Paradise lost

Professor Lord Robert Winston
Robert's onto it. We listened attentively then carried on as usual drifting into pauperdom.

I’ve been wondering how to find it again…

When Lord Robert Winston came to New Zealand a year or two back he told us that we’d got it all wrong obsessing over cows, sheep, rugby, Middle Earth and the America’s Cup, that we needed to get our act together and diversify into higher technology pursuits that generate high earning and therefore high wages. We scurried off to emblazon headlines in the papers and we fronted The Great Man up on TV1’s virtual women’s magazine program Close Up — at least we were spared slebs and ambulance-chasers for 10 minutes.

Some influential farming folk were predictably outraged, a woman from Federated Farmers berated me on my blog insisting that we didn’t need anything other than agriculture to prosper. They myopically assume that encouraging extra strings to our economic bow constitutes an attack on church, motherhood and the whole agricultural edifice.

We nodded wisely and when The Great Man left we happily continued upon our self-destructive way, wrecking our country’s future.

Why can’t we listen to our own?

Professor Winston was absolutely correct, but why did we need a visitor to tell us that we’re gradually going broke? If we’d been paying attention to our own we we’d have been right on to it…

Professor Sir Paul Callaghan

Another world-renowned scientist, one of our best and brightest has been telling us this stuff for years. He’s  better qualified on the subject than Lord Winston, at least as good a speaker, and as a Fellow of the Royal Society, even more honoured by his peers than is the good Baron. He knows a damn sight more about our plight than Lord Winston does.

We ignore him.

The only TV airing he’s had in this regard was on a channel that 95% of the country never watches.

“A prophet is not without honour, except in his own country.”

He set out to discover why a nation which has every advantage it could wish for is steadily going down the gurgler. He found the answers and he’s been eloquently promoting the message to groups across the country ever since. Unfortunately the message doesn’t appear to be getting through to those who matter. Professor Callaghan is a fascinating speaker. In a thoroughly convincing presentation he makes disturbing connections between current and historical data from New Zealand and around the world. It’s not easy to make doomsday economics interesting and funny, but he manages it.

“Our landscape is magnificent and helps define who we are. But this lecture will argue that we have the potential to be a great deal more besides, and that we must be if we are to build the society we want our children to thrive in.

It will argue that we can enhance our prosperity through sensible investment in science and technology, coupled with culture change. The first part is the easy bit. The second requires self-belief and a sense of purpose.

David Lange once said New Zealand’s destiny was to be a theme park (and Australia’s, a quarry). We can surely think and act beyond that. Indeed New Zealand is such an interesting place to live precisely because we are so capable of determining our future.”

Dr Callaghan takes disparate facts that we already knew and links them in ways that we hadn’t previously noticed. His argument is totally convincing: we’re in a hole, we’re still digging, and it won’t get better until we change our ways. Along the way he demonstrates clearly that we must spend far more on R&D and that it should be mainly targeted on science & technology — the areas that give the best economic bang for the buck. There’s nothing wrong with farming and tourism, but they have limits. They produce relatively low returns on investment and they provide low-wage jobs. We’re not going to catch up with the rest of the field until we shift up a level.

Just some of Dr Callaghan’s accomplishments and accolades

In case you’re thinking “Not another academic with a barrow to push!” this is a clued-up Kiwi who puts his money where his mouth is. Figuratively and literally.

  • Professor of Physical Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington.
  • Director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials & Nanotechnology.
  • Past-President of the Academy Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand.
  • Founding director of Magritek, a successful, small and growing high-tech manufacturing business.
  • Fellow of the Royal Society of London.
  • Awarded the Ampere Prize in 2004.
  • Awarded the Rutherford medal in 2005.
  • Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

I will hammer this issue here at Just Wondering. You’ll hear more about Sir Paul and I’ll be harping on about GDP, productivity and political change. We’re in trouble and I intend to make a noise about it. Set aside an hour and click here to watch his entertaining but disturbing talk. If it inspires you or changes your outlook, please help him—and me—to spread the message.