Brussels, 28 Sep 2004
New Zealand may not be the most obvious partner for Europe's researchers - the country is, after all, situated at the furthest possible point from Europe and known for its principal industry, dairy. However, the country has a lot to offer in terms of research collaboration, as Research Minister Pete Hodgson explained in an interview with CORDIS News.
Having one of the fastest growing economies in the world, one need not simply take the word of the New Zealand Research Minister that his country is an attractive partner. The economy is currently transforming, as evidenced by the fact that software exports will overtake wool exports in four or five years. Much of this transformation is due to the government's focus on innovation, according to Mr Hodgson.
The Growth and Innovation Framework is the 'central document of our government', said Mr Hodgson. 'It doesn't just deal with science, but science is often the wellspring of innovation. And it's working for us.' Indeed, not only does New Zealand have a growth rate of around four per cent, it also has the second lowest unemployment rate in the world, its economy is diversifying and New Zealanders abroad are flooding back home.
In contrast to Europe, where brain drain is a real concern for most countries, New Zealand is experiencing the opposite problem: 'We have a problem with brain gain - we're in a different cycle to Europe,' said Mr Hodgson. 'We now have a skills deficit and infrastructure problems. A lot of the problems that five years ago we would have died for, we now have [...]. My job is to grow the science pie faster so that we can continue to employ people coming out of our tertiary education institutes,' said the minister.
The country's capital Wellington may be nearly 19,000 kilometres from Brussels, but that is not and should not be an impediment to collaboration between New Zealand and the EU, believes Mr Hodgson. The government has taken steps to make sure of this, introducing a new funding envelope to facilitate international research collaboration - the International Investment Opportunities Fund - and by appointing its first ever overseas science counsellor, who is based in Brussels.
'Small countries always collaborate. We don't have an alternative,' said Mr Hodgson. 'Nearly everything that 's discovered in the world is not discovered in New Zealand!'
While New Zealand has always had research ties with individual European countries, the government now has 'the knowledge that, as the idea of Europe consolidates, we must focus on the EU as an entity.' New Zealand traditionally has strong links with the UK as a member of the Commonwealth, as well as countries such as Germany and France. The status quo is, however, changing: 'It is no longer sufficient for us to wander off and see our old mates at Oxford or Cambridge. We have to do more than that and we do it gladly,' Mr Hodgson told CORDIS News.
The arrival of the Internet and increased air travel mean that collaboration is not as difficult as it once was: 'The tyranny of distance is dying, but the tyranny is not dead,' said the minister.
The difficulties of isolation are also somewhat offset for the research community by three factors, according to Mr Hodgson. First, the fact that work can be done counter-seasonally is of interest to many scientists, particularly those working with plants. If research requires two summers in a row, New Zealand is an ideal location for one of these. Second, New Zealand is free of many diseases affecting the rest of the world, such as BSE and scrapie. And third, the distance between New Zealand scientists and their counterparts in other countries means that they are not hampered by the current orthodoxy, said Mr Hodgson. The minister conceded that this is 'an assertion rather than a fact', but said that 'New Zealanders are very capable of doing something different, of thinking outside the square, or taking a short cut that works.
In terms of the scientific disciplines, New Zealand has the full range but specialises in certain areas, mainly those that underpin the country's economy. 'We don't spend a lot of time building particle accelerators or trying to get ourselves into space,' said Mr Hodgson.
A significant feature is that New Zealand is very good at the biologies as a group, he explained. The country therefore occupies a very strong position in modern biotechnology. 'We can do the genome of pretty much whatever we like. We can clone lots of things and we do,' said Mr Hodgson. As an example, the country has the world's largest database of fruit genomes. 'We have something of a head start,' said the minister.
New Zealand's 2004 budget, announced in May, saw the largest ever increase to government funds for research, science and technology, with 50 million NZ dollars (around million euro) of new money being made available. The minister is hoping that this trend continues in 2005. However, although New Zealand is 'pouring money into research by historic standards', research investment is still behind that of Europe.
Some of the new money will be available through the International Investment Opportunities Fund. The initiative aims at mitigating possible clashes in funding cycles, and thus facilitating international collaboration. For example, if the opportunity for a collaborative project arises but the New Zealand partners need to have their share of the funds ready before the next national budget is announced, this fund could be used. The first call for proposals will be launched at the beginning of October, and a lot of interest from the research community is expected.
'The underlying thesis is that scientists collaborate whether we want them to or not. This government does want them to, so we are doing what we can to ease that collaboration. I have no doubt that the money will be spent well,' Mr Hodgson told CORDIS News.
Private sector investment in research has traditionally been very low, but, as the minister explained, the country's principal industry - dairy - has not required high levels of research: 'Dairy farmers don't spend 15 per cent of their turnover on research. Pharmaceutical companies do.' This is not to say that New Zealand does not invest in agricultural research. 'The quality of our agricultural research is why we're a first world nation at all. We've made remarkable productivity increases because of research.'
But with the transformation of the economy, research is moving from a primary sector level to a higher level, according to Mr Hodgson. Private sector research spending increased by 32 per cent between 2000 and 2002, and the minister is hoping for a similar increase over the next two years.
While well aware that Europe is still investing significantly more than New Zealand in research, Mr Hodgson was pleased to be able to say that, at the moment, the EU as a whole is not performing as well as New Zealand. Could this be another country for Europe's policy makers to add to their list of emerging competitors?
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