NZAS Survey on the National Science Challenges

Sometimes a lot can happen in a few days.  

A week ago I was asked to comment on the results of an Official Information Act request, that had turned up emails sent to MBIE expressing concerns about the implementation of the National Science Challenges. I had recently participated in a discussion hosted by Our Changing World, prompted by the National Statement of Science Investment, so I was happy to repeat my previously expressed concerns.

I was amused to be quoted as saying that the money should go into the Marsden fund, given the amount of equivocation that I had prefaced that statement with.  But put simply as a choice between the Marsden Fund and the National Science Challenges in their current form, I have no trouble suggesting that the Marsden Fund is a better funding mechanism.  I explained that, in my opinion, one of the misconceptions about the Marsden Fund is that it only funds fundamental science: it actually funds a wide range of research, including applied and blue skies research, on the basis of excellence alone - and manages to cover a range of career stages and provide support for PhD students and postdoctoral fellows at the same time. However, this does not mean that the Marsden Fund can do it all: I think that one of the significant pressures on the Marsden Fund has come from the removal of NERF funding in the MBIE contestible pool, which has pushed the contestible funds well toward the industry-led end of the spectrum. As I said on Our Changing World, we need to increase contestible funds - in both Marsden, and in the types of MBIE funding that can take great ideas generated through Marsden-type research and develop them further towards application.

I received an email immediately after my most recent comments had aired, saying 

I'm pleased that you've modified your view from OCW last week, where you suggested sticking with the process for the sake of stability, to now sensibly suggest that the new money be channelled into the Marsden Fund. ...  I would like to suggest that to test Minister Joyce's perception of wide-spread support for the science challenges, that the NZAS consider running a short poll of the wider science community.

That was a week ago.  Last night, we collected the results - 290 responses - collected since posting the survey on Friday before the weekend.  It would be fair to say that the level of the response surprised me - but another email sums up the feedback I have heard:

I guess prior to the minister's comments last week, we couldn't quite believe he didn't know how flawed the process has been.

This sums it up for me.  Scientists are pretty forgiving about mistakes: making them is a large part of the job. But refusing to acknowledge that there are issues is simply not healthy.  

One of my biggest concerns is the feeling in the scientific community - which comes through in a few of the comments - that this is new money for science, and therefore we should be uncritical of the process, or we risk losing it. I can only hope that this is not a message that has come from MBIE; scientists should and do feel responsible for making certain that the best possible use is made of the taxpayer funds that support our work.  I am really pleased to see this sense of responsibility come through so strongly in the response from the scientific community in NZ - we need the public to trust us to speak up when all is not well.

Thanks to everyone who contributed - and as always, get in touch at if you would like to add any comments.

Nicola Gaston


New funding tools

Over my career I've seen a whole bunch of new funding systems. They are all well intentioned (well mostly). Each time we face at least two years of chaos where nobody knows exactly what is expected in the new grant applications. The NSC is yet another round of new funding tools, this time confounded by the problem of a "challenge" designed by committee. In five years time we'll all know what is expected of an NSC application, we'll all understand what needs to go in and what should be hidden. Some really good science will be done. But for two or three years we'll all lose time and effort and money figuring the system out. However, history strongly suggests that the NSC will actually not change the science landscape of New Zealand in any fundamental way. Scientists adapt to each new funding scheme. We all try and do the best for New Zealand and the world in spite of the funding regime. Given the cost of changing funding systems is high and given that we already have/had some excellent/adequate funding tools, then creating the NSCs would appear to serve no scientific, social nor economic purpose. That for me is the biggest problem, at a time where funding for science is cripplingly low, any new money should go into established proven funding systems, if for no other reason than to minimise the cost.

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