Putting the strategy in science funding: a National Challenge

The National Science Challenges are underway.  Requests for proposals are out for the second tranche of the Challenges, with proposals due at the end of April, while the status of the first tranche proposals remains unclear.  In my first column as President of the NZAS, I referred to the current state of progress of the challenges: on the perceived lack of transparency of the process, and on the lack of strategic oversight of the positioning of the Challenges within our funding system.

The stated objectives of the National Science Challenges are highly laudable.  It is impossible to argue with the emphasis on collaboration, issues of real importance to New Zealand, and the attempt to build public engagement!  But the original objectives are not the reality that the Challenges must be judged on.

When scientists at different institutions have widely varying incentives for engagement, does the best science get funded, or is there a risk that funding is captured by those with most time to contribute?  In this move towards a more decentralized funding system, surely there is a greater need for transparency, rather than less. 

There are significant differences in the way that the different Challenges are being managed – how do the steering groups know that they are talking to the right people?  How do new arrivals and early career researchers get involved?  All these issues remain unclear.

The Challenges look to become our default national science strategy over the next decades: a “National Statement of Science Investment” was promised when the Challenges were announced, but we are still waiting.

The impacts on CRI core funding remain unclear going forward.  How are the Challenges supposed to work with, and how do they differ from the Centres of Research Excellence?   What will the long-term effects be on contestable MBIE funding?  Engagement with the Challenges is motivated, for most of the scientists involved, by the prospect of funding: should we be concerned that decisions made on such a basis will have strategic implications?

The NZ Association of Scientists is looking to provide a commentary on the current changes in the science system, as happened in earlier science reforms. We aim to provide reliable information to our members, and to the broader public. We are looking to canvas opinion from our membership and across the science sector, to produce a summary of the thoughts of scientists on the development of the National Science Challenges, as they move into the contracting phase.

Please let us know your thoughts: comment here, or email me privately at president@scientists.org.nz.

Nicola Gaston