National Science Challenges unveiled – Experts respond

UPDATED 11.00 AM, MAY 3: The Government this week announced the ten areas that have been selected for special focus and additional funding as New Zealand’s National Science Challenges.

Science ChallengesThe National Science Challenges are a new initiative to tackle the most important science-based issues and opportunities facing New Zealand by targeting a series of goals to focus future public science investment. The Government today committed $73.5 million in funding for the Challenges over four years, in addition to the $60 million already allocated to the project.

You can read an official media release on the Challenges here.

The ten research areas identified as New Zealand’s first National Science Challenges are:

  • Aging well – harnessing science to sustain health and wellbeing into the later years of life
  • A better start – improving the potential of young New Zealanders to have a healthy and successful life
  • Healthier lives – research to reduce the burden of major New Zealand health problems
  • High value nutrition – developing high value foods with validated health benefits
  • New Zealand’s biological heritage – protecting and managing our biodiversity, improving our biosecurity, and enhancing our resilience to harmful organisms
  • Our land and water – Research to enhance primary sector production and productivity while maintaining and improving our land and water quality for future generations
  • Life in a changing ocean – understanding how we can exploit our marine resources within environmental and biological constraints
  • The Deep South – understanding the role of the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean in determining our climate and our future environment
  • Science for technological innovation – enhancing the capacity of New Zealand to use physical and engineering sciences for economic growth
  • Resilience to nature’s challenges – research into enhancing our resilience to natural disasters

More details on each of the challenges can be found in the report produced by the National Science Challenges Panel chaired by Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, available here (pdf).

Background documents, including a Q&A, can be found here. Audio from a Science Media Centre press conference with Minister Joyce and Sir Peter can be accessed here.

The Science Media Centre has collected expert reaction from researchers and science leaders across the sector. 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;

Further commentary will be added to the SMC website as received.

Dr Victoria Metcalf, Lecturer in Animal Genetics, Lincoln University, comments:

“The results of the Science Challenges are welcomed. They provide little in the way of surprises with four of the ten Challenges centred on human health, a focus on biodiversity, improving primary productivity and mitigating risk of natural hazards. It’s great to see such a strong focus on understanding the marine realm and Antarctica.

“However, it is puzzling that climate change, which is the greatest issue that faces us worldwide, is not explicitly mentioned.

“Furthermore, it is alarming that the Challenge ‘Life in a changing ocean’ specifically has the goal to ‘exploit our marine richness’, albeit with caveats of “within environmental and biological constraints”, a poor choice of word with all its negative connotations (“to use selfishly for one’s own ends”), rather than the softer and more sustainably inclined ‘utilise’.

“Many would argue that ‘richness’ is not a concept that still applies to the marine realm. Fisheries worldwide, for example, are on the brink of collapse. We would seldom think of ‘exploiting’ our land-based environments these days as it meets such marked opposition and is not in line with our clean, green image. It’s time we got serious and applied similar philosophies to our oceans. How we incorporate that into the research done for the Science Challenges may depend on the full engagement of the community, scientists or otherwise.”

Rob Fenwick, Chairman of Antarctica New Zealand and New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute (NZARI), comments:

“This is a very exciting time for New Zealand and Antarctic Science.  In June we are holding the first joint conference with the Australian Antarctic Division which is aptly titled “Strategic Science in Antarctica” and will focus on encouraging and showcasing collaborative science and the inherent benefits it brings to answering the big science questions in Antarctica and ultimately equip New Zealanders to cope and respond to the changes the white Continent will cause.”

Prof Bruce Clarkson, Dean, Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Waikato, comments:

“Any increase in science funding is welcome and this is a significant increase. I will be interested to see what processes will be adopted to ensure the best research teams in New Zealand are formed regardless which research provider employs them.  I am also interested in how the funds might support new and emerging researchers to ensure a viable future for New Zealand science. Sir Peter Gluckman’s comment about reducing competition and enhancing collaborative approaches is strongly supported.  I recommend the sandpit processes being employed by MBIE for the current environment portfolio funding round as a suitable method to help achieve these goals. ”

Prof Paul Moughan, Director, Riddet Institue, comments:

“The challenges seem to be relevant and to have been well chosen. The idea of breaking down silos, both organisational and disciplinary, is very important for New Zealand.The succsess of the challenges will now come down to inspired leadership in the various areas and ensuring that groups do genuinely work together.”

