National Science Challenges – an insider perspective

By Elf Eldridge 02/05/2013

With the announcement yesterday of the national science challenges, it’s a blessing that I can now openly talk about being (partially) involved in the process. I’ve watched the process (and the large amount of cynicism that accompanied it almost every step of the way!) evolve and the response from researchers is, in a word – predictable. The Science Media Centre has some excellent comment from experts in the field here if you want a broad overview of New Zealand scientist’s responses.  Yet from some of the comments I do get the distinct impression that some hadn’t read anything about what the national science challenges were attempting to achieve.

It’s worth stressing, particularly for the issue of climate change and many of the others, that to be selected for inclusion scientific research HAD to be at the core of the Challenge.  Speaking personally, it was horrible to not explicitly include such a global issue as climate change, however responding to our changing climate is simply not primarily a scientific issue. Furthermore the base science behind it is well known, and has been well known for some years now. Part of the panel’s report (which can be read in full here) stresses that exclusion from a challenge does not imply that issues are not of paramount importance.

The two ‘expert’ comments I found most valuable, and interestingly two of the most negative, were from Professors Kate McGrath:

“The National Government released today the ten Challenges to revolutionize, revitalise and redress those areas that will have the most immediate impacts on societal and economic points of tension in New Zealand. Those crucial areas that right now limit our knowledge and our future potential. That essentially cost us the most; the most in immediate financial drains and ongoing future drains and boundaries to slow down or stop our growth. Why then do they feel like the same lists we have seen for years?

“The same focus and the same limited viewpoints? The same thinking that will produce the same results, where is the World After Midnight perspective? Where are the game changers? We pride ourselves on being the ingenious country, ingenuity in a closed small box won’t deliver a full and expansive tomorrow, let alone for future generations.” – Professor Kathryn McGrath

and Shaun Hendy and both from Victoria University and the MacDiarmid Institute:

“I am disappointed that the process has failed to throw up anything that is really new or innovative. The challenges chosen will look like business as usual to many, albeit with a stronger focus on health sciences that perhaps reflects the Peak Panel’s own interest in this sector. Of the 10 science challenges selected, only one really addresses one of the key economic challenges our country faces: namely the over-dependence of our economy on the primary sector.”  – Professor Shaun Hendy

I have to concede they make some excellent points – especially pointing out the fact that most of the challenges aren’t particularly ‘innovative’. On this I have to agree. I personally would have given anything to see a challenge how NZ could become a country entirely independent of fossil fuels in 15 years. Or to genetically modify seaweed as a biofuel source. Or to develop New Zealand’s technologies in the space industry.

At the core of the challenges however, were the public submissions and these sent clear messages. Whilst scientists like myself might drool over cutting edge research, when asking a human being about what they want from their scientists, their responses can hardly be seen as surprising. They want their mum’s and dad’s to live healthily for as long as possible. They want their kids to grow up healthy and with the best possible start in life. They want to preserve New Zealand’s environment and species.

To pick anything that didn’t reflect these desires would be tantamount to ignoring what people said they wanted. Can we blame the NSC process or the NZ public for the lack of ‘innovation’ in the challenges? I certainly don’t think so.  There is certainly a need for cutting edge science to push us forward – but expecting people to choose this over preserving the country and people they love is an exercise in naivete.

And this is precisely why I’m so excited about the “Science in Society” leadership challenge. Acknowledging that science has a core place in New Zealand’s future is a great first step – but it is my hope that it will also allow scope to develop New Zealand as a nation that embraces science. We cannot expect to attract and retain world-class researchers and students to NZ unless we’re actively involved in innovative, cutting edge science. Yet we have seen people* will not select these as topics of national importance if given the choice. This challenge will allow us space to explore this relationship, as well as to improve the quality of our science education.  And as a graduate going out into the world, getting to pick which country I work in – a country that explicitly states the importance of science in its society is a much more attractive proposition than many others.

So I guess now it’s up to scientists to ensure that NZ lives up to this challenge, and it will be our fault if “Science in Society” ends up becoming just political hot air.


* when I say ‘people’  here, I actually mean the subset that participated in the National Science Challenges submission process. Which is different to the NZ public in general.

0 Responses to “National Science Challenges – an insider perspective”

  • Elf,

    Great to have an “insiders perspective”. It is very easy for people (like me) to criticise the report, but a good question might be for them to describe what THEY think is missing.

    Looking at the report a couple of things spring to mind.

