Brussels, 28 Oct 2004
Many of the European Union's Member States are currently in the process of rethinking the structure of their research systems. The rationale for this self-examination can usually be traced back to one reason - a desire to increase sustainable competitiveness, often in the face of tight budgetary constraints.
Research ministries are therefore taking a renewed interest in how other countries are funding scientific and technological development, and one of the countries receiving attention is New Zealand. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has declared the country's framework for allocating funding to research, science and technology to be one of the best in the world, the World Bank has claimed that New Zealand's economy is the best globally for doing business, and the journal 'New Scientist' has alluded to the country punching 'way above its weight' in scientific research.
On a recent visit to New Zealand, CORDIS News spoke to some of those at the forefront of research. Researchers there, on the whole, appear to appreciate what they have, with the only two recurring complaints relating to a lack of money and the resulting high degree of competitiveness within the country for public research funding.
New Zealand has itself undergone a restructuring which saw the old government research laboratories transformed into nine Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) in 1992. CRIs are the largest providers of scientific research in New Zealand, and receive 61 per cent of the Government's mainstream funding for research. The CRIs are joined by eight universities, 21 polytechnics and institutes of technology and industry, which currently funds 37 per cent of research in New Zealand with 0.42 per cent of its GDP.
The CRIs are large organisations, with between 300 and 800 employees at each. Their fields of research are: agriculture (principally the life sciences); crops and food; forensic sciences; forests and wood products; geology and nuclear sciences; horticulture; industrial research (principally information and communication technologies, electronics, materials and energy); biodiversity and land use/management; and water and atmosphere. Each institute is an independent company with a board of directors, and while they still receive the majority of the government's research funding, they are becoming increasingly self-sufficient, sourcing revenue through industry contributions, winning international contracts and through other commercial research contracts.
One of the most successful CRIs in financial terms is NIWA, the National Institute of Water and Atmosphere Research. 'Once they made us go out there and find money it's amazing what we found we could do. We had a good opportunity and we didn't squander it,' said Rick Pridmore, Chief Executive of NIWA. When government laboratories were transformed into CRIs, they had to shift from service organisations to selling a product, explained Dr Pridmore. Some 40 per cent of the institute's revenue now comes from commercial customers.
While some of the other CRIs have been less successful in terms of making money, they are nonetheless regarded as constituting a vital component of New Zealand's research framework. The success or otherwise of HortResearch, for example, is judged according to its contribution to the preservation of New Zealand's capabilities and to education and training, according to the institute's General Manager for Business Operations, Greg Mann. And HortResearch is another success story. Sales of the Kiwi Gold, which has yellow instead of green flesh and was developed at HortResearch, reached 176 million New Zealand dollars (97 million euro) in 2003/2004.
The government is also proud of the CRIs. Chief Executive of the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology Helen Anderson calls them 'an untold success story' and claims that they are 'extremely well run, very efficient, very in touch with their user communities - well-oiled machines.'
The praise is not entirely unqualified, however. A lack of funding means that salaries are unattractive, according to Dr Pridmore, and causes researchers to leave science. A tight budget also acts as a barrier to collaboration with universities, according to some, as they are in direct competition for funding. The question of balance between competition and collaboration has been grasped by the government. 'There is a recognition that we need to swing the pendulum back towards stability,' Dr Anderson told CORDIS News. She also pointed to the 'silent majority' who are successful in obtaining research funding.
Government money for the CRIs and the universities is awarded on a competitive basis by one of three 'purchase agents': the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FRST); the Health Research Council (HRC) and the Marsden Fund Council, administered the Royal Society of New Zealand. In May the New Zealand Minister of Research, Science and Technology, Pete Hodgson, announced that his portfolio would receive the largest sum ever from the 2004 budget, bringing annual government research funding up to 604.59 million New Zealand dollars (331.08 million euro). Additional funding comes from industry, overseas entities and other government ministries. For example, in a drive to boost scientific excellence in New Zealand, seven Centres of Research Excellence (CoREs) were established in 2002 by the Ministry of Education.
Universities and CRIs are also beneficiaries of the Marsden Fund, established in 1995 to fund basic research on a competitive basis. The Fund grew out of a belief that curiosity-driven research had been left behind, according to Dr Don Smith, Research Funding Manager at the Royal Society, which is responsible for running the initiative. The scheme has been widely acclaimed, and studies show that research supported under the Marsden Fund has higher levels of publication than other research, and has resulted in a high number of patents, said Dr Smith. Those receiving grants, meanwhile, not only benefit from the funding, but from the prestige associated with it, which can start a career, said Dr Smith.
With its recognition of the importance of basic research and moves to make research less dependent on government funding, New Zealand could be regarded as ahead of Europe in many respects. It is perhaps for this reason that the country is expecting visits from three European research ministers over the coming months.
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