Thirty years ago science in New Zealand was a free-range activity: research institutes - mostly under the umbrella of the DSIR (Department of Scientific and Industrial Research) - were given on-going, assured funding streams and pretty much left to get on with whatever research they wanted.
Out of that free-range approach came many of our great scientific discoveries, especially in agriculture.
It was taken as a given that scientists needed to have room to explore any avenue they saw fit to get good results.
The reforms of the 1990s put paid to that. The DSIR was broken up into crown research institutes and scientists since then - the ones that are left - have spent much of their time writing business cases and begging for funds. Many scientists - and much research - has moved offshore.
“We seem to have forgotten that science and technology, particularly in
the agricultural sector, played an essential role in getting this
nation to the social and economic pinnacle it once reached, and in my
view is absolutely central to us again moving ahead,” the Liggins
Institute professor says.
We’ve got “ambivalent” about science, he says. There’s an “unhealthy
level of scepticism” about science and scientists, the science system
has become more focused on survival than what it can contribute and
scientists have “worn out their credibility” with pleas for more public
money without making a real case for the investment.
“Science is at the heart of almost everything this country must do to
meet the collective ambition of virtually every New Zealander — a
healthy, socially connected community in a good environment enjoying a
very high standard of living.
“I cannot think of one challenge we face as a planet, as a society, as
individuals in which science is not part of the solution.”
Dr William Rolleston, NZBio’s ‘distinguished biotechnologist’ of 2009, Life Sciences Network
chair, and a Foundation for Research Science and Technology board
member, says biotechnology in this country is “a great story waiting to
“Onerous and unnecessary regulation distracts our scientists with
compliance and stifles creative thought. This is a silent crisis in our
Anthony Scott, CEO of Science New Zealand, says big changes are needed:
“Investment is necessary but not sufficient. We have to do other
things, too, like improve and simplify the system, change the culture,
clear away the thicket of regulations.”
And grow more scientists:
New Zealand needs 40,000 full time science workers to catch up with
Australia’s GDP, Scott’s group estimates. That is five times more than
we have now.
Widespread bee deaths are the focus of attention at Apimonda, the World Apiculture Congress, according to a report on Seed Daily
Across parts of North America and swathes of Europe, but also now in
patches of Asia, bee hives have been struck by a mysterious ailment
dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
At normal times, bee communities naturally lose around five percent of
their numbers. But in CCD, a third, a half -- sometimes even 90 percent
-- of the insects can be wiped out. Eerily, no bodies are typically
found near the hive.
The phenomenon is alarming for beekeepers, many of them small-scale
operators or hobbyists, who lack the clout and subsidy support that
other agricultural sectors enjoy.
But food experts and environmental scientists are also worried.
The Western honey bee is a vital link in the food chain, fertilising nearly 100 kinds of crops.
Around a third of the food on our plates gets there thanks to Apis mellifera.By some estimates, this unseen, unsung work is worth more than 200
billion dollars a year, often through hives that are trucked to
monoculture farms to do pollinating magic at specific times of the
Wild bees, bats and other pollinators are simply not numerous
enough to do the trick.
So when honey bees and beekeeping are devastated, the impact for large-scale agricultural production is clear.
"In China, fruit farmers in Sichuan are having to hand-pollinate their
orchards," says Henri Clement, president of the National Union of
Despite intense investigation, the cause of CCD remains unclear.
Mooted culprits include a blood-sucking mite called varroa; a single-celled fungal parasite called Nosema cerenae that causes bee dystentery and pesticides used in fields that are pollinated by bees.
Fingers in Europe have also pointed at an intruder, the Asian hornet,
Vespa velutina, which lurks near hives and captures the poor honey bee
in flight and devours it.
Other proferred explanations include poor nutrition -- that mega farms, stripped of hedgerows and wild flowers, and
spreading suburbs, with their concrete, roads and lawns, are depriving
bees of a decent diet.
Despite the many suspects, there has been no conviction, or at least
none that singly explains why bee colonies should be collapsing in so
many parts of the world at the same time. Climate change may also be an
aggravating factor, say some experts.
One possibility is that CCD is a complex web of factors.
Last month, entomologists at the University of Illinois reported that
bees in CCD-ravaged hives had high levels of damaged ribosomes -- a key
protein-making machine within cells.
Their ribosomes appear to have been hijacked by so-called picornia-like
viruses, which seize control of cellular machinary to make it crank out
only viral components.
Picorna-like viruses are carried by the varroa mite, which has spread
by being accidentally introduced through commercial transactions of
"If your ribosome is compromised, then you can't respond to pesticides, you can't respond to fungal infections or bacteria or inadequate nutrition because the ribosome is central to the survival organism," said researcher May Berenbaum.
Meanwhile, researchers at Britain's University of Leeds have begun a
three-year study to see if the bees' decline could have an earthier
cause -- a lack of variety in the sex life of queen bees.
They are investigating whether a decreasing number of potential mates
means colonies are becoming less genetically diverse and more prone to
Those of us who live in rural New Zealand know only too well the importance of the honey bee to horticulture, particularly the fruit industry.
InfoNews carries a disturbing report of research that shows that cell phone towers are killing bees because the electromagnetic waves interfere with the bees' ability to navigate back to their hives.
Last week I wrote a post about a bee swarm in my garden. A Greytown resident commented that she had seen very few bees. Greytown is well-served with cellphone coverage: I wonder if there is a connection between that and the absence of bees.