What do you get when you cross dozens of New Zealand’s best scientists with a myriad of Ministry officials? The answer is the underwhelming reports from the 10 June workshops of the National Science Challenges. If every there was need for proof that science by committee does not work, here it is. Each report consists of a series of power point slides with dot points. About 3 slides for each challenge pertain to confirming or changing the pre-workshop goals/themes (yes there were pre-workshop meetings in May to get these together), and then about 4 or 5 slides on “Indicative research programs.” These handful of slides were the output of on average 44 people per group consisting of scientists, industry or other “user group” representatives, and ministry representatives. The people I know who attended a workshop were senior and very very competent people. The problem is not the people, but the process. I saw nothing in the reports to inspire, and nothing that couldn’t have been cobbled together by one person after receiving emails with suggestions. Most of the “indicative research programs” were simply restatements of the obvious questions in the field. There was no meat. There was only one concrete proposal (High Value Nutrition proposed establishing a “Biomarker Centre”).
Recall that the 10 challenges will have $133.5M to spend over 4 years, about $3.34M per challenge per year. The June meeting, I estimate, just cost about $0.5M in salaries for the day, overheads on those salaries, travel etc. For $0.5M we have been given about 60 power point slides most of which could have been reproduced in half an hour or so by one or two of the scientists from each group – “Mr Speaker, would the Minister of MBIE please explain why one power point slide costs $8,300?” Indeed, I have no doubt if the $3.34M was used to support half a dozen scientists and they were told – here’s the field (name of the challenge), you have $3.34M for each of the next 4 years, do some good science for the country in this field, – then it would be done. Furthermore, the outcome would be at least, if not more, valuable than any multitude of small projects that are likely to emerge from the June workshops (but only after much more time and $ has been spent on more meetings, development of requests for proposals and a grant funding process that will take up many more millions and waste time for 90+% of the applicants; much as what happens now with other government funding models). The Great Science Challenge for New Zealand is not how to define the projects, but how to provide long term sustainable funds for scientists who already know the projects.