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Expert issues stark warning over NZ R&D spend

An international expert on innovation has warned that New Zealand’s lack of investment in research and development will “come back to haunt” this ‘‘‘country by impeding its chances to innovate.

Howard Charney, Cisco’s US-based senior vice president for issues surrounding productivity, global competitiveness and emerging technologies, made this comment during a roundtable discussion on innovation hosted by the local subsidiary.

Charney identified investment as one of three pillars on which innovation rests, along with talent and infrastructure.

Citing OECD figures, Charney pointed out that New Zealand invests around half as much as other industrialised nations in research and development. “It is devastating to have a significant reduction or comparatively less investment in R&D in New Zealand. It is going to come back to haunt you – guaranteed.”

In addition, the country places too much emphasis on encouraging careers in fields such as accountancy and law, and not enough on developing talent for innovative industries like engineering or science, says Charney. “We don’t get to be innovative unless we put emphasis on those disciplines that create positive GDP growth.”

Talent is vital for innovation to flourish and needs to be developed through education, says Charney.

However, tertiary enrolments in fields such as computer science are dropping, he says, referring to a survey that found in the US there has been a 70 percent drop in the number of university students who planned to enter computer science between 2000 and 2005. “That is a very sobering statistic. It is just a matter of time before we will become less competent. We don’t get innovation, unless we have people who are competent.”

On infrastructure, Charney says New Zealand has to come to grips with the fact that it may not only be the private sector that can solve the issue of broadband connectivity, especially if it is not economically viable for them to do so.

He says the internet is the critical infrastructure of this century, with broadband penetration being crucial for innovation. “It’s probably the linchpin for innovation over the next 10 or 20 years in New Zealand.”

Therefore, the country needs to be open to the idea of public-private partnerships where the provision of broadband is not commercially viable, Charney says.

However, the issues facing New Zealand around innovation are not insolvable, Charney believes. The country must be face up to how it can be more competitive and innovative.

The panel discussion also included David Skilling, CEO of the New Zealand Institute, Will Charles general manager of technology at Uniservices, the University of Auckland’s commercial arm and Professor Thomas Neitzert, head of AUT University’s School of Engineering.