The road to science funding (is full of speed bumps)

By Fabiana Kubke 01/12/2009 7


At any given point in time there is a boundary between that which is known and that which is unknown and, precisely, the role of science is to grab pieces of that ignorance, study it, transform it into knowledge and, in doing so, broaden the human landscape.’ Marcelino Cereijido [1]

New Zealand science is facing a crisis, one that would not be easy to solve in the best of scenarios, and less in the midst of an economic crisis. Finding a solution to the role of science in New Zealand cannot be divorced from the process of economic recovery.

At the heart of the problems are issues associated with research funding, as well as issues associated with the culture within which science currently operates. A recent document put forth by Ministry of Research Science and Technology [2] has ignited a debate that was long overdue.

At the centre of the debate is the question of how funding should be distributed and which areas should be prioritized. Unfortunately, this time New Zealand cannot afford to get it wrong.

The problem with science funding in New Zealand

To say that he level of R&D investment in New Zealand compared to other countries is low would be an understatement [Ref. 3, p.5]. R&D investment as a percentage of GDP shows that while the USA sits at above 2.5% (with a target to reach 3%), New Zealand sits below 1.5% mark. This is a relatively small increase with respect to the mark of about 1% in 1980. New Zealand’s 5% increase over the last 30 years is in contrast to countries like Australia and Denmark that, while having similarly low R&D investment in 1980, have been able to catch up with the USA having now reached almost equivalent levels of R&D investment. Although NZ’s government contribution is somewhat low in comparison with other countries, the great majority of the gap in these figures is due to a lack of industry contribution.

Yet equivalent levels of government investment do not seem to translate to equivalent levels of funding. At a panel discussion organized by Stratus (U of Auckland) on November 19th [4] Jill Cornish showed that the Health Research Council in New Zealand invested in 2007 about $NZD 10.2 per capita while equivalent figures were much higher for Australia (NHMRC, $NZD 34.6), the UK (MRC, NHS, $NZD 54.3) and the USA (NIH, $NZD 126.0). And this is a big problem. Although Key’s government increased the level of science funding in the 2009-10 budget, as Paul Callaghan stated:

’That leaves New Zealand’s’ per capita GDP investment in R and D unchanged at around 0.52 %, way below that of Australia, the OECD average, and small economies like Finland, Singapore and Denmark, all of whom have built prosperity from innovation.”

The bottom line is, science in New Zealand will not be competitive at the global scale without bridging the existing R&D investment gaps. And the government needs to find a way to get more private input into R&D.

The continuum between basic and applied science

It would be very hard to imagine that Hodgkin and Huxley were thinking of brain machine interfaces as they recorded the action potential from the giant axon of the squid, or that Fernando Nottebohm was thinking about stem cell therapies for neurodegenerative disease when he came across the first irrefutable evidence of adult neurogenesis. As Peter Gluckman said in his lecture [3]:

’This should remind us that science so often has its major impacts a long way from where it started.’

I have heard many argue ‘why not let the richer governments fund basic science, we can use their discoveries’. The answer to that is because that means never being ahead or on par with the game. Any scientific paper that is published today, is the result of an idea that is several years old. The authors have by then probably moved on to bigger and better things, and, if their work had any commercial value, the deals have probably already been struck.

There is a long road between the process of discovery and technology development, but the latter cannot happen without the former. Peter Lee, Gillian Lewis and Jim Metson all highlighted this point at the Spark Stratus panel discussion [4]: when it comes to basic science, we never know where the revolution will come from. The one thing we can be certain about is that innovation will not happen without basic science investment.

The problem with the science structure

According to Dick Bellamy, the current system is unsustainable for a small country such as New Zealand. There is a lack of critical mass in almost every area: we have little pockets dispersed all around the country. And this is a concept that Gluckman continuously insists on: we should drop our egos at the door, stop acting as competitors and begin to behave as collaborators.

Gillian Lewis [4] recognized that without private investment in R&D the burden of funding commercial science falls on the government. As a consequence there is not enough funding for commercial science and not enough funding for the basic science. This does not lead to economic growth. Or as Peter Gluckman put it:

’Our funding system has been extraordinarily focused on private sector‐directed public sector research.’

We are all fighting for a very small slice of a very small cake. And we are not particularly keen on sharing it.

The solutions

The process of commercialization is not money limited but idea limited, and basic science has historically shown to be essential for the types of new discoveries that lead to innovation. But we can improve on the way that scientists operate by increasing the level of collaboration and data sharing. Peter Gluckman said in his lecture [3]:

’A large part of my report focuses on the issue of technology transfer — the export of knowledge out of CRIs and universities to business. Part of that must be through open innovation. That is, universities and CRIs must get better at making knowledge freely available to firms and maximising the value of their work for ’New Zealand Inc’.

Choices need to be made, and that means setting priorities, and ultimately decisions will be constrained by the democratic process. Peter Shepherd [4] suggested that Unviersities need to have a new social contract. This means sharing between different interdisciplinary groups as well as sharing with the public. Science in New Zealand will not have much chance of prospering until the public values science and its scientists. Scientists need to communicate the value of science, how it affects our daily lives and emphasise where the roots for commercial implementation come from. Gluckman’s concept of open innovation should certainly help formulate this new social contract.

There is no doubt that industries in New Zealand need to begin to take responsibility over the burden of R&D investment that has been placed on the government, and set it free, so to speak to fund ideas, discovery and innovation. Finishing with Gluckman

’The science we do impacts on people’s lives — and we cannot always predict how’.

