Time for leadership in science

Things are going wrong in New Zealand science.

When it comes to innovation and science, Kiwis have always believed our “Number 8 wire” approach makes us world leaders. Certainly our isolation and our land-based economy have galvanised a high degree of resourcefulness and “make do and mend” into the New Zealand psyche.

In some aspects of science and technology, we have been, and continue to be, up there with the best elsewhere in the world. But for quite a few years now, concerns have been growing that our researchers could do an awful lot better if they had the right support.

In 1992, the Jim Bolger-led National government initiated sweeping reforms of the sector which saw the long-standing Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) and other public science organisations scrapped and replaced by initially 10 Crown research institutes, charged with undertaking research for the benefit of New Zealand. Over the years, the number of CRIs has fallen to seven, not including the more recent Crown entity Callaghan Innovation and independent research organisations. Scientific research is also carried out in the country’s eight universities.

A briefing for Minister of Research, Science and Innovation Megan Woods in November last year said New Zealand has about 20,000 full-time equivalent researchers. While there was “much to be proud of” in the system, there was a “pressing need” for more investment.

That certainly is the case. Our spending on research and development as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) was hovering around 1.35% in 2019, a small rise from 1.15% in 2014. Unfortunately, the average for OECD countries is about 2.35%. And small economies which some might compare New Zealand with, such as Finland, Denmark or Israel, invested 2.73%, 3.05% and 4.82% of GDP respectively in research and development in 2019.

One statistic New Zealand does register well in, though, is in the number of academic publications per millions of dollars of investment by the Government and universities, with 18% of our publications in the top 10% of those cited internationally. That means our science is having an impact around the world.

Last week’s ill-advised letter to the Listener from seven University of Auckland professors saying Matauranga Maori — Maori knowledge, tradition and wisdom — should not be an accepted equal to “science” is just another sign of dissonance and that change is needed in the sector. While the findings of many aspects of Western science have been applied for the benefit of humankind, some scientists can become very “siloed” in and focused on just their specialist fields, carrying out research for research’s sake rather than for all our sakes.

Matauranga Maori is a much more inclusive knowledge system, which has at its heart the betterment of all in the community. There is no reason why it should be at odds with Western science, which has clearly excluded indigenous peoples from the process in the past. Change appears to be coming. Getting on for two years ago, the Government kicked off Te Pae Kahurangi, a review of the CRIs. That review seems to have disappeared into a laboratory fume cupboard somewhere.

Now there are murmurings the Government has quietly been working on a much broader review of the country’s science sector, including universities, and that a green paper may be a month or so away. That would be a very good thing. Something urgently needs to be done to streamline the system, which currently has had bits tacked on all over the place — Centres for Research Excellence and the National Science Challenges are just two examples — to deal ad-hoc with any research gaps that arise.

Better government leadership, addressing bizarre competition between some CRIs, providing more secure career paths for young scientists, encouraging Maori into research — these are just some of the improvements which need to be made. After almost 30 years, a major overhaul of our science sector is desperately needed.


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The dichotomy in Medicine is clearly a health service incongruent with Maori kawa and personal sovereignty. Maybe that will be remedied with iwi guided practice.

I agree reform is needed and I look forward to the green paper.
I hope that it sets out a consultative process that allows everyone with an interest plenty of time to make contributions.
Irrespective, I suspect the opposition political parties will depict the green paper as Govt policy and regard it as an attempt to ram reform down our throats It seems to be their only modus operandi for any proposal the Govt trots out for consideration.
I also suspect that debate will get hung up on the involvement of Maori in scientifc research rather than the organisational structure of the profession/industrty.
But I agree with the editor, as a Nation we need to pick up our game in scientific research and development.

Science does not discriminate race. It is able to be replicated and peer reviewed. The entire notion about Matarangi Maori is simply hocus pocus. One is science and universal, the other is not. We have a number of professors who have dedicated their entire lives to science stand up against the PC nonsense and they get the call to cancel them. What is going wrong with this country??

It has been my experience that people who include in their arguments against an idea or concept the phrase "PC" or "politically correct", are struggling to find cohesive and cogent points to argue against what in reality is just, right and proper and decent behaviour or activity. The same applies to those who use the word "woke" in a pejorative way when opposing something that offends their sensibilities.
I have found that what is being described as "PC gone mad" is usually a new way of addressing or looking at an issue that treats everyone fairly.
What's going wrong with the country depends on perspective. For people who are: bigots; racists; misogynists; misoneists; intolerants; Karens; ignoramus'; and "mah rights" nut jobs it's going to hell in a handbasket. Cancel culture is generally what happens to these people when the majority are no longer willing to tolerate them, and fair enough.
For people who are: fair minded; open minded; tolerant; rational; logical; impartial; open to diversity; non judgemental it's not going wrong at all.

Funny but those who claim to be inclusive and tolerant usually turn out to be some of the most intolerant if someone has the temerity to disagree with them.

Science is generally defined as the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. The 800 year occupation of New Zealand by Maori has left no record of scientific endeavour so Matauranga Maori does not equate to what is understood to be science. The belief systems of indigenous people based on ideas that cannot be tested and proved are not science.

Science is a methodology.
It has nothing to do with race or culture.
Early European culture did not embrace science. Galileo found that out.
Some cultures twist science to meet their bigotry. The Holocaust showed us that.
Others politicise its reality. Chernobyl proved that.
We don't have English, Scottish, Irish, Greek, Fijian, Inuit, Chinese or any other race or cultural grouping of science. It's just science.
If some want to apply science to Matauranga Maori, please do so, but don't be to surprised if some in Maoridom react like the Catholic Church did when Galileo observed that we travel around the sun and not the other way around.
We are just specks in a universe. We are not the center of it.
Science is about wonderment, not ego.

While I understand your overall point and fundamentally agree with your position I find some of your statements subjective and misleading.
For example: early European culture had no problem with science, as they defined it. Provided it could be used to prove and confirm the literal truth of the holy bible it was fine. That was the accepted way. Consequently Galileo was a rebel, a subversive,
Also: no-one twisted science to support bigotry. Science, as they defined it, proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that some races were physically, mentally and intellectually superior to others. This was a scientific fact based on the evidence available to them. Of course they were dead wrong, even though many still believe this as a fact.
My point is that conventional science, at any given time, using all the tools at their disposal can put up convincing arguments to support their current hypothesis based on proven facts and still be dead wrong.
The opinions of a group of academics pontificating in their ivory tower in the 21st century doesn't look a lot different to me than I imagine the Pope looked to Galileo in the 17th century.

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