NEW ZEALAND: $1million in prizes for science

Want to raise the status and public perception of science? Give away $1 million. That's the formula adopted by the New Zealand government, which has just announced a new suite of science prizes in a bid to attract young people into science careers and raise the sector's reputation.

Prime Minister John Key unveiled the prizes last week, saying they would be awarded for the first time in February. The largest award would be a $500,000 (US$369,700) prize for "an outstanding science discovery or achievement which has resulted in an economic, health, social and-or environmental impact on New Zealand".

The award could go to an individual or a team of researchers and emerging scientists within five years of completing their PhD would be eligible for a $150,000 award.

The Prime Minister's MacDiarmid Young Scientist Prize is named after the late Alan MacDiarmid, a New Zealander and Nobel Prize winner. Most of the $100,000 award could be used for research but there were no expectations attached to the remaining $50,000.

Science teachers and journalists would also be eligible for $150,000 prizes. Each year's winning teacher would win $100,000 for their school and $50,000 for themselves, while journalists could compete for money to develop their knowledge and capability in science media communication.

Finally, $50,000 was earmarked for a Prime Minister's Future Scientist Prize for a secondary school student who carried out a practical and innovative research or technology project. The money could be used to support the winner's tertiary education.

"New Zealand's prosperity rests on our ability to make full use of our scientific expertise. These prizes, by combining recognition and financial reward, will be important in attracting young people into science careers," Key said.

Of perhaps greater interest to the country's science community was the government's call last week for feedback on its science priorities. The priorities will guide the government's science policy and its funding for the next three to five years.

In a discussion document, the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology said the government wanted science to contribute to New Zealand's economic development. It warned that the government did not currently have extra funding and science that did not show promise would lose its funding.

The document indicated priority areas included high technology industries, the "biological economy", health and the environment.

* John Gerritsen is editor of NZ Education Review.