By Peter Griffin 18/05/2016

There had been rumours of a significant science-related Budget announcement and yesterday we discovered what it was – a $97 million funding boost over four years for the Health Research Council. 

Following some of the awkward self reflection that went on around the science system last week as Shaun Hendy’s book Silencing Science appeared, the unexpected funding news has allowed for a rare outbreak of unanimous positivity. Well mostly.

New Zealand Association of Scientists president, Dr Craig Stevens, welcomed the increased funding for health research but told RNZ:

“It leaves some concerns around public good research, underpinning research, like environmental science, that maybe doesn’t have an immediate return financially but sets up society and our environment over much longer periods.

University of Auckland Distinguished Professor Ian Reid also welcomed the funding increase, but pointed out in that same RNZ piece that New Zealand is still a “long way behind” comparable countries when it comes to health research funding – Australia spends at three times the rate per capita as we do, the United Kingdom 7 – 8 times and the United States 12 times.

The amount of money the HRC has to distribute in funding grants will increase by 56 per cent over the next four years, from $77 million in 2015.16 to $120 million in 2019/20.

That’s a very welcome boost. When it comes to New Zealand science on the world stage, one area we are well known for is our health research, including long-term projects like the Dunedin Longitudinal Study, which will be supported through the funding boost [or will it? See note below].

UPDATE: I asked the HRC about the longitudinal studies and how they may receive government funding contributions in future.  They said it was too early to say if a separate HRC fund will be set up for longitudinal studies and, if so, what processes would be used to fund the several studies that are currently underway. The Dunedin Study has not yet been given additional support. The 2016 funding round will be revealed in mid to late June.

Along with the health research funding increase, the Government is also calling for submissions on the country’s health research strategy. There will be meetings held around the country as part of that process.

Accelerating science

But that isn’t it for science this year. On Monday came news that $15 million in additional funding will be put into two schemes designed to support the commercialisation of technologies developed by scientists and entrepreneurs. The existing Pre-Seed Accelerator Fund funding will increase by $12 million over four years to $8.3 million per year. A further $3 million will go towards setting up new accelerators. This is a model used with some success in other countries like Israel and is clearly one the Government sees as promising. In the release announcing the funding boost, it claimed:

A recent evaluation estimated that Pre-Seed projects have so far generated $188.2 million in revenue, have resulted in many new companies being formed, and have the potential to generate export revenues of up to $3 billion.

So that’s the health research and hi-tech areas covered off. Is there anything else likely in the pot for science come Budget day? Well, Craig Stevens point about basic research may well come up next Thursday, if not before, when it comes to the Marsden Fund and whether there will be any funding top-up there. Will the country’s largest blue skies research fund be boosted in the way that the HRC’s has?

Regional development

Meanwhile, we’ve also recently seen movement on a previously announced initiative to develop regional research institutes. Three proposals nave made the shortlist:

  • New Zealand Institute of Viticulture and Oenology, Marlborough, led by the New Zealand Winegrowers – research to support the growth and continuing success of the New Zealand wine industry.
  • Centre for Space Science Technology, Central Otago, led by Bodeker Scientific – research allowing the use of space-based measurements and unique to New Zealand satellite imagery to develop solutions tailored to regions and key sectors, for example, in water resource management and regional planning.
  • Earth+Vantage, Southland, led by Venture Southland – research using real time satellite and ground-based data to lift primary industry productivity across New Zealand, in areas such as precision farming, forestry and marine management.

Budget 2015 saw funding of up to $25 million committed over three years to support these new research institutes, though Cabinet still has to approve them after looking in more detail at their proposals.

So not an especially barren year for science with a few potential surprises still to come.