NZAS press release: Curious minds not welcome here

The NZAS press release about AgResearch redundancies can be found here.

Ag Research Layoffs - is thinking science on its way out?

There is significant chatter on various social network sites centered around the NZ government’s attitude to science (many governments, not just ours) – of late the events in NZ leading to the decision to lay off agriculture scientists and technical staff from the CRI AgResearch (NZ Herald, Sept 24). We are told this is a result of poor management of the CRI and that new positions will be created to satisfy “growing customer demand and Government investment”, but the logic of dismissing staff from an organization that enhances NZ’s position in global agriculture markets is, at the very least, questionable.

In more general terms politicians and many in the media, especially economic commentators, frequently demand that science needs to be more relevant, or results dependent and directed towards some prescribed political and/or economic conclusion. This view of science sees it only as a benefit to a modern economy, or the immediate needs of society, commonly without defining what those needs really are; do they want scientists to make more discoveries or invent things to generate revenue according to market forces. It's like being told to turn the thinking on between 8 and 4.30 and report your discovery by Christmas.

There seems to be a significant disconnect between how our politicians view science in general, and how science is actually conducted. I’ve begun to wonder whether there is a link between the ‘political’ perception of science as largely empirical, data and results driven; either ignoring (because it’s ideologically useful to do so) or ignorant of the way scientists actually make discoveries – i.e. the thinking, creative part of science that can just as easily take place while mowing the lawn or refinishing violins, as in the laboratory or perched in front of a computer screen. The history of science is replete with examples of discoveries that arose from some undefinable or quantifiable kind of insight, a “eureka moment”, or some other creative act that largely defies logic and objectivity (Darwin, Currie, Einstein, Medawar, Feynman, Watson & Crick – the list is endless). Perhaps our politicians, and in fact CRI managers, CEOs and the like who may have little experience in doing science, simply don’t understand the significance of creativity in science to the extent that anyone caught staring out the window becomes a candidate for downsizing.

Most people can associate creative acts with the Frank Sargesons and Colin McMahons of our world, but not with the scientific endeavor. And yet without these creative acts, however they arise, science as we know it would simply not exist. The scientific community needs to take responsibility to ensure that this part of science is not lost in the babble of political rhetoric.