When Grant Robertson talks about how the economy might change post-covid, one of the things he talks about is what he calls an unsung but interesting white paper on science.

“It’s really important,” he says.

The Minister in charge of the White Paper —  Te Ara Paerangi, Future Pathways — Science and Innovation Minister Ayesha Verrall, is proposing the most radical shakeup of the science sector since National established the Crown Research Institutes and introduced competitive bidding for science funding in 1992.

Her thinking about how the paper may be implemented goes much further than simply the research institutes.

She is questioning the role of the Performance Based Research Funding formula for Universities which places a huge weight on short-term outcomes like published research papers or degree completions.

And she is looking at immigration policy to see how the country could attract more high-level international scientists.

But fundamental to what is being proposed will be the drawing up next year of a set of National Research priorities.

The priorities will set over-arching goals, which will be backed up by other changes to make the whole sector, from business to the institutes to universities, work more collaboratively together.

“Enabling people to work more collaboratively is a real focus of the reforms and the setting of priorities as a big part of the solution to that,” Verrall told POLITIK.

“Intentional funding of priorities allows funding to be allocated across what we call the pathway to commercialisation or the pathway to impact. “

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Verrall said the existing excellence-based competitive funds like the Marsden Fund would still have a place, but by a set of priorities would allow a more mission lead approach.

“By having a stronger mission lead fund, that means could set a mission around, say,  biodiversity or natural hazards resilience or advanced manufacturing and focus investment on that; on solving that problem, which brings all players, whether they’re the blue skies researchers, the people with commercial expertise, those scientists we have in the crown Research Institutes, which are very focused on some of our biggest economic areas, as well as in some instances there’ll be time when community when iwi have a role to play in developing how we address those problems.

“Rather than saying we’re funding this part of the sector, we’re saying we’re funding work on this challenge or this problem as a whole.

“We need to shift the emphasis more into that space.”

But the range that Verrall is proposing to embrace within the Priorities’ missions is massive, from the blue skies research of Universities through to the practical commercial research of business.

But she argues that by adopting a more long-term focus rather than requiring almost immediate results and by focusing on a mission outcome rather than specific research projects, the system should work together as she has already found it can in countries like Singapore or Finland, members like New Zealand of the Small Advanced Economies Group.

“I think there’s been a lot of good writing about Finland and Singapore and potentially Israel as comparator countries for us, and I think that is a much more suitable comparative than, say, the scale on which the US operates, their R&D system, for instance,” she said.

“That’s why. I prioritised visiting Singapore on my trip overseas t last year, but I think the point is that a country like Finland or  Israel makes sustained investments in technology at scale over ten years, and then they really do start to see the economic benefits of that. “

One of the surprising items in the White Paper is a graph showing that business investment in research and development has been booming since 2014 and now hugely exceeds government funding either for universities or the Crown Research Institutes and other government-funded science.

POLITIK

“Where we’ve incentivised that through the research and development tax incentive, which has been in place now for three years, and it has the effect we want it to have, but we know that there are areas where we can make it even easier for business.

“So that’s work that doesn’t meet the traditional definition of research and in development but still has an opportunity to have spillover benefits for our economy.

“We’ll introduce a grant system for that.

“The second area is as we need to make the R&D tax incentive more suitable for firms that are not yet making a profit, which is many of our startups.”

One of the more challenging issues confronting Verrall is how to fit the universities into the reforms.

Universities are traditionally very jealous of their independence and hard organisations to integrate into other systems.

But before entering national politics, Verrall was a senior lecturer at the University of Otago in the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine. 

She believes university researchers want to engage in the kind of long-term mission-driven research she is proposing but the current Performance Based Research Funding (PBRF) regime is stacked against that sort of research.

“We could talk for an hour about the different ways that those incentives end up being quite perverse really for academics,” she said.

“So, for example, one big piece of work can be cut into ten tiny papers, none of which are really worth reading by the end.”

But ten short papers under the PBRF regime are worth considerably more than one substantial paper, so the Universities understandably opt for ten rather than one.

“It is very difficult to focus on the type of community engagement or working with a company or taking a sabbatical to develop skills in commercialisation when your institutional funding is tied to papers and patents,” she said.

“We’ve said that we will look at that to make sure that that to assess whether PBRF could better align with the goals of Te Ara Paerangi.

“That work needs to begin this year.”

But ultimately, the quality of our science will come down to the quality of our scientists, and Verrall believes a lot needs to be done to not only retain our best scientists but also to recruit from overseas.

“When I came into the portfolio relative to other countries. New Zealand hadn’t invested in the people development, and yet it’s a people industry,” she said.

“And whereas if you look at Australia, Singapore, they all have much better-developed support for scientists as they, as they come through the different stages in their in their career.

“A particular gap in New Zealand is at the postdoc level.

“After so much investment in someone getting a PhD, then to face a gap in funding, there is s really a problem for us keeping and hanging on to talented people. 

“So we have gaps both in the development of our talent, but we also we also used to have a talent attraction scheme called Entrepreneurial Universities that was for attracting people from overseas.

“They may be strategic in terms of the development of the research ecosystem in New Zealand, and I think relooking at that is really important.”

Verrall said that, ultimately, she wanted the reforms to lead New Zealand to a point where we will be making progress on some of the big intractable challenges that we currently struggle with.

The next big step will be to draw up the priorities.

“We need to strike a balance with that between the need to have a thorough assessment of what the country’s big challenges are, both economically and socially and in terms of our resilience as  well as making sure that we hear all the good ideas from the public in the in science sector,” she said.

“And then we need to think about a process that’s going to have an equity in terms of rising above  the day-to-day interests that are in the sector.”

Usually, science is one of those portfolios that receives little recognition and attracts little controversy.

But National has appointed Judith Collins as their science spokesperson, and by all accounts, she has taken to the job with an intensity not often seen from an Opposition spokesperson on science.

That suggests that Verall can expect some real scrutiny of her proposals. Science may thus find itself on the political agenda this year.