Liggins Institute Director, Professor Wayne Cutfield, comments:

“The science underpinning good health throughout the lifespan is a feature of the science challenges. We welcome the recognition in Challenge 2 – A better start, that investing in improving the health, education and wellbeing of our mothers, children and young people will have long term benefits to society. This is an area in which the Liggins is actively engaged at present.

“In challenge 4 – Research to develop high value foods with health benefits, there is an exciting opportunity to draw together academic and industry expertise across New Zealand in developing a world-class, virtual centre to evaluate food for health. Providing robust scientific evidence to support health food claims will benefit local industry reputation and sales, and consumers who will be better informed. Such a centre would be unique in this part of the world and could become a regional hub in the evaluation of high value foods for health, bringing with it additional economic benefits. In recent years the Liggins Institute has rapidly expanded laboratory and clinical research in this domain.”

Professor Richard Bedford, Pro Vice Chancellor (Research), Auckland University of Technology, comments:

“As a social scientist I was delighted to see the top three national science challenges feature the people of Aotearoa/New Zealand. This surprised me — in other lists like this people are often the subtext rather than the substance of the challenges. The “health” of our society, in the broadest meaning of “health”, merits very significant attention from researchers. Hopefully the investment processes that will be associated with resourcing the science that will address these challenges will ensure that a rich diversity of perspectives on and voices addressing the health and wellbeing of our people can be fully reflected in the research.”

Professor Kathryn McGrath, Director, MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, comments:

“The National Government released today the ten Challenges to revolutionize, revitalise and redress those areas that will have the most immediate impacts on societal and economic points of tension in New Zealand. Those crucial areas that right now limit our knowledge and our future potential. That essentially cost us the most; the most in immediate financial drains and ongoing future drains and boundaries to slow down or stop our growth. Why then do they feel like the same lists we have seen for years?

“The same focus and the same limited viewpoints? The same thinking that will produce the same results, where is the World After Midnight perspective? Where are the game changers? We pride ourselves on being the ingenious country, ingenuity in a closed small box won’t deliver a full and expansive tomorrow, let alone for future generations.”

Professor Glenn McGregor, Chair of Climatology, School of Environment, University of Auckland, comments:

“It is somewhat gratifying that the Government put in place a process for identifying some of the science challenges we face as a nation. It is perhaps no surprise that health and economic development are two broad areas that encapsulate the majority of the specific challenges. While a healthy and properous nation is an aspiration that we would like to achieve as a nation, I feel the role that the broader environment (biophysical, social, cultural) will play in achieving this goal has been missed in the challenges, especially the identification of environmental standards and limits within which development can be achieved. This applies especially to any exploitation of mineral resources and of course land based production systems.

“Further, I think the challenge of climate and environmental change is more implicit than explicit. Climate change is buried in the Deep South challenge but processes in the wider climate system beyond the Antarctic and Southern Ocean will drive climate related change in NZ over the next century. One of our biggest challenges is “how do we power the nation” yet this does not come through in any of the challenges in the form of the science of alternative/renewable energy. Lastly a big fat but absent question relates to capacity, that is how do we train the next generation of “scientists” to respond to the identified challenges?”

Professor Jenny Webster-Brown, Director, Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management, University of Canterbury and Lincoln University, comments:

“It is really good to see New Zealand seeking to focus its limited scientific resources and funding on issues that are of key concern to this country. “Our Land and Water” is a challenge that recognises that if our reliance on primary sector production is to continue, then significant technological advances need to be made to improve land- and water use efficiency and reduce environmental impacts. Many countries are seeking to strike a balance between economic growth and environmental conservation, but their answers are unlikely to deliver what New Zealand needs, given the unique values and marketing advantages of our natural environment. A high investment in agricultural and environmental science research is critical, if we are to find our own balance and set the bar high enough to preserve what we value most about New Zealand.”

Dr Kelvin Berryman, Manager: Natural Hazards Research Platform, GNS Science comments:

“From a hazards platform perspective we are very pleased that natural hazard quantification and risk management has been identified as a national science challenge. Further effort in researching and communicating hazard impacts and options for mitigation can bring about further significant benefits to New Zealand’s resilience in social, economic and infrastructure areas.

