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University of Otago chemistry head Prof Lyall Hanton has spoken out over New Zealand's continuing science brain drain, warning that scientists are still "among our country's greatest exports".
Prof Hanton was commenting in a wide-ranging address to more than 310 Otago graduates, mainly in science, physical education and surveying, at the second of two university graduation ceremonies in Dunedin on Saturday.
A record total of about 1050 people graduated in person or in absentia at the two ceremonies, at the Regent Theatre that day - the largest number of people to graduate from Otago on a single December day in the university's history.
Prof Hanton recalled that, 30 years ago, during his PhD examination at Cambridge University, one of his examiners had told him that, as a New Zealand scientist, he was "one of your country's greatest exports".
Changes had occurred in the ensuing 30 years, including in the increased export of milk powder, but he told science graduates attending the 4pm ceremony that scientists such as they were still "among our country's greatest exports".
He asked why an agricultural nation such as New Zealand should ever consider making soil scientists redundant.
"But we did, only to have them snapped up by Australia."
"Wouldn't it be great if we could retain 20% of these science graduates working in innovative industries in Dunedin?"
He wondered who society valued more - scientists or sports stars.
He was also surprised that scientists were not better represented on company boards and said it was "odd" that lawyers, accountants and marketing managers were "so overrepresented" in such roles.
New Zealanders have special qualities that help international businesses to thrive, by creating "innovative products" that had captured leading shares of global niche markets, Otago graduates were told at the earlier graduation ceremony, at 1pm.
Prof Colin Campbell-Hunt, of the Otago management department, told more than 300 graduands in commerce, biomedical sciences, health sciences and law that the university had prepared them well.
Through their studies they had gained many important qualities, including an ability to form friendships, and to engage intellectually "across a broad range of people", and "a willingness to attack problems in new ways".
Prof Campbell-Hunt, who is involved in a major study of growing world-class businesses in New Zealand, told graduates that the abilities they had gained at Otago were qualities which entrepreneurs such as Richard Taylor, of Weta Workshops, had told him "lie at the heart of the competitive success of the remarkable businesses they have created".
Such qualities, he had been told, "they do not find in the same measure anywhere but New Zealand".
He told graduates that life was hurtling everyone "towards a future we cannot know or fully control".
"You have no choice but to grab the steering wheel and drive."
• A total of 2459 people have graduated from Otago University this month at a series of ceremonies. A record 903 people graduated from Otago Polytechnic on December 9.