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Blockbusters and science – their contribution to Wellington’s economy

by Celia Wade-Brown
Science has intrinsic importance to how we shape our decisions. At civic level it’s how we shape our urban design form so we don’t lay stormwater pipes where sea level rise will disable them prematurely … and how we assess the risk of death or injury against the other values of society.

An example of this is that there are hundreds of road deaths while people still drive, walk and cycle but there are demands that we demolish many or retaining heritage buildings tomorrow in the face of earthquake risk. It may be we have to conclude that the demand for 100 percent safety, or the total absence of risk, is irrational.

It is a constant annoyance that because scientists aren’t 100% sure of an exact prediction, because there are minor errors as a hypothesis is tested, that they are dismissed – whether as weather forecasters or earthquake scientists or as medical researchers.

Statistical conclusions are not disproved by counter-examples “My auntie smoked twenty a day and lived to be 100” doesn’t invalidate the known carcinogenic effect of tobacco. Or by the normal media “balanced story” that assumes two sides of a scientific debate are all equal. Scientific literacy would enable much better individual and political decisions.

The huge benefit from fostering an environment of science and discovery is the creation of intellectual property, both for the city in the form of credibility, reputation and action, and also for individuals – their personal investment and commitment to their ‘place’. A major part of that value focuses on activities that attract investment, business, talent and students to the high-value and high-growth sectors that we have well-developed strength in.

In the public eye, Wellington is more well-known for producing blockbuster movies. Its science and technology achievements have arguably more of an impact on the global stage and contribute more to our local economy, but they don’t often make the headlines in mainstream media.

With 46% of people over the age of 15 having a post-high school qualification, Wellington people are the best-educated in the country.

Talent is naturally drawn to work with other talent, and we continue to attract more students into the region to add to that pool of knowledge – including over 6,000 international students every year.

We also have one research scientist for every 250 residents in this region – giving us a deep concentration of nearly 2,000 scientific brains.

A great example of the commercial value of science to Wellington is Mātakina Technologies, nominated as an Innovative High Tech software finalist for the 2013 NZ Hi-Tech awards.

Mātakina has developed advanced image-processing software – called Volpara. The software is flexible enough to be used with any existing breast imaging system, but its key point of difference is that it provides an objective measurement of breast density, thereby enhancing significantly the information on which physicians can make their diagnoses. So a great example of social benefit too.

Basing the company in Wellington meant that Mātakina is able to access a growing pool of world-class talent in the image-processing field due to the region’s ability to attract the best in screen and digital talent from around the world. And they love the walkable, compact, cosmopolitan capital!

Science alone is neutral in its outcomes. Science and values must combine to direct resources, ask useful questions and connect everyone to the benefits science can bring, not just the few.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of science is the respectability it gives doubt. Challenging received wisdom, exploring new ways of doing things, taking a critical look at current paths – all are part of a scientific mindset.

Science is a hugely valued part of Wellington’s identity and its economy. We are known as the events capital, the arts capital, the coolest little capital but we are also the science capital, where the intersection between government agencies,

As mayor, I want to ensure as a capital we are fertile ground for you. Partnerships with GNS for earthquake science, VUW , Zealandia and the zoo working together on our living city – with one outcome being our eminence as a place to study urban ecology.

The vision to base Callaghan here – of course with big outreach to elsewhere – makes sense. I’m sure we will make Mary Quinn very welcome as she connects tertiary research, Crown Research Institutes, ministries and business.

So science has huge value – intrinsic value for the sake of knowledge, as a basis for making decisions, for solving social and environmental problems and for bringing good jobs and prosperity to the coolest little capital – and NZ Inc.

This is an extract from a speech titled The Value of Science, given by the mayor earlier this month at the conference in Wellington of the NZ Association of Scientists.