Story: Physics, chemistry and mathematics

Page 6. New Zealand science strengths and challenges

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In the 21st century science in New Zealand has been successful in a range of fields. At the same time it continues to face some serious challenges.

Strengths of New Zealand science

New Zealand science has been strong in the areas of agriculture, health research and earth science, areas that all involve aspects of chemistry, physics and mathematics.

New Zealand physical science has made important contributions in other fields.

  • Nanotechnology (the engineering of systems at a molecular level). New Zealand is a leader in nanotechnology through work at the MacDiarmid Institute, the industrial materials research centres at the University of Auckland and the Biopolymer Network (a joint venture between three Crown research institutes).
  • Ceramics. A group at the MacDiarmid Institute, led by ceramics chemist Ken MacKenzie, developed a wide range of new ceramic materials. These were used in a variety of fields, including electronics, medicine, engineering and pollution control. Andy Edgar of Victoria University of Wellington headed a group investigating the use of glass, crystal and ceramic combinations in high-tech optics.
  • Superconductors (materials that operate at very low temperatures, transferring electricity with no resistance and no electricity loss). Physicists Jeff Tallon, Grant Williams and Alan Kaiser were among the New Zealand scientists who played significant roles in superconductor research.
  • Radiocarbon dating. In the 1950s nuclear chemist Athol Rafter, working at the DSIR, perfected more reliable methods of radiocarbon dating. In the 1990s Rodger Sparks of the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences (GNS) built one of the world’s first accelerator mass spectrometry systems (AMS) out of an old Van de Graaf particle accelerator. The AMS system greatly increased the sensitivity of carbon dating techniques.
  • Applied mathematics. New Zealand mathematicians such as Graeme Wake, Mike Steel and Charles Semple advanced the use of mathematical systems in solving biological problems, particularly in evolutionary genetics. Robert McLachlan of Massey University was a world leader in geometric integration, a set of mathematical methods that simulate the motion of large systems.
  • Theoretical physics. A team of physicists at the University of Canterbury were involved in the investigation of the astrophysical concepts of ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’. These concepts arose from theories developed to explain the rate of expansion of the universe.

Jeff Tallon and his paper bag

In 1988 Jeff Tallon and his colleagues found a ceramic compound that would superconduct electricity at -163°C. Tallon had sketched out his ideas for the compound on the back of a paper bag, during morning tea in the DSIR cafeteria. He kept the bag and was eventually able to file a patent for the new compound.

Issues for New Zealand science

New Zealand science faced a range of problems in the early 21st century.

The relatively small scale and limited funding of New Zealand science meant that many of the country’s most talented scientists were still drawn to work abroad. The fact that many of the companies operating in New Zealand carried out most of their research in overseas laboratories reinforced this situation.

There was concern that scientific knowledge and innovations were often not adopted by wider New Zealand society. In response there were calls for more emphasis on science education and on communication of science to the general public.

More Māori and Pacific Island people were becoming involved in science, but they were still under-represented, especially in the physical sciences. Initiatives to encourage Māori engagement with science included establishing Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, the Māori Centre of Research Excellence, based at the University of Auckland, and the Māori Research Institute at Rotorua.

By the 2010s it was acknowledged that the competitive system of science funding adopted in the 1990s had led to a lack of co-operation between research institutions. The 2013 report of the government’s National Science Challenges Panel called for greater co-ordination between institutions, more collaboration by scientists from different disciplines and a more strategic approach to science problems.

How to cite this page:

Rebecca Priestley, 'Physics, chemistry and mathematics - New Zealand science strengths and challenges', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 10 December 2023)

Story by Rebecca Priestley, published 22 Oct 2014