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Major makeover for NZ science system – Expert Reaction

The system that supports our researchers and innovators is set for an overhaul, with the release of the “Te Ara Paerangi – Future Pathways” white paper.

The blueprint will reshape Aotearoa’s research, science and innovation landscape to better fit the future, including a funding boost and a roadmap to put the reforms in place. The future system is tasked with giving effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, being more adaptable and connected, and better reflecting the country’s unique context and diverse population.

The SMC asked experts to comment. 

Professor Shaun Hendy, Chief Science Officer, Toha Science, comments:

“Back in late 2020, a journalist from the international science magazine Nature told me how incredibly impressed he was with the way we were using science in our COVID-19 response. He said that our approach in using genomics to manage COVID outbreaks sounded like “science fiction”.

“If the pandemic showcased the best of our RSI system, it also revealed areas of real weakness. Its complexity and lack of direction, its poor responsiveness to Māori, and the precarity of early-career researchers all had a detrimental impact on our pandemic response. This was sometimes evident to the public, but more often than not gaps were papered over by goodwill and number eight wire before they caused catastrophe.

“The Future Pathways white paper has done a thorough job of surfacing many of these issues through its lengthy consultation process. It is hard to disagree with the case it makes for change and, although the paper is very high-level, it signals a positive new direction for the RSI system. Some of the devil will be in the details to follow, but the ambition is evident: if the government can follow through with the funding to support the many new initiatives foreshadowed in the paper then it could be transformative.

“One of the most challenging proposals in the document is in the setting of national research priorities. The establishment of the National Science Challenges was the closest exercise the RSI system has run in recent times, and the process somehow managed to bury climate change and outright exclude infectious disease. I think that shows the risks of a process that focuses on near term political agendas and privileges the views of a select group of senior researchers. The conversation will need to be much more inclusive and future-focussed. And the key to getting buy-in from the sector for any new research priorities will be to put new money on the table rather than rearranging already stretched existing funds.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Professor Tahu Kukutai, lead author of Te Pūtahitanga: A Tiriti-led Science -Policy Approach for Aotearoa New Zealand and Co-Director of Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, comments:

“Our Māori researchers’ collective, Te Pūtahitanga, has worked really hard to advocate for RSI system transformation and we’ve been very clear about the changes needed to shift the system to be fit for purpose, not only for the benefit of Māori but for all of Aotearoa. I’m pleased to see that many of those key recommendations have been carried over into the White Paper – in particular, embedding Te Tiriti across the system, a dedicated Māori entity or platform, a focus on Māori and Pacific workforce development and precarity, Maori-led research priorities, and much stronger connections to the regions to support community, iwi and hapū knowledge mobilisation and policy making.

“In the past MBIE has struggled to engage meaningfully with Māori and while there are certainly still challenges, the presence of strong and connected Māori leaders within the Ministry has made a difference here. Moving forward, MBIE will still need to ramp up its internal Māori capacity as it moves through the next phases of reform.

“One of the gaps in the Paper is the explicit provision for Māori data sovereignty. Our submission was very clear in recommending that Māori sovereignty over all Māori data must be a foundational principle in RSI reform, and built into review and assessment processes. Indigenous data sovereignty is very much a live issue, not only in Aotearoa but globally, and we will continue to push for changes to protect our data as a taonga that should be actively protected under Te Tiriti. With our world-leading expertise in this area, there is huge potential to build data sovereignty into the system re-design, including infrastructure, governance and policies.

“Although the Paper is comprehensive, it is light on detail and there are big question marks over the ‘how’ in terms of implementation. In my experience, kāwanatanga-led change initiatives tend to suffer, in various degrees, from an implementation gap – particularly when it comes to Māori and Pacific peoples. It’s one thing to have aspirational goals and outcomes, quite another to put them into practice.

“The long timeframe for the reform process also comes with some risk that core components will fall by the wayside. In the meantime research institutions, and in particular universities, can and should lean into some of the thinking in the White Paper to revision some of their own strategies, policies and practices, particularly with regards workforce development, mātauranga and Te Tiriti. The Paper has resiled somewhat from the initial proposal of institutional base grants but does signal the need for greater transparency regarding overheads. What happens to university overheads is one of life’s many mysteries. Institutions that claim to be Tiriti-led should be transparent about how overheads from any research relating to Māori are being re-invested to advance Māori RSI aspirations at the institutional level.

“While it’s good to see an early commitment in 2023 to publishing an RSI Te Tiriti statement in 2023, it goes without saying that the statement needs to give effect to Te Ao Māori expectations and aspirations and be based on robust Te Ao Māori engagement, not a rapid response process.

