Working Conditions, Not Taxes, The Problem with New Zealand, Say Expatriates
Since 1995, New Zealand has slipped badly in its ability to retain
highly-educated people, according to a recent study cited in The
Economist (10 July 1999). This alarming news has triggered widespread
concern. Max Bradford, Richard Prebble and others allege that
reducing marginal income tax rates will improve the situation and help
NZ to become a "knowledge economy," but have not provided even
anecdotal evidence for this claim.
For the past month, I have been part of an e-mail discussion group of
young New Zealanders. We are mostly in our late twenties and early
thirties, and received our undergraduate education in New Zealand. We
have substantial postgraduate qualifications, advanced research
experience and work at universities and entrepreneurial internet and
technology companies, mostly overseas.
For us, small changes to tax rates are of minimal importance when
contemplating a return to New Zealand. Neither are salaries the main
issue. Most of us are prepared to accept a substantial reduction in
real buying power in order to be working in New Zealand. The real
deterrent is the lack of career opportunities in New Zealand, and the
absence of a political commitment to improving the situation.
The underlying problem is a chronic lack of appreciation for, and
investment in, areas that will fuel the much-discussed "knowledge
economy." Symptoms include:
a lack of commitment to excellence in research and development, and
an excessive focus on short-term research.
- an often hostile relationship between government and the research
- deteriorating working conditions and morale in many research-related
New Zealand, with its small population and isolation, cannot retain
all its "high-flyers." However, wise policies can help a great
deal. Unfortunately, recent government efforts have continued to make
working overseas a much more attractive option than returning to New
Here's how the government could begin to curb the brain drain, and
perhaps ultimately reverse it:
1. Publicly articulate why a coherent research strategy is important to
New Zealand, and then lead by example.
New Zealand citizens and companies have a low appreciation of the
benefits of "intellectual" activities. Taxpayers will rightly expect
to know why they should pay for research. A down-to-earth,
intellectually honest awareness campaign is required.
Government funding for research in universities and CRI's is low, and
the present government has already reneged on promises to increase it.
Unlike the USA, for example, New Zealand does not have a large
philanthropic sector, so public funding of research is
essential. Moreover, compared to other OECD nations, New Zealand has a
woeful record of industrial sponsorship of research.
What is needed is a "virtuous circle," rather than the vicious one we
have now. More public and private research funding means more
productive researchers, more effective research, and more useful
applications in the form of technology, improved decision-making and
better democracy. This encourages public and business confidence that
research works, leading to more funding for research, which continues
This cycle will not appear of its own accord; so far the magical "free
market" has conspicuously failed to deliver one. Government must take
the lead, with deeds, not just words.
2. Provide more support for active researchers at the beginning of their
Early investment in talented people has a huge impact on their
lifetime productivity, as we can attest from our own experience.
Increased spending, wisely directed, is needed. Simply redirecting
money that presently goes to more senior researchers will not
help. Nor will sending New Zealand dollars overseas.
The recently announced "Bright Future Top Achiever Doctoral
Scholarships" are a classic example of poorly thought-out expenditure.
Paying for talented young New Zealanders to complete PhDs at top
international institutions looks great on paper. In reality, it's a
colossal waste of money - good New Zealand students have never had
trouble winning funding from overseas universities to support their
Worse still, under this scheme these talented people will be barred
from competing on a global job market, and will instead be "bonded" to
return to New Zealand for as long as they spent overseas. It's
unworkable and perverse to ground high-flyers at the beginning of
their research careers like this, by forcing them back into bad
working conditions. The same $60,000 per year the government proposes
to send overseas with each student could better be spent on the salary
of a young lecturer at a cash-strapped and understaffed New Zealand
university. Real jobs would truly provide incentives for
overseas-based researchers and academics to bring home their skills.
3. Value fundamental long-term research, not just areas thought to have
short-term commercial application
Basic, non-directed research has led to numerous inventions that
improve our quality of life. The development of electronics,
computers, advances in health care, and even the internet, all have
their origins in decades of publicly supported research. And the key
word is decades, not months.
As long as the belief persists among the young and highly educated
that New Zealand is an unfriendly place for them professionally, the
brain drain will continue unabated. Even from twelve thousand miles
away, we can tell the difference between the current rhetorical,
public relations approach and the hard work that is really required.
Expatriates are willing and able to contribute to New Zealand's
transformation into a truly knowledge-based society. But mere
homesickness will not bring them - and us - back.
Good research cannot be done to order; results are not predictable in
advance, and serendipity plays a big role. The key is being able to
recognize a serendipitous result for what it is. That means we need
talented, well-trained, well-resourced and confident researchers, not
those who are struggling to survive.
Finally, the current funding system in New Zealand focuses too
narrowly on too few areas and too few people. This causes certain
areas to wither and others to bloat, making the research community
much less responsive to change. A better method is to spread the money
around. The quality of research is what matters, not its "relevance"
to poorly-understood short-term goals.
Mark Wilson is Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the University of
Montana, USA. He wrote this article in collaboration with a group of 20
other young New Zealand researchers, mostly working overseas. A full
list of the other members of the group is available from him at
Return to main page.