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Science in New Zealand - The 50th Cawthron Lecture

Issue date: 
Wednesday, 23 October 1991
The Hon Dame Catherine Tizard, GCMG, GCVO, DBE, QSO

One of my distinguished predecessors, the Viscount Cobham, finding himself in the position that I find myself in today, commenced his lecture with these words:

"To be asked to give the Thomas Cawthron Memorial Lecture is a great honour, but it is an honour fraught with almost paralysing responsibility for its recipient. Before he has been for many months a Governor-General he becomes fairly adept in the gentle art of equivocation; he learns to sheath the sharp blade of his opinion in the protective scabbard of verbiage, heedless of the ironical beatitude of George Eliot: 'Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact'."

"Moreover," he went on to say, "I can say with Charles Lamb that in everything that relates to science, I am a whole encyclopaedia behind the rest of the world. Every public speaker, I imagine, fears that one day he may become as mute as a member of a famous society who, on being called upon to make his maiden speech, rose to his feet, repeated 'Mr President' three times and resumed his seat without further troubling the audience."

I am not, perhaps, quite as ignorant of matters scientific as Lord Cobham professed himself to be. He was an English gentleman, an aristocrat reared in a time and tradition that is not by an English country mile that of New Zealand's Governor-General of 1990.

The present incumbent lacks her predecessor's elegant use of the classical allusion and his acquaintance with the literature, consequent on an English public school upbringing - certainly the cricketing and military metaphors will not be emulated but she could, perhaps, lay some small claim to being if not "the very model of a modern Governor-General", at least one who "knows the names of beings animalculus". I am sure that if it had ever entered the mind of Lord Cobham, on that day in 1960 when he delivered his Cawthron address, that 31 years later a woman Governor-General would be attempting to follow in his footsteps, he could not have been more incredulous that I myself would have been at the same time, had some genie popped out of the lamp and disclosed the future to us both.

How much more outraged would have been the editor of The Dominion who penned this editorial on the eve of the outbreak of World War II.

"Publicity has been given to a rumour that the next appointment of Governor-General would be conferred by the Socialist Government on a New Zealand citizen. Such a step would certainly be opposed by the general sentiment of the New Zealand people and might well be regarded as weakening the link which is so vital in our attachment to the Throne."

It think it was that same Governor-General, the Viscount Cobham, who asked if there were not more to the job than being "a nodding, smiling automaton". This has been a matter which, I think, all Governors-General have thought about, and not only in New Zealand. General George Vanier, the Governor-General of Canada, said in 1970:

"The position of Governor-General is, at first glance, a difficult and unattractive one. He appears to be the very incarnation of authority, and yet he possesses no authority in his own right, and can exercise even less. His actions are dictated in advance by the all-encompassing demands of rules and precedents which form a protocol so strict that leaves hardly the tiniest room, at least on the surface, for personal initiative. The Governor-General occupies the summit of the whole political structure of our country, yet he must refrain from the least act or statement which could be interpreted as interference in a domain which belongs to those who hold the actual reins of power. His approval must be obtained before any important decision becomes law, but he has not one whit to say in the way such decisions are reached. Presiding, as it were, over the entire functioning of the political system, he must feel at times that he is, in reality, the system's most minor and ineffectual servant. His name comes first on every official list, but in the day to day life of the nation it is often forgotten altogether."

One thing that has become clear in the present turbulent political and social climate in New Zealand, is that there is a widespread - and sometimes, I believe, a wilful - misunderstanding of the powers of a Governor-General.

My office receives a constant stream of petitions, letters, requests, for personal interviews or to receive deputations, beseeching, demanding or advising me to dismiss either individual Ministers of the Crown or, more commonly, the whole Government.

It is the ceremonial and social duties of the Governor-General which bring the office of the Governor-General most into the public eye. The Governor-General presides over State Openings of Parliament and over investitures, accepts the credentials of foreign ambassadors to New Zealand, reviews military parades, receives visiting Heads of State, hosts official receptions, and is present at a number of public functions. From time to time, the Governor-General is ill-advised enough to accept major speaking engagements such as giving lectures.

