Friday, August 24, 2012

Where's the blue sky?

Back in June there was a forum held in Tologa Bay, aptly, for historical reasons (go look them up, transits, Captain Cook etc), called the Transit of Venus forum. Originally the brain child of Sir Paul Callaghan, it was curated by Sir Peter Gluckman. The idea was to discuss how science can be a part of making society better - I like that part, the recognition that science isn't separate/distinct from society, but part of it.
Anyway. So Sir Peter  distilled the themes that were running through the various discussions and presented them to the Prime Minister last night at a Royal Society gig. Whilst I wasn't there, I did watch what was being said via twitter. It was sort of depressing. The general feeling that emerged whilst the politicians were talking was there there is little place in science in this country for just figuring things out - that's what gives scientist a buzz btw if you hadn't been paying attention. It appears that we must focus on science that has specific outcomes that can be turned into economically viable businesses. Which is just ... wrong.

Someone in the twitter feed linked to this this, which I think is pertinent. There is a crisis of perception, if not here, then approaching. The innovative technology that our leaders want us to go looking for is not generally foreseeable  As in you can't go looking for it. Maxwells descriptions of how electricity work didn't arise from him trying to construct a toaster. Yet toasters arose as a by product of Maxwell understanding and aiding others in harnessing the power of electricity. And the contestable funding model that we have for most science funding in New Zealand supports this idea that you should be able to predict what you are looking for and of what benefit it will be. This is not an approach that leads to new and innovative ideas that can be commercialized. 

And to compound the problem, some of the problems that we are being asked to find problems for already have answers. Apparently we must develop a vaccine for rheumatic fever. Yet we already no that one of the biggest causes is poverty and the lack of adequate housing. There's a solution already there, it's apparently not sophisticated enough. This is not an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff type approach. It's someone standing next to the ambulance at the top of the cliff yelling down to the bottom asking if everything is alright.

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