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Frederik Pruijn
Frederik Pruijn
Frederik Pruijn obtained his PhD in Pharmacochemistry at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Since 1992 he has been affiliated with the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and is a Senior Research Fellow in the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre.


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Academic Freedom versus Science Policy

Jul. 12, 2010 6:58 am
Categories: science policy

New Zealand is a small country, economically speaking, with only 4.3 million people. New Zealand is a member of the OECD and ranks at the bottom in terms of GDP (per capita); its investment in Research and Development is also low compared to other OECD nations, which is reflected in the number of patents. Somewhat puzzling New Zealand has a relatively high number of researchers. In order to get New Zealand moving up the ranks our export products will have to change. Currently, New Zealand exports are predominantly primary produce, e.g. lamb (meat), wool, fish & shellfish, wine, wood & wood pulp, diary products, fruit (kiwi fruit etc.). According to some people New Zealand could or should become the Finland of Australasia and export technology or technology-driven high-value products. In the 90s the government tried to show some initiative to create a “knowledge society” or “knowledge economy” and achieve the miracle of “economic transformation” by, amongst other things, embarking on a project aptly and adeptly named “Catching the Knowledge Wave”. It is interesting to note that Weta Digital has 6 of the country’s 7 supercomputer that featured in the Top500 list of supercomputers. The Weta Studios are, of course, famous for their contributions to some major blockbuster movies of recent and not so recent times. The average wage in Australia is substantially higher than in New Zealand and consequently we suffer from a brain drain to Australia “across the ditch” (NB Auckland to Sydney is 2160 km or 1342 miles, which is a 3-hour flight). The current government, which got sworn in at the end of 2008, has set the aspirational goal of “closing the gap” (i.e. the 25-30% wage gap; according to some this is an impossible task. A special taskforce was set up to address this). In fact, when the going gets tough the number of people emigrating to Australia often increases. This is not good for the national psyche. Another ongoing problem is, for example, that our highly trained medical doctors often leave the country lured by the much higher salaries overseas. Australia is again a popular destination. In other words, thousands of dollars are spent on training these young bright people to give them qualifications that are (too) highly valued internationally. If these people were to come back after some time with new ideas and lots of (overseas) experience it wouldn’t be so bad but often they don’t return.

It is therefore not surprising that there is a bit of soul searching, brain storming, and navel gazing going on as to how to achieve these noble goals. The Prime Minster has even appointed the first Chief Science Advisor. As always, the question revolves about money: how to spend it and on what? With limited (financial) resources New Zealand cannot perform at an international level in all areas of science & technology. Obviously, that is never going to happen. For example, there is no major pharmaceutical industry, although there is no good reason that comes to mind why this is not the case. Perhaps it is the relative isolation of New Zealand being “down under”. There are signs emerging, and this is probably not unique to New Zealand, that the government is trying to direct more funding towards research, science & technology that have the potential to return an economical benefit. This will leave many areas of academic efforts somewhat in the cold, e.g. arts, literature, law, social studies, etc. However, also in fields in which it is possibly easier to demonstrate a potential benefit (read: return of investment) such as biomedical sciences there is pressure to conform to this new “paradigm” at the expense of basic (fundamental) research. Some would argue that this is nothing new and that, in principal, there is nothing wrong with this approach. As long as a scientist can get funding for his (for simplicity the male perspective is used) research he can do whatever he likes. This is one of the aspects of “academic freedom”: one can do and say anything without undue interference from anybody, including the government. In some ways, this is amazing level of freedom with a corresponding lack of accountability. Academics truly live in a different world as far as this goes. Even many granting agencies do not require extensive and detailed reporting in return for their funding and I have never heard of a funding body micromanaging a research project. The catch is (there always is a catch!) is that each project/program has to produce output and pretty much the only output that matters to and for academic researchers is publications, publications, and publications. Unfortunately, publications alone are not always sufficient to keep going, but it does help tremendously (…) if you (happen to?) work in the right area, e.g. one that is “hot” and actively encouraged, directed, and targeted by policy makers/funders. Special Program Announcements of Request for Proposals often carry sentences such as “… to accelerate…” and similar catch phrases to highlight the pressing need to stimulate certain areas (over others). One fine example is nanotechnology, which, as far as I know, has its roots fair & square in fundamental sciences and which is now a “hot” and emerging area of very active research. I think that few policy makers and scientist for that matter have a good idea where nanotechnology may lead us but the promise (hype?) is strong and, partly thanks to the financial impetus, it will almost inevitably become a self-fulfilling prophecy (i.e. it will deliver something at some stage). The other side of this coin (pun intended) is that areas that receive less financial stimulus and encouragement could easily “starve to death” not just by lack of funding but, perhaps even more importantly, by lack of attention. This latter aspect of professional pride, motivation, (job) satisfaction, and enthusiasm (passion) are generally overlooked and grossly neglected and often ignored factors that are hugely important to recruit bright young people into science as a career choice. Without “fresh blood” any profession is doomed to extinction.

