New Zealand resists call to create independent research council

White paper vows to reshape science sector but also shies away from suggested creation of base operating grants for institutions

December 7, 2022
One of the domes of University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory. This image was taken on a sunny afternoon in early Spring.
Source: iStock

New Zealand’s government has vowed to reshape the country’s fragmented science sector into a coherent system framed around refreshed national priorities, while resisting university calls for it to be put under the stewardship of an independent national council.

white paper outlining “future pathways” for the research, science and innovation system also shies away from an earlier suggestion that the government would consider introducing base operating grants for research organisations.

The document, which builds on last year’s green paper, prescribes a three-stage overhaul to “shift from a system with multiple small entities and strategies to one in which we focus our efforts on nationally significant priorities”, according to research minister Ayesha Verrall.

But the paper does not revisit its green paper proposal for a “base grant” to cover research overheads. Instead, it vows to improve the “transparency” of overhead funding to address “information asymmetry” about the costs of research and the use of government funds.

The document is also silent on the green paper suggestion that the crown research institutes (CRIs) could be co-located with universities, while noting that the seven institutes’ structure as “standalone companies” inhibits collaboration and encourages “fragmentation, lack of role clarity and apparent overlaps”.

But in a recorded message, Dr Verrall said that the government would consider reforming the CRIs’ company model “to foster science for the public good”.

“We will develop an infrastructure roadmap to co-ordinate investment and co-locate buildings where that offers synergies,” she added.

The document also promises to liberate researchers from “unproductive competition for grants” and the precarity of “contract churn”, while offering scant detail about either measure.

The headline reform will see refreshed national research priorities developed by 2024, superseding the national science challenges of a decade earlier. The new priorities will have a dedicated funding mechanism to garner investment in “mission-led research”, acting as a lightning rod for collaboration and capability-building.

The document also promises increased funding for Māori and Pacific Peoples research, and supports the government’s goal to increase overall investment in research and development to 2 per cent of gross domestic product by 2030.

Universities New Zealand endorsed the focus on national priorities but expressed disappointment that the government had not heeded its call for new oversight of the research system. Chief executive Chris Whelan said that an independent body would be the “best way” of achieving the white paper objectives at “arm’s length” from political cycles.

“An independent research council could oversee the research system – including infrastructure, capability development and emerging frontiers of knowledge – and be responsible for setting research priorities,” Mr Whelan said.

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