Research and Science Minister Megan Woods is a former Crown Research Institute manager and at home in a lab

The Government’s big shake-up of the science sector will see the Crown Research Institutes “co-locate” on University campuses.

With that will come a restructuring of the CRI business model away from the current company model to something which stabilises the Institute’s long term funding.

And at the same time, a major effort will be made to get more Maori involved in science at the same time as more science is directed towards Maori issues.

Research, Science and Innovation Minister, Megan Woods,  has started work on a Cabinet paper which will go before her colleagues “in a few months” with the intention that it go for public consultation before the end of the year.

The paper builds o a study commissioned last year, Te Pae Kahurangi, looking at the future of the CRIs and chaired by David Smol, the former Chief Executive of the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment.

Fundamentally the review called for new funding arrangements and more coordination across the science sector, and Woods agrees.

“I want us as a small country that produces really quality research to be able to make sure that we are utiliSing all of the expertise that we have in this country regardless of which institution they are at,” she told POLITIK.

Woods is one of Labour’s most “political” mInisters; after all, she chaired the election campaign; so it’s no surprise that there is an ideological tinge to what she finds wrong with the current system.

“The CRIs are a creation of the 1990s; there’s been a high level of competition built in over the years,” she told POLITIK.

“A number of people have applied some bandaids to try and force greater collaboration into some of the competitive tension with things like the National Science Challenge, funding mechanisms, all those kinds of things.

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“But I still think in terms of how it is that we get a science system that is facing the right way around issues like climate change, like environmental questions, child poverty, all those kind of things that we know that it is 30 years on since the creation of the CRIs and now time  to have a look at whether they are the right shape and how we can get that better integration between our universities and the CRIs.”

Woods is proposing that CRIs be “co-located” on University campuses.

I do want to have a look at how we can get density,” she said.

“I want us to be pushing all of our business cases that come up around what we could be doing far more around shared facilities that we know that actually being co-located does lead to greater collaborations as well.”

The Te Pae Kahurangi report found that competition got in the way of collaboration both between CRIs and between CRIs and Universities.

But is what Woods proposing the first steps towards a full merger between the CVRIs and Universities?

“I’m not necessarily saying that this would actually necessitate the fact that you have to have institutional reform, but actually being co-located may in itself be enough,” she said.

She points to the Wageningen University & Research institution in the Netherlands which consists of Wageningen University and the former agricultural research institute of the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture.

Wageningen University trains specialists in life and social sciences and focuses its research on scientific, social and commercial problems in the field of life sciences and natural resources. 

“You can have the collaboration that brings in industry that brings in your various research institutions, and you have people working together and actually being in proximity of each other does matter, especially in a country the size of New Zealand.”

For the universities, there are potential gains from collaborating with the CRIs.

Te Pae Kahurangi says collaboration could increase their share of the Performance-Based Research Fund or improve their international ranking.

More collaboration could also allow more integration of staff, which was Woods said already happened but only to a limited extent.

“We know that being co-located does actually lead to greater collaborations as well,” she said.

“And we haven’t managed to do that successfully to any great scale under the current system.”

It is clear that she wants to move the structure of the CRIs much closer to that of crown entities which have fewer commercial demands on them.

Because the core funding is contestable, a CRI might suddenly find that it has lost a sizable chunk of its funding and make cutbacks, not just among its scientists but within its administration and support staff as well.

Continuity becomes an issue.

Woods herself was a business manager for the Plant and Food CRI before she became an MP.

I have seen this first hand; if you have a bad, contestable research funding round, then actually, your ability to run the organisation is diminished precisely at the time where you probably need to be putting some some heft into what are we going to do next?” she said.

“So I want to have a look at what we can do about some more kind of stable overhead funding for CRIs as well that perhaps isn’t as linked to the contestable money.

“They are all important questions that we need to discuss as we go through. I don’t think there are many businesses that could survive on that model.”

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of any reform will be how to get more Maori involvement in research.

The Tertiary Education Commission has recently addressed that issue and changed the “weightings” for the performance Based research Fund, which allocates research money to universities in such a way that work by Māori researchers given a will be given 2.5 funding weighting and a double weighting for Pacific researchers. Research incorporating Māori knowledge and methodologies will receive a funding weighting of three.

“We absolutely have to have more Maori researchers at the moment, our combined Pasifika Maori workforce in research, science and technology is two per cent which by anybody’s reckoning is not good enough,” she said.

“And there is a lot of work that we need to do.

“Some of it needs to happen at our universities and CRIs, but some of it has to happen in our schools in terms of inspiring young Maori and Pasifika.

“But also as we get into a lot of the Post Settlement aspirations of a number of iwi that science is going to be really important to realising that opportunity that sits for them as well.”

For a politician as political as Woods, it is perhaps surprising to realise she doesn’t see science policy as a political issue.

For that reason, she didn’t bother to talk about Te Pae Kaurangi during the election campaign even though it had been submitted.

But as the Government confronts productivity issues in a post-Covid world; research and innovation are going to be critical.

Hence her review.