New Zealand’s National Science Challenges announced

By Siouxsie Wiles 01/05/2013

NZ’s National Science Challenges announced alongside a massive funding boost

In the beautiful blue Ocean gallery at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, the Prime Minister John Key, the Honourable Minister for Science and Innovation Steven Joyce and the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman, today announced the 10 National Science Challenges.

The PEAK panel*, chaired by Sir Peter Gluckman, was charged with developing the Challenges using the following criteria:
1) Target high level goals, which if achievable would have a major public benefit to NZ
2) Be seen as being of public importance, hence the public engagement campaign
3) Have scientific research as essential to solving the Challenge
4) The scientific capability and capacity existing in NZ

The panel considered 223 submissions from the science and research sector, 138 from the public via the web, and 616 ideas and comments posted to the Great NZ Science Project website and Facebook page. The main 10 Challenges are listed on the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment’s website here, and the document explaining them in a little more detail is here.

The big surprise came with the announcement that the budget for the Challenges had been more than doubled with the allocation of an extra $73.5M, bringing the total budget over the next four years to $133.5M. It will be interesting to see where this money has come from. The second exciting announcement was of a special extra ‘Science and Society leadership Challenge’ brought about by what the panel identified as deficits in science education, science communication, science literacy and the application of evidence in all levels of decision making. This challenge therefore covers a huge array of themes, from promotion of science literacy in schools, to developing science communication as an academic discipline and encouraging members of the public to participate in science as ‘citizen scientists’.

But other than the Science and Society Challenge, is it ‘business as usual’? It does look awfully like it. Just looking at the biomedical related Challenges, I was really shocked to see that infectious diseases don’t get a mention. In fact, in the Challenge 3 Healthier Lives: Research to reduce the burden of major New Zealand health problems, they are specifically excluded as the focus is on non-communicable diseases (NCDs). I do hope the 792 people who ‘voted’ for my illustrative ‘Fighting Diseases‘ Challenge on the Great NZ Science Project didn’t think they were actually voting for me! I asked Sir Peter about this at the Science Media Centre’s media briefing afterwards and he explained that they had considered infectious diseases, but that more people die from NCD’s in NZ, and that in the panel’s opinion, infectious diseases research in NZ didn’t meet the criteria of having sufficient capability and capacity to address a Challenge. This is depressing as NZ is bucking international trends, with our rates of infectious diseases on the increase rather than decreasing, which is what would be expected of a developed country like ours.

At the media briefing I also specifically (and rather cheekily) asked Steven Joyce and Sir Peter how much of the funds would be used to support post-doctoral fellows and PhD students to actually do the science, and how much would be spent on the salaries of Principal Investigators. It is an important question, especially given that the Challenges have multi-disciplinarity and collaboration at their heart. If the Challenges are funded like normal contestable granting bodies like the Marsden and Health Research Council, we could find most of the money going to pay the time contribution of the ‘silverbacks’ and not on salaries for younger researchers. Both the minister and Sir Peter answered that ‘workforce development’ would be a key measure of success so we’ll see how that works out.

*PEAK panel members: Peter Gluckman, Jacqueline Rowarth, Ian Ferguson, William Denny, Elf Eldridge, Peter Hunter, Mary O’Kane, David Penman, Te Ahu Karamu Charles Royal, Richie Poulton and Rachel Wiltshire.

UPDATE: I live-tweeted the announcement so have storified the tweets here.

0 Responses to “New Zealand’s National Science Challenges announced”

  • Have been watching the TV3 news and there has been no mention of the National Science Challenges. I guess the collapse of a jigsaw in honour of the Queen is far more important!

  • As someone who presumably qualifies as a ‘silverback’ I’d be happy not to put my time on to my Marsden grant budget if the application guidelines didn’t strongly suggest that we had to. That way the fund could give more, smaller grants with the same total budget. The universities might be less happy, since funding for people who aren’t pre-existing staff doesn’t help with their cashflow problems.

    I can see why the Marsden guidelines are written to ensure a certain level of PI commitment, but it does come at a cost.

  • Hi Thomas

    Yes, PI commitment does come at a cost but what seems to be happening, certainly for multidisciplinary projects with numerous highly paid principal and associate investigators, is a project that doesn’t have much budget left to actually carry out the work!

    As you say, institutions not incentivised to behave any differently as they would lose income.

  • Self sufficient and sustainability don’t seem to have got a look in. Just checking my household budget, I have noticed that if we don’t spend so much on “things”, we have more money to stash away and use – well – later, and, on what might be called “more useful and dare I say, quality, things”. So, a plaintive cry for those ideas that save NZ Inc imports and thus allow the exports to increase the margin.

    You know, things like CNG, (more) electric trains, cycle ways, sustainable electricity, fertiliser (instead of shitting in the sea), cow food supplements, gas from cow shit, coordinated power metering, coordinated connections for travel to ONLY two international airports. Just for starters.

  • CNG, (more) electric trains, cycle ways, sustainable electricity, fertiliser (instead of shitting in the sea), cow food supplements, gas from cow shit, coordinated power metering, coordinated connections for travel to ONLY two international airports

    Why do you want to spend funding for scientific research on (in most cases you quote) implementing known technologies?

  • Hmmm….liquid rockets were invented in the 1930s. It took another 40 years to get to the moon. The key is cunning ways of implementing these technologies to NZ conditions. THAT could very well take a good part of 40 years unless you undetake some more research.

  • “Business as usual” rather sums it up. There is more capability in NZ than agri/aquaculture and forestry, isn’t there? Or am I dreaming?

    And Hone Harawira’s comment this morning on the ‘health’ objectives gets close to the mark – the root cause of many of NZ’s health problems is poverty. There’s not much in the objectives (or, indeed, from the large majority of our politicians) that addresses this.