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Speech (abridged) - Peck on science

2000 web siteWithout policy changes New Zealand will have a critical shortage of scientists by the year 2010 as our scientists retire. This picture provides us with serious challenge if Labour in government is going to be able to advance its vision for a knowledge economy.

The choices we have to make are stark. We can choose to fund opportunity - or we can choose to remain dependent on the rest of the world for our prosperity, or lack of it.

Professor Michael Porter recently re-visited New Zealand to check on economic development. He gave New Zealand a clean bill of health as far as macro economic reforms were concerned but he was disturbed by New Zealand's lack of progress in the development of opportunities. His criticism was most strident at New Zealand's failure to take advantage of the high technology revolution and the lack of any coherent strategy to identify and exploit advanced technology solutions. His message was that we can tarry no longer in our developing an environment which will foster the growth of new opportunities.

In order to do so means we need to accept the need for a level of intervention. This is something our major political opponent simply cannot do.

We had the grotesque spectacle recently of Maurice Williamson, the high priest of laissez faire coming back from his overseas jaunt saying that he now accepted that the government had to get involved. But Williamson failed to win two crucial battles within cabinet. One was to explain to the Prime Minister about his road-to-Damascus experience and the second was to get buy in from Treasurer Bill English about the support industry will need for research and development through the tax system. Mr English has ruled out any assistance through the tax system to encourage a commitment to research and development from the private sector.

All of which makes you wonder really what the government will announce as its innovation package on 18 August when these two planks, so crucial to a coherent strategy, have been declared "no-go zones."

Labour has a vision for a knowledge based economy. Pete Hodgson has a coherent industry development plan. Paul Swain is shortly to make some announcements about electronic technology and the economic opportunities this provides us as a nation. Steve Maharey has done some work on the Tertiary Sector and the contribution it must make to such a vision. And Helen Clark and Trevor Mallard have just released our schools policy, which has some exciting ideas about how we start to address the workforce development issues in our schools.

Science policy becomes another pillar in the integrated approach to bringing about the knowledge based economy we dream of. That vision depends on a coherent integrated approach. What is done at the level of compulsory education in the next ten years or so will vitally affect what we are able to do as a nation when students emerge from tertiary education and for some postgraduate study.

Labour recognises that basic research is the driver for innovation. From basic research springs the new intellectual property that we will want to develop as a nation as we seek to add value to our primary produce and as we identify the advanced technologies that will allow us to diversify our economy.

Second, if we are even to start this work we must have the people who have the necessary education and disciplines. Our culture has been to encourage our young people to go to the occupations which deliver the BMW. Not many scientists drive BMWs. Starting salaries for our scientists in Crown Research Institutes are low, less than $30,000. By comparison the same scientist can attract a starting salary nearly double that (in US dollars) in America.

Therefore Labour has to take a leadership role in brining about the cultural change needed by investing in people at an early stage during their compulsory education years to encourage entry into science and technology courses at university and postgraduate level. Then, in order (as far as is possible) to stop our scientists becoming just another "commodity", we have to ensure that at the very least encouragement is given to scientists to use their skills in the most imaginative ways possible. This will mean attracting levels of investment from the private sector as well as direct government money to ensure that scientists can do their work without fearing loss of tenure and with the understanding the their work will be valued.

Labour will need to engage the private sector in the debate about raising New Zealand's contribution to research and development and it must do so with clean hands. We will need to put a halt to the erosion of public science funding that has occurred over the last three years.

If we are serious about the statement - basic research is the driver for innovation - then there is no substitute for public funding for this work. Basic research by definition cannot have a defined end user. It is understandably unlikely that the private sector will want to fund scientific research that may ultimately benefit their competitors.

Fourth, leadership is also about encouraging alliances. Clearly, centres of excellence working collaboratively are best in forging these alliances. In the case of science and technology such collaborative pursuits can and often do give rise to the "incubator" a phenomenon where new ventures and companies develop from the collegial work that ensues. Incubators attract venture capital, and venture capitalists. Incubators are not new - indeed IRL a New Zealand Crown Research Institute may well have become one by accident if not by design.

Fifth, leadership is about valuing our scientific community. Money is not all of it. Many scientists tell me that they do the work because it interests them. However, why don't we occasionally recognise the good work that is done. How often do we recognise scientific achievement and its contribution to our economy with a knighthood?

One of the instructive measures in the science budget this time was the reduction of $200,000 from the science promotion fund. Not a major matter - hardly likely to cause the fall of the government.

But, at a time in our history when we need to encourage more people to become scientists it is a negative signal to a sector, which has more than enough negative issues to deal with.

As we then think about strengthening the profession, attracting more young people to the profession, and improving career structures why don't we also give an opportunity for our scientists to have input at the very top.

The Prime Minister has an Enterprise Council. From what I know about the membership on this council there are no scientists. The Government should have a scientist on the Enterprise Council.

Labour as part of it's policy work is thinking about whether or not we should set up a new council specifically to look at issues impacting on the development of policies which will encourage innovation. This body could be called the Science and Innovation Advisory Council, and should report directly to the Prime Minister on these matters.

I would see this council identifying the opportunities, which could accrue to the nation from the new knowledge based initiatives.

And as I look through the 15 pages of closely typed script which is the first cut of the science policy, that is finally what I get down to - opportunity!

Like most of you I have had a gutsful of a directionless lazy government who are more interested in the trappings of power than in using their ministerial warrants to do something good for us as a nation.

I watch with anger as every month another three bus loads of Southlanders leave for opportunities their home can no longer give them.

And then I look at what could be done, and I talk to those who have the passion to make the effort to bring about these opportunities and I know that we have to spell out the vision to excite them into action, and then be prepared as a Labour Government to take the risks this government won't take to achieve the vision.

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