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.