Intellectualism and anti-intellectualism

Writing my last blog has made me think more deeply about biological collections and the issue of underfunding. I saw one quote, referring to the closure of museums, from the US calling it “malevolent anti-intellectualism”. There has always been a battle between intellectualism and anti-intellectualism and New Zealand has always been a battle ground. Anti-intellectual is deeply imbedded in our culture and one expression of it is the ‘number 8 wire mentality’. This attitude developed as a result of our geographical isolation and therefore the need to adapt or improvise to solve problems by using what was at hand such as number 8 wire.

Number 8 wire kept New Zealand working for decades [photo BEACON]

The practical over the intellectual. Tony Smale also notes that our number 8 wire mentality has led to the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ and our constant undervaluing of our intellectual assets. We are suspicious of specialists and intellectual knowledge. We accord most respect to practical achievers, applied science over theoretical science. And we celebrate those who succeed against all odds rather than those who quietly get on with it.

Tall poppies [photo Grow New Zealand Business]

We also as a nation under rate ourselves. We don’t believe that we can be the best and we do believe that well resources foreigners will have done anything that we could conceivably do. If we don’t believe we can do it then why fund it. This has led to the crippling need in science funding to show impact. If you can’t show impact, then it’s not worth doing. Yet, evening our major science funding agency has now admitting that to achieve impact. In the Impact of Science, a discussion paper they site a study of agricultural research i.e., an applied biology, had a 35–50-year lag time before significant impact occurred. And that that the longer it takes “the more likely additional actors have had an influence on the process”. So that often we have lost site of the link between the original research and the impact leading to the belief that the research had no or little impact.

This is the Herbarium at Victoria University of Wellington around 1973 and the first herbarium I was associated with. The university would progressively shrink its floor area until it was little more than a store room. Its collection would eventually end up at the Te Papa and Manaaki Whenua herbarium and its herbarium cabinets are now part of the Manaaki Whenua herbarium as well. On the left is Barry Sneddon who taught me non-vascular plant botany and Mrs Isla Labone (Botany technician). [photo Victoria University of Wellington Archives]

Gill (2021) has described the rise of managerialism and the replacement of scientist by non-scientists managers in our research institutions. This he sees as one ‘brake’ to the easy and efficient pursuit of science. But yet there are many scientists in senior management positions in our research institutions. I think the brake is not so much the rise of the non-scientist as the rise of the anti-intellectual. Just because some is a scientist does not automatically make them an intellectual. Scientist today are just as likely to see their research shut down by other scientists as they are by non-scientists on the grounds that its irrelevant and has no obvious impact. So, we need to learn to recognise the wolves in sheep’s clothing but also, arm ourselves to beat the wolves off. The club to beat them off with is the relevance of our research and the impact that it has no matter how long it takes for that impact to occur.


Gill BJ 2021. Science and managerialism in New Zealand. New Zealand Science Review Vol 77 (1–2): 13-18

Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment 2017. The Impact of Science: A Discussion Paper.

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise 2009. Playing to our strengths: Creating value for Kiwi firms.