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Maharey: Welcoming science leaders

24 February 2005

Hon Steve Maharey Welcoming the next generation of science leaders

Speech for the MoRST Future Leaders Forum, Te Papa, Wellington


Welcome to science leaders here this evening, to Helen Anderson and the MoRST team, to ‘mentors’ Dr Paul Callaghan and Dr Jim Watson, and above all to the future leaders of science who have gathered here today for their first meeting as a new advisory group to explore emerging science and technologies and the impact of these to New Zealand.

I first must congratulate you on your wonderful title for this group – Oxygenators – it conjures up images of a burst of fresh air invigorating the system.

I am looking forward to some incandescent advice from the group, especially since I am reliably informed that an earlier working title for the group was the flamethrowers. We all know what happens when you add oxygen to the flame.

Bringing the sciences together

But to take a more serious line, I am delighted to be able to be at the launch of such a far-sighted project. You form part of a group that encompasses a whole range of scientific disciplines. There are people from the biosciences, from the physical sciences, chemistry, social sciences and Mâtauranga Mâori.

This is recognition that although science used to be divided into separate disciplines, that approach is no longer feasible in the modern world. You are all members of one family – the family of science and as scientists you are also members of a wider community.

If individual science disciplines can no longer afford to stand apart, neither can scientists afford to stand apart from the community they practice in and serve. Science and technology have been developing rapidly, and there are some exciting fields of work opening up. At the same time, there is some disquiet at where they may be taking us. A group of people from a broad range of interests is exactly what we need to supplement the advice we already get from the science and technology sector.

Your forum is an exciting project and I want to acknowledge the vision of the Chief Executive of the Ministry of Research Science and Technology, Dr Helen Anderson in putting forward the idea for this group and in making it happen. I know that part of this vision is Helen’s commitment to creating opportunities for the development of leaders in the science and technology family. We often think we strengthen the future by building new knowledge alone, but that is not enough. We also need people to lead and shape how we apply that knowledge.

That is why it is important that a young ‘futurewatch’ group such as this can rely on the mentoring of Dr Paul Callaghan, who heads the MacDiarmid Institute and Dr Jim Watson of the Royal Society who have generously agreed to act as mentors to the group. They are the wise heads of today, but in future it will be people like you who will play their role – nurturing a new generation of people working in science and technology to in turn become the leaders and the shapers.

Warnings from the past on predicting the future

This is no doubt going to be an exciting venture for you as individuals, but I feel I must remind you of some of the tripwires that wait in the path of futurists.

Let me share with you some quotes to illustrate what I mean.

First – this from a Western Union internal memo in 1876 discussing a relatively new invention: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communications. The device is inherently of no value to us”.

Or from H M Warner of Warner Brothers in 1927: “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”

And from the world of computing there are some classic gaffes…. In 1943, Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM prophesied: “I think there is a market for maybe five computers”.

Or this from the magazine, Popular Mechanics in 1949: “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons”. (A reminder that you don’t want to believe everything you read in the press!)

And in the mid 1970s – when young visionaries were beavering away in garages and their bedrooms producing the first personal computers – the president and founder of Digital equipment Corporation Ken Olsen had this to say: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home”.

Well, hindsight is a wonderful thing!

So, the message is: in future watching we will never get it right all the time. But then, that’s not the point. The point is that in trying to read the future trends and impacts you expand your approach, and are invited to think beyond the known – to think and dream creatively and laterally. It’s the kind of exciting journey where forging the pathway matters rather than any final destination.

I wish you well in your future traveling!


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