From our election panel, the Science Media Centre's Q&A with parties, and other events, we've gotten a sense of where the parties stand in this election. None has earned an endorsement from the perspective of science. All have positive points, but ultimately none are committed to both of the things that are most needed to create a research sector that delivers and can attract and retain the talent needed to address the challenges we face in the 21st century. These two things are to provide the funding required to do the job and the institutional and career arrangements to provide stability.
Here are our main points:
- We are disappointed no party is going into the election talking about the 2% Research and Development (R&D) target set by Labour in 2017 as something that will be achieved. Worse, most of the new spending is Business R&D though a tax credit. This boost of Business R&D can’t be lauded as a success when we have no idea what’s that is doing or is even real. We know it isn’t hiring many PhDs and isn’t improving connectivity between business and CRIs or universities in an obvious way. This need review.
- Labour continues to promote Te Ara Paerangi. We agree the initial stages of this reform did a great job of listening inclusively to the sector's concerns, but that was well over a year ago now. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that Te Ara Paerangi is generating policies or reform agendas that will meet the concerns scientists expressed so clearly. Those that have followed the process are losing hope, and seeing lip service matched neither with funding nor actual change.
- Labour’s defence and promotion of Te Ara Paerangi is missing in action on urgent topics like climate change research, which was the only specific science area prioritised in audience feedback. Having described them as intractable in the cabinet paper and as wicked problems in more recent times, the Minister seems to be saying she supports researchers working on these topics but not enough to convince Cabinet, government departments and Treasury to fund them. Unfortunately, the Greens – despite their strengths on climate action – are missing in action on this important ingredient in long-term success.
- There’s no coherent narrative around how the murky National Research Priorities (NRPs) will work, despite an urgent timeline to create and fund them by mid-2024. Verrall has been caught promising that NRPs will deliver impacts that simply cannot be promised. Clustering and targeting work to priorities would deserve support, but that’s not what is proposed. Discussion of the NRPs at first sounds like an effort return to 2015 and repair what National Science Challenges could have been, yet the claims being made create alarming flashbacks of the 2005 funding experiments that still haunt our conservation and environmental research communities.
- An interesting gap in discussion is the formal commitment to joint the European Horizons funding framework. While good for collaboration, it is concerning that we are joining only Pillar II, which is committed to specific European research priorities, rather our own.
- An area where the Minister deserves substantial credit is elevating the stated importance of early careers as a foundation of the research system. They’ve been neglected for over a decade. The intent of the policies to support careers is excellent but it is baffling that the funding is half or less of what is required to rebuild the early career support system in place until 2010. This funding gap also makes a mockery of Labour saying their budgets are fully costed.
- Biotech regulation was not a priority expressed by the audience, yet parties like National and TOP may be onto something suggesting reform of biotech regulations is more achievable than the NRPs.
- The Wellington Science Hubs have become a point of discussion rather than an easy win.
- At least 3/4 of Te Ara Paerangi reform agenda remains good but, unfortunately, is not being discussed or supported for implementation by the four largest parties. That said, the TOP candidate, Dr Ben Wylie-van Eerd, show us that minor parties can demonstrate competence on details and contribute to valuable policy discourse during elections. The NZ First candidate wasn’t far behind.
- Our audience’s upvoting of questions may have made the strongest statement. Given the challenges faced and the lack of fundable progress on solutions, isn’t it time to stop being pragmatic and recreate an independent and visible ministry for research science and innovation capable of thinking through these challenges?
This year's statements from the parties give us pieces to choose from, and we will soon arrive at uncertain hope that will come from assembling the pieces supported by a new governing coalition.
I'll close with the compelling opinion piece just out and ask voters to ponder its central point. The problem runs deeper than universities alone, but why is our politics unable to stabilise and support the people, institutions and knowledge we need to support our future as a nation?
Troy Baisden, co-president NZAS