STRATUS debate

Stratus, a body at the University of Auckland that represents and supports emerging researchers, recently held a debate/ discussion about how science research can translate into economic benefit. The session was titled ‘Today’s basic science inspires tomorrow’s new technology… what’s the right balance for New Zealand’.

To undertake this discussion an esteemed panel of UoA leaders was assembled including Prof. Paul Callaghan, Prof. Peter Shepherd, Dr Dick Bellamy, Prof Jill Cornish, Prof Jim Metson and Peter Lee. MC and time keeper was Assc. Prof Gillian Lewis.

Below is a collection of important points extracted from the discussion.

First up Paul Callaghan extracted content out of his recent book, Wool to Weta, which painted a picture of NZ’s poor economic state and highlighted that science was at the source of the solution.

  • NZ GDP is 32% behind Australia’s.
  • This equates to a 40 billion gap = 5 Fonterras.
  • We are in this current state because we have continued to make very low value products. 
  • To maintain our GDP level each FTE needs to make $140,000 of GDP.
  • Tourism only brings in $70,000 per job meaning we get poorer if we invest in tourism.
  • Fonterra generates 400k/ FTE but its activities take up significant land and resources while polluting our environment.
  • FPH = better model.
  • Samsungs annual revenue = NZ’s GDP.
  • Top ten NZ tech companies produce $4 billion. We just need 10x this = 100 people to start these companies. Paul made a note of mentioning that most are engineering based as opposed to none in bio. Peter Shepherd counted this by mentioning that this is simply because biotech hasn’t been around as long as those.
  • Paul’s research has cost the tax payer 120 herceptin treatments or 600 hip replacements. We need to demonstrate the value proposition for research to the public and govt.
  • the government is borrowing $250mill a weak to run the country.
  • Paul also mentioned a neat program that the Macdiarmid Insitute ran for its staff and students.

Jill Cornish – University Professor

NZ should be at the forefront of discoveries.

What do we need to do?

  • invest in training and retention
  • create career paths and encourage
  • multidisciplinary research
  • effectively funded strategies in NZ schools and universities
  • increase NZ science funding urgently

Peter Shepherd – Bioentrepreneur & University Professor.

  • past 5 years we have seen the blurring of basic and applied
  • emphasised the importance that the bioindustry/ pharma can have in the grand scheme of things i.e.1 cancer drug = 1 Fonterra overnight
  • focus should be on solutions as opposed to simply talking about the issues
  • multi disciplinary research is essential. Mentioned that the CoRE’s are doing this well
  • Referred to taking things to next level regarding the interaction of the researchers and those who extract value from  it. There need to be incentives in place to encourage researchers to come forward with their discoveries/ inventions.

Peter Lee – CEO, Uniservices

  • science + voice of commerce = innovation
  • basic science is the life blood of commercial opportunities
  • commerce drives invention towards valuable innovation
  • UoA is about 50:50 applied to basic science research
  • $1 goes a lot further in NZ in terms of research
  • Highlighted that Uniservices is actually a source of research funding. And that getting past the initial review round is not that difficult.
  • ‘we are idea limited not $$ limited’
  • Uniservices are seeking to encourage more companies to initiate dialogue with them
  • How do we get NZ industry to become hungry for wanting to source their knowledge from NZ universities?

Dick Bellamy – Former Dean of Science, The University of Auckland.

  • Australia is ahead not because of their investment in a knowledge economy but because of their mineral stocks.
  • knowledge wave = knowledge ripple. Govt needs to put some serious resources in.
  • MORST R,S&T priorities = rearranging chairs on the titanic
  • We are now in a similar economic situation which we experienced after WWII which we got out of. Accept now we haven’t quite realised that we are actually in this situation.
  • Our current structure of science research is not sustainable as it is based on our agricultural driven economy from previous decades. New economy = new structure.
  • we have ‘pretended that our CRIs can make money’
  • 8 CRIs, 4 unis for only a population of 4.4 million is overkill
  • we lack critical mass because we are geographically dispersed.
  • consolidations and mergers are required required to fix the above
  • every ten years or so we go through the same round of discussions
  • we need to be more radical

Jim Metson – Head of Chemistry, University of Auckland

  • we spend so much time (and money) organising what money to put into what packets/ buckets.
  • there is a conflict or misalignment between NZ companies being reliant on NZ discovery to source their growth  and how many NZ discoveries wont’ be exploited in NZ
  • as NZers we tend to invest in property not science
  • we have a problem of communication. We need to communicate how science research flows through to economic benefit
  • we need a revolution

Panel Questions/ Discussions

  • Why do we have low R&D investment in industry – this is because we are a country of low tech companies which only require minimum GDP levels to fuel our R&D. So we need to fundamentally change the type of businesses to those that require high R&D investment such that industry will be forced to invest. Mentions of the government needs to help drive this.
  • The problem can be solved without the government
  • Public view/ opinion changes the govt’s view/ opinion





Graeme @


One response to “STRATUS debate

  1. Good one Graeme. 🙂

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