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National Statement of Science Investment

Posted in Expert Reactions on May 28th, 2014.

How much money should New Zealand spend on science and who should get it?

The Government has tackled this question in a new document, the draft National Statement on Science Investment, which was launched today.

The draft Statement 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.

Click on the player below to listen to Steven Joyce’s speech at the launch of the draft statement:

The Government’s science investment will be almost $1.5 billion in 2015/16, a figure which has grown by more than 70 per cent across government since 2007/08, according to Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce.

“It’s vital our science system can respond to the unique economic, environmental and cultural challenges that New Zealand faces now and in the future,” Mr Joyce said.

“Over the next five to 10 years, the science system will be increasingly prominent as it both shapes and is shaped by an economy that is increasingly innovation-led, and New Zealanders who are more engaged with science in their daily lives than ever before.”

The Government is seeking feedback on the future direction and priorities proposed in the draft Statement, with submissions closing 22nd August 2014.

Based on a 10-year outlook, the document takes stock of performance and current and future funding for a wide range of entities in the New Zealand science system, including:

 

The SMC collected the following expert commentary on the announcement. Feel free to use these quotes in your reporting. If you would like to contact a New Zealand expert, please contact the SMC (04 499 5476; smc@sciencemediacentre.co.nz).

Prof Shaun Hendy, MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, The University of Auckland, comments:

“The draft National Statement of Science Investment is a very useful document. I would encourage everyone to take a look and provide feedback to the government about our national science spending. It fills the void left by MoRSTs Research, Science and Technology scorecards that were published regularly in the 2000s.

“One thing the document highlights for me is how little we understand our science and innovation system. ”

“Four years ago the government axed the NZ Science and Technology Post-doctoral Fellowships. Post-doctoral fellowships play a crucial role in a scientist’s training and career development. In New Zealand less than 1/3 of PhD students receive post-doctoral training before they enter the workforce, whereas in the UK it is close to 50%. This means that New Zealand businesses do not have access to the same depth of skill as their UK counterparts.

“The draft Statement of Science Investment acknowledges the importance of postdocs: “The value of postdoctoral fellowships to the science sector is that they perform the translational and interdisciplinary work in the university system that underlies and generates innovation” but at the same time it notes that “there is no consistent data on postdoctoral numbers in New Zealand”.

“The draft Statement clearly shows that greater efforts must be taken to establish the extent of the postdoc shortfall in New Zealand, which is something that the NZ Association of Scientists has been asking Minister Joyce to do for four years now.

“It is also clear that we don’t understand how our science spending produces value. While the Statement signals an “Increased Focus on the Performance of Science Investments”, it seems that MBIE believe this simply requires greater monitoring of its investments. This will not be sufficient. We need a much deeper examination of our investment decisions and their impacts, something that requires an assessment of the opportunity costs of these investments. Unfortunately, investments made through opaque funding mechanisms such as the National Science Challenges are very difficult to evaluate in this way.

“Unfortunately, at a time when government wants more bang from its buck for its science dollar, it has created funding mechanisms that make this almost impossible to achieve.

“So the Statement is good start, but much more work will be needed.”

Dr Nicola Gaston, President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists and Principal Investigator, The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, comments:

‘It is great to see the new National Statement of Science Investment being released today.  There have been a number of concerns in the scientific community about the rate of change in the science sector in recent years, as acknowledged today by Minister Joyce, and in particular the impact of new funding mechanisms on the success and validity of established funding mechanisms.  The distinction and relationship between the Centres of Research Excellence and the National Science Challenges is a particularly relevant example.  It is excellent that MBIE are starting to think about these issues.

“The major change to the science funding system that we may see was called a ‘refinement’ of the contestable funding system by the Minister today.  It is notable that in the report it is left very open ended what this may mean: focusing funds on relevant research should not come at the cost of transparency, such as we have seen with the National Science Challenge processes.  On the other hand, the importance of ‘contest’ in supporting emerging opportunities is acknowledged.  This is exactly the loss that cutting the FRST postdoctoral fellowships has meant for science in New Zealand, and we hope that this signals a new willingness to consider the merits of a nationally competitive postdoctoral funding programme.

“Minister Joyce was very explicit today that this document is out for consultation, the results of which will be left for the incoming government to deal with later this year.  I very much hope that whatever feedback is received, it is taken seriously by whatever government we then have: it is past time for us to have a broad bipartisan consensus on the importance of science funding and the transparency of its major mechanisms.  The New Zealand Association of Scientists would encourage all scientists to engage seriously with the consultation process, in the hope of putting an end to the disruptions and inefficiencies that have characterised the last few years of the science sector in New Zealand.”

Dr Siouxsie Wiles, HRC Research Fellow at the University of Auckland and winner of the Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize, comments:

“As a scientist, I welcome the National Statement of Science Investment, which is an opportunity to understand the rationale behind the government’s investment in science and how it is going to allocate that investment over the next decade.  I was pleased to see that the government wants to “attract, retain and developed talented researchers” but disappointed to see no specifics for how this would be achieved. The priority to “ensure value by focusing on relevant science with the highest potential for impact for the benefits of New Zealand” makes me nervous. It suggests that we are capable of predetermining which research will have the highest impact, whatever ‘impact’ may mean. Many huge changes come about through serendipitous findings, the precise opposite of focusing on ‘relevant’ science! Funding for such ‘blue skies research’ (mainly through the Marsden Fund) makes up less than 4% of our investment in science. With 1167 proposals to the Marsden Fund in 2013 (just 109 were funded), there are clearly no lack of good ideas. What ‘next big thing’ could we have already missed out on?

“From a more personal point of view, the statement provides much food for thought for my future career in New Zealand. The National Science Challenges will be the only fund to see an increase in investment over the next decade. On top of this, it appears that much of the Health Research Council’s funding will be moved to focus on the topics of the three health-related challenges. As someone whose research area is specifically excluded from the National Science Challenges, I do wonder how I am going to fund my research here. I work in an area recently highlighted by the World Health Organisation as of crucial importance to our future survival – averting our return to the pre-antibiotic era where a stubbed toe could result in amputation or death, and which experts predict could happen in the next decade, within the time frame of the government’s statement.”

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