The second session, “Creating Value,” focussed on the presentation of exemplary NZ research.
Richard Blaikie spoke on nano-scale imaging; Rhonda Shaw spoke on organ donation, gifting, reciprocity and sociology of the body; Jonathan Mane-Wheoki spoke on the “problem” of indigenous art; Ngahuia Te Awakotuku spoke on how “blue skies” research has increased public awareness and understanding of Maori culture; and Justin O’Sullivan spoke on the spatial organisation of DNA (how do we get DNA in a cell?!). All the presentations were interesting, but I have to say that Ngahuia Te Awakotuku and Rhonda Shaw impressed and inspired me. Also, Justin O’Sullivan is an awesome science communicator; he uses props!
The keynote for this thread of the conference was delivered by Catherine Mohr, on the topic of surgical technologies. She began by asking what the value of research is and provided a very straight-forward answer: saving lives. Using the example of stone-age trephination, she talked about the people who first performed surgery (applied research) and the people who improved the tools (basic research). The primary challenge of all surgery, she said, is how to heal a body without hurting it at the same time. For example, imagine what a difference it makes to do heart surgery without cracking the sternum. She showed us the potential of lasers, robotic technologies and dyes for highlighting the spread of cancer, or targeting tissues for removal. With these new technologies also come new questions, like how to develop surgical procedures and technologies that are sufficiently precise to solve all sorts of common ailments. In discussion, she explained that “better” surgery sometimes involves better training and sometimes it involves better diagnostic techniques or better instruments; the research goal is to always seek out the “better.” She also made clear that she’s talking about a research platform that will require many big and small contributions from around the world, but said that we will still need to make the case that the value of this research and development is worth its substantial cost. However, this is often a case of being able to think more systemically or holistically and pointing out that values and costs are often more dispersed through time and space than we might immediately recognise. She went on to explain that the first da Vinci surgical systems were not cost effective; it was more a case of “faith-based adoption.” However, she reminded us that new technologies need early adopters, and (old) practices need to be as rigourously evaluated as much as (new) technologies. She also pointed out that these emergent technological systems still require our existing human/clinical infrastructures, and showed some Gapminder World maps to raise the issue of global aging trends as something that will truly test today’s medical infrastructures and tomorrow’s surgical technologies in both developed and developing nations.
I found all of this research quite interesting, but I would have liked to hear more about how research can be valued or, more specifically, how these particular projects create particular kinds of value for particular people. After all, not everyone’s research directly saves lives and that doesn’t mean it doesn’t create value. I’d also hate to think that we only value funded research; the situation is much more complex than that, even when funded research is awesome.