Government is engaged in the biggest shake-up of science funding and science management
the country has seen for over 20 years. It’s clear that the 2010 Budget will be a key component
of setting the scene for the coming few years.
“The most serious issues in the science sector are micro-management and excessive
competition for too little funding. Beyond reducing compliance costs by reorganising
Government science agencies (MoRST and FRST), there is a clear case for significantly
increased Government investment in science” said Dr James Renwick, President of NZAS.
“As is well-known, New Zealand is near the bottom of the OECD list in terms of public and
private investment in research, science and technology (RS&T). No wonder our productivity and
GDP per capita have slipped compared to countries such as Denmark and Singapore that are
increasing investment in research and development.”
Government announcements last week on extra funding for facilitating business development
are a step in the right direction. “But they do little to ease key issues facing the RS&T sector”
said Dr Renwick. “Taking money away from health, social and environment research to part-fund
the new development initiatives sends a very bad signal. If investment in already underfunded
basic research doesn’t keep up, we’ll have little for business to develop, in the longer term.”
Whatever the overall level of Government investment in New Zealand RS&T, there need to be
large changes to the way funding is administered and distributed. By introducing a non-
competitive system for some of the funding CRIs presently receive through FRST, Government
hopes to change the culture of the CRIs and the science sector, away from the fiercely
competitive environment that’s grown up over the past 20 years. However, many CRIs rely on
FRST for only half their income, the other half coming largely from consulting work across
government and private sectors.
Reducing competition for about half of each CRI’s government income is a very positive move
but it still leaves the CRIs having to source roughly two out of every three dollars through
competitive bidding for public or commercial contracts. “The on-going scrabble for this funding is
going to continue to dominate the way CRIs operate” said Dr Renwick.
“Twenty years ago, competition for public funding might have been regarded as necessary to
keep CRIs honest. Now they are under more than enough commercial pressure to achieve this
end. The Government is moving in the right direction, but to really effect change, they should be
looking at making a much greater fraction of public funding for CRIs available on a non-
competitive basis, while retaining appropriate accountability.”
This week’s Budget announcements will help define how successful the current changes to the
New Zealand RS&T sector will be. NZAS is looking to Government for bold changes, not
tinkering around the edges.
New Zealand Association of Scientists is a nationwide association of practicing
research scientists spanning the universities, technical institutes, Crown Research Institutes of
Science NZ, government departments, industry, museums, other science institutions, and