The Governor-General also has a number of significant constitutional duties. The Governor-General summons, dissolves and prorogues Parliament, appoints (and can dismiss) all Ministers of the Crown, is the ceremonial Head of State and in title, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The Governor-General's assent is necessary for Bills passed in the House of Representatives, to become law. He or she appoints Judges, Commissioners and certain other officers, exercises the Royal Prerogative of mercy and pardon, and chairs meetings of the Executive Council, which makes regulations by Order-in-Council.

These are formidable powers in theory. In reality, the Governor-General has little room for independent action.

In theory, the Governor-General has the right to refuse to follow Ministerial advice if there seems to be good cause. The last case on record of this happening, however, occurred almost a century ago. In 1892 the Governor, the Earl of Glasgow, refused a request by the Liberal Prime Minister, John Ballance, to appoint 12 extra members of the Legislative Council. Ballance appealed to the Colonial Office, and the Earl of Glasgow was instructed to do as Ballance asked.

Every Governor-General brings to his or her task a distinctive personality that inclines towards particular problems or aspects of our national life, or towards particular groups of one's fellow citizens. In this there are few constraints. In many ways Government House embodies the nation. Often it is the only New Zealand home which some foreign visitors come to know. Government House serves on occasion as a national meeting ground; a setting where opposing interests can be reconciled. This neutrality is possible only because the Governor-General is removed from political controversy, and representing the Monarch as he or she does, provides the continuity and sense of permanence so valuable in the transient politics of a democracy. I see the office as a symbol of stability within our political system providing an evolving link throughout the profound changes that have marked and continue to mark the political life of our country.

Every country has a Head of State in some form or other - either elected or appointed - and our particular form which represents in name and conventions a tradition that is common to the great majority of New Zealanders, both Mori and Pakeha, seems vaguely to satisfy most people. Particularly I think, since the position has been firmly patriated. Since Sir Arthur Porritt, all Governors-General have been New Zealanders - Holyoake, Blundell, Beattie, Reeves and Tizard. This reflects the maturity and the increasing self-confidence of New Zealand in asserting its own sovereignty, while recognising our route to that independence.

To return though to the question of how a Governor-General can make a useful contribution to his or her fellow-countrymen, both my predecessors in office, I believe, played useful roles in advancing public debate and national understanding of Treaty of Waitangi issues. Sir Paul in particular addressed the social and racial attitudes which need to be faced if we are to progress as a multi-cultural community. He gave a lead to the nation and his speaking our on significant topics was noted and admired.

If I follow in big footsteps in the Vice-Regal office, then those of previous Cawthron lecturers are positively gargantuan!

It is strange enough for someone who holds only a very mediocre B. A. in Zoology to find herself, ex officio, Patron of the Royal Society of New Zealand, but the eminence of the list of past Cawthron lecturers predisposes one to mental and even verbal paralysis: Sir Leonard Cockayne, Sir Peter Buck, Sir Ernest Rutherford, Dr Tillyard, Dr Falla !

I am somewhat reassured though, by the down-to-earth commonsense of Ed Hillary who, typically, did not attempt to talk about science per se. He spoke about what he knew about - Antarctic exploration, and as one whose initial direction was to study and teach history, and who became a teacher of zoology only by accident, I will follow his good example. I will talk about matters which have been interesting and occupying my attention in recent times but which, as it happens, do include themes both scientific and historical.

It is thirty years now since I returned to university studies one husband and four children later, and changed direction and disciplines from history to zoology.

Thirty years ago, describing oneself as a conservationist probably indicated to most people that you repaired paintings or old furniture - or that you were a bit of a nutter.

When it was first suggested seriously that using a spray underarm deodorant might actually help to threaten life on earth, the idea seemed too preposterous to treat with anything but a derisive guffaw.

But then, at that time, the ozone layer hadn't really been invented as far as the public knew, never mind having been careless enough to develop holes; and global warming implied no more than that summer was on its way.

Science was carried out in the universities and the DSIR and in research institutes funded very largely by the public purse and "accountability" and "outputs" meant something rather different from today's debased economic jargon.

The reputation of New Zealand scientists internationally was not insignificant in those times - nor, in fact, has it ever been. New Zealand scientists throughout our history have made, and continue to make, a notable contribution to the sum of the world's scientific knowledge at both the basic and the applied levels.

