Its great to see the government reaching out to the country to get feedback on what the big challenges facing NZ are, and the role that science can play in helping solve these. However, I’m dissatisfied with the possible challenges that they have put up on the website for two reasons. Firstly, many of these seem to be some of the Transformational Research, Science & Technology topics identified by MoRST (one of the grandparents of the Science & Innovation group in MBIE) several years ago. Nothing wrong with that, it was good work. But not a lot of additional thinking about these seems to have gone on since then.

The more unsatisfactory aspect is that these potential challenges cover much of what is already funded under existing schemes – more of the same rather than something novel. Yes, they are examples only, and the Cabinet Paper does refer to the use of “straw men” in the public consultation. But I’d expect more effort to help the public consider what a good science challenge is or what some important specific issues are, rather than just provide examples of a range of research that is currently being undertaken. Who wouldn’t want to support developing cures for cancer, or better pest control? What makes a good challenge and why, and what are the criteria being used to decide? A bit more information please. Maybe the TV advertising will tease this out, I hope so.

On the more positive side, the intent is to get more government agencies aligning policies and other efforts behind the challenges.

I have difficulty is viewing what is currently available as challenges or even “science project” because they lack specificity and measurable outcomes. Minister Joyce in the Cabinet Paper notes that the intention is rather to develop a scheme similar to CSIRO’s National Research Flagships, and that more of government funding will migrate to the selected challenge areas in the longer term. For me a “Challenge” has more the flavour and intent of the DARPA,  Grand Challenges in Global Health and Research UK challenge initiatives, where quite specific problems are being addressed and there are specific milestones and indicators of success along the way.

The Cabinet Paper notes the national science challenges are “aspirational”, so I see the scheme as more PR (not a bad thing) than focussing on some significant and hard specific problems facing NZ. However, time will tell. The process is to take the public responses and attempt to combine them with internal Ministry thinking based on sector consultation and a “Peak panel workshop” to identify the final set of challenges.

I would have preferred that they pick three challenges rather than 10, so that each one has a decent amount of money behind it. Money though isn’t the only “challenge”. Even with recent structural and funding changes, getting some institutions (as distinct from individual researchers) to collaborate nicely rather than compete will take some time (and a new generation of administrators).

It is fortuitous that a recent issue of Technology Review looks at challenges and asks “Why we can’t solve big problems“. The conclusion in the article is that solutions to technological problems require three factors:

  • The public and politicians must care about the problem;
  • There is institutional support for the solution (eg NASA and others supported going to the moon); and
  • The problem is a technological and one that we understand (the latter is an acknowledgement that we don’t yet know enough about, for example, some diseases to consider what an effective technological solution could be).

The DARPA and Global Health challenges tend to operate in this space. The National Science Challenges perhaps won’t meet all these criteria, particularly when it comes to the third bullet point. Reducing obesity or child poverty can have little to do with technological solutions. Improving environmental health may have a technological component, but societal and policy changes will also be necessary.

That isn’t a problem for the National Science Challenges because the initiative is framed as science rather than technological challenges. But the government (and the lucky “winners”) will need to be careful in explaining exactly what they are attempting to achieve to avoid getting a backlash in 4 years or so when the public asks “Has that challenge been solved?”

The European Commission has published a relevant report about Grand Challenges [PDF], noting the preference for the USA to go for technological or industrial challenges while Europe has focussed more on scientific challenges, and some Asian countries are trying to cover the spectrum. The report warns against attempting to integrate or closely align research challenges with innovation ones (ie where the goal is to take an idea or technology through to commercial success). This is because this seldom works where the government doesn’t have a strong influence over industrial decision making. Grand challenges also do better when they have some independence from government, and that the organisation managing the challenges see themselves as “change agents” rather than funding bodies.

So we aren’t going down the Grand Challenges path. But there are some opportunities to stimulate new research and encourage public interest and engagement. I’ll be putting a lot of thought into my proposals for good challenges.