    First, scientists are already very adept at tailoring their pet projects to “fit” into different funding priorities and looking at the diverse range of the challenges, I can’t imagine there is much research that falls outside these categories, though Siouxsie does make a good point that by specifcally talking about non-communicable disease, they have left out a significant area of medical research. I guess the devil may be in details I haven’t yet picked up on.

    The other thing is that how do you define something that is beneficial to NZ or not? For example, a major breakthrough in water renewable/non-polluting energy sources or in producing clean water could provide significant benefits to our economy (through patents etc) even if we do not need the technology as badly as others around the world. Or would such technology not be considered viable due to our poor record of being able to patent breakthorugh technologies in NZ?

    Also, I dont quite understand what comes next now that the 12 challenges have been established. How much money will be assigned to each challenge? When and how will people submit projects which fit under each challenge? What will the process be?

    • Michael – I’d love to give you more details on the ‘next steps’ but unfortunately I’m not able to discuss that particular part yet and (truth be told) I don’t know that much more than anyone else. I suggest asking Sir Peter on his lecture tour next week if you get a chance.

      As for the ‘definition of things beneficial to NZ’ – obviously this picking winners approach is rife with issues (discussed in detail by Shaun Hendy over at Measure of Science). Again I need to point out that the omissions of certain area from the challenges does NOT mean they are unimportant or that they will not be funded in the future (fitting the entire research scope of a country into 10 bite-sized chunks is ludicurous!). That said, New Zealand does have some obvious characteristic features such as our dependance on argiculture, our public’s attiude towards conservation and our youth suicide rate and I believe the challenges are reasonably well tied to those. I should also point out that AT THE MINISTER’S SUGGESTION the challenges weren’t about benefits purely in financial terms to NZ. Some of the challenges (the technological innovation one springs to mind) are linked closely to economic growth whereas many others (Southern Ocean and Antartica etc) look simply to generate more knowledge about the complex world around us, but that are particularly relevant to NZ.

      One would hope that scientists of all people can appreciate the benefits of generating knowledge – even if we can’t place a dollar value on them.

  • You say that the panel couldn’t ignore the suggestions of the “public”, Didn’t the fact that your group has suggested, nay, demanded an 11th challenge on “Science in Society,” indicate to you that the “public” may not be in the best position to suggest where most/some of the 10 Challenges might be aimed at? It makes an interesting conundrum.

    • Good point Ross – it is an interesting conundrum! I agree that the public may not always be the best people to inform the direction of science. But that wasn’t the purpose of the NSC. It was to establish what NZers wanted researched, what they value, and what they think that science is able to provide them. If we want public support for other research – then I think we have to get better at explaining its value to politicians and the public – hence the Science in Society challenge.

  • “So I guess now it’s up to scientists to ensure that NZ lives up to this challenge”.

    I think it’s up to a lot more than the scientists – it’s up to the public, and the private and political sectors, to support rather than hinder scientists in their attempt to make good on the challenge. Because if things aren’t achieved, it’ll likely be the scientists who get the blame, even if they may well not have been the cause of the failure…

    • Perhaps – but we can hardly expect the portion of the public that ISN’T interested in science to spontaneously support the uptake of science into society. We (sciencey people in general – not just scientists) have the most to gain from this, but also the most to lose so surely we should take some responsibility to make this challenge OUR baby?

  • I would also have like to have seen one or two concrete goals (as in, specific outcomes within a specific timeframe) to work towards 🙂

  • Elf, the minister said yesterday something to the effect that the money won’t be split equally between those 10 challenges – that, effectively, a few compelling ones could suck up the bulk of the funding – was there much discussion among the panel about how to manage this – prevent it from being captured by some well-organised and motivated scientists in particular areas?

    • I certainly wouldn’t expect the funds to be evenly distriuted betwen challenges – some are clearly different sizes. Whilst the panel raised concerns about how the funds were to be ametised out, we didn’t have the liberty of deciding which challenge would get what. I guess we will all have to wait on the Minister to see how things will develop from here. Sorry I can’t shed more light on the matter.

  • Thank you Elf. Very much appreciated the post – not to mention the effort you made to get involved.
    Peter & Elf on the distribution of funds have a look at the graph on section 36 of the Cabinet paper
    It suggests, by my calcs, 72.5% of govt contestable and CRI funding is currently in these Challenge areas. The new funding will take that to 78%. The graph also illustrates that there is considerable heterogeniety in the split between Challenges.

