"Bright Future" Surprisingly Dim in Places

Jolisa Gracewood and Mark C. Wilson

What is a "knowledge economy"? Why is it desirable? And how do you go about making one? The government has tried to answer these questions in its Bright Future policy package, launched in August. It's an impressively glossy document, larded with references to local success stories, and printed on futuristic silver paper. But on close inspection, it is long on rhetoric, short on substance, and ultimately flawed by a timidity of vision.

A knowledge economy, according to this package, is about intellectual and entrepreneurial innovation. "It's up to us to create new value by bringing increased intelligence to everything we do," writes Max Bradford in the introduction to the document. "We need to excel in our thinking and have an ambitious vision for the century ahead."

Yet several of the proposals for attaining a Bright Future exhibit alarmingly woolly thinking. Take the Top Achiever Doctoral Scholarships. These "will be awarded annually to assist top PhD students to get the best education the world can provide," according to Bradford and Maurice Williamson. "The scheme provides students with an annual stipend of NZ$21,641 plus funding for course fees and costs for conference attendance."

This looks at first glance like a generous and forward-thinking use of government money. But it's not clear what problem the proposal is trying to fix. New Zealand doesn't have a problem getting people to go and study overseas -- quite the reverse. Graduates of New Zealand universities have never had difficulty in obtaining full funding from world-class PhD programmes in a wide range of subjects. One of us, for example, is being funded by the Olin Foundation for a five-year programme of study in Comparative Literature, and the other was supported through his mathematics PhD by the University of Wisconsin and the American National Science Foundation.

The real problem is a lack of jobs to come back to. This is off-putting enough for the currently drained brains. But it will be worse for those students "lucky" enough to land a Top Achiever Doctoral Scholarship. They will be bonded to return to New Zealand and to stay there for as many years as their PhD took to earn, corralled like so many sheep in a holding pen. This is a remarkably coercive and hands-on intervention by a government that is so resolutely hands off in other areas. But above all, it is callous and futile, an attempt to halt the brain drain by chaining people to the side of the pool.

The $10 million per year this scheme would cost is desperately needed elsewhere. It could fund a world-class research centre, or 150 new university lecturers a year, given that the $60,000 spent annually on each PhD student under this scheme is roughly equivalent to the salary plus overhead costs of employing a young lecturer. New Zealand universities are chronically under-staffed and under-resourced, and have been steadily slipping relative to peer countries. There are simply not enough jobs that offer the minimal international standard of support for research.

Stop-gap measures such as the Science and Technology Postdoctoral Fellowships may work for some. But the lack of permanent positions means that after two years, many of these postdocs must go overseas again. Industry can be encouraged to invest in results-related research to tap the talent of returning researchers, but the private sector is understandably reluctant to fund blue-sky research, the benefits of which can take years or decades to emerge. The United States, for example, is currently reaping the benefits of several decades of public investment in biotechnology; the internet is also the product of years of government sponsored research.

This is where government could take the lead, put in the plug, and let the knowledge reservoir fill up again. Currently, New Zealand's main source of funding for basic research (including humanities research) is the Marsden Fund, administered by the Royal Society, with around $23 million per year available. But fewer than 1 in 10 proposals are funded, and no one believes that we are even close to funding every worthwhile application.

To an isolated researcher, the importance of even $2000 for conference travel cannot be overestimated. Without such minimal investment, links to the global research community are soon broken. Yet government promises to increase the Marsden fund were brutally broken by Maurice Williamson in his infamous "scientists should wake up and smell the ammonia" speech. The comment typified the government's derisory attitude to the very people it hopes will kick-start the knowledge economy, and its misunderstanding of the benefits of pure research in powering national success.

The record shows that research funding, rather than being a cost, is an extremely reliable investment. Prof. Lester Thurow of MIT, writing in the Atlantic Monthly (June 1999) notes that that the USA has made a return of over $1.50 for every dollar spent on research over the last few decades. Our investment in this area lags well behind OECD norms, and there is little incentive for businesses to fund long-term projects.

Finally, what's also missing from the text of the Bright Future policy, although not from the glitzy packaging, is an understanding of non-scientific research and development. Although New Zealand film-makers, artists, and fashion designers are prominently featured as inspirational examples of successful New Zealanders, they are absent from the government's policy initiatives.

The overwhelming emphasis throughout is on encouraging technology and applied science, as if these alone will make New Zealanders the globally competitive citizens the report desires. There is no mention of the fields of study that create and nurture cultural industries, such as the arts, tourism, media, cinema, festivals, museums. No economic incentive is extended to content providers, linguists, social analysts, translators, reviewers, writers, historians, comedians, journalists, legal and ethical theorists, designers and all those non-technologists who contribute to productivity, social cohesion and a globally recognisable identity.

Max Bradford's unambitious vision fails to imagine a role for, let alone offer incentives for, both those who will ensure a long-term expertise in basic blue-sky scientific research, and those who will creatively transmit our bold new "increased intelligence" to the rest of the world. His "knowledge economy" fails its own test of innovation, and promises a dishearteningly dim future.

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