New Zealand mulls introducing base funding for research

Green paper ‘asks the right questions’, including whether crown research institutes should collocate with universities

November 15, 2021
Boy makes a move on a jenga game to illustrate New Zealand mulls introducing base funding for research
Source: Getty

New Zealand could supply research organisations with base operating grants and seven crown research institutes (CRIs) could be collocated with universities under an overhaul of the country’s complex and fragmented public research system.

A government Green Paper poses 17 broad questions on institutional design, Māori representation and research priorities, funding and infrastructure. They include requests for feedback on a proposal to abandon New Zealand’s unique approach of bankrolling research overheads – such as building maintenance, utilities and support staff salaries – through a “percentage top-up” on project-specific research grants.

“It is hard…to identify another country that funds research the way we do,” the paper says. “The end of a research grant does not just mean the end of that research project. It also means the end of the funding for the fraction of buildings, information technology, human resources services and other overheads that were attributed to it.”

The paper says a “base grant” to meet ongoing costs could help make research institutions far more adaptable and resilient. It could also help boost international collaboration while reducing precarity and increasing diversity in the research workforce.

James Metson, deputy vice-chancellor (research) at the University of Auckland, said the proposal risked replacing the “instability” caused by the current approach with uncertainty over whether indirect research costs were fully covered.

“You get into this arm wrestle about how overheads are calculated…[and] who’s cross-subsidising whom,” he said. “Australian colleagues [say] they would love the NZ system because it offers a simplicity and transparency in full costing that the Australian system lacks. If overheads are fully funded through some sort of block grant system, the universities would be quite sympathetic. But you have to be very careful – there’s no easy way through this.”

Universities New Zealand said the review was timely and well framed. “The question of changes to baseline funding is a new and interesting one and we are exploring the potential implications. The challenge will be in the detail – for example, balancing mission-led research with investigator-led, ‘blue sky’ research,” the group said.

Victoria University of Wellington’s vice-provost for research, Margaret Hyland, praised the government for allowing input into the first “big system redesign” since the early 1990s, when changes had been implemented without consultation.

“I’ve been encouraging all our researchers to get engaged,” she said. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to have a say about what we think the future research system should look like.”

Professor Hyland contributed to a 2020 review that helped inform the Green Paper. She said CRIs’ “great work” had been hamstrung by their structure, company model, restrictive focus and restricted funding. “We don’t have the flexibility to address some really big issues in a collective way.”

She said collocation with universities could generate “better efficiencies”, give CRIs extra resilience by binding them to durable institutions, and bring together the “multiple disciplines” needed to address strategic challenges like climate resilience and social injustice. “But just putting people together doesn’t necessarily do the work. You [need] structures, motivation and shared purpose.”

Professor Metson supported collocation, but said it was not “easily compatible” with the current funding approach. “Competition between institutions for research funding makes natural collaboration around capital investments, buildings and research infrastructure quite challenging.”

He said collocation could occur gradually. “It’s about finding the win-wins in those cycles of capital investment.”

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