“Measurement and monitoring is core to system re-design but receives a light touch in the Paper. System accountability and transparency around how the RSI investment is spent and the benefits generated from that investment need to be front and centre. Embedding Te Tiriti into measurement and monitoring is key. The Paper indicates a commitment to a research system that delivers proportionately for Māori communities – that is fairly vague, and the detail matters. In our Te Pūtahitanga submission we advocated for a stretch goal of half of the funding. There’s no reliable way of quantifying what the current RSI spend is on Māori research and Māori researchers – the system hasn’t been designed to answer such questions – but I’ll wager than it’s pitiful. A shift from pitiful to proportionate is a shift in the right direction but it’s still not consistent with a genuinely Te Tiriti-led system.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Tara McAllister (Te Aitanga a Māhaki) Research Fellow at Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“I am cautiously optimistic about the new directions for reform of our Research, Science, and Innovation (RSI) sector outlined in the Future Pathways White Paper. The inclusion of “Embedding Te Tiriti” as one of the four reform objectives presents a positive shift, but I am concerned about how this will be implemented and actioned. As this objective is set to start in 2023, it would have been helpful to know how it will be actualised. I am concerned that the work required to embed Te Tiriti in our research sector will fall on the shoulders of already overworked and underpaid Māori researchers. I also hope embedding Te Tiriti will not be limited to certain portions of this reform – but will instead be appropriately centred in every single part.

“I am excited to see the (re)introduction of Māori and Pacific fellowships and the expansion of the number of early- to mid-career fellowships. Whilst these fellowships are much needed, they will not address the overwhelming precarity in our RSI sector. With only 45% of researchers employed in tertiary education having permanent contracts, we need wider sector shifts to incentivise organisations to reduce precarity.

“There are some positive shifts in the RSI funding system proposed, including a new dedicated fund for Māori and Mātauranga Māori. The creation of this fund is a step in the right direction, but Te Tiriti will also need to be embedded across all existing and future RSI funding activities. Māori research has been significantly underfunded by the RSI system so I hope that the size of this new dedicated fund will begin to address that. Funding Māori-led research will undoubtedly have many positive impacts but this in isolation will not fix the underrepresentation of Māori. This will require significant shifts in our research sector, including the dismantling of institutional structures which function to marginalise Māori people and knowledge.

“In 2023, MBIE will be releasing an RSI Te Tiriti o Waitangi statement. I agree that this is a good first step, but it must be followed by action. There has been a proliferation of equity, diversity, and inclusion policies at many of our research organisations (including MBIE who released a Diversity in Science Statement in 2018) but the impact of many of these policies has been negligible. I am hoping there will be action, funding, and assessment tied to this statement.

“There are a few key omissions in this white paper. The role of PhD students in our RSI system was one of them. We know that PhD students make up a significant proportion of the research sector and are doing a significant amount of work, yet we are limiting who can do PhDs through extremely low PhD scholarships. There is also a clear gap in the proposed changes to the RSI funding system for Pacific-led research. Pacific researchers are significantly underserved in the current funding landscape so the lack of dedicated research funding for Pacific researchers is disappointing. It is important that we consider diversity beyond women, as there are many other marginalised groups of people in our sector (including people who exist beyond colonial gender binaries and people with disabilities), which is not thoroughly reflected in the white paper. Lastly, there was no mention of addressing racism in the RSI sector, and little mention of how these reforms will allow for rangatiratanga.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Sereana Naepi, Rutherford Discovery Fellow, Sociology, University of Auckland | Waipapa Taumata Rou, comments:

“This is an ambitious rethink of the sector that reflects our sector’s key challenges according to the MBIE Workforce survey. It is clear that a major shift is necessary given high levels of precarity, inequity and underinvestment. The four pillars for change are a hopeful beginning step for a research and innovation sector that creates brighter futures for Aotearoa New Zealand. I challenge our sector to not only deliver on this vision but push it further.

“It is heartening to see the commitment to stable workforce development, particularly as a first step priority. However, these initial steps need to be followed up with a whole-of-career outline, New Zealand invests in our research sector qualifications and ideally we would create a system that retains and rewards researchers for their commitment and work. Missing from this conversation is the role of PhD students and their contribution to the system, particularly as a precarious workforce.

“The establishing of national priorities is an exciting moment for our sector to create spaces for collaboration and development with clear equity drivers. Particularly exciting is that Māori priorities are viewed across the priorities instead of boxed off and limited to a single priority. If we are going to have a Te Tiriti-embedded research sector then there will need to be major shifts in our current funding streams to reflect this commitment.