“We look forward to further discussion with MBIE officials and the peak panel to refine the research plan and will also be working with our stakeholders across New Zealand, and more widely, to bring maximum benefit from the research. The next step on this path is the Platform’s stakeholder workshop to be held in Wellington on 14th May when we expect about 150 participants from our stakeholder community to help formulate the research directions and identify opportunities to convert research results into a basis for evidence-based policy, and natural hazard risk treatment.”

Dr. Mike Joy, Senior Lecturer; Environmental Science/Ecology, Ecology group Institute of Agriculture and Environment, Massey University comments (on challenge 6):

“The answers from the panel all seem to hinge on developing new technology and nothing about the fact that the key to sustainable production is returning to natural cycles like nutrient and hydrological cycles that have sustained life on this planet for millennia.

“The unequivocal fact that farming intensification has driven major declines in freshwater ecosystems nationally and internationally seems to have been completely ignored.  No mention of the value of reducing farming intensity and its reliance on fossil fuels for producing fertiliser as well as the importance adding value to products instead of simply producing more low value commodities.  The response to challenge six appears to me to have completely missed the point.   In the face of the obvious reality that the key to our future economic security is our clean green image both for marketing our primary products and for tourism hoping against hope for technological solutions seems very politically and not reality driven”.

Professor Richard Blaikie, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Enterprise, University of Otago, comments:

“The Government are to be commended for the 10 National Science Challenges announced today, and for committing significant new funding to support these over the next four years.  Important areas in health, society, environment and economy are identified and, as one of New Zealand’s leading research organisations, teams and individuals across all our academic divisions will play significant roles in many of these . . . we are up for the Challenges!

“There are no major surprises, nor do the 10 Challenges cover all important research worthy of public support, which is made clear in the report. It is good to see recommendations to incorporate strong and appropriate social science research into the Challenges are they are developed.

“Bringing a special Challenge on ‘Science and Society’ to the Government’s attention, and seeking Government leadership in this area is also a very interesting development. Stronger, bidirectional engagement between scientists and citizens that develops from this has the potential to reinforce the other Challenges.

“It is too early to comment on any of the Challenges in detail, except to say that “The Deep South” is a Challenge that will be dear to our hearts, given our place in New Zealand and our place in the world!

“The NSC Panel, chaired by Sir Peter Gluckman, are also to be commended for their efforts in distilling the many views that were presented in the public consultation phase of this exercise into the important and nationally-significant topics that were announced today.”

Professor Elaine Rush, Faculty of Health and Environmental Science, AUT, comments:

“Scientific research, the systematic process of finding out what, how, when, where and why and using that knowledge for progress, is essential to the future well-being and health of New Zealanders and our society, country and planet. Key messages from the National Science Challenges Panel are around coordination, priority, effectiveness and impact.

“All the challenges have relevance to life in New Zealand because we cannot separate our individual health and well-being from the health and well-being of the planet. The focus and vision for the future is one we can all buy into and the “better start” challenge underpins many of the others. Nurturing our water, plant and animal resources and preparing for natural disasters in better ways are essential for life.

“It is not just scientists that have a role in these challenges, it is essential that businesses, farmers and all parts of society share the vision, recognise the need for answers to questions and that the new knowledge gained is accepted and applied where society will gain the most over time. New Zealand has a small population, a relatively large land area and huge potential.

“We do not have a good record in child health yet it is our children that will benefit most from change and actions informed by science – they will inherit the earth (and support us in our old age). The biggest challenge is around leadership of science and education, and then ensuring that the outcomes of this considerable investment in future New Zealand do translate into real differences for people and the environment. Let’s get started – bring it on!”

Professor Shaun Hendy, Victoria University Wellington, comments:

“I am disappointed that the process has failed to throw up anything that is really new or innovative. The challenges chosen will look like business as usual to many, albeit with a stronger focus on health sciences that perhaps reflects the Peak Panel’s own interest in this sector. Of the 10 science challenges selected, only one really addresses one of the key economic challenges our country faces: namely the over-dependence of our economy on the primary sector.

“Our government invests far less in physical sciences and engineering than those of other small advanced economies, leaving our economy perilously exposed to volatile commodity markets. A challenge that is simply aimed at making better use of physical science and engineering research is disappointing given that we have just created a new organisation, Callaghan Innovation, to do exactly this. I would have preferred to see New Zealand set itself the challenge of investing more in science in this sector rather than just look to rearrange the deck chairs once more. The primary sector focus of these challenges also aggravates the mismatch between the type of research our government does and that carried out by our private sector.”

