Kate McGrath: Let’s get science moving progressively

New Zealand Association of Scientists President Kathryn McGrath on Dr Peter Gluckman’s maiden speech in his new capacity as Chief Science Advisor.

Science should be a great career choice and scientists have much to contribute to New Zealand’s future prosperity – pity about the low morale, resulting from past promotion of aggressive competition between research providers, and the instability of scientist career structures!

But the future looks brighter, with the National government offering potential leadership for science in the form of the position of Chief Science Advisor.  Prof. Peter Gluckman’s new role (albeit only part-time) demonstrates that the government wants quality, evidence-based, scientific advice for its economic, social and environmental management of this country – not from a single individual but from Prof. Gluckman’s leadership position amongst the science community.

At last there appears to be the long-requested point of engagement between New Zealand science and government decision-making, led by a highly respected and consultative science researcher.

The NZ Association of Scientists applauds Prof. Gluckman’s appointment.  Our membership from throughout the NZ science community is keen to work with him to see science optimally benefit this country and to encourage a highly motivated and productive science workforce of creative and skilled minds.  We need to also continue to be engaged with the community (public and students) and with industry, offering the example to the younger generation that science is both a rewarding and stimulating career choice.

Currently, there’s a way to go to achieve this.  We start from behind, with NZ levels of funding for science by both government and business well below levels in comparable OECD countries.  We also have laboured under a science funding system characterized by constant and destabilising meddling and experimentation.  That system has worn away at the “NZ Inc” ethics of most scientists, who are attracted to collaborate to produce better science. Instead, the present system fosters competition amongst distinctly separate institutions, not just for funding but for each scientist’s job.

The Labour government eventually saw some of the futility of this ethos, and introduced the “More Stable Funding Environment”.  Unfortunately, the directive belies the reality, with funding results issued just last week by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FRST) again leaving a trail of winners and losers.  As an example, a group of scientists funded up to 30 Sept. will lose almost 90% of their existing $2 m p.a. funding from 1 Oct.  “No money, no job” (i.e. redundancies) is the harsh reality of ill-conceived science funding decisions in NZ.  At huge cost in “research” time these scientists prepared seven bids for funding, all of which passed the initial “concept” assessment, then to find that six bids were funded zero.

As a nation we spend valuable taxpayers money training the precious few students who opt for a career in science, and try to recruit others from overseas, and then dump specialists randomly by an opaque and sometimes seemingly random funding structure.  Can we not instead incorporate the best from proven science funding systems operated overseas, and dispense with this demoralising waste of NZ’s talent?

We look to the future, however, with a renewed sense of optimism.  We hope that Peter Gluckman will continue as he has started to articulate the contribution of science for our country’s future, and that his message will be clearly heard and acted upon by the Prime Minister and Cabinet, not just in answer to their own questions.  The science community is a group of passionate, skilled, and creative people able to contribute so much to New Zealand, if only government and management structures can maximize output rather than destabilise and diminish morale.