By Peter Griffin 11/08/2017

With the Metiria Turei controversy behind us and ‘Jacindamania’ fading, it may be time for policy positions from our political parties to get more of an airing.

Yesterday saw the New Zealand Association of Scientists and the New Zealand Public Service Association team up to give the major political parties and TOP candidate Geoff Simmonds the opportunity to outline their science-related policies.

Why is the PSA interested in science? Because a large number of scientists are also public servants and there has been debate in recent years about the priorities of science funding, the career pathways for scientists in New Zealand and the role of scientists in public discourse.

A full recording of the panel discussion, courtesy of the NZAS is available below, and I’ve attempted to summarise each party representative’s points underneath. By and large it was a useful and productive session, light on specific policy details, but clearly highlighting the areas of difference and similarity between their positions.

The strongest statements, perhaps not surprisingly, came from the non-MP on the panel, Geoff Simmonds. He stated emphatically that our wealth is based on science, but that our performance on R&D and productivity has been “abysmal”. Unless we move from a volume-based economy (shipping more milk powder and attracting more tourists) and move to a value-based economy, we’ll fall further behind other developed countries, he argues. He promised that TOP will release its R&D policy in the coming weeks and we can expect similar announcements from the other parties.

At the Science Media Centre we will also soon issue our Top 10 science-related questions for political parties, where we put questions to the main political parties on everything from climate change and R&D to genetic modification and fresh water quality. You can view last election’s Q&A here.

Dr Megan Woods, Labour MP for Wigram, spokesperson for Canterbury Issues, Climate Change, Energy, Innovation & Science, and Research & Development. Associate for Trade and Export Growth:

  • Funding science starts with the education system – Labour wants a review of the Performance-Based Research Fund system and also a review of the Tertiary Education Commission, which needs to be more strategic rather than a “provider of widgets”.
  • Doesn’t want to merge the universities and Crown research institutes, but wants to incentivise them to work more closely together to overcome the overly competitive research environment.
  • Has her doubts about the National Science Challenges, will see what tweaks can be made in consultation with the scientific community and address gaps that aren’t being filled.
  • Need to ensure the Marsden Fund continues to be funded and pointed out that our spending on science is behind the OECD average.
  • Need better career paths for our scientists.
  • We don’t make enough use of our departmental chief science advisors. The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor is held “too close to the executive” and needs to be more independent, like the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

Tracy Martin, New Zealand First list MP, spokesperson for Education, Women’s Affairs, Communications and IT and Broadcasting:

  • The public good aspects of science are being overlooked. We have seen the over commercialisation of science and perverse incentives created through the PBRF system in universities.
  • Institutes like Cawthron are driven by commercial contracts and have little capacity for fundamental research.
  • New Zealanders need to know more about the amazing work our scientists do. The value of science in their minds has been “depleted”.
  • Too often, scientists in our universities and CRIs aren’t able to release information because it is owned by a company.
  • We need a better balance between public good and commercial science.
  • Need to revamp the Speaker’s Science Forum and have better interaction between scientists and parliamentarians.

Hon Paul Goldsmith, National list MP, Minister of Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment, Minister for Science and Innovation, and Minister for Regulatory Reform:

  • Even in fiscally constrained times, the Government is spending $1.4 billion a year on science, to rise in the next few years to $1.6 billion annually.
  • The Government wants to see more commercialisation of New Zealand science. We are not so good at translating ideas into companies. That’s why we are funding things like the pre-seed accelerators and Callaghan Innovation grants.
  • The A Nation of Curious Minds strategy is all about engaging New Zealanders with science.
  • Other great things are happening – just funded REANNZ to the tune of $21 million, ultra-fast broadband is connecting the digital economy and a nimble regulatory system allowed a space industry to get off the ground here.
  • There has been a lot of structural change in the science system, so not looking to make more big changes – need stability.

Geoff Simmonds, deputy leader The Opportunities Party, candidate for Wellington Central:

  • Science is the real driver of wealth in New Zealand, but we have an “abysmal” record on R&D spend and productivity.
  • We don’t work smarter, we work harder, we don’t add value, we add volume. But there are limits to growth and working harder won’t work any more.
  • The big barrier is not government R&D but private sector R&D.
  • Our tax settings encourage a speculative economy rather than a productive one. People would rather invest in buying houses than in science-based businesses. Europe has a different approach.
  • We have a “deep systemic issue”, housing speculation, which TOP wants to “kill”.
  • TOP has an R&D funding announcement coming.
  • Wants scientists to be freer to talk about their science and that funding encourages independent and long-term thinking.

Gareth Hughes, Green list MP, spokesperson for Energy and Resources, Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment, Science and Innovation, ICT, Broadcasting, and Wellington Issues:

  • Science should help tackle the big issues facing New Zealand – freshwater quality, climate change, inequality.
  • Publicly funded science needs greater long-term thinking, less focus on commercial outputs and less bureaucracy and “form filling”.
  • Science is under attack – witness the March for Science and rise of Trump. There is declining evidence-based decision making. The Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor needs to be upgraded to something more like an independent Commission for Science.
  • We need better public dissemination of science and more science in our media.
  • The Green Party would increase core public and long-term funding of science – $1 billion extra funding over three years was announced as a policy position during the last election campaign.
  • Would consider forming a cross-party working group on science-related issues, similar to the group set up to look at internet-related issues.