Editorial: Heady days ahead as science star rises

00:00, Oct 16 2012

Another sign of the importance of the Cawthron Institute to the region and nation comes with its announcement that a start is imminent on a new $5-million laboratory block.

The Cawthron has long been one of Nelson's quiet achievers, under-sung if not totally unsung.

And the facilities staff have been putting up with for years are cramped, to say the least, with some junior scientists packed into portacoms.

Perhaps that would give them empathy with the samples they study in test-tubes and culture dishes, but it's hardly an appropriate environment for teams on the sharp end of global science and research in fields with the potential for hugely valuable findings.

The 90-year-old institute employs more than 190 staff, has a not-for-profit ethos and is overseen by a community trust.

The new two-storey building will provide 400 square metres of laboratory space along with other rooms.

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Clearly, the development is long overdue.

It is just the beginning of a four-part redevelopment at its main Nelson premises in the Wood.

Of similar importance to the Cawthron has been the recent surge in development of the labs and shellfish breeding capacity at the institute's aquaculture park at the Glen. It appears that further expansion is on the way there too.

Science might not create too many headlines, cafeteria chat or renowned public figures compared with sports, music or the film industry, but its importance to the economy should not be overlooked.

A sliver of overdue recognition came with the appointment of the closest thing to a current Kiwi celebrity scientist: Professor Peter Gluckman, who was made science adviser to the Prime Minister, a role John Key created shortly after he first took office late in 2008.

In a pointer to current, sharper, Cawthron thinking, the institute this year largely opted out of what had been a main focus: environmental testing.

It sold the chemical side of a business largely related to tests for resource consent requirements to R J Hill Laboratories, which has large premises in Christchurch and Hamilton and a smaller base in Blenheim.

While it retained the microbiological side of this business, Cawthron has been keen to develop high-end, high-value research and development projects, particularly involving the food, aquaculture and "nutraceutical" industries.

The latter - which involves analysing compounds within food which appear to have health-promoting properties - is seen as presenting huge potential.

The institute's chief executive, Charles Eason, brings an enthusiasm tempered with pragmatism to his role, and talks of the need to develop both a stronger Cawthron and high-return "sightlines to market".

His background, which includes senior positions in global pharmaceutical companies Sandoz and Sterling-Winthrop, combines both science and business management skills, suggesting heady days could be on the horizon for Nelson-based science.

The Nelson Mail