“The call for an all-of-government approach to Pacific research and Pacific excellence is overdue and an urgent priority if we are going to meet our commitments to the Pacific community and enable Pacific peoples to thrive and contribute to the sector and New Zealand with our significant skill base. The possibility of a national research space for Pacific peoples is the first step towards this, and needs to be more than a possibility but instead a firm commitment.

“The implementation roadmap has key moments but we also need key measurements for progress to ensure that progress is made. Ideally, these next steps will ensure that our future sector will be anti-racist, anti-ableism, and inclusive of all genders as it strives to serve all of Aotearoa.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Member of the Working Group and RSNZ Early Career Research Forum I am not commenting on behalf of either of these groups.”

Professor Nicola Gaston, Co-Director, The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, comments:

“The Te Ara Paerangi white paper gets some things very right. We might call these the known knowns: that our Research, Science and Innovation (RSI) system is too small, and mechanisms to increase collaboration and critical mass are immensely important to New Zealand researchers. That to drive necessary system growth, government investment needs to increase to the longstanding target of the OECD average of about 2% of GDP – that we MUST start bridging this gap.

“The need for government investment, and consequently our innovation efforts to diversify beyond traditional areas such as agriculture – not to replace them, but to complement them and share some of the overall economic load – this has been known for many years, as many readers of Sir Paul Callaghan’s Wool to Weta book will remember.

“Further motivations for changing the system are identified as the need for clear direction and integration of research efforts, higher investment in Māori research (done by and for Māori), and the pressures currently being felt by the research workforce. These may be more opaque problems to some, but are certainly clear to those of us familiar with New Zealand research systems: the case for change is clear.

“When it comes to the proposed system reforms however, we are into the realm of the well-known unknowns. The key uncertainty as I see it, having seen the National Science Challenges set up a decade ago, is what the suggested National Research Priorities will be, and how they will be chosen. The case being made now, on the basis that our system is too small and we need to find areas of focus, is similar to the case that was made then. Interestingly, however, they are here being linked to the need to move from areas of traditional strength to research areas that will support future wellbeing and prosperity. They also seem to be being linked to the need to have a research system that delivers proportionately for Māori communities. These two messages make me view the idea of priorities positively, but I do think caution is still needed in setting these up so that they deliver on exactly these objectives.

“One thing that looks different from when the National Science Challenges were brought in is the level of emphasis on the research workforce, with precarity being singled out as a specific problem and fellowships being mooted as a key part of the solution, and specific mention of diversity as an objective that fellowships are uniquely suited to address. As someone who was brought back to Aotearoa from a career overseas by our national postdoctoral fellowship scheme in 2007, which was cut only a few years later leaving a massive hole in our careers pathways, I am fully in favour of this approach and I really look forward to seeing more detail on the use of fellowships to build both capability and the system capacity to absorb additional RSI funding. As noted by Sean Simpson, Lanzatech founder in today’s NZ Herald, a key reason that Lanzatech moved overseas was the challenge of securing enough talent. This is something that we have been working to change in Aotearoa for many years, and postdoctoral fellowships are one of the remaining missing pieces of the puzzle.

“I won’t dwell on the unknown unknowns other than to say that they are real, and that to address them the system needs to monitor itself and be accountable for its effectiveness. The incentives that operate within our science system are not all able to be moderated by our government as many are set by the international community, for example. As a consequence, the value of RSI-sector expertise needs to be taken seriously within MBIE and the expertise of researchers needs to be part of decision making – the consultation behind this Te Ara Paerangi white paper seems a good start, but must be followed through on.

“In summary: I am strongly supportive of the proposed direction of change. The challenge will be implementation, and I would strongly urge policy-makers to stay open to RSI community critique as the processes are put in place: it matters that we get this right for Aotearoa. A competing challenge is that of the timeline on which change needs to be made, and I would urge the Minister to prioritise investment in people – fellowship schemes, for example – that can help us scale up the system towards the necessary 2% of GDP in a relatively flexible way in the short-term, knowing that the system-wide change is coming and that talented people will be ready to make the most of the enhanced opportunities that this roadmap aspires to provide.”

Conflict of interest statement: I receive government research funding from the TEC, as funder of the Centres of Research Excellence, and the Royal Society Te Apārangi, through the Marsden Fund.

