Transit of Venus Forum Impressions from Riyad Mucadam, MESA-Sponsored Attendee

Last month we offered to sponsor a MacDiarmid-affiliated student with $1500 to attend the 2012 Transit of Venus Forum – this was a a great chance to join delegates from the science, business, iwi and government communities talking about Sir Paul Callaghan’s vision for New Zealand – a place where talent wants to live. PhD student Riyad Mucadam, from Victoria University Wellington, took this chance to attend the forum, and gives his impressions below:

A handful of students in New Zealand had the chance to be student delegates to the Transit of Venus conference in Gisborne on June 5-7th.   Elf and I were lucky to part of that inspiring event. Despite predictions of unfavourable weather, the universe aligned itself otherwise.  It did not rain, it was not grey during the duration of the conference.  During the sighting hours the clouds parted at the right moment to let the Transit of Venus be witnessed at the serene Tolaga Bay school grounds and historic, rugged wharf.

Attended by a sort of truncated who’s who or their proxies in science, science education, policy, maori science, innovation led technology or vice-versa, and its promoters,  the Transit of Venus forum was a congregation that had no “authority”, but a vision: to commemorate Sir Paul Callaghan and to advance to action the idea that science will be a strong player in the economy environment and cohesive society in New Zealand.    It was palpably energised by a diverse roll call of achievers or protagonists who found its purpose worthy enough to commit to and engage in with gusto.

Garth Morgan, Derek Handley,  Sir Peter Gluckman, Dame Anne Salmond, Sam Johnson (Young New Zealander of the Year), Sir Peter Blake awardees, hi-fi professors,  crown research institute kahunas,  tech start up stars,   Greater Council chairs, Iwi Trusts,  bankers with a science-community thumb,  Prime Ministers Science Prize awardees…the Wattage could go on and higher  :  the old school and the flash new kids on the block.  And…MESA reps

There was not a single presentation that was …death by power point.  I remember most as mature, thorough, with a latent fervour that accompanies achievement and deep experience, despite some bristling at being “held back” by the “system” – perhaps government,  or the small scale of science and society in New Zealand, or an attitude or institution that prevented collaboration or the four letter…PBRF.   We witnessed an interpretation of Capt Cook’s first encounters with the Maori communities of the North East coast, of a period before “disciplines had fragmented”.  We got a hint of what the logistics of protecting biodiversity meant for a port authority and what role molecular i.d. technology could play in facilitating that role.  We were asked how sustainable development could be explained, seriously and honestly, to a child who is growing up in New Zealand.  Our notions of green New Zealand were turned brownish with facts about water quality.  Dairy or agriculture’s voice was heard in response to perhaps pointed fingers.   There was a proposition that the close to the heart of NewZealanders environment required management by people who had studied and grown up here.

Some speakers were so engaging the panel chair just let them transit right through the timekeeper’s signals:  Sam Johnson’s narration of the volunteer army of Christchurch’s use of the web and telecom tech and his meeting with Hillary Clinton.  For statistical purposes, a very small fraction of the talks made me nod for a few minutes or step out  of the room to stretch.    The science described by the believer-doers-leaders ranged from rock and seaweed- that of the exploration of the EEZ and marine education in coastal reserves to the thoughtscape of evaluation of risk , the role of innovation in reducing risk, of the networks of collaboration,  the evolution of homo hubris  and ecosystems of innovation .

A few simple themes appeared :  Science should be relevant to the tool of diplomacy;  Matauranga Maori should develop its own identity without the rejection of modern science; science scholarship is not a luxury for rich countries but a necessity;  silo-isation of science ain’t helping, cut it out whoever you are;  scientists should provide advice – focussed, based on  knowledge, and the emotions should respond to knowledge;  New Zealand should see itself as and be a small clever nation relevant to the Pacific doing better in science and art than it is at the moment; the communication of science,  speaking the same language across platforms of collaboration and tapping into the need to help were essential in engaging with youth.

If the speakers were enough of a spread, the attendees or their backgrounds were..flat out.  Germans, Americans, Latinos, Pacifika, Asiana, Oceania, Kiwiana, consultants, paediatricians, psychologists, radio station hosts…I met the world record holder for the longest continuous FM broadcast while downing a koha based mussel chowder in Tolaga Bay.  If you haven’t grown up along the coast in a small community, and you think you know a lot, go spend a sabbatical or summa at Tolaga Bay.  Ill share this with you as a primer: UAWA : unrelenting attitude with achievement.

We had a flash dinner with a genuine Iwi-Pinky forget-the-P.C.-rubbish -host, the naval band, a bit of old school graze-n- bump dancing,   a Mayor with Pavarottian vocal chords and some random speeches. Historical, stimulating, memorable, a tribute, the journey starts, in Sir Paul’s words- “its all about love”.

– Riyad M. M. Mucadam

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