New Zealand has had a link with international scientific research that goes back at least as far as Cook's voyage to observe the transit of Venus in Tahiti on June the third, 1769.

Although the idea was prosecuted by Britain's most prestigious scientific society, the Royal Society, it did not have the funds to support the venture. It therefore petitioned the Kind, and J. C. Beaglehole tells us that: -

"His Majesty granted the Society 4,000 'clear of fees'. As this was additional to the ship and its company, to be provided by the Admiralty, one must allow that the British Crown was doing its duty to science."

On his return to England Cook himself was made a Fellow of the Royal Society as " a gentleman skilful in astronomy, and the successful conductor of two important voyages for the discovery of unknown countries, by which geography and natural history have been greatly advantaged and improved "

When referring to the scientific work of the botanists on Cook's voyage, it needs to be acknowledged that the flora and fauna of New Zealand were already well known to some people - the tangata whenua. They had been here for centuries and had an intimate knowledge of the country and its resources.

For example, Elsdon Best lists one hundred bird names representing fifty species known to the Tuhoe people, two hundred and eight plant names, and some sixty names for insects, earthworms, and the like: and this was only a part of what was known in a single tribal district.

Raymond Firth suggests that, while this knowledge of flora and fauna may have been accumulated mainly because of its economic importance, it was not at all inconsistent with a desire to obtain knowledge for its own sake, and to observe and describe with accuracy, with the object of better classification.

When one speaks of the scientific work of European explorers and scientists, therefore, it is undoubted that in many cases they were really making known to the wider world community much of what was already well known to the those already resident in New Zealand - even thought the term "science" may not have been known.

Again, when we come to consider modern scientific work aimed at achieving sustainable resource use, we should also acknowledge that the significant natural resources on which the tangata whenua depended for food and the raw materials of their industry, all had some degree of tapu attaching to them, implying that they were recognised as gifts of nature to man.

For all our apparent sophistication, recognition of the importance of 'sustainable resource us' came much later to most of us than it did to Mori.

European scientists who lived and worked in New Zealand in the early days of European settlement included Buller, Colenso, Dieffenbach, Dobson, Haast, von Hochstetter, Hooker and Thompson.

The botanist, naturalists and ornithologists among them, as well as making a great contribution to the exploration of this country, also made important contributions to science through their work on New Zealand's unique flora and fauna; and the surveyors and geologists also played a significant part in the economic development of the country by surveying routes for new roads, tunnels and railways, as well as discovering important mineral deposits.

Most of their names are known to the general public because some of our most prominent geographical features have been named after them.

It would not seem proper to talk about New Zealand science and scientists in this city, without referring to the special place of Lord Rutherford of Nelson.

Ernest Rutherford received his early education at Havelock School and Nelson College, and he graduated from the Canterbury College of the University of New Zealand with and M. A. in 1893 and a B. Sc. in 1894.

Although he was to make his principal scientific contributions in England and Canada, it is interesting to note that he wrote his first scientific paper here. It was on "The Magnetization of Iron in High-Frequency Discharges", published in the Transactions of the NZ Institute in 1894.

He was one of the greatest experimental physicists of all time, and in 1908, then aged 37, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on the structure of matter. However, it is interesting, and perhaps somewhat amusing, to note that his Nobel Prize was awarded in chemistry - not in physics.

He was awarded the Order of Merit in 1925, and created a Baron in the New Year's Honours in 1931.

It is a little known fact that Rutherford's last thoughts were of Nelson. Dying of an infection he told his wife, "I want to leave a hundred pounds to Nelson College. You can see to it." Later in the day he said loudly, "Remember! A hundred to Nelson College." He died that evening.

Speaking of Lord Rutherford and his revolutionary discoveries leads one to reflect on some aspects of the nature of science and technology. When a scientist embarks on, say, a line of basic research, its impacts are often impossible to predict.

For example, in 1933 Rutherford said:

"The energy produced by the breaking down of the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine."

