By Peter Griffin 19/10/2017

After days of reading reports from frustrated reporters camped out in front of the elevators in Bowen House, we finally have an answer on the shape of our next government – a Labour-New Zealand First coalition.

The Greens, with a confidence and supply arrangement with Labour, will be in the mix in some capacity as well by the time the dust settles. A tired looking Winston Peters informed the country this evening that the majority of voters had signalled a desire for change and that, with the economic outlook set to deteriorate, change that benefited the majority of New Zealanders would be on the cards.

Science in its own right didn’t really feature as an election issue, but the various science-related policy statements of Labour, New Zealand First and the Green Party we collected at the Science Media Centre, and a panel discussion on science policy a few weeks before the election, suggests the science sector may be in for some significant changes itself.

Then we have areas of focus the victorious parties have identified, such as the environment and education, that have significant science inputs as well. As an enabler of change across the board, science could be put to use in very different ways in the coming years.

The ink isn’t even dry on a coalition agreement, but in the meantime, here are five science-related areas that may see change with a Labour-New Zealand First coalition in charge.

1:  Science funding

Labour campaigned on introducing a 12.5% research & development (R&D) tax credit, which it considers a more efficient way to boost private sector innovation, which lags other small, developed nations. It also wants to increase public science spend “to link New Zealand to the OECD average over time”.

New Zealand First for it part has a policy goal of increasing Government funding of science and R&D to 2% of GDP over 10 years.

National had increased science spending during its nine years in power significantly, but the investment is still considered by many inadequate to stay internationally competitive and it has really struggled to get to its desired goal of having businesses spend one per cent of GDP on R&D.

More importantly, many in science disagree on National’s prioritisation of spending. Likely to be in the spotlight is Callaghan Innovation, the government agency responsible for promoting innovation and dishing out hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to businesses. Will a new R&D tax credit scheme complement or replace this investment and will Callaghan’s remit change?

Core funding of science could see a shake-up too. Currently this includes funding of the Crown research institutes, universities, science infrastructure and contestable funding that institutions compete for. Some scientists see too much funding ear-marked for specific, applied outcomes and argue that we need to shift the balance towards more fundamental research.

Labour and the Greens have talked about reducing organisational complexity in the science sector and lowering transaction costs. That could signal consolidation of institutions and funding mechanisms which might meet concerns of scientists and administrators alike that the system is too competitive.

Key questions: Will an R&D tax credit replace or complement the current level of business R&D grants? What will happen to Callaghan Innovation? How will core science funding change in Labour-New Zealand First’s first term? Will the shape of the science system – CRIs, Centres of Research Excellence, National Science Challenges etc, fundamentally change?

2: Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science advisor

The country’s key high-level source of science-related advice comes via the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, who is currently Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, the first person in the role, who has been in the job for around nine years and is scheduled to step down in the middle of next year.

He has arguably achieved a lot – contributed to important science policy discussions, helped coordinate scientific input during crises and establishing a network of chief science advisors in major government ministries. Sir Peter has established international science diplomacy on a level never achieved in New Zealand before.

But some perceive the position, by design, to be too closely tied to the Prime Minister. Labour and the Greens said before the election that they would rather see a science advisory capability that informs Parliament, much like the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

With sir Peter stepping down, regardless of any changes in the position’s structure, a new person will soon be in that important role and that could spell major change in focus and style.

Key questions: Will the office be revamped to report to Parliament? Who will the new Chief Science Advisor be and who will appoint the new advisor?

3: Freshwater quality 

The state of our rivers and streams became a key election issue, with National’s opposition hammering the government for doing too little to protect water quality and the infamous “swimmability” standards becoming a thorn in environment minister Nick Smith’s side.

So expectations will be high that Labour and New Zealand First do something tangible to improve the situation. So what did they suggest in the run-up to the election? Labour has the bold plan of “restoring our rivers and lakes to a truly swimmable state within a generation”.

That will involve putting the unemployed to work with fencing of waterways and riparian planting. Then there’s the contentious issue of a water tax to create royalty revenue that would then be channeled into efforts by local councils to remediate polluted waterways. The Greens echo Labour’s desire for a water tax on water bottlers sending mineral water offshore and has an extensive suite of freshwater initiatives that Labour may be inclined to adopt in some form.

New Zealand First was opposed to a water tax, the scrapping of which may have been a condition of giving its support to Labour. It is on the same page on riparian planting but living up to its reputation of being friendly to the rural sector, doesn’t seek significant measures against farmers. As the party said prior to the election: “It is clear that urban sources of water pollution are as much in need of attention as rural and farming sources, if not more so.”

New Zealand First has also indicated it wants a shake-up of the Resource Management Act “on the principle of one law for all”, whatever that means.

Little specific details from any of the parties on the role science will play in improving freshwater quality, but with ambitious plans for environmental improvements, evidence-based solutions will be in high demand

Key questions: Will the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management survive in its current form – will the standards be toughened? What form will water taxes take and where will the revenue generated from them go? What changes are we likely to see to regulations around land use? How will Maori be recognised in relation to water?

