A nation of sheep?

It has been a fantastic year for unoriginal ideas. First Wellywood, then Happy Feet, and most recently Sonny Wool – the psychic sheep who predicts the winner of Rugby World Cup matches. Could somebody please just hurry up and sue us for plagiarism?

There once was a time when we were proud of our creativity – our ‘no. 8 wire spirit’. From splitting the atom, to jet boats, to medical respirators, New Zealand boasts a long history of science and discovery that has really put ‘kiwi ingenuity’ on the world map. Looking back, I see the likes of Richard Pearse, Burt Monroe and John Britten, all of whom took on and beat the world with extraordinary creations from the humble back sheds of their quarter acre sections. I think we can agree that invention and innovation form an important part of who we are as New Zealanders. Given recent events, however, I feel we could now be on the brink of losing this long standing emblem of cultural pride.

But rather than despair that Hollywood does want to sue us for plagiarism, or that sheep-shagger jokes are now being augmented with straight-out sheep jokes, I recently decided to jump ship and embrace our unoriginality. Once I did, a world of possibilities opened up before my very eyes. Indeed, I soon realised that New Zealand has something quite unique staring it in the face just waiting to be harnessed and tapped. Something so unique, in fact, that it has the potential to put New Zealand right back in the driver’s seat as a world leader in its chosen field. This idea has been quietly brewing for several years now, but it wasn’t until I read of Sonny Wool that the penny finally dropped. Are you ready for it? I propose… that New Zealand become a world leader of unoriginal ideas.

Think of the possibilities! We could become a tourist hotspot of unoriginality! People would come from all over the world to see what we copied next.

But can we achieve such a lofty target? In consideration of the Wellywood, Happy Feet, Sonny Wool trifecta, I suggest that we are already well on track. That being the case, only minimal financial investment will be needed to turn this vision into a reality. Plus, that money we do invest will multiply many times over in return due to increased tourism.

Of course, before we can start making grandiose claims about being the world leader, we will first need to develop our unoriginal infrastructure. On top of our already existing exact replica of Stonehenge in the Wairarapa, I figure we’ll need three more attractions. Here are my suggestions. One: the Golden Straight Bridge – we build a suspension bridge across the Cook Straight. Two: the Leaning Tower of Hamilton. Three, and this will be the most expensive and politically divisive: Palmerston North, Venice style – we flood the streets of Palmerston North so that people can commute by boat.

To a large extent, our choice of attractions will determine the success or failure of our strategy. But that is not all that will be required. To complete the transition to a nationwide culture of unoriginality will require a firm resolve and a steely-eyed determination to dumb ourselves right down. As we have proved to be quite a smart bunch in the past, we will have to really go for the throat – or the brains, as it were – of our nation.

But what does this mean in practice?

Much of our nation’s brains reside in the scientific research institutions scattered about the country. If we want to harness our unoriginality, we are going to have to stop those pesky scientists from coming up with their new and interesting ideas. In short, we will need a publicly funded science and innovation (S&I) system that stifles the creative spirit and hinders innovation and invention. Now, anyone familiar with the level of discontent our scientists hold towards the S&I system since Rogernomics will be well aware that our system is actually not too far from this already.

The success or failure of our publicly funded S&I system is, to a large extent, dependent on the decisions of the Government which, it seems, could swing in either direction. On the one hand, it appears the Government is opposed to unoriginality and is instead tracking towards a more effective S&I system. Actions such as the establishment of the Ministry of Science and Innovation; the development of a national science and innovation strategy; the appointment of a Chief Science Adviser; and incentives that recognise outstanding achievements in science will all shift us closer to that vibrant, collaborative model that would see us truly realise our intellectual potential.

On the other hand, there are still several aspects of our publicly funded S&I system that foster unoriginality and hinder creativity. The following list is informed by two open letters from hundreds of scientists to the Government; informal interviews with scientists and scientific stakeholders; literature review; and unpublished research from the Sustainable Future Institute in Wellington. There are five key aspects of our S&I sector that will see unoriginality prevail.

First (and most importantly, in my humble opinion), the competitive funding model that pits scientists against scientists in a desperate scramble for scarce research funds. Instead of a culture of sharing and collaboration between the greatest minds of our country, scientists protect their ideas from each other like precious bullion.

Second, investment of public funds in S&I remains low compared to the OECD average.

Third, instead of doing what scientists do best – science – our best scientists waste vast amounts of precious time filling out tiresome forms to meet the requirements of public research funding proposals. The Foundation of Research Science and Technology (FoRST) weren’t nicknamed the Foundation of Really Serious Timewasting without reason.

Fourth, the commercial imperative of the Crown Research Institute Act 1992 that requires CRIs to make a profit each year.

Fifth, a lack of opportunity for postdoctoral scientists due to the replacement of FoRST-funded Postdoctoral Scholarships with the Rutherford Discovery Fellowships. Couple this with low overall postdoctoral funding, and you have two important elements of the ‘brain drain’.

To recap, New Zealand is poised between two futures: a return to the creative spirit and a re-establishment of our no. 8 wire culture; or forward to a loud and proud future of unoriginality and mediocrity. I’m all for unoriginality! Who’s with me?