capitalising on new ideas.

New partnerships and consortia are beginning to make a difference. Crown Research Institutes are more active in seeking alliances with both public and private partners. NIWA’s new aquaculture facility near Whangarei is one example. CRIs and universities are working more closely together, for example AgResearch with Auckland University, IRL and GNS with Canterbury.

The new tertiary education strategy and funding for centres of research excellence will bring a more focused tertiary research investment. By building world-class clusters and networks of specialisation we can provide better support for emerging talent and a stronger, better connected base for our top researchers. The new Performance-Based Research Fund will decouple funding from student numbers and tie it to research quality.

The next phase of government activity will be shaped by the Growing an Innovative New Zealand framework. This defines our priorities for policy development in the years ahead.

Part of the strategy involves giving special attention to three key growth sectors – biotechnology, information and communications technology and the creative industries. These three are areas where New Zealand already has an edge, but crucially they are sectors where new developments have a spillover effect, raising the performance of the wider economy.

A small part of biotechnology getting disproportionate political attention right now is genetic modification.

Forgive me, I know most of you are physicists and astronomers. But I want to spend a little time on this because it cuts to the heart of what you asked me to talk about: the future of science in this country.

It is my view that New Zealand was very well served by the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification. It allowed a fair and thorough airing of all views of the issue and it produced an outstandingly lucid, comprehensive and cogent report.

The commission explicitly rejected the extremes of unregulated genetic modification on the one hand and complete prohibition on the other. It recommended that we should proceed with caution. And that is the path the government intends to follow.

There is a fair amount of polling evidence, including the commission’s own survey, that suggests the New Zealand public is comfortable with such a middle course on GM.

New Zealanders are generally pragmatic about science and technology. They recognise the value of pursuing knowledge for its own sake, but are more interested in whether it is useful. When they are given good information on a scientific tool like genetic modification, New Zealanders tend to make discriminating judgements about its use rather than sweeping ones.

The Royal Commission found that just over half of those responding to its survey believed genetic modification was important to New Zealand’s future. But perhaps more interestingly, people’s assessments of the advantages or disadvantages differed significantly when they were asked about specific applications.

The majority had a positive view of the advantages of using GM for medicines and vaccines, medical research, pest control and plant research. For processed foods, farm animals, animal research and commercial crops, the majority saw more disadvantages.

What interests me is the willingness of respondents to judge particular applications of
GM on their merits, a tendency that reflects my own experience of New Zealanders’ attitudes.

This practical appreciation of science will be tested in this election campaign by the Green Party, which is betting that New Zealanders’ attitudes to genetic modification are more dogmatic than pragmatic. Personally I think it’s a wrong bet.

It concerns me nevertheless that there is a political party determined to sow confusion about genetic modification and promote mistrust of science.

The Greens sow confusion because they are themselves confused.

They acknowledge, for example, that genetic modification can be useful for medical research and the production of new medicines. Yet they do not acknowledge that their opposition to the release of any genetically modified organism could prevent such new medicines from reaching New Zealand patients.

Consider, for example, the prospect of a live genetically modified vaccine against HIV. Live vaccines are released into the environment when used. The Greens would apparently be happy for such a vaccine to be developed in New Zealand, but never allow it to be given to New Zealanders.

The Greens must also front up to hard questions about other possible applications of GM they would forgo.

What about, for example, a genetically modified pine tree that converts all the energy it consumes into wood and not cones? Such a tree would be more productive for timber and would not spread beyond plantation boundaries, preventing problems with wilding pines in conservation areas. Would the Greens oppose that?

Or what about a genetically modified virus that rendered possums, and only possums, sterile? Would the Greens oppose the release of an organism that would eliminate New Zealand’s possum problem – and the need for aerial poison drops – in one generation?

These are hypothetical examples, and I am not predicting that genetic modification will be a silver bullet for the world’s ills. It may offer us some valuable solutions. The point is that we will not know unless researchers, under appropriate controls, are allowed to pursue their inquiries. And researchers could not do that in this country if the Greens had their way.

Young New Zealanders looking forward to careers in science, such as some of you, must be alert to the threat of this new puritanism. It is often noted in the United States that green and religious fundamentalism, although very different on the surface, frequently coincide in their hostility to science and new technology. Genetic modification and stem cell research are the current targets. But much of science involves human interference with the natural order. There will be other targets.

Personally, it is the combination of absolutism and irrationality that I find most disturbing in the Green approach to GM.

The injunction to keep GM in the lab, for example, ignores the simple fact that it is harder to contain a virus in a laboratory than to contain a sheep in a paddock. One requires a precision engineered space with filtered air, negative air pressure and extensive precautions by researchers. The other requires a fence and a sheepdog.

We have green activists who believe it makes sense to burgle and vandalise facilities where genetic modification research is being carried out, and politicians who condone such actions. It seems they don’t get the irony that containment facilities now have to include extra security precautions to prevent the accidental release of organisms by eco-warriors breaking in.

The Greens also maintain a wilful blindness to advances in scientific understanding of the risks around genetic modification and how they can be managed.

Nobody denies that risks exist, as they do for all technologies of any consequence. But a decade of international research enabling better assessment of the risks has not altered the green position one whit. It is still “all or nothing”, to quote Jeanette Fitzsimons.

When the Royal Commission examined the existing laws and institutions dealing with GM technologies it decided they were basically sound, with room for some improvements. The Government is implementing the vast majority of the Royal Commission's recommendations, with the addition of the two year constraint period on release of genetically modified organisms. This gives us time for the further fine-tuning the Royal Commission recommended, including the establishment of more research programmes that will enable better risk assessment.

By the time we reach the end of the constraint period in October 2003 we will have an updated and extended framework for the management of GM research and organisms. A regulatory regime that is already very strict will be even more rigorous. We are confident that we have a good balance between safety and progress and that New Zealand can manage the risks of GM technology cautiously and well.

New Zealand’s economic and social progress this century will be built with the dividends of innovation. We need a society that respects and supports the exploration of knowledge, not one that retreats from new frontiers. We can proceed with caution, but we must proceed.

We have before us a remarkable election, one in which aspects of research and scientific method are key issues. That does not happen often. It is happening in a nation in which science policy has historically been managed in a determinedly non-partisan way. No longer. One party has declared that it knows best. Scientists and indeed all New Zealanders must decide how they want to respond to that, soon.

Ends

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