3 Jun 2020

Govt unveils $130m boost to research and innovation

2:06 pm on 3 June 2020

The government has unveiled $130 million of new spending to boost research and innovation by Crown bodies.

Dr Megan Woods taking a tour around ESR.

Dr Megan Woods taking a tour around ESR. Photo: RNZ / Harry Lock

The money is part of a $400m package, most of which was announced in the budget.

Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods said the sector was vital to rebuilding the economy in the Covid-19 recovery, by providing secure jobs, high value products and productivity growth.

"Covid has created a global economic crisis and while New Zealand is in a much better place than others to weather this and recover, we also need to make smart choices about what we want that recovery to look like," Dr Woods said in a statement.

"This funding will help secure and create jobs for New Zealanders."

The overall package includes $150m of funding for the government's research and development loan scheme designed to encourage businesses to invest in innovation; and $33m for Māori research and development opportunities.

The new spending announced today comes from the Covid-19 Response and Recovery Fund.

About $120m will be spent on the Crown Research Institutes over four years, while $10m has been announced to cover the revenue losses at Callaghan Innovation.

From the Budget, $12m has been allocated to the Nationally Significant Collections and Databases, to support custodianship of collections and databases that are of importance to New Zealand.

Academics mostly welcome new spending

In response to the announcement, academics have welcomed the funding as a positive step but added that it lacked details and was a missed opportunity.

University of Auckland associate professor Nicola Gaston said innovation would indeed help economic rebuild, but not with the current institutions in place.

"The ambitions of government, outlined in the Zero Carbon Act, require structural changes in our science system to deliver the necessary outcomes: business-as-usual investment in current institutions and funding tools alone will not be enough.

"I completely agree with the need to support the capability in our CRIs; however, it is not clear that there is a vision behind this investment for how we grow capability in the areas of future and emerging need most relevant to climate change."

Gaston, who is also co-director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, said the closed borders had an impact on the research system which has international ties.

"These issues are of far more concern than the financial impact of lost international fees for our universities, yet seem to have received almost no attention from government."

On the other hand, the investment into a fund to be co-designed with Māori was promising, she said.

Waikato University Professor Troy Baisden agreed, saying the support for Māori researchers was welcome considering they were more likely to be on temporary contracts and more vulnerable to the downturn.

Although he said the loan scheme lacked details, he added it would be critical to support business research and development.

"It will be useful to hear from businesses whether and how a loan scheme may be useful to them, particularly to enable transformations accelerated by lockdowns or the economic downturn."

Prof Baisden said the funding for new buildings for AgResearch and ESR gave the Lincoln University campus the progress it deserved after repeated business-case rethinks.

"Some researchers may question whether the support for institutions with fragile finances is fair, but few can argue that our agriculture and health research institutions shouldn't have adequate modern accommodation."

Meanwhile, the director oof the Lincoln University Bio-Protection Research Centre, which is largely government funded, said it felt as though the government had missed an opportunity to raise the basic funding to closer to the OECD average.

"The scope of the issues facing New Zealand as we reposition our economy post-COVID and move to a robust response to climate change issues will need more research depth than the currently over-competitive and underfunded system can provide," Professor Travis Glare said.

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