Only six years later, in 1939, Albert Einstein, writing to President Roosevelt, was able to say:

"Some recent work which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. It now appears certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future. This phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs "

I give this example not in any way to belittle a great man, but to illustrate the point that even the world's leading experts, and the most imaginative minds, may not necessarily foresee the possibility of developments which are "just around the corner."

The example also illustrates something else about the nature of science and technology. Once something is discovered it can't be undiscovered: the process is irreversible. Once it was realised that a nuclear chain reaction was a possibility, and technology was available to build a bomb, there was no going back. Again, once the structure of the DNA molecule was revealed and the molecular basis of the genetic code understood, genetic engineering became a possibility.

In other words, there is nothing in science equivalent to a counter-revolution, such as seems to be happening today in countries which formerly embraced a communist political philosophy.

Because the process of discovery is irreversible, our politicians are sometimes forced to deal with difficult ethical, social and global problems, the solution to which, requires a clear understanding of the problem, and international co-operation.

The spectacularly dramatic events in Europe in the past year or so have thrust new challenges and problems at scientists and politicians alike, but new opportunities too.

In the Cawthron Lecture of 1979, Professor Berhop FRS, the Rutherford Lecturer, spoke of the 20th century as the most wonderful century of all from the point of view of the tremendous scientific and technological revolution which it has brought.

"It is also," he goes on to say, "the bloodiest century of all. Two World Wars, dozens of minor wars with their aftermath of famine and disease, have accounted for hundreds and millions of lives. At least half the 2.3 million qualified scientists and engineers practising their profession in the world today are employed in adapting the wonders of modern science and technology to the development of new and even more destructive weapons. Every year nearly 500 billion dollars is being spent on the arms race. Every year while the arms race continues the danger of a Third World War, fought with nuclear weapons, looms over mankind carrying with it the prospect at least of the end of civilised life, or even the extinction of the human species."

These comments and the accompanying statistics, remember, were made 12 years ago. What the comparable statistics would have been one year ago I don't know. Professor Berhop then referred to the indictment against modern science and technology set out in the so-called Menton Statement issued in May 1971 by six outstanding biologists and later signed by over 2,000 scientists and public figures in 23 countries. It set out in concise terms the areas in which our modern civilisation was facing a crisis.

Environmental deterioration - the quality of our environment is deteriorating at an unprecedented rate the penetration into food chains all over the world of poisonous substances such as mercury, lead, cadmium, DDT oil spills, industrial refuse sewage and organic wastes released in amounts too great to be taken care of by the normal recycling process of nature, heavy clouds of smog, air borne pollutants reckless ventures into new technological processes transport and the proliferation of nuclear power plants.

Secondly, he listed the depletion of natural resources:

"Industrial society is using up many of its non-renewable resources and mismanaging potentially renewable ones, and it exploits the resources of other countries without regard for the deprivation of present populations or the needs of future generations deforestation, damming of rivers, one crop farming, uncontrolled use of pesticides and defoliants, strip mining and other short-sighted or unproductive practices have contributed to ecological imbalance."

And thirdly, the Declaration expanded on the problems of population, overcrowding and hunger.

The distinguished professor concluded this part of his remarks with the opinion that the greatest threat of all was the role of science and technology in the arms race. And could any thinking person who has lived through the Cold War years have disagreed with him?

Twenty years after the Menton Declaration, nothing has changed environmentally except for the worse. There is, however, a much keener public awareness of the urgency of the problems and world-wide discussion at all levels of the need for action. In many places on the globe, governments, industries and individuals actually are acting on remedial and preventative strategies to protect the environment.

A recent visit to New Zealand by Dr Gwyn Prins, the Director of the Global Security Programme at the University of Cambridge, presented us with a novel vision of what global security might involve for the world by the year 2000.

Given the enormous amount of the world's resources of money and intelligence involved in military spending and its infrastructure - of which New Zealand's frigate investment is but a minuscule part - I feel it is worth exploring his thesis for a few moments.

New Zealand has always seen itself as a maritime nation. It has long maintained a fleet. The Royal New Zealand Navy has just celebrated its 50th anniversary of acquiring its own identity. Cone of its birthday visits was to this City of Nelson only a month ago. We maintain a Navy not because we feel threatened by other nation's forces or anticipate invasion, but as a part of a wider common security arrangement of a regional nature.

