Like Ballet, it’s all a matter of balance and confidence

In a recent Guardian there is a nearly two page spread on Ethan Steifel, the new director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet , coming to live in Wellington. It caught my attention because I was surprised to see such a considerable investment of space by an international paper on this one time ‘tame colonial outpost’. Essentially the article asked why would anointed ballet royalty leave New York and the Met to come here?  A question clearly bothering the Guardian’s dance critic (known for once slapping a couple who sat behind her and talked through a performance by her favorite choreographer). The question also clearly concerned Steifel’s fiancée.

But it’s the same question faced by scientists coming to New Zealand. Why would you leave one of the world’s top institutions, where other famous people stop in the corridors to shake your hand, to spend two days in a plane to the far end of the universe to work?

People who know Wellington well may well describe it as ‘achingly cool’ but there are only so many of ‘the best vodka martinis in the world’ you can drink and most of the dazzling drag queens left the Purple Onion around the time one of the article’s sources, another famous choreographer, Mark Baldwin did: 1983. So the Guardian is a little out of date but even Stephen Fry drinking flat whites on the waterfront last week isn’t really enough to convince the world’s best to stay here.  There are other cool and pretty places.

So why would they come? For Steifel it’s the ballet company; their willingness to put on the best new works, to draw talent from around the world and the support they get from their audience. The Royal New Zealand Ballet is able to satisfy crowds that want the classics done well but are still keen to see something challenging. The company is amongst the best in the world.

For New Zealand research it has to be the same. Our researchers can’t be expected to only grind out repetitive hack work for short term applications. But they can’t only do the high-flyingly obscure that no one in New Zealand cares about either. The leading edge and the classic problem-solving work have to feed off each other; the blue skies and the applied both have to be done and done to world class standards. If we don’t manage to fund both we’ll lose our audience, the tax payer, and our international stars.

You can look around you and see the research groups that manage it – they publish papers in the big journals, they start companies and have contracts with businesses here and offshore. They have stars and students who care and industrial partners that rely on them. They have confidence and scale. Those are the groups we have to support.

[Of course, on the back page of the same issue I wasn’t surprised at all to read about Dan Carter eclipsing Jonny Wilkinson’s test point scoring record. If you can’t be bothered with research you can always watch the rugby.]

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