Science funding a 'lottery'

Allan Herbison.
Allan Herbison.
The level of science research funding in New Zealand is a "great embarrassment", and is similar to that of Papua New Guinea, says a University of Otago researcher.

Prof Allan Herbison, a professor of physiology, said he was one of the "very lucky" researchers with generous grants this year from both the Marsden Fund, and the Health Research Council ($4.84 million). The latter grant, over five years, supported up to 10 Dunedin research staff.

Science funding grants had become a "lottery".

The system was "falling to pieces", with only 5% to 7% of funding applications approved. That left a huge number of unsuccessful applicants, and many were leaving Dunedin, where the "average scientist" did not have a grant.

He said he was not joking in likening New Zealand to Papua New Guinea and other similar nations.

New Zealand's science research spending was also been low by international standards under the last Labour-led government, but a shift to more applied research under this Government exacerbated the problem. It meant less money for the "blue skies" research which was needed to underpin the applied research favoured by the current regime.

"It's a pipeline," Prof Herbison said.

Otago University health sciences pro-vice-chancellor Prof Peter Crampton said while he had some sympathy with the Government's approach, researchers were "struggling".

An "acute signal" of the sector's distress was that even internationally renowned researchers were being turned down. The funding environ
ment meant conservative projects were more likely to gain approval, which was a shame because New Zealand needed innovative and unusual research to push boundaries.

Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce told the Otago Daily Times the Government had put more money into both "blue skies" and "applied science" research, and was not neglecting either type.

"Yes, we are doing more in the applied space, but we are actually doing more in the blue skies space as well, it's just not as much as they want."

Applied science was important because it focused on solving the big challenges facing New Zealand.

While the New Zealand Government spent less than the international average as a proportion of gross domestic product, it was only just behind (0.6% compared with 0.7%).

Where New Zealand really fell behind was private sector research spending, which was only about a third of the international average.

Government science research funding increased from $1 billion in 2008-09, to $1.25 billion this year, he said.

He said he had "no idea" about the situation in Papua New Guinea.

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