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If you hadn’t noticed, we are less than three week’s out from a general election and while economic and social issues are dominating the agenda, some of the most fundamental questions the political parties are attempting to answer are underpinned by science.

ElectionScienceAtomYou need go no further than the Science Media Centre Election 2011 Science Q&A to discover that. The survey put 10 questions to the political parties on major science-related issues – from our strategy on energy production to what the country’s approach to stimulating R&D should be.

So far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the amount of discussion on science-related issues so far during the election campaign. That really stems I think from the focus on environmental issues, elevated somewhat by the Green Party’s focus in this area with its policies aimed at water quality and green growth employment. It also stems from the growing realisation in business circles and among the public that we need to get our butts into gear if we are to up our game on the innovation front. We need more economic activity derived from science and technology and our science system isn’t particularly well set up to deliver it – yet.

This election, environmental issues and the innovation challenge are really dominating in the science-related issues. Here’s where the three major parties stand. For the minor parties (only ACT at this stage – read the science policy positions on the SMC website).

Environment vs economic growth

Given that controversial issues such as mining the conservation estate, petroleum exploration and “dirty dairying” have attracted plenty of attention during National’s first term, its no surprise that they are attracting air time during the election campaign.

Key in leading the charge has, not surprisingly, been the Green Party, which has made two of its three policy planks environment-related. First, there’s the focus on improving water quality, which the Greens intend to tackle by putting a price on water:

We want to introduce a fair charge for the commercial use of water. This charge incentivises uses of our water resources to do so more efficiently creating demand for good solutions. Some of the revenue generated by this charge would be recycled back into low tech waterway protection — riparian planting. Agriculture, as an industry where we have a competitive advantage, would be a good candidate for receiving the R&D tax credits and grants mentioned above.

Then there’s the highly ambitious plan to create 100,000 jobs through green growth strategies:

We’ll create 100,000 new jobs through direct government investment, changing the way our state-owned energy companies work, and shifting the drivers for green jobs in the private sector.

National is taking a “balanced approach” to the issue of improving water quality and points to the money it is pouring into cleaning up polluted waterways

We have increased the investment in waterway clean-ups by five-fold to more than $265 million, compared to just $16 million spent between 2004 and 2008.  This will clean up significant water bodies such as Lake Taupo and the Waikato River, and reflects the importance National puts on improved fresh water management.  This also includes a $15 million contestable water clean-up fund for Councils with water pollution problems.

National also established the Land and Water Forum during its first term and unveiled a National Policy Statement on freshwater.

Both National and the Greens have gone big on home insulation – its one of the few areas they have collaborated on ths far.

National for its part claims it is “serious about global warming and tackling climate change”:

We have established the Global Research Alliance and provided $45 million for research aimed at tackling greenhouse gas emissions. We have also established a Green Growth Advisory Group, to provide advice on how to achieve economic growth while also promoting environmental protection. Our goal is to be 90% renewable by 2025. A key factor in achieving this goal is reform of the Resource Management Act, allowing renewable projects to be consented far earlier than under the previous Government. We invest around $18 m per year in renewable energy research. This includes research into geothermal, bio, solar, wave and tidal energy.

Labour, which set the goal for 90 per cent renewable energy production, is sticking to that goal.  It also favours an earlier introduction of farming into the Emissions Trading Scheme than National.

On the issue of petroleum exploration, the Greens and Labour are on the same page. Labour notes:

’Labour will not allow deep sea drilling to occur unless such standards and safeguards are in place, as well as robust contingency plans and an effective rapid response capability if an incident occurs. We will also establish a comprehensive oceans policy, including legislating to safeguard New Zealand’s ocean ecosystems and to minimise the environmental risks of activities in our EEZ.

And the Greens:

A spill the size of the Gulf disaster would have catastrophic impacts on large parts of our coast. We don’t see the potential gains as worth the risk.’

