Friday, February 23, 2024

Measured welcome for science white paper

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Paper criticises competitive structure of Crown Research Institutes.
The white paper takes on institutional research structures and the career paths of researchers, among other issues affecting the sector.
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The government’s Te Ara Paerangi white paper on science funding has been largely welcomed by the research community and others, but is seen as light on detail.

The white paper criticised the siloed and competitive structure of New Zealand’s Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) and called for a system to set national research priorities.

The government planned to lift total science funding, including from the private sector, from 1.4% to 2%, although that will still be below the 2.5% OECD average.

It also proposed giving researchers more secure career paths and tenure, and embedding Treaty of Waitangi principles into the sector. 

Any restructuring of research institutions won’t start until 2024, by which time the national priority system is intended to be in place. 

Researchers were generally positive, but National’s science spokesperson, Judith Collins, described the white paper as “not worth the paper it’s written on” and a lost opportunity.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research at the University of Waikato Bryony James said the white paper suggested the government would look at removing the Companies Act requirement from CRIs.

“It is phrased very carefully here in such a way as to not scare the horses,” James said. 

All in all, there are no big surprises in the white paper. It is short on how its aspirations will be tackled, but the process is still at an early stage, James said. 

A critical step to breaking down research silos is career mobility, she said. The white paper speaks of the need for people to be able to move in and out of other sectors while keeping their links to the traditional research system. 

“That idea of workforce mobility can only work with the longer-term funding mechanisms that are referred to throughout the white paper.”

The white paper stresses the importance of funding settings that take into account patenting and commercialisation, knowledge exchange and community engagement, James said.

Vice-Provost of Research at Victoria University in Wellington Margaret Hyland described the scale of changes proposed as “exciting”. 

“The issues outlined in the paper are complex and intertwined, but the paper does a good job of disentangling these matters and outlining the case for change.”

The implementation plan said there would be a high level of engagement with the research sector.

She applauded the embedding of treaty principles into the research system and noted that disciplines such as humanities, arts, social sciences and law are also underfunded.

Volker Kuntzsch, chief executive of the Cawthron Institute, said he strongly supports the increase in funding for science and innovation. The move to mission-led science will direct resources to research with the greatest benefits for the economy, society and environment. 

“However, the devil is in the detail: how these aspirations will be achieved is almost as important as the aspirations themselves.” 

The institute wants national research priorities to be set by an independent and diverse body including experts and people from all walks of life, Kuntzsch said. 

The Cawthron Institute, as the largest independent research organisation in NZ, wants the independent sector to play a major role in setting national priorities, he said.

Wellington’s independent Malaghan Institute, which specialises in biomedical research, was similarly positive. 

Director Graham Le Gros said it is an opportunity to disrupt the current silos and competitive funding models and bring in new players. But he cautions that care is needed in setting and putting in place research priorities, free from institutional capture. 

Researchers sounded positive, and proposed changes also align with much of what industry organisations have been arguing in their submissions to Te Paerangi Ara.

BioEnergy Association executive officer Brian Cox said introducing national research priorities is something his organisation had been advocating for many years. 

“I think research has been more ‘who’s around and what do they want to do’ rather than on priorities. And we’ll have an opinion on the priorities … hopefully, it will be a good system.”

Cox said in the past the organisation has not been consulted on relevant research programmes. This is despite the BioEnergy Association being regularly consulted by the government on other issues.

If the government follows through with the intent of the white paper it will be a major improvement, Cox said. 

“Now let’s just make sure it works.”

The NZ stock exchange-listed Skellerup Holdings Limited had also called for national research priorities. 

Its submission argued that the current system was “far too heavily biased to far-horizon science with a low probability of success”. It wanted a research system focused on near-term improvements in exports, employment and the national good. 

A common complaint from submitters outside the science sector was the difficulty and affordability of getting research data from CRIs. In particular, there was a need for data to help organisations comply with new climate-change disclosure rules.

The NZ Bankers’ Association submitted that the crown research institute model made it extremely difficult for businesses to access and use this data. 

“[It] does not support private or public sector entities to assist the government in achieving its climate change goals.”

Such data accessibility has not been raised in the white paper beyond a mention of “national databases”.

Judith Collins said the government has shown a lack of understanding of the importance of commercialisation, and of the resources available in NZ’s universities. 

The only positive of the white paper is that it supports setting national priorities for research. She criticised the lack of detail on how they would be set or who would set them.

“In a word, the white paper is underwhelming and with the reforms not being implemented until 2024, it is too little, too late.”

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