7 Dec 2022

Science system reform needed to tackle environmental challenges - Verrall

9:56 am on 7 December 2022
Labour MP Dr Ayesha Verrall

Dr Ayesha Verrall has unveiled a white paper on the reshaping of the Research, Science and Innovation system. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

A reform of the country's science system is needed to tackle the big environmental challenges, says Research, Science and Innovation Minister Ayesha Verrall.

The minister has unveiled a white paper on a reshaping of the science sector, which proposes a funding boost for scientific research and innovation by more than $1 billion by 2030.

Current expenditure on scientific research is 1.6 of GDP, and will increase to 2 percent between 2023 and 2030.

The funding will go towards government research priorities, such as climate change.

Verrall told Morning Report the government needed to ensure its science funding was future focused on issues such as climate change, environmental degradation and complex health and social problems.

New Zealand already had a system for setting science priorities which were directed through things like the national science challenges and the Crown research institutes, she said.

"What I'm saying though is we are not focused enough in that space to really operate at scale required to address big challenges like climate change."

National science challenges were set to wind up at the end of 2023/24 and at that point, a stocktake would be needed to see how to better focus on big challenges, she said.

"There have been notable important things left out in the mechanism we use to set national science challenges, and climate change is such an important threat not just in terms of understanding the science of it but also in terms of transitioning our economy."

There needed to be a balance between "blue skies" research and the ability to drive research towards incredibly important missions, she said.

People would still be able to apply to funds such as Marsden and the Health Research Council for funding to investigate science issues, she said.

"So that ability for someone who's got a good idea to apply for government funding to test it will still be there, it'll still be a really important part of our system."

The government was working through how to ensure that funding went to issues that mattered, whilst ensuring that individual interests could not hold too bigger sway, she said.

Verrall said she believed it was possible for political parties to reach a level of consensus about what the science priorities were by and large.

Reaction to white paper

Cawthron Institute chief executive Volker Kuntzsch told the Science Media Centre the institute was strongly supportive of some of the proposed changes.

The institute particularly supported greater investment, the development of a Te Tiriti o Waitangi statement, and a move to mission-led science that directed resources towards research which would achieve the broadest social, cultural, environmental and economic benefits, Kuntzsch said.

However, the devil would be in the detail and "how these aspirations will be achieved is almost as important as the aspirations themselves", he said.

Toha Science chief science officer professor Shaun Hendy said the Covid-19 pandemic showed the best of the current Research, Science and Innovation (RSI) system, but it also revealed areas of weakness such as its poor responsiveness to Māori, and the precarity of early-career researchers.

The Future Pathways white paper signals a new positive direction for RSI and if the government could follow through with the funding to support the many new initiatives proposed in the paper then change could be transformative, Hendy said.

MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology co-direction professor Nicola Gaston said the white paper correctly raised the need for more funding, particularly the need for "higher investment in Māori research (done by and for Māori)".

But the key uncertainty was what the national research priorities would be and how they would be chosen, Gaston said.

Gaston said she supported the white paper's proposed direction of change but the challenge would be in its implementation.

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