Election 08: How were the science and tech issues treated?

Well it’s all over bar the voting in what has already been a momentous week.The election campaign has been interesting for its preoccupation (finally) with weighty economic issues.

But how did the science and technology – which underpin the knowledge economy we are supposed to be fostering, get treated in the election coverage?

Well, the issues in this area got more play in this election build-up than any previous election I can remember. Analysing the press coverage over the last month via Press Display, the sci-tech issue that grabbed the most headlines was the issue of funding of research and development.

R&D funding – innovators in revolt

Powering on: innovation policy and climate change have dominated the science agenda
Powering on: innovation policy and climate change have dominated the science agenda

The issue started sluggishly when National’s science policy was leaked by Labour minister Trevor Mallard early in October. At that stage National was proposing dropping the R&D tax credit introduced on April 1 from 15 per cent to 10 per cent to save $105 million per year over three years (and increasing direct funding of scientific institutions).

By the middle of the month when the extent of the global economic crisis was becoming clear, National decided to scrap the R&D tax credit completely, to save money that would be put into other Government projects.

That policy and National’s plan to scrap the $700 million primary sector-aimed Fast Forward fund, provoked strong reaction from the agricultural sector and scientists working in primary sector research.

”Australia removed its R and D tax credit because it thought people were fiddling the books. Then it reinstated it within a year because the downturn was worse that the fiddling,” Jacqueline Rowarth, Massey University’s Director of Agriculture, told the Manuwatu Standard this week.

The columns have been coming thick and fast in the agricultural trade press and the mainstream press as well, with criticism of National’s proposed R&D plans outweighing explanations of what might be proposed as an alternative. The R&D issue has received only fleeting mention in leaders’ debates – usually by Jim Anderton, who has lambasted Key for the proposed R&D tax credit cut.

Impact on the bigger election picture: moderate – National has alienated many in the innovation sector who will be horrified at the prospect of losing such subsidisation of R&D in New Zealand. National didn’t help matters by failing to properly explain what more could be achieved with its alternative scheme. The issue deserved more balanced and in-depth coverage on TV and in the press given the importance of R&D to transforming the New Zealand economy.

Lip service paid to broadband

Apart from the TVNZ internet debate held at Avalon in late September and a handy chart in the New Zealand Herald outlining the parties’ various positions on broadband, there’s been little intelligent debate of the issue of getting better quality high-speed internet access to businesses and homes.

National leader John Key is quick to mention his $1.5 billion broadband plan when asked about what he will do to boost the economy, but that’s as far as the discussion ever goes. For such a large planned investment, the level of examination of his scheme has been poor. Commentator Russell Brown deserves credit for grilling National’s ICT spokesman Maurice Williamson on the National fibre build-out figures during the TVNZ7 internet debate.

By and large however the issue of broadband has been given scant coverage in the main arena. Labour’s ICT minister David Cunliffe has been largely missing in action when in comes to broadband, missing an opportunity to highlight some of the grey areas in National’s fibre plan.

Impact on the bigger election picture: minimal National put broadband on its billboards, but it failed to make much mileage out of broadband during the election campaign, reducing the planned spend-up on a fibre network to an election slogan drawn upon regularly but never clearly articulated. Labour, knowing that its opponent’s plan was more ambitious in scope chose to steer clear of broadband and missed opportunities to question the plan’s viability. The result is that few will be voting tomorrow based on policy relating to broadband, the non-event of this election.

Climate change – heated debate

Coming off the back of the newly minted emissions trading scheme legislation, climate change was always going to be in the spotlight this election. The economic crisis only drew the issue into clearer focus as the world began to wake up to the fact that we be may well be living beyond our collective means.

At a high-level, the philosophical differences among the political leaders has driven a good deal of the emotive discussion during the debates. Prime Minister Helen Clark has gnawed away at National on this issue, implying John Key is a closet climate change denier and will dismantle the ETS. Key has said only that he will look at changing it. Rodney Hide on the other hand has labeled the legislation “dopey” and vowed to throw it out.

Unsurprisingly, the Greens have campaigned heavily on the issue of the environment and made tackling climate change a leading, if not the central issue of their campaign. The approach seems to have paid off, with the party polling well so far and winning plaudits for its simple but powerful advertising campaign.

Impact on the bigger election picture: significant many see New Zealand’s position in relation to climate change as an issue of whether we should be playing a leadership role in the world in addressing the impact of global warming or waiting for the major powers to lead the way. There is fundamental difference between the left and the right in their approach to addressing climate change, though there is general consensus that the problem needs to be tackled. While few voters will have had time to get their head around the workings of the ETS and the environmental policies of the parties, which received only scant mention early in the campaign, climate change is an emotive issue that will likely influence voting in a way never seen before.

Science education – no lessons here

Despite the timely arrival of some worrying research showing a low level if interest in science among school children, and a couple of interesting thought pieces in the papers addressing the issue, science education has barely received any airtime during the election campaign.

Broader issues, such as National’s fundamental plan to introduce school standards for reading, writing and arithmetic, have dominated the education agenda. As a result, the problems facing the country in trying to attract students into ICT and science and produce more graduates in these areas at the other end of the education cycle, have been overlooked.

Impact on the bigger election picture: minimal This issue was always a crusade without a willing army and has been drowned by the larger education issues on the agenda. But it will come back to gnaw at the next government and require urgent action that could well have been outlined better in the run up to the election.

Overall impact of science and technology issues on the election: moderateThe issue of Climate change, the ETS and the differing approaches to R&D in New Zealand have all been elevated in status by the economic crisis and that has had the effect of putting science on the agenda during in the election in a way not seen before. The result is that the issues outlined above are likely to be on the minds of a good number of voters when they enter the polling booths tomorrow.