The Govt’s next big experiment

The Westport floods — more climate change research is needed.
The Westport floods — more climate change research is needed.
During a week with no shortage of major news, another Government behemoth quietly slipped out of the shipyards and headed out to sea, largely below the radar.

A review of the research, science and innovation sector might not be something many New Zealanders have been waiting for, but its importance for the future of the country puts it right up there with some of the Government’s other, more visible, big-ticket reforms now under way.

Significant changes to the Covid-19 managed isolation and quarantine system, positive Delta-variant cases in Christchurch, and the controversial Three Waters plans the Government is determined to push through have all dominated the headlines this week.

As a result, Te Ara Paerangi — Future Pathways was launched with little fanfare on Thursday morning in Wellington. For those working in publicly funded science, this was the government green paper they had been eagerly anticipating.

Next year marks 30 years since the last sweeping changes to our science system under the Jim Bolger-led National government. That saw the old Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) carved up into 10 Crown research institutes, whose mission was to produce science of benefit.

During the past three decades, the number of CRIs has dwindled to seven and a different kind of Crown entity was set up in Callaghan Innovation. Other science funded by the taxpayer has also been carried out by scientists in several independent organisations, including the Cawthron Institute, and of course our eight universities are also, increasingly, key players in such work.

After 30 years just about anything will benefit from a refresh. As a result, there will not be many people in the science sector who fail to welcome this move.

It is fair to say that, in the past decade especially, the CRI model has begun to creak and show its age and shortcomings. To fill those expanding gaps, extra research centres and funding mechanisms have been introduced, leaving the system looking like a ramshackle residence with extensions added on randomly.

The needs of New Zealand have changed markedly from those in the early 1990s. The current model is not allowing the best, most co-ordinated, science possible to take place in, for example, the crucial areas of climate change, freshwater management and sustainability.

Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods’ green paper builds on Te Pae Kahurangi, a review of the CRIs which began two years ago and then seemed to disappear. It has been resurrected in this much broader evaluation of the sector.

In Cabinet papers, Dr Woods said the current system was ‘‘now characterised by a significant amount of fragmentation and unproductive competition’’, and not in good shape for future opportunities. The Future Pathways programme would study ways to build a modern sector with better funding systems, that was more inclusive of Maori and Te Tiriti, and give better support for career scientists.

Change is unlikely to be rapid, with consultation now until March, but when it comes it is likely to be significant.

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