MEDIA RELEASE EMBARGOED UNTIL 6.00 a.m. NZDT Tuesday 16 November 1999
WORKING CONDITIONS, NOT TAXES, KEEP EXPATRIATE RESEARCHERS AWAY
Politicians bemoaning the brain drain have not bothered to ask expatriates
what would bring them and their skills back home, says a group of young New
Zealand researchers based here and overseas.
The group scoffs at claims by Max Bradford, Richard Prebble and others that
the prospect of a small tax increase would accelerate the brain drain.
"That is nonsense," says Prof. Mark Wilson, a mathematician at the
University of Montana. "When I weigh up returning to New Zealand, small
changes to the top marginal tax rates don't even figure. What matters is
whether I'll be working in an institution that can support excellent
teaching and advanced research."
The group says that the National government should not be surprised that
New Zealand is finding it difficult to retain highly educated people, as
recent studies have revealed.
"If you pull the plug out, of course you'll get a brain drain," argue
Auckland University mathematicians Dr. Geoffrey Pritchard and Dr. Shayne
Waldron, referring to the ongoing erosion of public funding for
universities. "All the current rhetoric about a 'knowledge economy'
completely ignores the real and tragic effects of education policies of the
"New Zealand has always been dependent on imported knowledge, much of it in
the form of returning New Zealanders," says Dr. Richard Easther, an
astrophysicist working at Brown University. "But the current state of
university funding makes it difficult to participate in the circulation of
knowledge and talent that is a crucial part of the international academic
world. We're increasingly unable to attract top thinkers."
"Nor does the government understand the connection between good research
and good teaching," adds Dr. Amanda Peet, a theoretical high energy
physicist. "Funding per student has dropped over the last decade, and
research and teaching are both suffering as a result. In the United
States, the research university exposes students to teachers who are
working at the cutting edge, and is the major incubator of a culture of
inquiry and innovation. Frankly, I don't see young innovators flourishing
in an environment as starved for support as New Zealand's tertiary sector."
The government's Bright Future package, which plans to offer scholarships
for overseas PhD study, is pouring money into the wrong bucket. New
Zealand students have always been successful in landing fully-funded places
at world-class universities, studying everything from string theory to
Robin Hyde. The money set aside for these new scholarships would be better
spent on protecting and improving research conditions in New Zealand.
Ironically, there is often more support overseas for studying New Zealand
culture, says Michelle Elleray, who is completing a PhD at Cornell
University. "Here in upstate New York, I have better access to funding and
resources for my research into New Zealand cultural history than I could
currently hope for at a university back home."
The group insists that above all, government must take the lead in properly
funding and promoting a broad culture of research, in both the sciences and
the humanities. Public funding of research is essential, given New
Zealand's lack of a traditionally philanthropic private sector, and the
pitifully low research and development spending compared to OECD norms.
Proposed tax incentives for private-sector R&D are a start, but if the
government is really worried about the brain drain and wants to stimulate a
knowledge economy, it will stop blaming bogeymen like tax increases, and
boost expenditure on R&D to match other OECD countries.
"The government could begin by looking at the best practices of other
successful economies," says Jolisa Gracewood, who is completing a
Comparative Literature PhD at Cornell University. "We might not be able
to build a local Harvard or MIT overnight, but we can emulate their
strengths. Top universities like those prove that knowledge production
thrives when people are given the stability necessary to pursue long-term,
open-ended projects, at well-funded institutions that nourish a wide
variety of disciplines and perspectives."
Unfortunately, the group says, the message they're getting from many
colleagues in New Zealand is that it's not a good time to come home, but a
good time to pack up and leave. This has nothing to do with tax rates and
everything to do with the lack of a research-friendly environment. "Glitzy
policy pamphlets and an enthusiasm for short-sighted, short-term
efficiencies are masking a major, long-term haemorrhage of research talent
from New Zealand," says Prof. Wilson. "We're speaking out now because if
the current policies prevail there'll be nothing for us to come back to.
It's not a bright future at all."
Even in a perfect world not everyone will be able or willing to come home.
But policy-makers have done little or nothing to tap the experience and
expertise of expatriate academics. The group warns that voters should be
suspicious of politicians who loudly trumpet the importance of "knowledge"
and bewail the brain drain, and yet fail to consult the network of
highly-educated New Zealanders across the globe.
- Dr. Mark Wilson, Assistant Professor (Mathematics), University of
Montana, USA. email@example.com
- Jolisa Gracewood, PhD candidate (Comparative literature), Cornell
The following people contributed to and signed this media release. The
views expressed are their own and not those of the various institutions
which employ them.
If you are, or might soon be, a drained brain, contact the webmaster if you want to add
your name to the updated list of signatories.
- Dr Mark Wilson, Assistant Professor (Mathematics), University of
- Jolisa Gracewood, PhD candidate (Comparative literature), Cornell
- Dr Amanda Peet, Post-doctoral fellow (Theoretical Physics), University
of California Santa Barbara, USA
- Dr Richard Easther, Post-doctoral fellow (Cosmology and
Theoretical Physics), Brown University, USA
- Dr Geoffrey Pritchard, Lecturer (Statistics), University of Auckland
- Dr Shayne Waldron, Lecturer (Mathematics), University of Auckland
- Dr Ben Martin, Postdoctoral Fellow (Mathematics), University of Sydney,
- Dr Andrew Allan, Scientist (Plant Biology), HortResearch
- Michelle Elleray, PhD Candidate (English Literature), Cornell
- Dr Richard Laugesen, Assistant Professor (Mathematics), University of
- Anne Lyden, PhD Candidate (English Literature), Cornell University, USA
- Dr Mark Moir, Assistant Professor (Computer Science), University of
- Dr Sean Oughton, Lecturer (Applied Mathematics), University College
- Chris Werry, PhD candidate (English), Carnegie Mellon University, USA
- Nicola Rowe, doctoral student (Law), Georg-August-Universität zu
- Dr Andrew Ensor, Postdoctoral Fellow (Mathematics), University of Siena,
- Dr Michael Witbrock, Principal Scientist, Lycos Inc., USA
- Dr Matthew Parry, Postdoctoral Research Associate (Cosmology), Imperial
College London, UK
- Dr Anna Neill, Assistant Professor (English), University of Kansas, USA
- Dr Sarah Winters, Temporary Lecturer (English), University of Toronto,
- Dr Jonathan Gil Harris, Associate Professor (English), Ithaca College,
- Dr Kathryn McGrath, Lecturer (Chemistry), University of Otago
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