Leaving aside the debate on ANZUS or an alternative to ANZUS, New Zealand has to examine its naval expenditure in the future in a quite new and unfamiliar climate of international politics and strategies. The justification for a naval presence and spending on navies, Prins suggests, might change dramatically.

The turmoil of events in Europe, some observers postulate, are best seen as a European civil war. Observing what, until they happened, were inconceivable in the then two Germanies, the USSR and Yugoslavia, has left the rest of the world stunned and without focus. The Cold War has ended and we find ourselves without a collective enemy or a direction to follow. Or do we?

The Americans in 1990 had their strategic studies experts preparing reports exploring the likely environment in which the US Navy must operate beyond the end of the century. The Cambridge Global Security Programme and the American group identified global warming, sea level rise and the emergence of environmental security threats, which are now moving sharply into focus, as one of the most concrete challenges to the construction of common security. One quite basic characteristic which emerges from this debate is that these threats occur without identifiable enemies who can be dissuaded or compelled to desist from the actions which give rise to the threat. There is no recipient for a military message of deterrence by denial, or of deterrence by threat, for the source of the threats is to be found, in fact, in ourselves and our lifestyles. We pour the heavy metals into the St Lawrence Seaway which make the Beluga whales which live there, among the most polluted animals on the planet: and there is nothing that the top-gun fighter pilot can do with his guns and missiles to rectify that situation of profound insecurity for toxic whales and by extension - toxic people.

The expresses straightforwardly one part of the conundrum that the world faces. The rapid advance of our understanding of systems ecology, suggests that there may, in fact, be certain identifiable parts of the planet which are far more crucial to the maintenance of the balance of oxygen in the atmosphere, for example, than others. Prime candidate in this category is the remaining humid rain forest, 50 per cent reduced in extent since 1945, and certain to be a central topic of debate at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development at Rio. These forests may indeed be global resources important to the continuation of life on earth; but they are located in particular countries. And many countries are even now vigorously asserting their rights to exploit their national resources in whatever way and with whatever speed they choose - regardless of international opinion or global ecological imperatives.

What if the environmental scientists are right? If continuing felling of the tropical rain forests is identified even more clearly than it already is as a threat to common security, it certainly becomes a threat to national security in several ways: to that of countries which depend on the eco-systems of which the forests are integral, and to the criticised country as an affront to sovereign right. But, take the more extreme possibility that the scientific case becomes irrefutable. Does this justify international eco-imperialism?

Sir Julian Oswald, the First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy, has responded robustly to this proposition. "The cure administered by the global policeman would be as bad as the disease. Sovereign nations are unlikely to be compelled to behave in a globe-friendly manner in their own territory be means of armed force, and are likely to oppose such action very vigorously. Brazil already feels very strongly on this issue."

The case of rain forests is one which raises in a stark manner the need to renovated quite basic concepts in political currency. The current move towards European economic, monetary and, eventually, political integration, raises one side of the debate about the nature and value of sovereignty. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia under forces of resurgent nationalism as communism implodes, raises another. What is "property" when it refers to global commons such as air, water, maybe forests and areas of coastal water and wetlands? How do we adjudicate individual and group versus global rights in such affairs?

These are not abstract questions. It has been, in fact, in the Law of the Sea negotiations that much of the most interesting international legal consideration of these sorts of questions has already occurred.

The question of global warming and a rise in sea levels, even a quite small one, is certainly not an academic question for either the Tokelau Islands of for New Zealand. In the event that the even "moderately possible" scenario of a rise in sea levels takes place over the next decade or so, New Zealand is certainly faced with a moral and actual responsibility, which may involve the shifting and re-settlement of the remaining population of the Tokelau Islands, and all the attendant problems that would ensue.

Having come back to New Zealand waters, so to speak, I should return to Captain Cook.

Their Lordships, the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty, really knew how to butter up George III. The introduction to the account of Cook's voyages contains this passage:

"Shortly after his accession to the throne, having happily closed the destructive operation of war, he (referring to the King) turned his thoughts to enterprises more humane, but no less brilliant, adapted to the season of returning peace."

