24 Jul 2014

Science Debate

From Our Changing World, 9:34 pm on 24 July 2014

New Zealand’s science system has undergone many changes in the last few years, including the introduction of core funding for Crown Research Institutes, the creation of Callaghan Innovation, changes to the Performance-based Research Fund and the introduction of National Science Challenges.

This debate features Nicola Gaston (president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists) Alexei Drummond (professor in computational biology at the University of Auckland and founder and director of Biomatters Ltd), and Shaun Hendy (director of a new Centre of Research Excellence on complex systems, Te Pūnaha Matatini).

Ten National Science Challenges were announced last year, with the plan that three or four would start work in 2013. However, as of this week, only one challenge on high-value nutrition has been announced, while some have stalled.

Discussing the challenges, Nicola Gaston says that they were meant to encourage collaboration, but instead might have achieved the opposite.

The big criticism of the National Science Challenges you can make is that it has been not at all transparent.'

She says scientists don’t struggle to collaborate internationally because “we leave it up to the individuals to go out to find a person with the appropriate expertise for a particular project. The real issue with the National Science Challenges is this expectation that only one proposal is going to come forward from the community. That’s just not realistic.”

The Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment recently released the National Statement of Science Investment, which outlines how much money should be spend on science and where the priorities should be. The draft document describes the goal of the government’s science investment to support a system that meets “New Zealand’s economic, social, environmental and cultural needs”.  Underpinning this are seven proposed objectives:

  • producing excellent science of the highest quality;
  • ensuring value by focusing on relevant science with the highest potential for impact for the benefit of New Zealand;
  • committing to continue increasing investment over time;
  • increasing focus on sectors of future need or growth;
  • increasing the scale of industry-led research;
  • continue to implement Vision Matauranga;
  • strengthening and building international relationships to strengthen the capacity of our science system to benefit New Zealanders.

The government is now seeking feedback on the draft statement, and in this discussion the panellists explain where they think the future direction and priorities should be.

All agree that a lack of postdoctoral funding is limiting not just individual early-career scientists' options, but affects the entire science system. Shaun Hendy says New Zealand needs to urgently address this issue and also significantly increase the amount of money going into contestable funds. Apart from those priorities, he would like to see a move towards more evidence-based policy. “We need to have patience when we create a new funding mechanism, make sure that we monitor what’s going on with that funding mechanism and make small changes as we go rather than every couple of years completely reinventing the science system.”

"The most urgent matter is just funding science and research in New Zealand at a much larger fraction of GDP than we currently are," says Alexei Drummond, "if we want to be anything like an advanced economy and want to escape from this reliance on the primary industry and low-value exports."

Submissions to the National Statement of Science Investment close on 22 August 2014.