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"The Littlest Clue" launches

Monday 12 August, 2002

"The Littlest Clue" launches

"What I commend in a book like this is not only its revelation to a wide readership of the world-class and sometimes world-leading work our scientists are undertaking, but that it captures some of the human passion, commitment and excitement that has driven myself and my scientist colleagues throughout our lives." Alan MacDiarmid, Foreword, The Littlest Clue

New Zealand readers can, for the first time, take a behind the scenes look at some of New Zealand's most exciting and world class business developments born from a proud tradition of scientific research in this country.

"For instance, most people will not know that New Zealand holds the world patents for the key material in a US$240 billion industry that is expected to revolutionise the electricity industry," says Dr David Bibby, General Manager of Science Policy and Support, Industrial Research Limited.

"Or that we have developed the fastest, high-powered lens in the world, or are developing and selling robotics to the US, and are in the process of developing a high-value, ultra-high tech industry to supply biopharmaceutical components to cure arthritis and cancer."

"The Littlest Clue" demonstrates that the knowledge economy is already well underway in New Zealand. Readers are given an exciting insight into the challenges of the competitive world of science - the race to be first, the courtroom dramas - and the ultimate achievements inside one of New Zealand's leading research companies, Industrial Research Limited.

"The more I researched this book, the more I came to realise how gold-medal science provides the foundation for economic success," says author Selwyn Parker. "This is where the knowledge economy starts."

Selwyn Parker cuts through the image of the 'scientist in a lab coat' and follows the fortunes of a group of innovators and their projects over more than 10 years, as they take brilliant ideas from the lab to the market place.

"For the first time we are able to share with a broad audience what is actually being achieved in New Zealand's advanced technology sector," says Dr Bibby.

"This book is a fitting acknowledgement of the commitment made by our people and how they are helping to deliver real value to New Zealand in the form of new industries, export dollars and jobs. This is a story for everyone - and something that all Kiwis can be proud of."

The book will be available in all leading bookstores from Monday 12 August at the recommended retail price of $29.95.


About the author - Selwyn Parker

The Littlest Clue is Selwyn Parker's eighth book, all of them on specialist subjects. And, having dropped science in the fourth form, he says it was his most challenging. A New Zealander, he lives in Queensland but regularly travels to New Zealand to work.

A journalist for 30 years who speaks three languages, he worked in Britain, Europe, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand for numerous publications including Time, Newsweek and International Business Week, the Australian Financial Review, The Bulletin and The Australian, and New Zealand Herald. He now concentrates on books.

Independent Book Review

THE LITTLEST CLUE The resurgence of New Zealand science and technology Selwyn Parker Industrial Research Limited, 2002; $29.95

Reviewed by Vicki Hyde

I've read lots of books like this - interesting, exuberant accounts of scientific research and research establishments, showing the people as well as the processes at work. But there's one important thing which makes this book stand out - it's not about researchers at MIT or Oxford, but folk down the road from you. These are our scientists, New Zealand scientists, in Hastings and Hamilton, Lower Hutt and Lincoln.

Parker uses the ground-breaking superconductivity research by Jeff Tallon and his team at Industrial Research Ltd (IRL) as a thread to tie together the various aspects of scientific research in New Zealand and how it has evolved over the past 20 years. IRL has been at the centre of those changes, being one of the new breed of the commercially oriented Crown Research Institutes to come out of the break-up of the old public service science department, the DSIR.

Many people think of New Zealand science and immediately think of new sheep breeds, or better types of pasture, but we are capable of much more than that, and the superconductivity story provides a good example of where New Zealand work has led the world. IRL, which is publishing this book, covers a huge range of research, so we also get to hear of robotic welders, seaweed chemistry, pickled sheep pelts, ice-cream dispensers and Antarctic sea ice.

Some of this stuff may seem highly esoteric, much of it is serendipitously useful. Parker does a good job of illustrating how science is so much more than a series of logical progressions from problem to solution, question to answer. As Nobel Prize-winning Kiwi Alan MacDiarmid notes in the Foreword, human passion, commitment and excitement is an integral part of science and, in getting those aspects across, Parker has made this book so much more than the straight puff-piece it might have been.

It would be all too easy for the book to focus on what I think of as "gee-whiz, Boy's Own Technology", enthusing about the latest breakthrough in superficial fashion and moving onto the next. But Parker is too professional for that. The enthusiasm does come through, but it is tempered with an, albeit lightly, critical eye on the roles played by the Foundation for and Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, and of the historical, political and social context of our science system.

In telling the story of IRL's science and its scientists, Parker also manages to discuss the major upheavals that have gone, for the most part, unregarded by all but those involved. The changes have been profound in the 15 years since superconductivity began to seem more than just a laboratory oddity of super-cold substances. They have involved, amongst other things, the imposition of a corporate model on a science community, pitting short-term, clear-cut commercial gains and outcome-directed goals against the fuzzy nature of long-term "blue skies" research. This is an area which has gone unremarked for far too long in what little coverage science gets locally, and Parker's contribution to this is most welcome.

For many in the science scene, the "resurgence" in the title may have a hollow ring to it. For all the talk of the importance of the "knowledge wave", up-skilling people and added-value technologies, New Zealand still has an appalling record in terms of its support for research and development. Parker speaks of scientists "getting their way", with public R&D funding periods for "long-term" projects being extended from five to (don't hold your breath) six years. Yet, as his prime example shows, it can take a decade or two for the all-important commercial "relevance" to even start to be realised. That is something which both politicians and the public needs to understand.

I spent 10 years publishing this country's only general-interest science and technology magazine, so I know many of the people and most of the projects Parker cites, but a book gives us a much more in-depth look than can be managed in any more ephemeral media. It's an interesting and informative look, well worth taking. And there are more Crown Research Institutes out there....

Vicki Hyde edited the New Zealand Science Monthly for 10 years and is now Managing Editor of the award-winning Web portal.

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