Accelerate - September 2013

Grass not so green anymore

Get Off the Grass, a literary collaboration by the late Sir Paul Callaghan and award-winning science communicator Professor Shaun Hendy, was released in August 2013 and follows on from Sir Paul’s earlier book, Wool to Weta, which was published in 2009.

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

The book 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 Hendy says the findings of the book lay down a challenge for New Zealanders as they argue 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.

“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.

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.”

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

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

“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.”

Updated: 7 September 2015