Failing science, Government-style

Once upon a time there was a beautiful paradise, with mountains and fiords, lakes and rivers, which people from every corner of the Earth clamoured to come and see.

Beneath the beauty, though, lay danger. Earthquakes, volcanoes, mountainsides slipping away, storms, floods, tsunami. A merry band of the best minds had been gathered together to protect the common people from such perils. Until one day, a foolish leader decided they were no longer needed and let them go.

Fairy tales, even grim ones more redolent of bad dreams, often have a great deal of truth to them. Certainly what is happening to our science sector, and to our universities, right now is the stuff of nightmares.

This threatened loss of essential geoscience knowledge from the retrenching Victoria University of Wellington is just one example of what is occurring throughout the country as a result of many years of underfunding of the university sector. It is hugely concerning that this Government is just standing back and watching universities, built on the accumulated expertise of its researchers, crumble. By doing that, the Government is also complicit in overseeing the erosion of our public science sector.

The Government’s actions, or more accurately lack of actions, come as such a disappointment to those who know how important science, of all kinds, is to our future. A strong science sector is good for the economy, for our wellbeing, and for our safety and resilience.

Labour has made it perfectly clear it does not want to dirty its hands by stepping in to save those areas in jeopardy. The apparent lack of interest or anxiety, and lack of empathy, for those facing the chop makes into absolute humbug the Government’s much-vaunted statements about intentions to boost New Zealand science and recognise it as a precious asset underpinning the rest of the economy.

For the past few years, many hundreds of scientists, researchers, policy makers and followers of science have contributed thousands of hours towards efforts to reform the science sector.

In October 2021, the Government released a green paper on a new "vision" for research, science and innovation in New Zealand. After feedback, the white paper, Te Ara Paerangi, came out last December.

A Victoria University of Wellington student told MPs before the first Covid-19 lockdown was...
This threatened loss of essential geoscience knowledge from Victoria University is one example of what is occurring throughout the country as the result of underfunding the university sector. PHOTO: ODT FILES
All this activity seemed to show the Government was keen on setting directions and undertaking actions to boost our science capability over the next decade and beyond.

The main findings of the white paper suggested an intention to set better career pathways for young researchers, increase diversity in the science workforce, and rethink and update science priorities, which will ultimately lead to changes to the now 31-year-old network of Crown research institutes.

All these things are long overdue. The blueprint for much-needed change was warmly welcomed by most in the sector, and work has been continuing on the plan since it was released.

However, given what has been happening in our universities in recent weeks, it is difficult not to laugh at some of the comments made by research, science and innovation minister Dr Ayesha Verrall when Te Ara Paerangi was unveiled.

"These priorities will promote greater impact from science by building stronger connections between researchers"; " ... a stronger focus on people, with an emphasis on building sustainable and fulfilling career paths in science ... "; "the system will become better for those working within it ... "; "it is important we get these changes right."

True, the Government recently announced $400 million for three research hubs in Wellington, although it has been pointed out the money might better be spent on researchers themselves rather than on "outcomes", buildings and equipment. Others say if universities continue to cut scientists, and the Government continues to show no interest in that happening, how will these hubs actually be effective and any more than a red herring?

Do we actually want to do better science? Do we actually want to increase our measly science spending from around 1.5% of GDP to even 2%, still far lower than that of countries we like to compare ourselves with? The Government’s current attitude shows it doesn’t really seem all that bothered. If there was a "vision", cataracts now seem to be clouding it.

Put bluntly, the Government is acting like hypocrites.