  • Having now read the Peak Panel’s report and recommendations, I feel that perhaps the proper way to look at the challenges, and this is what I and I think many others are struggling with, is as the vox populi objectives they were very openly made out to be, and of almost no consequence to most of the exciting scientific research that is starved for resources in NZ. I can’t otherwise rationalise all of physics (and possibly chemistry) being relegated to serving objectives that are rather more engineering and design than scientific, such as making agricultural machines or medical tools using existing materials and well-understood principles. Sure, that’s a valid use for the physical sciences, but far from the only one, and certainly not the use that inspires most of we physical scientists to our discoveries and inventions.

    As long as this is only an _additional_ piece of science support from the government, those of us disappointed at the scope may just have to say ‘well, it was never about the science we do anyway’, and keep trying to convince the NZ public and government that this science-challenges sort of science can only have a chance of success if more fundamental or novel work is supported better as well, to improve the base from which scientific developments can be turned into outcomes for the country and the world.

    BUT, I do remember some talk months ago about how the challenges would grow to ‘capture’ more of the existing science funding. Now if that is true we have a serious reason to be concerned about the choices of the challenges. The $133.5 million allocated for now is, from all I have heard, new funding, so isn’t at the expense of any of the top science work being done already. HOWEVER, if the challenges start to cannibalise the support for what’s already going on – then the criticism will be very much warranted.

  • A colleague has sent this to me. Big Science – Newsweek,

    “In a Big Science project, teams with rival proposals spar publicly, forcing all the boffins to articulate their assumptions, justify their choices and learn enough about their rivals’ ideas to criticise them at length. One engineer who had left industry to join CERN was bemused, recalls Mr Türtscher, when he told his physicist colleagues that a cooling system could not be made any smaller and they had the temerity to ask, “Why?” (On closer inspection it turned out that the device could be shrunk by a fifth.) The natural inclination of scientists to challenge authority is given free rein in a big collaboration because individuals are ultimately accountable to (and paid by) their parent institutions. This explains why experiments have “spokesmen”, not managers.”

  • A somewhat late comment, since we only got to hear Prof. Sir Peter on Monday.
    For me two things strike me – the first is the challenges feel as though they lack ambition. That is in part because there really isn’t much money in each challenge per year. But I also get a sense that somehow we (the public, the scientists, the panel and the politicians) are a little scared of any really ambitious goal. The challenges all have very little risk of definable failure. Which brings me to the second point …
    The real test of the challenges will be in the measures of success. Improving the wellbeing of the aged is a worthy but nebulous goal. It very much depends of the definitions of wellbeing and improvement. Increasing productivity while reducing environmental impact and water use could be defined trivially or defined as a huge transformation of our primary industries.
    It will very much depend on exactly what the measures of success are defined as being. They could be big challenges and hence more exciting – with a real risk of failing to meet those measures. Or they could be nebulous humdrum measures that bury the challenges in amongst all our other funding.

  • (Comment posted on behalf of Frederick)


    I am underwhelmed by the government’s announcements so far
    (disclaimer: I made two submissions; one under the science sector and one under
    the public campaign AKA “The Great NZ Science Project website”).

    This from an extensive Press Release

    “223 eligible submissions were received from the science and
    research sector. The public campaign resulted in 138 submissions and 616 ideas
    and comments discussing the submitted challenges posted to the Challenges
    websites. By the end of January the Great NZ Science Project website had
    received 34,908 unique visitors. A Facebook page received approximately 15,000
    followers by the end of January, indicating a high level of public interest in
    the Challenges.”

    It is hard to fathom that such number of public submissions
    & ideas is used to explain (justify?) the outcome and the direction the
    process seems to be taken. It is also hard to believe that none of the
    submissions from the science sector appeared to contain even a seed of
    innovative research proposal or idea. In an e-mail (from domain!) I
    was told that the 223 submissions would be released to the public (without the
    name(s) of submitters and any confidential information) and I was looking
    forward to having a close look at what NZ scientists at large have proposed. I
    have yet to see the full release though.

    Engagement by the public is one thing but in the end it is
    the science and research sector that will have to have to do the actual ‘heavy
    lifting’. The devil will be in the detail and actual information is scant, a
    situation reminiscent of Callaghan Innovation.

    This week the results of the preliminary round of proposals
    to the Marsden Fund will be announced so please forgive me if I sound a little