Dita De Boni: We can splash the cash on pandas but we can't keep NZ scientists in jobs

When it comes right down to it, and you deal in depressing and inhumane news all day, there’s nothing like a nice set of panda pics to really turn your frown upside down.

1 NEWS Columnist Dita DeBoni Source: 1 NEWS

There are no end of panda snippets to broadcast either, as it seems as though every time a panda rolls over, yawns or breaks wind in China, someone is dutifully dispatched to film the cuddly-looking creature and send the footage far and wide.

A scientist examines DNA. Source: 1 NEWS

It’s not just that China has giant pandas, however, and that they do a roaring trade in both breeding them and loaning them out to zoos worldwide; they also study them, and Chinese scientists and zoologists are largely responsible for their increasing numbers over the years, where once they were endangered.

John Key said yesterday – in his typical relaxed fashion - that a giant panda would “turn up eventually” in Wellington, which he reckoned might be a boon to tourism.

It's a matter of huge importance we keep supplying markets worldwide with world-beating products - Dita De Boni on NZ's economy

But what likely won’t be a boon for us is that while stonking great bamboo-devouring pandas amuse us so much we can splash the cash on having them here, we can’t seem to raise the amount required to do things like keep our scientists in jobs – jobs that require funding that while substantial, is arguably a much better investment.

Granted, our scientists may not be as cuddly. 

But they are providing the type of intellectual heft sorely needed by an agricultural sector looking to keep New Zealand globally competitive by developing the ‘value added’ products we forever hear we sorely need. 

As everyone knows, we cannot export large piles of milk powder forever.  Our economy is still underpinned by our primary sector. 

It’s a matter of huge import we keep supplying markets worldwide with innovative, world-beating products.

Could it be that there is really just not enough money to spend on keeping our valuable scientists at work? - Dita De Boni on job losses

China is a growing dairy producer itself.  But whether it is food technologists, or biologists that study giant pandas, that country never stints on its scientific resource.

This week, despite the fact the Government pooh-poohed it every time someone raised concerns, AgResearch went through with what it had foreshadowed for months and laid off 90 people – about a fifth of its research staff.

While AgResearch itself hasn’t said a lot about it, it appears the organisation lost an increasing amount of Government funding for its work - work that aims to enhance the value of the entire agricultural sector to the country. 

That was on top of Fonterra shedding a total of 750 staff (although it will keep going with its flash new HQ plans).

Is it possible that the agricultural sector is making “readjustments’? (Or ‘right-sizing’, to use Steven Joyce’s preferred marketing gobbledygook?)

When a company or a Government really wants to spend money on something it can always be found - Dita De Boni

Could it be that there is really just not enough money to spend on keeping our valuable scientists at work for a few more years?

Well, I’d probably believe that, except for this. 

Just to take recent times as an example, we’ve managed to find the money to drag the likes of Kim Dotcom, Nicky Hager, and the artist behind the PlanetKey song through the courts. 

We’ve paid a truckload to entertain one of the most wealthy men in the world, Harry Windsor, in the manner to which he’s accustomed. 

We’ve spent inordinate amounts on hosting multi-million dollar elite rugby players at Parliament, not to mention sending a slew of politicians to the other side of the world to watch them play.

We continue to shell out big bucks on the flag (or ‘fleg’) process – millions in fact.

One thing I have realised about life is that when a company, or a government, really wants to spend money on something, it can always be found. 

Sadly, our scientists are seen as expendable, especially when the short term demands of the market deem it so.

Pandas, on the other hand, appear to be the convenient distraction – like all the others – we simply cannot do without.