8 Oct 2015

How best to invest in science

From Our Changing World, 9:20 pm on 8 October 2015

We should fund research.
But trying to choose the best
Doesn't work too well.

Haiku summary of a Motu research project evaluating the Marsden Fund

This week, the government released its science funding strategy, setting out a long-term vision for the science system and a guide for future investments.

The National Statement of Science Investment (NSSI) lays out several key goals:  to simplify contestable funding processes, to review the core funding for Crown Research Institutes, to “refresh” the Health Research Council and to introduce annual performance reports evaluating the science system.

At the NSSI launch, science minister Steven Joyce also stressed the government’s intention to increase public funding of science. “We have made a commitment to grow our investment in science further to 0.8 per cent of GDP and include more ideas-led discovery research, which is likely to generate substantial long-term benefits for New Zealand.”

Motu director Adam Jaffe

Motu director Adam Jaffe Photo: Stephen A’Court

New Zealand spends less money on research, relative to its size, than many other countries in the OECD, and the government’s goal of expanding public funding of science would narrow this gap. But the intention comes with the caveat that it would require a balanced budget.

Adam Jaffe, the director of Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, says raising public investment from about 0.5 per cent of GDP currently to 0.8 per cent would be significant, but it should not hinge on favourable fiscal conditions.

That caveat means that we don’t quite know if or when it’s going to happen. The current government seems quite focused on balancing the budget so the money would have to come from somewhere else. What’s unfortunate about that is that the evidence both internationally and to some extend from New Zealand is that the return on an increased investment in science would be very beneficial for New Zealand.
Adam Jaffe, Motu

He says conditioning the goal on achieving a budget surplus doesn’t make sense from an economic perspective.“If the return is high you’d like to make that investment even if you have to borrow money to do it because the return is going to be there.”

Adam Jaffe says he is not advocating a crash programme because the science system could not support that, but he would like to see a commitment to a long-term gradual increase. “Something like 5 per cent over inflation per year for the next 10 years, that would be the kind of programme that would build the infrastructure and the science system that we need in New Zealand.”

Nicola Gaston, the president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists and a principal investigator at the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, welcomes the NSSI as a great improvement on the draft document which was released a year ago.

“Some of the recommendations made by the NZ Association of Scientists (as well, no doubt, as by others) appear to have been taken seriously: this is reflected, for example, in the stated intent to increase levels of investigator-led funding both through the Marsden Fund and through MBIE mechanisms.”

But she says nothing has been done to address the severe shortage of postdoctoral fellowships in New Zealand.

Shaun Hendy, the director of Te Punaha Matatini, echoes the concerns.

“This government cut 90 post-doctoral fellowships in 2010 after officials made a simple mathematical error in a briefing document to the then minister, Wayne Mapp. The draft Statement mentioned post-doctoral fellowships 10 times, and sector submissions made more than 50 mentions of their concerns about a lack of funding for postdocs. Yet this final cut fails to mention postdoctoral fellows at all. This is really very disappointing.”

He says he’s found little new thinking or new policy in the NSSI document.

The priorities still seem to lie principally in seeing science as a route to economic growth, with the nods to health and environmental research focussing on how they too can help grow the economy.
Shaun Hendy, Te Punaha Matatini

Adam Jaffe welcomes the intention to improve evaluation and performance measurement in the science sector. Last week, Motu released a study that evaluated the efficacy of the Marsden Fund and found that grant recipients clearly benefit.

“We find that funding is associated with a significant increase in researchers’ scientific output and the apparent impact of their output as measured by subsequent citation.”

However, another result of the study shows that the selection process, in which expert panels rank the proposals, is not predictive of subsequent success, which implies that if the unfunded projects could have been funded, the benefit wold have been as great as for the projects that were actually funded.

“This means there is no reason to expect diminishing returns if Marsden funding were increased.”