Cause and effect

John Morgan came to NIWA as Chief Executive in 2007, after stints at the helms of AgriQuality and Orica New Zealand, and Chairman of New Zealand Pharmaceuticals. So what drives the guy in the suit? Dave Hansford finds out...

John Morgan grew up in the Akatarawa hills, north of Upper Hutt, "where, every summer's day, we'd swim in the rivers next to our home. If we were thirsty, we'd just lean over the side of the kayak and have a drink." Fascinated by the forces of nature, he'd rush to the bridge over the river after each big rain, "to see how the riverbank, swimming hole and rapids had changed."

And so began a lifetime's musing on the concept of cause and effect.

"Science captivated me right from my early days at school", he recalls. "It doesn't matter what aspect of life you look at – the environment, society, commerce – there's always cause and effect." He also came to love rugby, and remembers riding his bike as a youngster from Akatarawa to Maidstone Park to play halfback for the Upper Hutt Bantams. "I found rugby fascinating: that cause and effect again, I suppose. I used to listen to overseas rugby tests on the radio in the middle of the night, without my parents knowing of course, and could visualise clearly what was going on on the field." 

He left Akatarawa to travel the world, or at least: "all the usual destinations for Kiwis of my vintage." He spent 13 years in the UK, Europe and the United States. "I played a bit of rugby – very badly – in the UK for Doncaster Rugby Club," where he learnt some more about cause and effect: typically for a halfback, he says, he "started lots of fights on the field, and never won any of them."

After returning to New Zealand, he settled on Auckland's North Shore, and has lived there ever since. "I'm a water baby at heart – so living in the East Coast Bays near the sea was an obvious choice." Inevitably, he signed up with the local rugby club (as, in time, did some of his kids), and played into his mid-forties, when age and attrition blew the final whistle.

Morgan's universe revolves around his wife and six children, and it recently expanded to embrace the arrival of his first grandchild. "The ability of humans to multiply their love never ceases to amaze me. When you have one child, you think: 'I couldn't possibly love another child as much as this', and then you have another child, and you do. I've seen that happen six times in my life, and you think: 'my life must be complete'. Then a grandchild comes along, and a whole lot of new love comes out of nowhere. The fact is, you never run out of love, you just grow some more."

Morgan's love of rugby just kept growing too. He's now a Director of the Auckland Blues and Chairman of North Harbour Rugby. But most winter weekends, he loses the suit and pulls on a referee's uniform. "Even though I can't play any more, I'm still addicted to the smell of a footy field, and there's nothing like seeing a kid's face when they score a try, or catch a high ball, or make a try-saving tackle – you see what it does for them. And to see mum and dad on the sideline cheering and screaming and hugging their kids afterwards – that's truly priceless."

Human triumphs – great and small – are the stuff of Morgan's inspiration. "The ingenuity of humankind to develop new knowledge, the rate of discovery in the electronic world, the medical world, and what we know now about our environment – it's just phenomenal." All of it done, he says, despite institutional hindrance: "... false ceilings above us. If we can find a way of taking those away and letting people go – that's when the great discoveries happen."

And the need is pressing, he says. "We can see now that, around the world, things have gone to hell in a handcart in many respects. Lawyers and accountants can't fix the world's problems any more. It's time for the scientists to step in with new knowledge and innovation."

Problems that once plagued the developing world, says Morgan, have now gone truly global. "Health issues, water, food and energy security, environmental sustainability, the increasing prevalence of extreme weather hazards – you don't pick up a newspaper without reading about another major event.

"It doesn't matter where you look, it's now science that's going to find the answers, and I find that exhilarating."

And it offers the opportunity, he says, to rethink our approach to problem solving: "When you start doing things on a grand scale, you get ecosystem impacts. We're still a long, long way from understanding full ecosystem approaches to managing our pastoral economy, our marine environment, our freshwater environment.

"There are tremendous opportunities with those natural resources, but we're going to have to do a lot of good science – acquire a lot of knowledge – to know how we can realise them sensibly and sustainably. If you look back through history, there have been some absolutely horrific unintended consequences – usually because we didn't take a holistic view."

Cause and effect once again. "I want the world to start thinking about science holistically. In our area of science, that means an ecosystem approach. The health sector is already starting to think like that, which is pretty exciting. We need to do the same with our natural resources."