National is on the record as supporting exploitation of petroleum reserves in New Zealand waters – if exploratory surveying discovers them. But it is moving fast to strengthen legislation and standards to convince the country it is prepared for a Gulf of Mexico-style disaster. Many New Zealanders remain firmly opposed to petroleum exploration because it exploits a fossil fuel industry and because our small scale makes responding to major disasters difficult. Says National:

’The proposed new law [Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Bill] will protect New Zealand’s oceans from the potential environmental risks of activities like petroleum exploration, mining, marine energy, and carbon capture developments. The new system will work alongside existing legislation that manages fishing and maritime transport. It has also been carefully designed to ensure it is consistent with New Zealand’s international obligations.”

The innovation push

All of the political parties are singing from the same hymn sheet on the need for the country to up its game on the innovation front, with the OECD figures showing our woeful investment record in this area regularly trotted out by politicians all across the political spectrum.

The harder question to answer is how best to go about boosting innovation and in particular the level of private R&D that is going on in the country.

Labour has resurrected ita tax credit policy from before the last election, planning on introducing a scheme that would reward companies for investing in R&D:

’Labour will introduce a Research & Development (R&D) tax credit at the rate of 12.5%. It will lift New Zealand’s lagging R&D expenditure by encouraging businesses to research and innovate.

Other countries have R&D tax credits and many cite our lack of one as a barrier to attracting foreign investment in science projects in New Zealand. For instance, Australia this year beefed up its support of private sector R&D with the so-called R&D Tax Incentive (see this Q&A for details).  What the scheme allows for is:

- a 45 per cent refundable tax offset (equivalent to a 150 per cent deduction) for eligible R&D entities with a turnover of less than $20 million per annum;

- a non-refundable 40 per cent tax offset (equivalent to 133 per cent deduction) for all other eligible R&D entities. Unused offset amounts can be carried forward for use in future income years.

The argument against tax credits has typically been that it is hard to prove their efficacy and that companies will try to reclassify activities to make them eligible for the tax exemption. National has taken a different approach, instead boosting public money available to public and private scientific activity and introducing a technology transfer voucher scheme to encourage collaboration between public science institutions and private companies.

National claims it is working:

’The results of this have been clear. New Zealand now invests $2.5 billion a year in science and innovation — up 13 per cent from 2008. R&D spending as a percentage of GDP was up to 1.3% (up from 1.19%), and business R&D spending was $1 billion (up 10%).

Perhaps most significant in terms of its strategy to boost innovation is National’s endorsement of the MSI-commissioned Powering Innovation report, which was released last week and attracted praise from leading scientists. This would turn the Crown Research Institute, Industrial Research, into an innovation hub for hi-tech and high-value manufacturing in New Zealand.

Essentially it would double the size of IRL over the next five years and make innovation the key plank of the Government’s science investment strategy.  National is expected to act on the findings of the report, at least in part, if it is re-elected.

The Greens have an ambitious R&D policy:

Through a mix of government procurement policies, tax incentives, start-up funding, and a $1 billion boost to R&D funding, we’ll support SMEs to step up and drive new job creation in the cleantech sector.

There’s been little in-depth discussion of the billion dollar plan to boost R&D because the Green Party is highly unlikely to be in a position to enact the policy post election. But it is the level of investment in innovation many are calling for to achieve the step change in innovation investment pretty much everyone agrees we need.

Science leadership

One crucial issue which so far hasn’t played out on the election trail is who is showing the strongest leadership in science-related policy.

The current Science and Innovation minister, Dr Wayne Mapp, is stepping down after the election, so if National retains power, a new minister will be chosen.As such, Mapp has had a low profile during this election campaign.

In the meantime, there isn’t really a strong voice on science issues from a ministerial level, except for where John Key steps in himself or when Dr Nick Smith speaks up on environment-related issues.

David Shearer is Labour’s science spokesman – he has been fairly low-key on this area of policy so far, though Labour is expected to roll out its science policy next week, so expect him to be vocal then.

The Green Party’s science and environment policy is so integral to the party’s core values that Russel Norman has been very active in this area, particularly in pushing the parties green growth and cleantech policies.

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