They continued in like vein:

"While every liberal art and useful study flourished under his patronage at home, his superintending care was extended to such branches of knowledge as required distant examination and inquiry; and his ships, after bringing back victory and conquest from every quarter of the known world, were now employed in opening friendly communications with its hitherto unexplored recesses."

Cook's voyages were of crucial importance in expanding Europeans' geographical knowledge into the Pacific. Carried on board HMS Endeavour were Daniel Solander and the gentleman scientist and explorer, Joseph Banks, on behalf of the newly founded Royal Society. Cook's secret orders were to offer him every assistance in his observations and explorations. The ship was both a fortress and a floating laboratory from which Europeans viewed the new world into which they sailed.

Cook's first voyage was instrumental in increasing knowledge not only of the flora and fauna and anthropology of the Pacific but also in advancing the scientific method of study. That it was deemed a perfectly proper purpose for the Royal Navy of that time in "an era or returning peace", was signalled by the Lord Commissioners' sponsorship of the publication of the account of the voyage.

With the declining tension at the end of the Cold War, capacity and time at sea might exist again today, to repeat modern equivalents to the missions of Captain Cook in the Endeavour; of Captain Fitzroy in the Beagle, of HMS Challenger's great oceanographic survey of 1872, of Captain Scott in Discovery in 1901 - all of these, part of New Zealand's early history and science.

The threats latent in a global warming and potential climate change call for a major expansion of scientific research effort. This was called for in the United Nations Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change Report of May 1990, reaffirmed at the Geneva World Climate Conference in November. Examination of this issue has led, in Britain, to a potentially exciting development. It is acknowledged, that the scientific community will never have the resources or obtain the assets or manpower to undertake the new observations required, without the resources of the many missions employing both surface ships and submarines. Nor will it ever possess the databanks, on polar ice especially, which climatologists now urgently need to understand. It is tremendously exciting that both the First Sea Lord and the Secretary of State for Defence in the UK have agreed to further detailed study of precisely how the Royal Navy might take on again the scientific roles carried out by Captain Cook - this is presently in hand.

The Royal Navy has begun to investigate how it can add environmental-security research to its missions, and several kinds of significant contributions which could be made, at no or little cost to the Royal Navy (or, in the course of time), to other participating navies, have been identified.

Up until now, the enormous financial and intellectual resources poured into military research have been directed towards destructive objectives, and the scientific, technological advances that have emerged as by-products - simply happy accidents.

Investment in military hardware oriented to peaceful purposes - the protection of the global environment and the cleaning and feeding of the world - is something I would be very happy to see my taxes spent on.

But I must come closer to home and now consider some aspects of New Zealand resarch.

While New Zealand can, and does, benefit from international advances in many fields of science and technology, much of the research which has been carried out here has been directed at understanding our own country's resources base (our flora and fauna, oceans, minerals, water, soils, energy, etc.). This work must be done here because such research will not be undertaken by others.

There can be no doubt that the application of science and technology has played a key role in enhancing and diversifying primary production, developing our forest-based industries, broadening the range of products from our primary industries and contributed to the development of our manufacturing industries.

Again, research has been undertaken here on problems which, while not unique to New Zealand, are of great significance to us in our situation.

Geophysicists have made enormous strides in the past 30 years in understanding the cause of earthquakes and volcanoes, and in delineating areas of greatest risk. This work has made a significant contribution to our understanding of the still relatively new and exiting field of plate tectonics and continental drift, a discovery which has also given us a clearer understanding of our pre-history and the reason why we have such a unique native flora and fauna.

On a more practical level, our engineering seismologists have received international recognition for their work on designing buildings to withstand earthquakes, and on isolating structures from earth movement during an earthquake. While these developments do not give us complete protection from very severe earthquakes, it does enable our engineers to design and construct buildings which will perform reasonably well, in all but the severest shakes.

Likewise, it is not surprising that priority has been given to basic research on the geological structure of New Zealand, and the use of the fossil record to determine age of rocks and their sequences. Such research has played a vital part in economically important discoveries such as gold, clays, coal, oil and gas. Soil science, so vital to agriculture and horticulture has also benefited directly from geological research on the parent rocks.

