The Government yesterday unveiled more details of its plan to shake up the science sector.

Research and Science Minister, Megan Woods, is proposing the most fundamental review of all of the country’s public-funded science since the Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) were established in 1992.

Her agenda for a public consultation process, which she unveiled yesterday, includes the possibility of rationalising the number of Crown Research Institutes, giving Ministers a bigger say in science priorities and bringing Maori much more into the science process.

Above all, though, there will be a new set of national science priorities, and Woods gave some hints of where these might focus.

“The government is already investing heavily in tackling major challenges climate change, climate change, wellbeing, child poverty, decarbonisation of our economy and our energy system and housing are all areas we have prioritised for concerted action,” she said.

“But we all know we can’t tackle these challenges with the knowledge and technology that we have today.

“We need a future-focused fit for purpose research, science and innovation system to safeguard our future health, environment and prosperity.”

The consultation document offers some more detail on possible priorities.

They include pollution, alternative proteins, space, soil science and surprisingly, CRISPR, which is the gene-editing technology used to manipulate genetic sequencing in organisms and which has been used by Ag Research to produce the ryegrass, which reduces methane emissions from cattle fed on it.

But currently, because of New Zealand’s Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, the ryegrass cannot be grown in New Zealand and must be planted in the United States for its trials.

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Associate Research, Science and Innovation Minister Ayesha Verrall also talked about what the priorities might focus on.

“The government has ambitious goals to transition to a low emissions economy that’s diverse, innovative, resilient, productive and inclusive,” she said.

“We want a rich and protected environment that we can be proud of to support healthier, safer communities and to make Aotearoa the best place in the world to be a child.

“To achieve these goals, we need ambitious research.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the Cabinet paper suggests Minister could play a more hands-on role in determining science priorities.

The Strategic Science Investment Fund  (SCIF) puts more than $200 million a year into a wide range of specific projects as various as Antarctica research, Kauri dieback, or data science.

Woods’ Cabinet paper says she proposes to explore options to revise the policy around the SSIF platforms to provide greater coordination and insight over their activities.

“ Key amongst the shifts I wish to explore are changes to allow Government departments and other key stakeholders governance roles in relevant platforms, so that, for example, officials and Ministers in the Primary Industries portfolio will have a greater say, and stake, in the Primary Industries research platform,” the paper says.

“This will also mean that priorities for research within individual areas will be set and governed by those stakeholders, according to plans or sub-strategies which are linked directly to the platform funding.”

What is likely to be a controversial part of the proposals is the section dealing with a possible consolidation of the Crown research institutes.

“The cumulative effect of these changes will be to create a system where there may be little benefit in retaining eight separate organisations (seven CRIs plus Callaghan Innovation)”, it says.

“Consolidation is not a necessary aspect of this future state, but it may be a critical element in achieving it.

“The benefits of such a move will need to be weighed carefully against potential costs, and we will need to give careful consideration to the form into which our research institutions may transition.”

But apart from the setting of national research priorities, a shakeup of the funding system, and the possible consolidation of the CRIs, the biggest, perhaps most long term significant proposal in the paper is the much bigger role for Maori in science.

Speaking by Zoom from the University of Waikato, Professor Tahu Kukutai said Maori needed to be involved in research.

“We know that Aotearoa faces major challenges in terms of inter-generational poverty, health inequities, housing, social cohesion, climate change and biodiversity loss,” she said.

“Many of these challenges disproportionately affect Maori and Pacific communities and have been amplified by Covid.

“The research, science and innovation sector needs to be able to address these challenges and far more timely and connected ways. The current approach isn’t working for Maori, nor I would argue, is it providing the benefits that many other New Zealanders expect.”

She said there was an expectation that all research priorities moving forward would be co-developed with Maori and would give effect to Te Tiriti.

In 2002 there were very few Maori with PhDs, she said.

“But since then, there have been more than 800 Maori PhD completions.

“So the problem is not whether there are enough Maori. The problem, perhaps, is that we are not judged to be enough.”

She said there were abundant opportunities to invest in not only public sector infrastructure and capacity, but also Maori lead and controlled infrastructure that enabled self-determined development.

“A research science and innovation system that is genuinely te Tiriti led lead needs to empower and resource autonomous Maori initiatives; spaces where Maori ways of being and thinking and doing are the norm as well as partnership approaches.

“It is an and and rather than an either-or.”

But this science shakeup is not going to stop at the CRIs.

Woods’ paper said The Minister of Education will also be taking a paper to Cabinet shortly on proposed changes to the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF), “which aligns with the work in this portfolio to strengthen the Research Science and Innovation system.”

The PBRF is how Universities get funding for research, and their share of the overall research funding pie has been growing.

The Cabinet paper says that when the CRIs were founded in the 1990s, they accounted for two-thirds of all the research conducted in New Zealand, but since then, the balance has shifted to the Universities that now do more research the CRIs.

This is becoming a Government of significant and often controversial reform. Yesterday’s science proposals will fit within those parameters.