Bill English has set the Budget date nice and early - as John
Key did the election date in 2011 and is likely to do in
2014. Now, are Mr English and Mr Key - and Steven Joyce, who
is to make a science speech on Thursday - up to the fiscal
That science challenge - not to be confused with the prime
minister's science challenge for scientists themselves - is
to match richer small-countries' commitment. Governments here
for two decades, including Mr Key's, have not committed to
science the public resources better-performing small
countries do. Contrast the European Union's increase in its
science budget this month while cutting its overall budget.
Mr Joyce, who as boss of his new super-ministry is the
minister in charge of science and other innovation, would
protest that in the 2012 Budget the Government did lift
investment in science and innovation and project a continuing
lift over the next four years.
But even at the end of that trajectory - and note that Mr Key
is talking up innovation as the key to enrichment - Mr Joyce
would be investing below 0.6% of GDP, that is, below the OECD
average and far below that of smart, rich, small countries
with which Mr Key's chief science adviser, Sir Peter
Gluckman, has been building a relationship. That investment
underpins the success of Nordic countries, billed by The
Economist this month as ''the next supermodel''.
Sir Peter brought together Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Israel
and Singapore in Auckland in November in a discussion which
linked science and innovation with economic analysis by David
Skilling, once of the Treasury and now in Singapore, who
argues that small countries, being flexible, can, if they act
strategically, navigate global ups and downs better than big
countries with lumbering political systems.
Sir Peter, like the legendary Sir Paul Callaghan a notable
innovator in his own right, is now teasing out with those
countries a programme of joint projects.
There is a parallel with United Nations ambassador Jim
McLay's pitch for a Security Council seat in 2015-16: that
small countries have different priorities from big muscly
ones, not least in needing good global governance. Mr McLay
argues that small New Zealand contributes disproportionately
to peace-building and other co-operative activities, has an
independent foreign policy which gives it good credentials as
a broker and conciliator and thus can be an accurate and
energetic representative for small countries.
Another way of putting the McLay line is that New Zealand is
a small, smart country. That is what Sir Peter wants us to
want to be - more than our fiscal commitment shows.
Mr Joyce would protest, with reason, that his Callaghan
Innovation Crown entity, with a tight focus on working with
businesses to solve technical challenges and help them
innovate, will do that by making more effective use of some
of our scientists.
Actually, Industrial Research Ltd, out of which the new
institute was created, was increasingly doing what the
institute is to do. Callaghan Innovation looks less an
innovation and more a managerial reshuffle.
There is also a risk, which will need careful management,
that too tight a focus on technical assistance to firms will
distract scientists from doing the science that generates
unexpected commercial innovations, as Sir Paul's science did
- and that scientists decamp to another country (one of Sir
Peter's other five?) to do that work.
The more scientists who do that - after an expensive
education at taxpayers' expense here - the less will they be
able to meet another Gluckman ambition.
Mr Joyce's speech on Thursday is to a two-day conference of
science communicators, which will focus on natural disasters
science's role in warning the public and public agencies of
risks and explaining events. Sir Peter's on the same day is
to the Institute of Public Administration on ''communicating
and using evidence in policy formation''.
Sir Peter will develop a theme that has been a hallmark of
his chief science adviser's role: that good policy requires
good advice, which requires the best use of the best evidence
- and that science has a big role to play.
Most policy reflects politicians' instincts, prejudices,
values or pragmatism and the inevitable trade-offs politics
and electoral success require. It is informed by advice from
public servants who do usually trawl through evidence,
including scientific evidence, but often, Sir Peter says, the
science is misunderstood, misused or misapplied. Politicians,
interest groups and the media also often cherry pick or
otherwise employ science to support a case or, as in climate
change, declare the science ''confused'' as an excuse for
A report is due soon on a survey which found wide variations
in government agencies' use or misuse of scientific evidence.
Sir Peter says protocols are needed, including peer review of
That is quite a science challenge for Mr Key and Mr Joyce -
perhaps as big as their and Mr English's fiscal one.
- Colin James is a leading social and political