Opinion: 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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