Dr James Renwick, Associate Professor of Physical Geography, School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“It’s great to hear that Government is committed to boosting science in New Zealand and are promising new money for science. They even recognise the serious fragmentation in the science sector, brought about by the corporatisation of science and the overly-competitive funding model implemented by the National Government 21 years ago.

“But, I am puzzled that climate change gets no explicit mention in the top ten ‘biggest science-based issues and opportunities facing New Zealand’, given that climate change is the number one environmental issue for the globe and will play a critical role in New Zealand’s future. “Life in a changing ocean” will only become more difficult as ocean acidification carries on unchecked, yet all we hear is that we’ll find better ways to exploit our marine resources.

“I hope that the challenges and the new funding do indeed lead to new business development, but I do not get the sense that this Government has seriously faced up to the underlying environmental issues nor to the truly long-term strategic nature of science investment.”

Dr Bruce Campbell, Chief Operating Officer of Plant & Food Research, comments:

“Today’s announcement of the Science Challenges by Minister Joyce is a great step toward aligning research investment with the big opportunities for science to benefit New Zealand and the global community. The signal to encourage strong collaborations linking up the country’s best research talent is extremely positive.

“Plant & Food Research welcomes the range of Science Challenges announced and looks forward to participating in a number of the challenges working closely with New Zealand’s world-class science community.”

Associate Professor Peter K Dearden, Director of Genetics Otago, Laboratory for Evolution and Development, University of Otago, comments:

“I think the announcement of the National Science Challenges is a great boost to New Zealand science and a sensible refocusing of science effort. The three health challenges will help collaboration in health research and is of course key to underpinning NZs quality of life. Ensuring a health start to life and reducing the burden of disease, will require both genetic and epigenetic research.

“I am also very pleased to see that primary production, with an environmental focus, is a key challenge, as well as the protection of our heritage, especially our unique biology. Most importantly, the challenges around our Marine and Deep South environments are an important refocusing of our efforts. It is great to see that understanding the marine and southern ocean environments in which NZ sits is valued.

“I am excited about the challenges and what they will mean for NZ science and look forward to contributing.”

Professor Phil Baker, Director of Centre for Research Excellence Gravida, comments:

“The newly announced National Science challenges of ‘a better start for young New Zealanders, and healthier lives, as well as aging well’ show New Zealanders have a hunger and demand for personal health knowledge that all scientists now need to heed and work together to supply”

“New and exciting fields of research such as epigenetics and developmental plasticity are showing us that not only genetics but environmental factors are influencing early life growth and development and going on to have long term consequences for health and disease risks later in life.”

“Our researchers are working on projects for example, that look at how a variety of pregnancy complications and experiences can increase risk for heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and obesity in both mothers and their children. We are also looking at how to prevent these risks from developing and being passed on – fighting disease before it starts.

‘”This sort of emerging science knowledge is set to be hugely influential on future health policy and clinical guidelines.

“Gravida members are also actively working to increase the productivity of primary production in partnership with AgResearch and Landcorp, and as a group we will respond to the ‘our land and water’ challenge too. We are looking forward to lending our scientific expertise to the task of better balancing our environment with primary production.”

Dr Alison Collins, Director of the National Land Resource Centre, Landcare Research, comments:

This challenge [Our land and water] represents one of the most significant priorities for New Zealand – how to drive economic growth from the land without undermining the health of the resources on which the growth is based.

“The challenge is to find best practice solutions and new ways of using the land that simultaneously drive production gains and protect land and water. This will require a collective science effort across farm, catchment and regional scales and a pulling together of the data, science and knowledge that sits in many agencies. Another key component will be making sure our science and the technologies and evidence that is derived from them can be more easily accessed and ‘consumed’ by those driving decision-making processes, best practice and innovation – increasing the need for social, economic and participatory research skills.

“Science, government and industry sectors, communities and iwi are well positioned to crack this nut given the growing willingness for a collaborative approach and the partnerships that have been built in the land and water area. The strategic changes and initiatives we’ve established over the last two years such as the National Land Resource Centre and the Soil & Land Use Alliance, and more recently, the Lincoln Hub, provide excellent foundations for this very critical national science challenge.”

