Cow-shit and Candyfloss Overcomes High Tech

In an interview for Unlimited Magazine, physicist and technology entrepreneur Paul Callaghan recounts meeting Prime Minister John Key at a business function. The PM had just stepped off the speaker’s podium where he had been talking up agriculture and tourism and expressing scepticism about the value of New Zealand’s technology sector to the economy. If that is the kind of leadership we are faced with, then I fear that the devaluation of our economic potential will continue unabated.

And before I’m accused over being overly harsh, let’s just look at this government’s track record since taking office well over six months ago:

  • Research & development tax credit reduced then cut altogether.
  • Fast Forward programme wiped and replaced with identical project with less funding.
  • I.T. worker redundancies from government agencies.
  • Negligible budget increase to RS&T vote.
  • Major cuts to tertiary education funding.
  • NZ Innovation Centre loses $15M in funding.
  • Reported $100M net loss to market development assistance programmes for exporters.

To be fair, we all knew that the Budget needed to be tough – even if Key and English can’t agree exactly why. Certainly borrowing to fund superannuation and tax cuts doesn’t make good fiscal sense; but neither does knee-capping your research, science and technology capability. To its credit, the government did provide additional resources to the Marsden Fund and a one-off operational grant to REANNZ the high speed research network. In the latter case, they obviously could not be seen to allow the research network to fail, whilst at the same time pouring billions into digging trenches for a brand new domestic network for which a proper economic business case has yet to be made.

Investing in and commercialising research will never be cheaper than today and you can be sure that our competitors in America and Europe are continuing to do it. I’ve said it before – when I look around town, it is the businesses that have invested in developing new technology that are still growing. It seems like the government is signalling it wishes to play less of a role in this arena. Dairy commodity prices are dropping again, so too are visitor numbers. The PM’s support for agriculture and tourism is no doubt uplifting for the cow-shit and candyfloss brigades, but it does little to bolster our GDP per capita output in the long term.

Wool to Weta by Paul Callaghan is available at all good bookstores and explains why research, science and technology is important to the New Zealand economy and why a unified vision is needed.

4 thoughts on “Cow-shit and Candyfloss Overcomes High Tech

  1. Hey Paul

    Pretty much echoing my thoughts as well. I have recently read Paul’s book and it’s great to hear such content being produced from a scientist.
    Hopefully I should be posting a review + my thoughts on it soon enough.

    While I see and get involved with pushing the same message at my university, it does begin to frustrate when the forces above seem to go in the other direction. Especially given our Aussie neighbours recently announced a 25% increase in science & innovation funding.

    I will leave you with a recent item from one of my Beehive RSS Feeds that will provide even more confusion

    “Budget 2009 recognises the critical role science and technology will play in the economic recovery through substantial extra funding, Research, Science and Technology Minister Wayne Mapp says.”

    I’d like to see his definitions of critical and substantial…..


  2. It’s easy for us to sit on the sidelines and criticise of course. But what none of our recent governments seem to have grasped is that the hip replacements and super payments of 2019 will be funded by the economic settings we put in place today and the start-up businesses that are being founded right now.

    I find it ironic that in the U.S. “cleantech” businesses are attracting funding yet in NZ we remain bogged down in the filthy muck producing industries of the 20th century. We should be exporting knowledge based services such as design and engineering services for geothermal or windpower or commercialising pastoral greenhouse gas agricultural solutions, rather than being held to ransom by the vagaries of commodity prices.

    I think knowledge businesses will simply get on and do it anyway, but perhaps to a lesser extent than if there was a national leadership drive behind it. When I look at what one man has achieved utilising his vision for the film and digital animation industry here, it demonstrates what is possible – with the right connections and access to capital. Why can’t we replicate this for our software industry for example?

    Unfortunately, building and leveraging a globally networked knowledge industry ecosystem is a brave concept that government has always struggled with, despite efforts from many of us. Without government led efforts to develop the requisite social capital and communications infrastructure, this is where we will continue to fall down.

  3. Too many people ( even in the business world) still rely on the government to create change. However it is encouraging that the new age knowledge based businesses, aren’t waiting for this change and are doing it as we speak in multiple industries.

    I recently attended the Entrepreneurship Summit (in the capacity of a ‘helper’) where I was disappointed by two aspects: 1; the reliance on government to create change and 2; the lack of awareness of the size of our economic problem i.e. a 30 billion pa one just to get to back to baseline, leading to ideas around agricultural productivity and tourism both which have small impacts in terms of the grand scheme of things. Being a uni student with an interest in building this new-aged economy, these signs aren’t too encouraging. I wonder how many have read Paul’s book or one of the other reports/ books about stimulating our enconomy ( a NZ Institute report or Steven Carden’s NZ Unleshed).


  4. Yeah, not very impressed on the whole. I thought National was supposed to be the pro Business party? I guess it’s more of the pro “Business as usual” party.

    Also, I could hardly believe it when I found out State Services was losing half their core IT team (or something like that? Can’t recall details). If the Govt was really keen about increasing state sector productivity those would probably be the *last* people they should have laid off.

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