Kiwis fear for the future of science

August 14, 1998

Many doubt that the science base will recover from government cuts and changes. Fiona Cassie writes from Christchurch

The paring-back of a government commitment to boost research funding has left New Zealand's research community doubtful that it will ever catch up lost ground.

An analysis of the government's latest budget announcement by the New Zealand Association of Scientists shows funding declining in real terms. If the trends continue, the NZAS says, funding could fall more than 50 per cent short of the government's target to boost public science funding to 0.8 per cent of gross domestic product by 2010.

The target commitment was being met until the planned NZ$40 million (Pounds 12.5 million) increase for 1998-99 was cut to $NZ10 million as part of the coalition government's budget-savings initiative.

Mike Berridge, NZAS secretary and University of Otago academic, says that if the funding rise had been met, the country would have been on track to meet a target that, though low by OECD standards, would have partially reversed the cuts of the 1980s. "But rhetoric and reality have parted company, and we are now moving away from the goal set and from our vision of a viable science sector for the future," he said in a statement signed by all 18 members of the association's council.

Maurice Williamson, minister for research, science and technology, said at the time of the May budget that the NZ$10 million increase was a continuation of the government's commitment to increase public investment to 0.8 per cent of GDP by 2010.

He later told the education and science select committee that with the government under "legitimate pressure to maintain the funds for a heart unit here, and a school there, things such as science investment for the future tended to attract cuts".

Mr Williamson said: "For me, that is a short-term view that will beam us to the scrap heap, if we're not careful."

After reforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the new Foundation for Research Science and Technology took over most government research funding from individual departments, to distribute on a contestable basis.

At the same time the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and the research arms of other government departments were turned into nine government-owned research companies known as Crown Research Institutes. Also, a small university research funding pool, administered by the old University Grants Committee, was absorbed into the foundation's Public Good Science Fund.

Now the universities, CRIs and private research interests all fight it out for part of this funding pie, which this year stands at NZ$317 million.The Marsden Fund, a NZ$22 million pool administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand, is set aside for curiosity-driven, blue-skies research.

The foundation, a statutory authority that reports to the science minister, is directed by government to "purchase" research projects - in 17 categories from society and culture to animal industries - that meet government priorities. These range from cultural well-being to protecting the environment and improving economic competitiveness. A Foresight Project initiated by the government last year is looking at redefining the priorities.

But the "marketisation" of science funding under the foundation system has not been without its critics. Most recently, new priorities favouring research into "added value of products, processes and services" has hurt traditional agriculture and horticulture research and led CRIs to make scientists redundant.

The public sector union, PSA, has been critical of Public Good Science Fund allocation committees being dominated by university academics, who "just go on allocating more money to university researchers, to substitute for shrinking university funding". Allegations have also been made about university researchers successfully applying for funds to committees they sit on.

Public Good Science Fund manager Colin Webb has pointed out that although the universities' share of the PGSF has grown to NZ$20.1 million, they are really not dominant players as CRIs win 83 per cent of the funding.

Addressing concerns about researchers applying to their own committees, he said it was a reflection of the size of the country's science community. Further, he said, in all cases the researchers were out of the room and took no part in considering their own applications.

Neville Blampied, University of Canterbury academic and convenor of the Association of University Staff national research committee, says CRIs might argue that the PGSF system favours universities, but he counters that the foundation's push for large, long-term projects disadvantages university research, which is often of small scale and dependent on students' interest.

Dr Blampied does not believe that many people in universities would want to go back to the old UGC system as the current funding pool is much greater and the PGSF includes a serious peer review process, which the UGC lacked. The PGSF system just needs more work to improve the match with the nature of university research, he says.

Webb says the PGSF was not a student support foundation. Instead, Vote Education was the source of funding for such research. He said another common misconception about the foundation was that the idea of research having to be relevant is new. Most of the funding under the government department system had been directed towards research that was seen as being useful to New Zealand, he says.

Meanwhile, the future of the research component of university bulk-funding is up in the air as the country awaits the release of the tertiary education review white paper, probably next month. Expectations are that research funding will be "unbundled" from the per-student funding and turned into a further contestable research fund with the big question being who controls the fund.

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