It is up to us, the scientists, to tell that part of the story.

  1. Marcelino Cereijido. La nuca de Hussay [Houssay’s nape]. Fondo de Cultura Economica ed. 2000 (my translation from p.187)
  2. New Zealand Research Science and Technology feedback document. (October, 2009)
  3. November 26th, 2009. Peter Gluckman’s lecture at the University of Auckland ’The Evolution of Science, where is New Zealand Going?’.
  4. November 19th, 2009. Panel discussion: ’Today’s basic science inspires tomorrow’s new technology; What is the right balance for New Zealand’ organized by Stratus (U of Auckland). Participating in the panel were Prof Dick Bellamy, Prof  Paul Callaghan, Prof Jill Cornish, Prof Jim Metson, Dr Peter Lee and Prof Peter Shepherd; moderated by A/-Prof  Gillian Lewis.


7 Responses to “The road to science funding (is full of speed bumps)”

  • Although NZ’s government contribution is somewhat low in comparison with other countries, the great majority of the gap in these figures is due to a lack of industry contribution.

    One question that I worked into my MoRST submission was is this a lack of investment per company who are able to, or a lack of companies in the fields that might invest in R&D?

    For the latter, the problem isn’t one of increasing investment per company, but increasing the number of companies in areas that might invest. Different problem, different solution, etc. For me I need this cleared up first before I can consider solutions on that larger scale 😉

    I have heard many argue ‘why not let the richer governments fund basic science, we can use their discoveries’. The answer to that is because that means never being ahead or on par with the game.

    I agree, but I think there are also some mindset issues as well and the nature of the system may not be helping there. It’s a long story and I’m still grumpy from a recent negative experience of this general nature, so I’ll give explaining it a pass… 😉

    According to Dick Bellamy, […]

    Dick’s a great one for speaking out, eh? 🙂

    I agree with the call to be collaborative but, especially for new developments, linking with people outside your institution or overseas shouldn’t be treated as a negative. I had exactly this experience very recently. While I can see where it’s coming from—”local funding think” for want of a better phrase—I think it’s unhelpful in many cases and can kill potentially good work. It strikes me as a limiting way to think, esp. in a small country.

  • There are lot of incentives to create international scientific linkages (the RSNZ for example has heaps of funding for that). At the academic level, linkages are not only seen as positive, but encouraged. Perhaps it is different in the private sector. But these tend to build ‘closed groups’. What I think of as ‘open collaboration’ goes beyond those I share a grant with. In my eyes, it is about making my raw data available for others to use, whether we share a grant or not, and irrespective of me authoring work that is derived from that.

  • I think one of the issues behind the low private sector involvement, is that NZ firms are often, very very small. We have a large number of farms or orchards or vinyards, but individually, these are small businesses. In other countries there is often a core of medium-to-large scale firms that drive a lot of that investment in R&D.

    There may also be a cultural barrier between academia and the private sector when it comes to collaboration. I suspect, that a lot of academics still spell partner as d-o-n-o-r.

  • What I was referring to wasn’t in the private sector.

    I was just trying to join in with you on part of what you were referring to. I was trying to link […] we have little pockets dispersed all around the country. with stop acting as competitors and begin to behave as collaborators. Collaboration within NZ should be regarded the same positive light as with overseas groups. Perhaps I’ve misread him, but I took Sir Peter to be referring to competition within the country within academia. (Although I would have more placed this at the institutional level.)

    I know the granting bodies reward international collaborations, and that collaborations within the country are encouraged. I can only think that the person I was referring was only thinking in terms of gain to their group (which wasn’t why I approached them, so I’m very frustrated by that).

    I didn’t pick up your “open collaboration” angle until the very end. Thanks for clarifying what you were conveying.

  • Brendan is on the right track. Our low private sector investment is in most cases due to the type of businesses that make up NZ i.e. SME’s with low tech/ low value products. Because they are low tech/ low value they require low levels of investment in order to pursue their R&D. So with reference to what Grant mentioned we need to look at creating those companies which are at the other end of the spectrum – require high R&D investment in order to make in orders of magnitude higher value products . This is only one part of the solution of course. Getting our current high techs to invest heavily in R&D [as a lot of the bigger players are still falling short of what is expect of them] and getting out SMEs to export more.

    Fabiana, you mention Spark half way through your post – I’m assuming this is simply a typo?

  • The size of NZ high tech companies is definitely a problem, but some of the size problems could be overcome by working in association with academic institutions. I couldnt find a company profile for via lactea (I think this is how it is spelled), but I know they had a project going at the University of Auckland. I am not sure what the deal was, but I think that ways to accomodate smaller private sector investment can be found.
    And thanks for pointing out my ‘spark’ typo! (I have corrected it, and added a link to Spark, that is worth looking at anyway in view of this discussion).

  • What I was meaning for the first part of my original comment was hard statistics would be helpful, for me anyway. While it’s likely that part of the issue is the small size of most players, it’s anecdotal comment eh?

    I’d pick one reason for the small players staying small is a lifestyle preference thing.

    Just to toss one complexity into the mix: some invest via contribution in kind, probably especially very small players. For example, the times I’ve developed new products, I’m not investing cash in the sense of paying someone, but investing my time in lieu of earning from a client (and my cash reserve/investments, which is an investment, but let’s not get complicated…). It’s a real cost to me, but I can’t imagine it’s measured on these sorts of statistics/surveys. In my case at times the “in kind” investment has been 50%+ of my time.