Dr Aisling Rayne, Te Pūnaha Matatini and Cawthron Institute; Professor Tammy Steeves, Te Pūnaha Matatini and University of Canterbury, comment:

“Te Ara Paerangi signals a need for bold and transformative change in the way that we do research, science and innovation (RSI). The current RSI system has been built to promote hypercompetition and individualism, and has marginalised many, especially women, Māori, Pacific peoples and those from intersectional communities. The White Paper also promises that people within the RSI system will be supported through the reforms, but there is no clear accountability for facilitating effective and just transitions, nor strategies to identify and address perverse outcomes.

“We are pleased to see an emphasis on equity and a wellbeing approach that draws from He Ara Waiora and its four principles (kotahitanga, tikanga, manaakitanga and whanaungatanga).

“We renew the call for an independent professional board for all researchers that upholds tikanga and ethical behaviour in research spaces (see for example, the NZ Medical Council or Psychologists Board), and to which all researchers are required to belong in order to practice, to create a safe and thriving research system. Currently, there is no clear direction for institutions to lead with values-centred approaches that uphold ethical behaviour.

“Te Ara Paerangi White Paper’s four focus areas promise a more people-centred and agile RSI system. The introduction of stable funding is a critical step toward these important objectives. However, it remains unclear whether the reforms will build trust and patience into the RSI system, for example, by extending funding timelines and reinvesting in community-based research partnerships. We also ask whether and how the reforms will build public trust in the RSI system, particularly where it has been most eroded.

“The White Paper focuses on levers within a narrowly defined RSI system, but we question whether the proposed reforms will be genuinely transformational without aligned efforts to address the wider RSI system—particularly primary and secondary education, universities, Te Pūkenga and wānanga.

“We are disappointed by the lack of attention to intersectionality—for example, explicit consideration of the barriers faced by members of LGBTQIA+ communities, disabled people, women, especially Māori and Pacific women—in the White Paper, and in the recent RSI workforce survey.

“Growing and supporting narratives of people from diverse backgrounds belonging in the research community will be crucial for the future success of research, science and innovation in Aotearoa New Zealand.”

Conflict of interest statement: Dr Aisling Rayne and Professor Tammy Steeves are leaders in the Kindness in Science project funded by Te Pūnaha Matatini.

Volker Kuntzsch, Chief Executive of Cawthron Institute, comments:

“Cawthron Institute is pleased to see the white paper set new aspirations for Aotearoa New Zealand’s research, science and innovation system. We are strongly supportive of some of the changes that are proposed – in particular greater investment in research, science and innovation, the development of an RSI Te Tiriti o Waitangi Statement, and a move to mission-led science that directs resource towards research that will achieve the broadest social, cultural, environmental and economic benefits. Given the urgent nature of the challenges facing society, we support research priorities that quickly redirect resource towards excellent and impactful science.

“However, the devil is in the detail: how these aspirations will be achieved is almost as important as the aspirations themselves. As New Zealand’s largest independent science organisation, Cawthron Institute is eager to see independent research organisations play a significant role in helping to set national research priorities. Ideally, we would like to see an independent and diverse body tasked with setting our national research priorities, including experts and people from all walks of life, across all demographics. In particular, we want to see independent Māori research organisations empowered to take a leadership role in the reform process to ensure that research priorities are set by Māori, for Māori.

“Cawthron Institute welcomes any opportunity to contribute to this future direction and revitalise Aotearoa New Zealand’s research, science and innovation system.”

No conflict of interest declared.

David Hughes, Chair of Science New Zealand, Chief Executive of Plant & Food Research, comments:

“The Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) welcome the release of the Government’s vision for a future research, science and innovation system.

“As mission-led science organisations the CRIs are deeply committed to seeing science create a positive impact on our economy, environment and society.

“CRIs live and breathe impact, so it is great to see that increasing impact is the central motivation for the changes being proposed.

“New Zealand’s future wellbeing and prosperity lies in increased productivity and essential public good research.  That means research that is useful, usable and used.

“We strongly support the need for creating national priorities and for ensuring that the underlying research and innovation address these priorities at scale.  As a small country there is always the risk that we will spread ourselves too thinly to create the impact we seek.

“We recommend bringing together government, industry or sectors, researchers and Maori to develop and commit to the priorities.

“It is reassuring to see the importance of the workforce put so centrally in the plan.  It is the work force which actually delivers the impact.  For us, we see it as about great people doing great science and taking it through to impact with partners in business, iwi and Maori-led entities and local and central government.

“We look forward to working with Ministers and officials in helping design and implement an even better research, science and innovation system for New Zealand.”

No conflict of interest declared.