Young scientists vital for NZ economy

Who will follow? Sir Peter Gluckman.
Who will follow? Sir Peter Gluckman.

The Prime Minister's chief science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman has used a visit to the Waikato to warn that a shortage of scientists is looming as students choose "sexy" careers over science-based roles.

Although New Zealand achieved its standard of living off the back of a food-based economy, Gluckman said the prominence of science in schools had faded.

"There are so many young bright kids but there is quite a lot of challenge to remind people who live in city that rural economy is fundamental," he said. "We are using random things to educate students in schools. We should be using soil bacteria, sheep and learning how milk is formed."

Gluckman was among science and innovation officials who visited Hamilton yesterday for a discussion forum at industry-good body DairyNZ.

Skill shortages in biosecurity roles could ultimately put the country's livelihoods at risk, however "things like insects and creepy crawlers" that could bite were not the most sexy-sounding career areas, he said.

The former New Zealander of the Year and Liggins Institute founder had already seen a successor problem in some science fields and urged the sector to look to the future.

"A 16-year-old now, their contribution is when they are 30, 40 or 50. The science of today is not relevant to the science of tomorrow."

Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry director natural resources Mike Jebson said within 10 years the country's reliance on "a relatively ageing group of scientists" meant there could be real problems.

New Zealand was built on the backbone of its soils and if the country did not start filling capability gaps in this area, there would be a problem, he said.

"I think the universities are starting to recognise this but how do you incentivise students?

"How do you sell soil to students who want to do sexy stuff ... law or technology or film. I think this has been a challenge also in general agriculture and horticultural science.

"Universities are working hard but I think they are struggling to get people through."

The nation's reliance on science during the past 50 years had got primary sectors to the state they are today but if investment for the future was not made the sectors would find it hard to adapt to new challenges. These included climate change, water usage and nutrient efficiencies, which needed to be tackled by a combination of good investment in science and flow-through to farmers.

"You need good science done but there is no point in good science just sitting on a shelf. It needs to be picked up by farmers."

The image of farming had been helped by a more mature conversation between farmers and environmentalists, Jebson said.

"People are getting together to talk about the challenges with a common understanding. Much better than people butting heads in the environment court or slagging each other off in the media. I have seen a maturing of those issues in the last few years from both sides."ceana.priest@waikatotimes.co.nz

Waikato Times