End of NSCs and Wider Cuts Look Inevitable

19 Mar 2024 18:30 | Anonymous member (Administrator)

More news is starting to cover cuts hitting science and research in New Zealand. At first the cuts seem unbelievable and unthinkable.

First off, the 11 National Science Challenges are coming to an end. Although they're initially a process that might replace them, it stalled and came to nothing. That means that 11 areas deemed to be the most important areas of research 10-12 years ago will fall off a funding cliff in just over 3 months.

Second, over $400m of funding for infrastructure in institutions around Wellington was mooted by the last government and cancelled by the new government. Can aging and unsafe buildings be replaced just off of overheads and operating when most government budgets are being slashed by 7.5%? That's leading to painful cuts across a range of institutions, including the 'strategic reset' in Callaghan Innovation, which seems to lack any visible strategy.

This weekend Lucy Stewart appeared on NewsHub explaining the wider consequences of Callaghan's 'reset'.

RNZ had pieces including me and a good, long interview with a National Science Challenge director on Monday Morning. 

Today I did a good 5 minute Q&A explainer for Wired show and podcast on 95b FM. 

I've run that one through a transcription so the interview appears below.

"You're listening to a 95 b FM podcast.

National Science challenges were established in 2014. With the aim to tackle New Zealand's biggest science based issues and opportunities. They are funded through the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment. The challengers have invested over $680 million of funding over 10 years. However they are due to expire at the end of June. This year, I speak to co president of the New Zealand association of scientists and honorary professor at the University of Auckland School of Environment Professor Troy Baisden about the impending expiry the significance of this loss and the future of science research funding in Aotearoa. 

For those who don't know, could you please explain the national science challenges and what they intended to do? 

The National Science challenges were a group of 11 different topics are challenges that were to attract scientists and stakeholders to work together to solve some of the biggest problems New Zealand could identify back around 2012. They included areas like the impacts of climate change uniquely coming from the Southern Ocean across us making the seas around a sustainable, as well as areas like high value nutrition, and keeping people healthy, if slightly touched on this a little already. But what sort of science does this cover? Do you have some examples of current research projects that are funded under these schemes? Well, I mean, it's hard to pin down any single area of science. But one of the ones that we're most worried about losing is the climate modeling and associated observations that cover large areas of the Southern Ocean. There's also a lot of research that covers seismic hazards and how, and also other natural hazards like storms and floods in volcanoes and how they may play out in New Zealand, and how stakeholders can engage to help protect us from those hazards. Those are the types of things that we worry most about losing. If indeed anything happens that we suddenly need that research or the information from it. 

So the challenges are set to expire at the end of June this year. What is the significance of this loss for not only the science sector, but also for the research and contributions for the wider society.

 This is a huge sort of disaster in planning processes around science. There was a process designed to replace these big Challenges with something else that would work better than they've worked. One of the problems is possibly that they were underfunded for what they needed to do. And now we're going to cut them away entirely. That doesn't make any sense if in fact, they were working on the most important areas of research for New Zealand. The other logical thing that comes from that is what are the people going to do? And there, we're really looking at a situation where a number of scientists and particularly the leadership level are often leaving New Zealand as quickly as possible or have already arranged new positions elsewhere. People are retiring and there are real questions about what happens to the information and relationships that have been generated while these Challenges were running. 

How if anything, as the government replacing contestable, funding for science research, what do you hope will be done? 

The ideal situation would be two things. One is lifeboats for the areas of critical national capability that would allow the researchers to maintain and continue important research areas that matter both for New Zealand and internationally. The second thing would be to reinvigorate a new process that resembles but doesn't have to be like the process the last government ran, called Te Ara Paerangi, which was trying to find pathways forward for our national research system, which has been through multiple reorganizations over the last 30 years. Each one has been worse than the last. 

So do we know what the government is doing? If anything? 

No, there's essentially budget confidentiality around every level of discussion. And that's not doing us any good in the next two months, while researchers are leaving and institutions are planning their budgets, redundancies and cuts for the coming year. Most research organizations are planning difficult road shows, or have already announced major programs to cut researchers like the Callaghan Innovation strategic reset, no one has any clear strategies from the minister on down the only strategy seemed to be to cut red tape. But what that often means that only minor changes happen at the management and governance level. And it's the researchers that suffer and that quality of research and its ability to actually be the frontline when New Zealanders need research is what could be lost here. The biggest question is do we actually need National Science Challenge is to do what's required and the answer is no. What we do need is a funding level that's commensurate with our with peer nations and New Zealand has lowest levels of funding for government and university research of any peer nation. And that's really the issue here. It's getting some research in place that is stable supports researchers and their careers and can deliver for New Zealand. 

That was co-President of the New Zealand association of scientists Professor Troy Baisden speaking about the impending expiry of National Science Challenges and the future of science research funding.

That was a 95b FM podcast to hear more head to 95bfm.com/b casts"

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