MEDIA RELEASE EMBARGOED UNTIL 6.00 a.m. NZDT Tuesday 16 November 1999


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 last decade."

"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.

  • Jolisa Gracewood, PhD candidate (Comparative literature), Cornell University, USA

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 Montana, USA

  • Jolisa Gracewood, PhD candidate (Comparative literature), Cornell University, USA

  • 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, Australia

  • Dr Andrew Allan, Scientist (Plant Biology), HortResearch

  • Michelle Elleray, PhD Candidate (English Literature), Cornell University, USA

  • Dr Richard Laugesen, Assistant Professor (Mathematics), University of Illinois, USA

  • Anne Lyden, PhD Candidate (English Literature), Cornell University, USA

  • Dr Mark Moir, Assistant Professor (Computer Science), University of Pittsburgh, USA

  • Dr Sean Oughton, Lecturer (Applied Mathematics), University College London, UK

  • Chris Werry, PhD candidate (English), Carnegie Mellon University, USA

  • Nicola Rowe, doctoral student (Law), Georg-August-Universität zu Göttingen, Germany

  • Dr Andrew Ensor, Postdoctoral Fellow (Mathematics), University of Siena, Italy

  • 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, Canada

  • Dr Jonathan Gil Harris, Associate Professor (English), Ithaca College, USA

  • Dr Kathryn McGrath, Lecturer (Chemistry), University of Otago

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