Budget 2024 is worse than a nothing burger for science

30 May 2024 19:20 | Anonymous member (Administrator)

NZAS Co-Presidents Lucy Stewart and Troy Baisden have made initial comments on the Budget released by the coalition government today, expressing their concerns about the ongoing collapse in funding for the research and university sector. More investment in research and universities helps to lift nations out of recessions, enhances future wealth and productivity, without fuelling inflation.

Dr Lucy Stewart comments, "Normally when assessing a Budget from the science policy perspective, we can look for bright spots - new spending and initiatives. Analysing this year's Budget is an exercise in determining how bad the damage will be, on the back of previously-announced cuts such as the cancellation of the Science City infrastructure programme and the failure to renew the National Science Challenges. 

There is one genuinely welcome new initiative - funding for Geonet, the National Seismic Hazard Model, and the National Geohazards Monitoring Centre has been extended out until 2027, acknowledging the long-term nature of the funding needed to support this vital work in our geologically active nation. However, this funding reduces over the forecast period, leaving uncertainties in this area in the long-term. Looking out to 2027 the Budget has also forecast a total of $35 million dollars of actual cuts to the Marsden Fund, the Health Research Fund, the Strategic Science and Innovation Fund, and the Endeavour Fund in that year - perhaps to generously give researchers three years to find new jobs overseas. Otherwise spending is essentially flat, in a time of record inflation and on the back of decades of underfunding of the sector. Certainly there is no sign of anything which could come close to making up for the loss of the National Science Challenges, which we have already seen translate into proposed job cuts in the public science sector.  

I expect to see more job losses across the sector before the end of the year. This failure to invest, at a time when the research and science sector has struggled to do more with insufficient funding for years already, will have inevitable consequences in loss of expertise as people move to better-funded research sectors overseas, as infrastructure continues to fail, and as research simply does not get done."

Prof Troy Baisden adds: "Today’s budget doubles down on a pattern spanning four decades, in which New Zealand’s governments have been world leaders in choosing not to invest in the future. Aside from 1991, I doubt there’s ever been such a clear case that we’re determined to fall behind peer nations with our investment in research, science, innovation and technology. The same goes for the tertiary education sector.

The budget is worse than a nothing burger for science. The relatively positive support for GeoNet and key capability GNS Science appear to be propping up areas previously funded by the Earthquake Commission (EQC) and the National Science Challenge on Resilience. 

There are no other bail-outs for areas of national importance that had been supported by National Science Challenges, which received about $97 million per year in their peak years, with $64 million this year and no funding after next month. There are also no new bail-outs or capex support packages for the ‘Science City’ institutions in Wellington, most notably Callaghan Innovation. 

Given the composition of the coalition, farmers might have hoped for some new research, but if there is I can’t spot it. Instead, the Ministry of Primary Industries is cutting about $4.6 million per year from its Sustainable Land Management and Climate Change Research in coming years (a total cut of $13.6 m over 3 years). 

The total lack of new funding comes on top of the inflation over the past year, and on a background of flat or decreasing funding. Out in 2027 and beyond, there’s a plan to pare back flagship contestable research funds, including Marsden and Endeavour by a small but significant amount. 

The Table of Estimates produced with the budget also allows us to look back, from an estimate for the year just ended to finalised funding in previous years. Funding for the entire tertiary education sector has flatlined, following the period when Government helped stabilise the sector during the pandemic’s impacts. It seems there is no expectation of resuming the growth rate of about 24% between 2012 and 2019. 

Government research and development (R&D) increased even faster, but is now declining. Excluding the R&D Tax Incentive and similar categories, our investment appears to have increased from about $820 million in 2015 to $1.4 billion or more in 2020 and 2021, falling back to $1.15 in recent years before stabilising at $1.1 billion. 

This explains why times feel tight in parts of the sector doing well, and desperate in others. That should come as no surprise, as cabinet papers from 2021 to the present have expressed a lack of confidence and sought reforms, which will now extend in the university sector. 

The pressure is on Sir Peter Gluckman, leading two advisory groups which must make a case for the reforms to help us rebuild the mojo that drives investment and success across the science system and universities. The groups will need to provide vision and hope for science and technology to address our biggest challenges with effective strategies in areas such as primary industries, and coping with climate change and hazards. Peer nations are investing more and more, and we should as well."

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