Grass alone won't grow the economy

Prof. Shaun Hendy
Professor Shaun Hendy is a Professor of Computational Physics in the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology at Victoria University and an Industry and Outreach Fellow at Callaghan Innovation. In 2012, he won the Callaghan Medal and the Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication Prize.

The fruits of a literary collaboration on innovation between the late Sir Paul Callaghan and award-winning science communicator Professor Shaun Hendy was recently unveiled at Victoria University.

The two physicists are authors of Get off the Grass, which was launched in Wellington last week and follows on from Sir Paul’s earlier book, Wool to Weta, which was published in 2009.

Get off the Grass argues that innovation in high-tech niches is the key to increasing New Zealand’s prosperity and that New Zealand needs to export knowledge rather than nature.

Professor Sir Paul Callaghan was one of New Zealand’s most successful and internationally renowned scientists and the 2011 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year.

"If we are going to catch up with the countries that lure our young people away, we have to learn to innovate, take science seriously and see ourselves as people of learning, not just people of the land," says Professor Hendy.

While Wool to Weta examined a range of views about New Zealand’s economy, Professor Hendy says Get off the Grass looks at the relationship between scientific progress and economic growth.

"There has been a lot of focus in New Zealand on how things like taxes and regulation influence the economy. This book takes us in a new direction by looking at the importance of knowledge in economic growth and prosperity."

Sir Paul chose Professor Hendy to continue his writing on science and the economy, arriving in his office one day and suggesting they author a book together.

"I immediately signed on," says Professor Hendy. "For several years, I had been writing about science and the economy and had started my own research programme in the area of innovation.

"Few people realise that there are striking mathematical patterns that show up in both the natural ecosystems and in the economy. As physicists, Paul and I were trained to analyse these patterns and, as researchers, we had experience with turning scientific discoveries into profitable innovations."

Professor Hendy says the findings of the book lay down a challenge for New Zealanders.

"Our work shows that large networks of people are crucial for innovation so it is more likely you will have a good idea in Auckland than Wellington, in Sydney than Auckland and in Tokyo than Sydney.

"Given our size, this means that New Zealand, like other small countries, needs to invest more in science and technology - we can’t rely on the market to do it for us. We need policies in place that will stimulate innovation."

Professor Hendy says the book also argues for more openness and collaboration in New Zealand’s science and innovation system, with a much broader focus than just agriculture and the primary sector.

Just under half of Get off the Grass was drafted when Sir Paul died last year, leaving Professor Hendy to finish the book.

"There are ideas of Paul’s I haven’t done justice to in the book, such as his vision of New Zealand as 'the place where talent wants to live'. But others are taking up that concept and it won’t be forgotten.

"I would very much have liked Paul to be here for the launch but I think he would be very happy with how the book has turned out."

Get off the Grass is published by Auckland University Press, also the publishers of Wool to Weta.