How much should NZ spend on science and what kind of science? YOUR input needed!

By Siouxsie Wiles 03/06/2014 2

Last week saw Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce release the National Statement on Scientific Investment, a lengthy document outlining how funding should be spent on science in NZ over the next decade. You can download the draft statement from here. The government have asked for feedback and we have until the 22nd August to give it.

If you are a scientist working in NZ, a student who wants to be a scientist in NZ or a Kiwi working overseas who wants to return to NZ in the next decade, I urge you to read the document and send feedback. This is the science funding system that we will inherit (if we survive..) and we have to engage NOW!

The government has seven objectives for it’s investment in science, which it lists as:
1. Producing excellent science of the highest quality; (this really should go without saying)
2. Ensuring value by focusing on relevant science with the highest potential for impact for the benefit of New Zealand; (Ah, politicians. Relevant science? Impact? By whose definition?!)
3. Committing to continue increasing investment over time; (Good to hear!)
4. Increasing focus on sectors of future need or growth; (Again, who defines this?)
5. Increasing the scale of industry-led research;
6. Continue to implement Vision Mᾱtauranga; (Wouldn’t have expected any less)
7. Strengthening and building international relationships to strengthen the capacity of our science system to benefit New Zealanders. (Most of us are pretty well connected)

In the Statement, science in NZ is divided into 3 categories (with current rough yearly investment) [SEE CHART 1, Page 14]:
1. Investigator-led science defined as science of which the value “can be significant but may not always be clear at the outset”; ($102M + some share of $300M PBRF)
2. Mission-led science defined as science which may require scale, or which business may not be incentivised to invest in; ($548M + remaining share of $300M PBRF)
3. Industry-led science in which the government sees it’s role as to “encourage” ($284M).

Those categories then allocate money using three different funding systems (with current rough yearly investment) [SEE CHART 1, Page 14]:
1. Contestable (Marsden Fund [$52M], Health Research Council [HRC, $77M], MBIE [$189M], Business R&D [$141M] and Primary Growth Partnership [$65M])
2. Collaborative (Centre’s of Research Excellence [CoREs, $50M], National Science Challenges [NSC, $127M])
3. Institutional (eg the Performance Based Research Fund [PBRF, $300M], the Crown Research Institutes [CRIs, $137M] and Callaghan Innovation [$78M])

The Statement goes through each funding scheme in turn, explaining what the government’s rationale is for the future of each scheme. The Table on Page 18 shows how the government proposes to allocate its investment for each scheme over the next decade. The NSC’s are the only scheme that the government proposes to increase spending on, from $46.6M in 2014/2015 to $79.6M in 2023/2024. Everything else either stays static or decreases.

Priority number 2 to “ensure value by focusing on relevant science with the highest potential for impact for the benefits of New Zealand” makes me nervous. It suggests that we are capable of predetermining which research will have the highest impact, whatever ‘impact’ may mean. Many huge changes come about through serendipitous findings, the precise opposite of focusing on ‘relevant’ science! Funding for such ‘blue skies research’ (mainly through the Marsden Fund) makes up less than 4% of our investment in science. With 1167 proposals to the Marsden Fund in 2013, there are clearly no lack of good ideas. But with only 109 of those proposals funded, what ‘next big thing’ could we have already missed out on?

The government also says that it wants to “attract, retain and developed talented researchers” and has allocated $11.6M a year for this, with $533,000 to be spent on sending graduates to the USA to do their Masters or PhD (Fullbrights), $8M for the Rutherford Discovery Fellows, $1M for the Rutherford Foundation and $700,000 for the James Cook Fellowships. This statement from page 69 is interesting:

“There is no consistent data on postdoctoral numbers in New Zealand although it is possible to point to an increase in the number of doctoral graduates in New Zealand.”

Does it sound to you like the government might be assuming that the increase in successful PhDs means we have more postdocs?! Unemployed, maybe!

From a personal point of view, the Statement provides much food for thought for my future career in New Zealand. It appears from Page 41 that much of the Health Research Council’s funding will be moved to focus on the topics of the three health-related National Science Challenges. As someone whose research area is specifically excluded from the NSCs, I’m left wondering how I am going to fund my research here and whether I’m going to be forced to move back overseas. The UK have just added averting the coming antibiotic resistance apocalypse as a priority area for the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and as one of the 6 challenges currently being voted on by the British public to become the focus of the $20M Longitude Prize 2014.

I guess the government’s response would be that I should change what I work on to align with their idea of “relevant” science. Apart from being a massive waste of the investment already poured into my career to date, I work in an area that without drastic action could see a massive change in our way of life in the next decade – the very time frame of the government’s Statement.

2 Responses to “How much should NZ spend on science and what kind of science? YOUR input needed!”

  • Regular reader of all things sciblog, first time poster. It’s a bit of a digression but you got me thinking about this article
    and I was wondering what people here thought about the points it brought up with respects to Scientific/RnD funding (of ‘relevant’ science) leading to commercial benefits from patents. And for extra credit, how would you address some of the comments made below the article.

  • “Potential impact” I fear, means greatest economic potential. Population health, health sociology and health sciences will all have positive societal impacts, but not equate to an immediate economic impact (although arguments can be made for long term savings associated with a healthier population).
    Investment in mining and agricultural research I predict.