The doctrine of applicability is so pervasive that many (biomedical) articles now finish with conclusions such as a newly discovered protein being a potential therapeutic target, a gene being a potential (bio)marker, and a drug being a potential candidate for clinical testing, etc. Although many studies hold much promise, without knowing the future a more critical and perhaps even sceptical view of their importance, relevance, and impact may be justified. So, with a good track record and an impressive list of publications and working at the forefront of science in an exciting up and coming field that has obvious potential applications one would expect an academic scientist to be free and do as he pleases. Not necessarily. For example, the debate around stem cells has stymied many researchers whose research proposals unquestionably had high scientific merit. Clearly, public opinion and (thus) political interference (used here as a neutral term) can be determining and even limiting factors in what an academic scientist can or cannot pursue.

The question remains how a small country such as New Zealand can spend its tax payers money wisely on R & D and find a balance between a directive policy that prioritises certain endeavours over others, temporarily, and a prescriptive one in which certain academic research gets killed off, permanently, with rather far reaching policy decisions, guidelines, and strict rules (the dreaded “milestones”). Arguably, the richness of a society/country does not only depend on the trade-weighted balance of goods but also on its ‘cultural breadth and depth’. For this reason, it may not be such a bad idea to let academics do work of their own choosing without too much meddling. Scientists are driven by curiosity, amongst other things, and do not consult oracles like Paul the Octopus to predict whether their choices are going to pay off.

Of course, there are numerous reasons why people go overseas (abroad) and higher salaries are often pointed at as the main reason. However, another important driver is job opportunities and possibilities in terms of “variety of choice”. People like to experience different things, different jobs, different companies, etc. Therefore, it is vital that New Zealand fosters science and its scientists and there is no reason why a small country cannot create a vibrant atmosphere (a science hub) that would attract scientists over here rather than the opposite.

Last but not least, much of the above about academics, grant funding, and academic career (progression) and survival mainly refers to people on so-called “soft money” and not to tenured positions. A personal disclaimer: I am and always have been on soft money.

Emily Patterson-Kane
September 2, 2010 at 3:17 pm
Part of the explanation for the high number of researchers might be that about 1 in 5 Kiwis with an advanced degree live overseas (as I do). Thus instead of exporting research, they tend to export researchers ;)
Thinker's Post
Frederik Pruijn
September 2, 2010 at 7:16 pm

They go on about the "brain drain" but don't do much to reverse it. The problem is that there is very little or no return-of-investment when highly qualified people leave and don't come back.

How long have you been away and do you think you'll ever come back? What would make you come back, professionally speaking?

Emily Patterson-Kane
September 2, 2010 at 9:46 pm
I have been away about 10 years, since getting my PhD and being unable to get a position locally. I will be back within the next 2 years or so--pretty much for lifestyle reasons. I want to live in NZ. If I can't find a position I will just get by on freelance and consulting work. Smallcountries have limited options for specialist workers. C'est la vie. But I do think there are elements of under-funding, philsophical conservatism and nepotism at work. I also think the universities could do more to mentor all these Ph.D.s that get launched out into the world each year. to Shut Down Permanently on December 31, 2017

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