I have been in Europe as a guest of the German government to look at strengthening German–NZ science and innovation. Germany is investing heavily in expanding its basic and applied research through a broad mix of schemes, including its well-established fellowship schemes such as the Von Humbolt fellowships, and through a range of thematic centres of research excellence. In addition, they have established extensive and ongoing mechanisms to promote distinction within the University system. This is achieved through competition aimed at promoting clustering and excellence, via initiatives such as high-performing graduate schools and international partnerships. The range of tools being employed is impressive, and the level of ongoing investment—despite the global fiscal crisis—shows a deep understanding of the importance of knowledge, science and innovation to a healthy and economically progressive society.
Perhaps the most telling impression I gained was that I was in a society where little attention needs to be paid to promoting the importance of ‘blue skies research’, either in the sciences or in the humanities. Whereas sometimes I worry that in New Zealand that term is viewed pejoratively, in Europe the deep history of intellectualism means that the argument is simply not needed. That a country must invest in such a way is fully accepted. Of course they have also focused on how to develop ways of transferring knowledge to the private sector, and in this they have the advantage of having a very different industry profile from that of New Zealand.
In general, Germany has many schemes for international science partnerships, and there are many opportunities which we are well able to better exploit. We do have an NZ–Germany science coordinator, a position currently being advertised, and with this I can see enormous opportunities in quite diverse areas.
I also spent time in Brussels at the European Union and then in Paris. The EU is currently planning for what should follow the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) funding process, and they are moving towards a Grand Challenges process. Again, I see multiple opportunities for NZ scientists to be involved. There is immense good-will towards us, and the Challenges likely to be identified reflect areas where we have some pools of real expertise. The NZ initiative with the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases has garnered a lot of interest, not only because it shows the leadership that NZ can take on an important issue, but also because it represents a new model of fostering international research on common problems. It certainly has had the secondary benefit of elevating New Zealand’s profile as a contributor to international science.
In Paris I met President Sarkozy’s science advisor in the most opulent 18th century room in a building next the Elysee Palace. Here, we focused on the Square Kilometre Array and I briefed him on the Global Research Alliance. I also met the executive officers of the International Council for Science (ICSU), who will be holding their next congress in NZ in 2014. We spent a lot of time discussing the relationship between science and policy, and that between science and society, as the ICSU starts to shift its focus onto the issues of how science and society interact. This was a very fruitful discussion, one where I think some of New Zealand’s recent experience offers some valuable insights. At the OECD I had informative meetings on their analysis of how science feeds into innovation. This is something I shall obviously be reporting back to the NZ Government.
I am now following up on some of my own research at a scientific meeting on human growth and development in Vienna. I also watched the tension-ridden World Cup final on a wet Sunday morning in an Irish pub surrounded by young Kiwis and old Frenchmen. Unfortunately the French sang their National Anthem with far more passion and far better than we did ours—perhaps more of us need to know better the first verse in Te Reo to allow us to sing with more gusto. At least the result made up for that—just!