Dr Andrea Byrom; Managing Invasive Weeds, Pests and Disease portfolio leader, Landcare Research, comments on [New Zealand’s biological heritage]:

“New Zealand’s native biodiversity is unique globally, and our primary industry and tourist sectors are highly reliant on services provided by our natural environment and on protection from harmful organisms.

“However, New Zealand’s biological heritage, and the sectors that rely on it, are constantly undermined and threatened by a huge range of exotic invertebrate and vertebrate pests, weeds and exotic diseases that are already established, or which could cross our borders and become established, reducing both economic productivity and threatening native biodiversity.

“A Science Challenge that aims to protect New Zealand’s biological heritage and address these critical threats recognises New Zealand’s world-leading expertise in protecting and managing our biodiversity assets, and our global reputation in invasive species management.

“Such a Challenge will provide a much-needed boost to credible, evidence-based research required to maintain New Zealand’s international competitiveness, branding and reputation as a clean, green economy.”

Anthony Scott, Chief Executive, Science New Zealand, comments:

“The National Science Challenges announced today are important in two aspects – they will each contribute hugely to New Zealand’s social, environmental and economic prosperity; and overall, they will inspire a generation of young people to see the opportunities for themselves and their country in science-based innovation.”

“They set big and demanding objectives, are exciting for both scientists and the wider public, and are globally significant in their science requirements. They will require close engagement of scientists and the wider public in all elements of their pathway to achievement.

“There is a lot of work yet to be done on the practical implementation. The Government has, however, indicated a welcome pragmatism to enable the Challenges to be up and running as soon as possible. Building on existing collaborations and governance structures avoids fragmentation, associated compliance costs, and recognises that the system is increasingly closely connected.

“The injection of a further $73 million to take the funding to $133.5 million over four years will accelerate that. The impact of the Challenges will be much greater than even this indicates, as programmes across institutions and government are realigned over time.

“Crown Research Institutes know from their own experience that multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary approaches enable science and sectors to look beyond their walls, identify gaps and create new opportunities and possibilities for New Zealand. We look forward to working with the Government and other research groups to progress these exciting Challenges.”

Dr Murray Close, ESR Principal Scientist & Science Leader – Groundwater Contamination, responds to Challenge 6 – Our land and water:

“We submitted an idea for a challenge on the Land & Water theme which had the goal of ‘using science, innovative technologies and tools to improve our production from land while maintaining or enhancing our freshwater quality’.

“It is really pleasing to see that Challenge 6 [Our land and water] was very similar in its goal to what he submitted.The research ESR are carrying out in the ‘Groundwater assimilative capacity: the key to improved freshwater quality’ research programme, will contribute to achieving this challenge.

“Overall I think the balance of the challenges with their focuses on health, the environment and economic growth is about right and will be good for NZ.”

Dr Stephen On, ESR’s Food Programme Leader, responds to the National Science Challenges from a food perspective, commenting:

“It is great to see the broad support for research spanning farm to fork.”

“Given the importance of the food sector to NZ’s economy, we need new, safe, innovative foods and systems to help transform our economic base. I believe that validation of health or safety claims for foods is important to grow the value of our exports. These issues are assuming increasing importance the world over.

“I’m also pleased that biosecurity was recognised as a key research area. This is a critical area for food safety and also for the nation’s health and wellbeing publicly and economically.”

Graeme Nicholas, ESR social systems scientist, comments:

“I am delighted to see ‘healthier lives’ and ‘a better start’ are two of the ten National Science Challenges announced by the government today. The announcement will help focus research efforts to reduce the burden of major New Zealand health problems, and on improving the potential of young New Zealanders to have a healthy and successful life.

“One of the serious burdens limiting the potential and wellbeing of many people in New Zealand is the harm caused by the misuse of alcohol and other drugs. As researchers, we need to help ensure policies and services to reduce harm from drug and alcohol are effective.

“Scientists at ESR are studying how addiction treatment services interact with one another, their clients and other agencies, and how these interactions make a difference to the outcomes. Treatment services can be very cost effective, but the way services are organised and delivered can make a big difference to how well they contribute to healthier lives for people, or a better start for young New Zealanders. By looking at how services are part of a wider system that impacts on people’s lives we are able to show how to improve outcomes.”