Budget 2014: Science funding boosted – experts respond

budgetlogo-2014-140x70The national Budget announced today contained a raft of announcements on research, science and innovation funding.

Notable changes include:

  • $56.8m more for contestable science funding (over three years, beginning in 2015/16)
  • Plans to reform the contestable funding system, including a new National Statement of Science Investment, aiming to make the system “more flexible, less complex and more closely focused on research that is of relevance to NZ”
  • Expansion of the Centres of Research Excellence —  $53 million over four years will be added to existing funding to boost the number of CoREs to ten by 2016. In addition to the six successful CoREs previously announced, three more will be selected in a closed tender from the 21
    Bill English
    Finance Minister Bill English

    unsuccessful applicants of that previous funding round. The final CoRE will be a Maori Centre of Research Excellence, chosen in an open tender

  • An additional $67.9 million for tertiary science education (an 8.5 per cent increase per equivalent full-time student).
  • While there appeared to be a slight increase in Marsden Fund funding for 2014 – 2015 – from $49.2 million to $52.3 million in 2013 – 2014 – this is apparently just a a year to year adjustment, the actual funding was flat.

The Science Media Centre is rounding up reaction from scientists and researchers. New comments will be added as they are received.

Dr Nicola Gaston, President of the NZ Association of Scientists (NZAS), comments:

“The funding for additional CoREs is very welcome.  The loss of CoREs such as the Allan Wilson Centre and Nga Pae o te Maramatanga served to highlight that this is a very successful funding stream for science and research in New Zealand.  Six CoREs is probably too few, given the diversity of the research areas that are covered by the CoREs, coupled with the expectation that there will be turnover as new ideas and collaborations emerge.

“It is a little disconcerting to see the goalposts in any contestable funding process being moved after the fact, but the CoRE process to date has been well run, which justifies confidence in the process going forward.  However, the fact that one of the new CoREs will be funded out of the previous allocation amounts to interference in the process that has already completed.  This is unusual, and will amount to a funding cut for the CoREs that have already been selected. The establishment of a Maori Centre of Research Excellence which is still contestable, but not in direct competition with all of the other CoREs is well justified, and should hopefully strengthen the ability of Maori researchers to contribute to all areas of research in New Zealand in the future.  Progress in this respect is well overdue.

“The boost to contestable science funding is also excellent.  The impact of moving funding to the National Science Challenges from the pool of contestable funding was always an issue of some considerable concern.  We have also seen a shift towards industry-facing projects from this funding stream, which has increased the pressure on the Marsden fund, so additional support in this area is also well-justified.

“The boost to support of tertiary students in the sciences is very well justified.  However the government focus on STEM subjects should not be used to question the value of an arts degree: there are many areas of research in which interdisciplinary work is producing real world outcomes with increased impact, and the creation of a false competition between science and arts subjects is, in my opinion, very unhealthy.

“The funding to Callaghan Innovation for ‘the development and maintenance of science, engineering, technology, design and other strategic capabilities’ is being cut by a third.  This is not surprising, given that Callaghan Innovation are on record as seeing no need to employ specialist researchers themselves; it is however a sad end to the story of Industrial Research and the history of the DSIR in the Hutt Valley.  It is unfortunate to see such funds in the budget tagged with the reference to the ‘Advanced Technology Institute’: if I remember correctly, the advertised plan was to double the non-university workforce in physical sciences and engineering, rather than decimate it.

“In summary: this government clearly understands the real economic benefits of investment in science.  However, the balance between science that produces outputs in the short term, and the science that creates significant advances in understanding in the long term – including the development and maintenance of capability in New Zealand – is something that we need to keep an eye on.”

Shaun Hendy, Director of Te Punaha Matatini and Professor of Physics at the University of Auckland, comments:

“This is a good budget for science, and reflects its importance for the future development of New Zealand. I am pleased to see funding for another three Centres of Research Excellence. The CoREs do almost everything the National Science Challenges are supposed to achieve and more, so it pleasing to see their value being recognised by the government. I am also very relieved to see that the government will back a Centre of Maori Research Excellence, after Nga Pae o Te Maramatanga missed out in the latest CoRE round. Support for Maori research is crucial if New Zealand is to grow and develop further as a country. It is also good to see an increase in funding for students taking STEM subjects at universities – graduates in these subjects are in short supply in the wider economy.

“Nonetheless, it is still frustrating to see another budget go by in the absence a coherent national science strategy. Although the science sector will be pleased with what is on offer this year overall, we are still very much in the dark on where our science system is headed in the long term.

“For instance, we still don’t have a good sense of the future direction of Callaghan Innovation. Their capacity for research and development continues to be wound down. Although a significant portion of Callaghan’s researchers were transferred to universities this year, these researchers are now at the mercy of an oversubscribed contestable funding system, and over time it is quite possible we will see an erosion of our national capability in the applied physical sciences as a result.

“Although the government continues to flirt with tax incentives for R&D, I would very much like to see Minister Joyce take the plunge and admit that R&D tax credits were a good idea. It would also be good to see him acknowledge the extent of our shortfall in post-doctoral fellowship funding – the lack of post-doc positions in New Zealand is of very real concern for emerging scientists. It’s probably too much to expect him to address these issues in election year.”

On public health funding in the Budget:

Professor Tony Blakely, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, comments:

“Health received a lion’s share of the new funding in today’s budget. Notable increases in spending were to DHBs, with just over a 1% per annum increase in funding due to demographic growth and a similar annual quantum for ‘cost pressure’ growth – code for the higher than CPI rate of inflation in health, but a relief to the constantly pressured DHBs. Families will benefit from the $30 million per year (from 2015) to make GP visits and prescriptions free for children up to the age of 13 – an important measure, and some compensation for the lift in prescription fees from $3 to $5 a few Budgets ago.

“From a prevention point of view, the $40 million ($9 million per annum) going into the ‘Healthy Families New Zealand’ programme is welcomed. Ryall has essentially back tracked from disestablishing Healthy Eating Healthy Action to implement this similar programme that has performed well in Australia. It is classic health promotion at the community level to address healthy lifestyles, focusing on system change. Great.

“But it must also be acknowledged that state-led action like banning of junk food marketing to kids and possible food taxes (e.g. on sugary soft drinks) is also required, and not included in this Budget. A wider front of policy action on obesity and prevention would help curb the ‘cost pressures’ that are piling on DHBs, and thence the tax-payer.”

On funding for freshwater and environment initiatives:

Dr Roger Young, freshwater ecologist, Cawthron Institute, comments:

“It’s good to see some government investment in improving water quality and the way fresh water is managed. The reforms to freshwater management have initiated the first few steps of a long journey, but much more work is required before we have a complete national objectives framework or a comprehensive set of national bottom lines. A $5 million investment per year is modest given the challenges currently facing freshwater management throughout the whole of New Zealand, and the economic, cultural and environmental importance of freshwater. But the Government can’t be expected to overcome these challenges on its own.

“There needs to be significant support from other users and stakeholders to really make a difference.”