27 May 2015

Questions over industry research funding

12:55 pm on 27 May 2015

The Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor is ringing alarm bells over the amount of government funding going towards industry research.

Sir Peter Gluckman.

Sir Peter Gluckman says obesity crisis will also affect Chinese and Asian communities Photo: SUPPLIED

At the Association of Scientists conference in late March, Sir Peter Gluckman said the focus of New Zealand's science funding was hindering some research.

"I think New Zealand has ended up with too much end user involvement in the contestable funding system, in the way it's set forward, which has led to much more short-termism in some of our research.

"I think it is a very deep policy issue. It is a trap you can fall into, but if you look at other small countries, they've largely managed to avoid it."

Radio New Zealand asked Sir Peter for an interview on the topic but was told he was overseas and unavailable until July.

Finding numbers that back up what Sir Peter is saying is tricky. Data from Statistics New Zealand shows that in 2014 the business sector spent double the amount the Government did on science, and significantly more than universities.

Professor Shaun Hendy, director of Te Punaha Matatini, one of the government's Centre's of Research Excellence, said the co-funding model used in New Zealand is limiting scientific research.

"If we want to diversify our economy we don't want to keep going back to the usual suspects," Professor Hendy said.

"We've already got a very, very specialised economy that's very, very dependent on dairy and I think that's been one of our struggles - that we've used co-funding as a proxy for end users.

"In other words, scientists have to go ask for funding from industry and of course it's only the same old industries that give you the funding."

Association of Scientists President Nicola Gaston said it would be possible to change that.

"The balance has shifted a lot in last few years. Probably the simplest way to correct or to shift the balance back would be to do something like double the Marsden Fund which is only about five percent of our total science spending."

The Marsden Fund is important for scientists as it is the only fund not linked to outcomes that match the country's science or economic agenda.

Gareth Hughes announcing he'll stand for co-leader of the Green Party.

Gareth Hughes Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Green Party science spokesperson Gareth Hughes said the comments from Sir Peter showed a worrying trend.

"This was also a concern by Sir Paul Callaghan that if you back a particular horse, you may be picking the wrong one.

"The way the Government has gone [about] funding the bulk of research and development has been through their growth grants where they actively pick the companies that will get the government funding," he said.

"You've seen some poor horses backed like Trans-Tasman Resources and Chatham Rock Phosphate who had incredibly controversial sea-bed mining proposals which were thrown out by National's own Environmental Protection Authority."

But Science Minister Stephen Joyce thinks the amount of industry involvement in research is a positive thing.

"It is important to keep that level quite high because what we want is a strong science and innovation ecosystem with as many clever researchers in the country as possible, because of the spin off benefits you get as people start companies.

"And attracting and growing private sector research is an important part of strengthening that ecosystem."

Mr Joyce said there was definitely not too much end-user focus, and said he would like more.

But he said it was important to continue to push for scientists to do the research that interests them as well.