The Government is planning a major shakeup of the research sector in New Zealand, which is likely to impact Crown Research Institutes and Universities.
Science Minister Megan Woods has begun a review of the sector.
She announced it at a Select Committee meeting ten days ago, but it appeared to pass over the heads of the MPs there, and only the last two questions of her hour-long session were about it.
She has said nothing about it since. Nor does her Ministry’s website contain any information about it.
But it was clear from her answers to questions that the future of the Crown Research Institutes and science at Universities are both under review.
“One of the big pieces of work that we’re currently undertaking is a project that we called Future Pathways, which is about a review of what Crown research institutes and our science system will look like into the future,” she said.
“This will inevitably be about relationships with universities and how it is that we organise our science system so that we are well organised for the twenty-first century.”
It seemed that Woods had a political view of the CRIs, which were established by the 1990 – 99 National Government and are Crown-owned companies, but unlike State-Owned enterprises, they are not expected to maximise profit, rather to operate in a way that maintains their financial viability.
“The CRIs are a 1990s invention that was the carve-up of the DSIR; that was done at a particular moment in history around a particular ideology and philosophy,” she said.
Since then some of the institutes like NIWA and GNS science have become household names for their wok on climate and earthquakes.
In 2014 then-Minister Stephen Joyce established the National Science Challenges — a set of 11 objectives, each with its own board.
They range from a series of studies of children through “Building better homes”,; “High-value nutrition`” and “New Zealand’s biological heritage” to “the Deep South”.
The challenges are expected to have taken up $681 million in funding over ten years by 2024.
“The national science challenges in many ways were a bandaid to try and reposition towards national priorities in terms of what they looked like,” said Woods.
“We will be thinking about how we elevate what our national science priorities are as a nation as we go through that programme of work.”
She said that the research, science and innovation system would need to adapt further to deliver the transformative knowledge and innovations that would safeguard our future health, environment and prosperity.
“Such a system should be able to organise itself easily and have fluidity around key challenges such as climate change as well as to adapt quickly to cutting edge technologies and techniques that we need to safeguard us for an unseen future.
“We are now in the very early stage of exploring how we make this future research system a reality.
“A central part of this work will be drawing on the collective wisdom, experience and inspiration of our research science and innovation (RSI) sector to move us towards a modern, diverse and future focussed RSI system that reflects our treaty obligations and provides opportunities for all New Zealanders.”
But ironically, when it came to discussion about one of the current system’s research triumphs, Ag Research’s development of a ryegrass that can reduce methane emissions from cattle, she was much more equivocal.
The grass is a product of genetic editing, which though not banned, is considered unlikely to be approved under New Zealand’s Hazardous Substances and New organisms Act which means the grass is having to be trialled in the United States.
“We don’t have any current workstreams to change things,” she said.
“So I think there is a much larger conversation to be had with New Zealanders, and it’s not currently on our programmes.”
Apart from the future of the Crown Research Institutes, the other big question confronting the review will be the role of the universities in science research.
More of their research tends to be pure or theoretical research often unconnected to any immediate economic issue.
Universities New Zealand says the sector relies on three main streams of Government funding; the Marsden Fund, the Health Research Fund and the Endeavour Fund.
All up, the current budget for the three funds is $454 million, a very slight drop (0.3%) on the previous year.
Around half of all the funding goes to the Endeavour fund, which is a results-oriented fund.
Woods has said in a foreword to the Fund’s investment plan that The Government’s vision for New Zealand puts the long-term wellbeing of people and the environment at its centre.
“This includes priorities of reducing child poverty, access to affordable, healthy homes, opportunities for meaningful work, and a just transition to a sustainable, low-emissions economy,” she said.
“Research, science and innovation can contribute to these goals by helping us understand and tackle social, economic and environmental problems, improve the sustainable production of goods and services, and deliver effective public services.
“New ideas, skills and knowledge are also the key to generating options to transform the way we live, work and get value from natural resources.”
In contrast, the Marsden Fund is administered by the Royal Society.
In its “background to the fund” on its website, it says: “The Marsden Fund was established by the Government in 1994 to fund excellent fundamental research.
Marsden Fund research benefits society as a whole by contributing to the development of researchers with knowledge, skills and ideas.
What seems likely is that the Minister may be seeking to align research more closely with the Government’s overall political objectives.
That may be the purpose of “Future Pathways”.
By itself, that would not be unusual. National’s Stephen Joyce sought to align research and science funding with his infamous “business growth agenda”.
But this time, it appears that Woods wants to redesign not just the funding but the entire research and science structure in New Zealand.