With the accumulated knowledge which comes from this kind of research, resources would remain undiscovered, or be left to be exploited to the advantage of others.

Geologists have also played an important part in assisting engineers to select routes for roads, cuttings and tunnels, and sites of power stations and canals.

The role of scientists in developing our agricultural and horticultural industries is so well known as to require little elaboration. One thinks of the way we have developed and exploited new varieties of grasses, clovers, and wheats, of the introduction of new fruits and fruit varieties; and also of the great advances made in the wine industry over the last decade or two.

There have been enormous developments in animal science, together with the introduction of new breeds of sheep and cattle, and the development of the deer industry. New products and processes, based on the products of our primary industries, have also been developed, enabling us to exploit new and specialised markets.

Science and technology have contributed to the development of forestry, industry, including important developments in tree selection and breeding, to improve our forest resources. A wide variety of new products has been developed, derived from the forest resource.

Twenty years ago, the fishing industry was a mere shadow of what it is today. Based on our own research, and on imported technology through joint ventures, it is now a sophisticated industry and an important earner of overseas funds, although now there is concern about over-fishing of certain species.

I should not conclude this brief summary of some of the outstanding research undertaken here without making special reference to the contribution New Zealand scientists have made to research in the Antarctic. This internationally respected research has given us the opportunity to play a full part in international conferences which have been considering the future of the fragile environment and unique natural laboratory - that is Antarctica. New Zealand's contribution is valued because it is based on sound research carried out over many years.

In many cases the results of research become a part of the public record when they are released at scientific conferences, published in the scientific literature, or in general books, published in the form of maps, released to interested industry groups in the form of advice on good practice, and in other ways.

Cook's maps and published reports of his two voyages to this part of the world became a part of the public record, as did the results of Lord Rutherford's work which were published in his many scientific papers, and in his books.

Once research findings are released in this way they become a part of mankind's accumulated scientific knowledge and the spring-board for further scientific advances.

As well as increasing our knowledge, advances in science can also lead, indirectly, to economic growth as technologies based on this new knowledge, are exploited for profit by industry in the form of new products, processes and services. I have already mentioned some examples.

However, it is worth making the point that the ability of companies to take full advantage of new opportunities presented to them by scientific and technological advances depends on many factors. whether companies get to know about new advances which might provide them with business opportunties; whether they have people with the entrepreneurial flair to recognise such opportunities; whether they have the advance project management skills required to convert such ideas into new and profitable products and processes which meet the market's needs; whether they have access to 'risk' capital to fund such developments; and whether they have the business ability and good judgement to bring it all together so that the company can grow profitably.

One must also recognise that the pace of technological change is increasing and companies must therefore undertake almost continuous development to maintain product and process advantage over the competition. While it requires first class scientists and technologists to recognise and seize the opportunities, it also requires exceptional business ability to manage companies that operate at the leading edge of technology which suggests to me that many New Zealand companies might benefit from the presence on their boards of some directors with scientific and technological skills.

The achievement of economic growth based on advances in science and technology also presents the educational sector with the challenge to produce people who have the skills we need in a high-tech age, including managers trained to manage high-tech companies and who recognise that education is not a once-only experience. Re-training is now the norm.

Scientific research has added greatly to our knowledge of our own country; and our scientists, working both here and overseas, have made significant contributions to international basic and applied science, and to the solution of problems of global importance.

Much of this scientific work has been carried out in the universities, in government laboratories, and in institutions jointly funded by government and industry.

However, if our economy is to grow and our people to prosper in a high-tech world, we will need a greater contribution to research and development from the private sector. Currently New Zealand as a whole spends less than 0.3 per cent of GDP on research and development and in the private sector the top five firms undertaking research and development account for 26 per cent of total R&D expenditure - there is obviously room for significant improvement in investment in R&D.

Isolationism is no longer an option. The Japanese, German or American company that has invested in New Zealand will certainly be part of the world scene, communication and marketing systems, and we must be part of that too.

I don't believe New Zealanders need to be dragged screaming into this new age. We are not unresponsive to these challenges as is evidenced by the way we have taken to faxes, cell phones, videos and computers at a faster rate than many other OECD countries.

