A group of two dozen New Zealand academics and researchers at overseas universities have pitched into the knowledge economy debate with a Website arguing that it is not "the prospect of a small tax increase" that keeps them from coming home but the prevailing attitude towards knowledge.
Professor Mark Wilson, a mathematician at the University of Montana says that claims by National's tertiary education minister Max Bradford and Act leader Richard Prebble that tax rates are at the root of the brain drain are "nonsense".
"When I weigh up returning to New Zealand, small changes to the top marginal tax rates don't even figure. What matters is whether I'll be working in an institution that can support excellent teaching and advanced research."
The group says that the National government should not be surprised that New Zealand is finding it difficult to retain highly educated people, as recent studies have revealed.
"New Zealand has always been dependent on imported knowledge, much of it in the form of returning New Zealanders," says Dr. Richard Easther, an astrophysicist working at Brown University. "But the current state of university funding makes it difficult to participate in the circulation of knowledge and talent that is a crucial part of the international academic world. We're increasingly unable to attract top thinkers."
Dr Amanda Peet, a theoretical high energy physicist at the University of California says the government does not understand the connection between good researchand good teaching.
"Funding per student has dropped over the last decade, and research and teaching are both suffering as a result," says Dr Peet. "In the US, the research university exposes students to teachers who are working at the cutting edge, and is the major incubator of a culture of inquiry and innovation. Frankly, I don't see young innovators flourishing in an environment as starved for support as New Zealand's tertiary sector."
A statement from the group says the government's Bright Future package, which plans to offer scholarships for overseas PhD study, is pouring money into the wrong bucket. It says New Zealand students have always been successful in landing fully-funded places at world-class universities and that the money would be better spent on protecting and improving research conditions in New Zealand.
The group says that "above all", government must take the lead in funding and promoting a broad culture of research, in both the sciences and the humanities. "Public funding of research is essential, given New Zealand's lack of a traditionally philanthropic private sector, and the pitifully low research and development spending compared to OECD norms.
"Proposed tax incentives for private-sector R&D are a start, but if the government is really worried about the brain drain and wants to stimulate a knowledge economy, it will stop blaming bogeymen like tax increases, and boost expenditure on R&D to match other OECD countries."
Professor Wilson says "glitzy policy pamphlets and an enthusiasm for short-sighted, short-term efficiencies are masking a major, long-term haemorrhage of research talent from New Zealand.
"We're speaking out now because if the current policies prevail there'll be nothing for us to come back to. It's not a bright future at all."
The group's "bare bones" Website is at: