NZMS Editorial


Foresight or Hindsight?

A review by John Milnor of the biography of John Forbes Nash, jr. ``A Beautiful Mind'' by Sylvia Nasar appears in a recent issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society (vol. 45, November 1998). It includes the following paragraph: ``Over the years the developments from Nash's seemingly simple idea [ed. non cooperative game-theory] have led to fundamental changes in economics and political science. Nasar illustrates the dollars and cents impact of game-theoretic ideas by describing ``The Greatest Auction Ever'' in 1994, when the US government sold off large portions of the electromagnetic spectrum to commercial users. A multiple-round procedure was carefully designed by experts in game theory of auctions to maximize both the payoff to the government and the utility to of the purchased wavelengths to the respective buyers. The result was highly successful, bringing more than $10 billion to the government while guaranteeing an efficient allocation of resources. By way of contrast, a similar auction in New Zealand, without such a careful game-theory design, was a disaster in which the government realized only about 15 percent of its expected earnings and the wave lengths were not efficiently distributed. (In one case, a New Zealand student bought a television station license for one dollar!)

Apart from being embarrassed to see my country being used as an example of a fiasco, and disappointed that a potential money earner for our economy has been squandered, I am concerned that current restructuring in scientific research policy may well come from the same planning groups. It would be tragic if New Zealand was held up in the future as an example of how not to go about reforming research policy. Prediction of future trends is very hazardous, both of the economic situation and of scientific developments. (As an aside, one definition of an economist that I have read is ``an economist is a person who explains what will happen with the economy, and then explains why it didn't!'') The foresight programme currently underway is one of these hazardous operations. The New Zealand Science Review issue on ``The Future of Science in New Zealand'' (vol 55(3), 1998) contains some well presented and rather alarmist articles about recent trends in science policy planning. It is well worth reading. Some of the arguments relate to the unpredictability of outcomes from basic science research, a theme that is also well illustrated in the recent article by P. Berg and M. Singer in Science (30 October, 1998).

For tertiary institutions, the government white paper ``Tertiary Education in New Zealand - Policy Directions for the 21st century'' by a panel from the Ministry of Education proposes a change in research funding (pp. 31-33), with the plan to divert a percentage of the funding currently in the bulk grant to universities, into a contestable pool. (Is it not ironic, that this government is trying to persuade our secondary schools into block funding, while the currently bulk funded tertiary institutions are having some funding targeted?) In the white paper, the four criteria for this targeting are ``Demonstrated quality and capacity of researchers'', ``Quality of the proposed research portfolio'', ``Strategic focus'' and ``cost effectiveness'' Clearly there will need to be some administrative and review process by which proposals are vetted. This will be an additional overhead on the fund as well as a time-overhead for the researchers preparing proposals. Although we are later told that ``It will be targeted at basic or pure research'', is this not contradictory to strategic focus? I find it difficult to see how the ``strategic focus'' and ``cost effective'' criteria might be evaluated.

When I began my research career, I was publishing in computational algebraic number theory, with one of the more interesting (to me) applications being the more efficient factorisation of large integers into prime factors. None of my contacts working in this field at that time had any idea that such activity might have a strategic focus, indeed it caught us all by surprise when Rivest et al. published their encryption scheme based on the complexity of known factorisation algorithms. Suddenly there was a practical application for this area. (At this time I was changing my research focus to BioInformatics, partly as I had been unsuccessful at obtaining the computing facilities to compete with my colleagues in North America.) However prior to the Rivest paper appearing, I doubt that any of us could have forecast that this area had a strategic focus.

The mathematical aspects of most of recent technological achievements had been developed before any hint of their specific applicablility became apparent. It is not within our skills to predict these applications. Indeed the applications that could be foreseen are likely to be very limited advances and unlikely to have long-term spin-offs for society. Could (and should) Fourier have known the applications of his transform once high speed computing power became available? If a significant proportion of university research activity has to be measured under a ``strategic focus'' rubric, then I believe much of the current research activity in mathematics would be under threat. It can only be in hindsight (perhaps even after decades or centuries) that the benefits to society of that activity might be truly measured. What is more certain, is that restrictions on free ranging research, currently available under the umbrella of the university block grant, will, in the long run, be detrimental to society. How this form of targeting affects the educational benefits of research is harder to gauge.

In a recent newspaper column (Manawatu Evening Standard, November 28), Infometrics economist Gareth Morgan is quoted. He argued that the potential for long-term growth is now being gutted by a new twist in the brain drain. He argues ``The theory is that key wealth creating professionals in their mid-thirties are leaving, attracted to better career opportunities and salaries offshore. These look even better since the kiwi dollar has fallen. New Zealand is becoming like Ireland in the early 1980s and at the extreme it could become little more than the final resting place for the retired.'' The thesis is that this brain drain is different and more deadly economically. The Infometrics economics team says ``there's definitely something going on''. It reckons that in the year ended July growth in IT professionals leaving was over 50 percent but overall they make up just a few percentage of emigrants. Science professionals quitting were up around 30 percent, legislators and administrators were up 27 to 28 percent. An age group breakdown showed 11 percent growth in 30 to 35 age group and the same increase in five to 15 years olds, suggesting families were leaving. ``It is a concern in the sense that the people leaving are the more skilled. It comes back to the government setting a policy that makes people feel there's a future in New Zealand.''

This is reflected in the alarming sentiment I have heard expressed by some young New Zealand post docs who state that they are not seeking a long term research career in their home country because of the lack of security. (The relatively low wages are only secondary in their consideration, there is a great personal investment required in the continuation of a research career, an investment that won't be made under the prospect of no long term security.) Surely this is an alarming warning, as the current generation of scientists age into retirement, our research skill base will retire with us!

So I ask those planning the restructuring of scientific research structuring to take care, do not become exemplars to the world of how not to fund the research.

Mike Hendy

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