4: Climate change

Labour has been big on ambition and small on detail when it comes to tackling climate change. It plans to establish an independent Climate Commission and carbon budgeting with a view to shifting to a sustainable low-carbon economy. It wants to apply the Emissions Trading Scheme to all sectors and all gases to move towards “low or zero-carbon options”.

New Zealand First has a different set of priorities in mind in relation to climate change. It would ditch the ETS, replacing it with a UK-style Climate Change Act, introduce a Parliamentary Commissioner for Climate Change, which would assume legal responsibility for reporting against the Kyoto and Paris agreements.

It wants a ‘Carbon Budget’ to be operative by 2021 and would channel money saved from buying emissions units ($1.4 billion a year according to New Zealand First) into research and development and adapting to climate change.

The Greens are the most ambitious on climate change wanting a net zero carbon economy by 2050 through a mix of using more renewable energy sources, levying agricultural emissions and pursuing low carbon transport options.

Key questions: What will happen to the ETS? Will climate-related R&D and science initiatives, such as the efforts to reduce emissions from agriculture, get a boost? What incentives and policies will be introduced to speed up adoption of renewable energy sources and cleaner transport?

5: Genetic modification

It is an issue that no political party really wants to tackle head-on and with the departure of National goes the closest thing to political will to speed adoption of GM technologies in New Zealand. Labour is incredibly cautious on GM: “Labour will maintain the status quo of new GM techniques requiring Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) approval for use. Labour will also maintain the ability of councils to decide on economic grounds whether and where release and commercial use of GMO plants and animals is allowed.

“We’ll also protect farmers who do not wish to adopt GM technology by ensuring the liability regime for use of GMOs that cause harm is strengthened.”

So continuing tight control of GM research and commercial release on the cards there. New Zealand First is similarly wary of the technology – “proceed with caution, and only within the confines of suitably equipped laboratories, until such time as any modified organism has been proven to be safe for release”.

The Greens are decidedly anti-GM – “our food and environment should be GE Free”. It sees GM-Free as a valuable marketing tool for New Zealand. There’s only one area in which it sees GM as a potential option – “on predator free, the lines of research should remain open”.

Key questions: Will the HSNO Act and Environmental Protection Authority regulations around use of GM be tightened? Will GM have any input into the Government’s Pest Free 2050 goal? Will laws change to tighten liability about use of GMOs that “cause harm”?

More science policy positions from the key parties available on the Science Media Centre website.

0 Responses to “A change of government: 5 things it could mean for New Zealand science”

  • Let’s not forget that NZ First – intermittently – tried to woo the begging Peter Dunne/Outdoor Party constituency with a promise to ban 1080, alternatively demanded and denied by Richard Prosser, lately demoted. This promise was justified with some of the most deplorable junk science and plain woo seen this side of the Oval Office. I doubt that a ban was high on Winston’s list of demands – indeed, I suspect he regrets ever listening to Prosser in the first place – but Sue Sara, NZ First board secretary and Nelson candidate, has been active on anti-1080 Facebook pages (and incidentally was implicated in the online victimisation of an innocent party wrongly accused of being a 1080 contractor), so it’ll be interesting to see whether this ban remains higher on the list than Prosser now does.

  • re ‘GMO’

    We’re all ninnies about genetic modification. That’s everyone, not just the pollies. It’s past time everyone got over it.

    What are made are just new varieties, and we’ve been developing and breeding new varieties for centuries.

    I have wanted to be developing a series on this (ideally with a view to reusing the material for paid-for work), but have been too ill over the last week-plus to write. Now that I seem mostly well again (I hope) I may get back to this, albeit perhaps in shortened form.

    In the meantime one example: even something that did NOT involve adding new genes, and really only stands to have a positive effect was opposed: developing a non-wilding pine:

  • @Dave I think with Prosser pretty much on the out and Labour’s enthusiasm for the pest-free mission, New Zealand First will struggle to get its way on 1080. But it was pretty strident in its opposition to it in the run up to the election… here’s its policy position on the preadtor free strategy…

    “Predator Free 2050 may be noble in intention, but New Zealand First regards it as being unrealistic and unattainable. We propose increased resourcing for Conservation and pest control based around trapping and other forms of ground control, along with urgent and significantly increased investment in research into alternative methods and substances used for animal population controls.

    “New Zealand First favours increased resourcing for more, larger, and better protected sanctuaries, both on offshore islands and on the mainland, which can be properly protected and maintained through the disproportionate application of pest control measures, the application of which over the entire country is not feasible.
    New Zealand First is opposed to the continued use of aerial 1080 and it is our intention to end its use a soon as is practicable (by way of vastly increased public science investment), without compromising our pest control requirements in the process.

    “Our initial action will be to immediately halt aerial 1080 operations while comprehensive and accurate surveys of both native and pest populations are carried out in those areas that are currently subject to 1080 on the basis that they are inaccessible. Too much of the justification claimed for aerial 1080 is based on incomplete or non-existent data regarding population and threat levels, and too little follow-up is carried out in order to determine either the effectiveness of poisoning or the direct negative impact that 1080 has on the native species it is intended to benefit. “

  • More questions than answers, obviously, but a really useful collation of important issues and implications moving forward … thanks, Peter!