But there is a difference between being willing participants in events that are happening anyway, and grasping the opportunities proffered by taking a lead in planning for the future, and making the best use of what we have.

An American writer, Robert Reich, has noted that only one asset is growing more valuable as it is used, that is, the problem-identifying, problem-solving and strategic-brokering skills of a nation's citizens.

Unlike machinery that wears out, raw materials that run out and patents and copyrights that grow obsolete, the skills and insights that come from discovering new linkages between technologies and needs, increase with practice.

As skill build and experience accumulates, a nation's citizens receive more and more from the rest of the world in exchange for their services - which permits them to invest in better schools, transportation, research and communications systems.

New Zealand's Chief Scientist, Ian Forrester, has a vision, and he is very enthusiastic about it, of New Zealand becoming a World Communications Laboratory - a place in which large international corporations can experiment with the latest technologies.

In the process, we gain investment and know-how and can then export these new-found skills and expertise to the fastest-growing area of the world - the Pacific Rim countries.

He believes that the climate in New Zealand is ripe for these developments. The recent radical changes in regulation, structure and management of the economy have meant the New Zealand economy is now one of the most open in the world.

Changes in the telecommunications industry in particular, have already attracted major investments by US corporations such as Bell/Atlantic, Ameritech, etc.

It may surprise people to know that New Zealand has one of the most advanced telecommunications systems available to any modern state with a well-developed fibre-optic backbone and a very homogenous public switch system.

Forrester compares the spread of fibre-optic cable to the masterminding of New Zealand's railways and roads by Julius Vogel. One hundred and twenty years ago that communications network was set in place in the form of roads and railways and our economy took off.

Now we need "electronic roads": these highways can form the future strategic infrastructure of the modern state.

As with all visions, and I am sure Prime Minister Vogel's grand plan had its detractors, it may take some time to be realised and may not be realised in full.

There will be many debates about what is possible, about how much investment will be required, where it is to come from and of course, all the technical questions about what systems are the best - areas in which I am totally out of my depth.

But it does seem to me he has the kernel of a good idea, because it leads down a path we are travelling anyway and it is always better to know your direction, rather than just stumbling along. We would be following the trail of the explorers and pioneers who have already passed that way.

This path will require a population that is technologically literate and that believes in this national sense of direction - and here scientists surely have a large part to play.

We need a voting public that is scientifically well-informed. We need people who are not scared by the word "science" who, to use the current jargon, see science as being "user-friendly" and how will ensure that public resources remain directed to science.

I find it disquieting that the majority of our 6th and 7th formers are still being steered into careers in law, accountancy and commerce in the out-dated belief that this will guarantee a job. There is, even now, a glut of well-qualified people in these areas.

Even more astonishing is the recent survey that reports that Australian school children see scientists as loners, losers and 'nerds', but it does highlight the need for science and scientists to be accessible to the public.

I am not unaware that scientists and scientific groups are coming out from behind their bunsen burners, or more appropriately today, their computers, and talking science at a level which is explicable to the ordinary person. Waikato University is just one of the institutions that is actively involved in taking science to the public in a number of innovative and entertaining ways.

However, we cannot afford to have gaps in the production of scientists, especially now when what one learns at university may be obsolete within six to ten years.

We also need to let scientists get on with what they are best at doing - science. There have been great and ongoing upheavals in the structure and administration of science in New Zealand, but I'm sure I speak for all when I say I hope the new Crown Research Institutes can be made operational very soon, appropriately funded, and not changed, unless they really don't work.

Then the scientists can play their part in making us a wealthier nation and one more responsive to the global world, of which, for better or for worse, we are part.

While we must be concerned about a more science-literate population, especially among our young people, and while research and development to stimulate our economy has to be a high priority at the present time, I hope we can always continue to fund the outstanding scientists and the 'non-applied' projects.

These involve the frontiersmen and women of their subjects presenting us with new discoveries and opportunities not just for New Zealand but for the world. Their explorations and findings, like those of Captain Cook, have a value which is beyond measure, or even imagining, and this seems to be an appropriate note on which to close - with a quotation from Nobel Laureate, Dr Max Perutz:

"The scientific gospel does not open with the words, "in the beginning was the dollar ", but "in the beginning was the idea "

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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