By John Kerr 30/11/2016

A ‘big picture’ report on the New Zealand science system shows Kiwis are pretty good at publishing top-notch research and collaborating with scientists overseas, but there is room for improvement on our business R&D spending. 

sci-repThe 2016 Science and Innovation System Performance Report was released yesterday by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). The report aims to give policy-makers, academics and the public a solid steer on how the New Zealand science system is performing.

“This report provides us with a performance benchmark against other OECD countries including the other small advanced economies – Israel, Switzerland, Singapore, Finland, Ireland and Denmark,” said Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce in a media release announcing the report.

“The report increases transparency by showing how public funding for science and innovation is being invested, and it begins to give a direct line-of-sight to the benefits that funding brings for the New Zealand economy, environment and society.”

The report is the first of it’s kind and will be published annually. It was established as part of last year’s National Statement of Science Investment (NSSI) to “provide a point-in-time snapshot of the performance of science and innovation in New Zealand.” The report includes data on outputs (like publications and patents), impacts (such as changes in the economy), funding, and overall performance of science and innovation in New Zealand.

The good and the bad

According to report, New Zealand is doing well in terms of publishing in top ranked journals, international collaboration and research productivity –  providing more bang for your research funding buck.

However it’s not all good news. The reports notes a few ‘must try harder’ points: our commercial R&D spending is still relatively low and we trail behind other OECD countries in terms of patents awarded per capita. The number of graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects is also relatively low.

Check out the graphic below from the report’s snapshot summary for more detail.

science system performance
Click to enlarge. From the New Zealand Science and Innovation System Performance Snapshot, 2016.


Performance ‘decidedly mixed’

Prof Shaun Hendy, Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, keeps a close eye on the New Zealand science system. Speaking to the Science Media Centre, he gave a balanced view of the new report’s findings:

“This new report updates some of the statistics we saw in the NSSI, but for the most part takes a new approach to presenting the data that MBIE are able to access. We can expect the quality of this data to improve as the Science and Innovation domain plan is rolled out over the next few years, but for the time-being, we must make do with what we have and this should engender some scepticism in what is presented.

“Nonetheless, the data we do have paints the picture of a science and innovation system that performs well on a per dollar basis, but one that could do with further investment. Relative to the small advanced economies, our recent performance has remained decidedly mixed across a range of measures.

“While MBIE awards itself a pass mark on its goal of lifting business R&D to 1% of GDP by 2018, for instance, the data in the report provide little assurance that this is on track. Despite all the attention that business R&D has received in the last few years, it remains anaemic. This is very disappointing as it limits the long term growth of our economy.

“One statistic I track with interest is the number of post-doctoral fellowships available for early career researchers. This took a significant hit a few years ago when this government cut our national post-doctoral fellowship scheme. The numbers in this report suggest that the rest of the science and innovation system has not filled the gap left by this scheme, but at the same time this deserves further scrutiny.”

Prof John Raine, Pro Vice Chancellor of Research and Innovation at AUT, welcomed the report.

“This is a commendable and very instructive report that may be useful in guiding research and innovation funding policy developments… New Zealand does some great science research and continues to do well on international comparisons in research outputs per million dollars expended on research. We are relatively well cited in relation to our quantum of research outputs.”

He highlighted a number of  issues raised by the results, including:

“Business R&D spending has increased since 2010 in absolute dollar terms but only increasing very slightly as a percentage of GDP. This is something that we were hoping would shift significantly as a result of the Powering Innovation Review in 2011 but it seems that government initiatives to stimulate greater business R&D spending have not been particularly successful.”

“Patent filing by New Zealand is still low per million population, but similar to Australia and Ireland.”

“Efforts to increase the number of students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) higher education have had a marginal effect so far. This is a critical thing to sort out for New Zealand’s future. We need to revisit the effects of introducing the NCEA system and ensure that we have a secondary school system that retains students in maths, physics and chemistry to Year 13 and with the teaching/learning methodologies fit for purpose, taught by teachers who are well qualified to do so.”