New Zealand universities call for independent research council

‘Big-picture thinkers’ would set national priorities, sidestep electoral cycles and deal with ‘boundary issues’ involving indigenous knowledge

March 7, 2022
woman standing on Mt,John, Tekapo, Canterbury, New Zealand
Source: iStock

New Zealand needs an independent council to provide a “national strategic focus” for its disjointed research efforts, and the country must abandon its “unrealised aspiration of being below average” in research spending, according to representative body Universities New Zealand (UNZ).

In a response to last year’s green paper on the future of the public research system, UNZ has called for a council of “leading researchers and big-picture thinkers” to set national research priorities.

The council, modelled on unspecified overseas examples, would advise on “investments over long time horizons” rather than allocating individual research grants. But it would oversee spending on research infrastructure and commission research on the sector’s capability, diversity and performance.

It would operate “at arm’s length from the government” to sidestep the “vagaries of political cycles”, but would nevertheless have mechanisms for “engagement with political decision-making”.

UNZ chief executive Chris Whelan said the proposed body could help ensure that resources were not exhausted on initiatives that were supported by one government only to be “rejected by the next one”.

“We’re looking for a little bit of stability and a long-term perspective, recognising that it’s taxpayers’ money and ultimately politicians will decide what should or shouldn’t be prioritised,” he said.

The council would oversee a process to “identify and publicise emerging research areas of importance, and regularly update the national research strategy to reflect this new thinking”, the submission says.

It says New Zealand research institutions’ “inclination for collaboration” is undermined by governance structures and funding settings that encourage them to focus on individual efforts rather than collective priorities.

The council would also have responsibility for prioritising mātauranga Māori, or Māori knowledge. The new body would take an interest “in all research that advances the wellbeing of Māori communities”.

At the same time, it would be responsible for “dealing in a strategic way” with “boundary issues” such as “the desirability of integrating Māori research into more general research programmes”.

Māori and Māori knowledge should be “central to a framework for mutually defined success”, with a “dedicated fully funded capability operated by Māori for Māori communities”, the submission says. Māori should not merely be seen as “stakeholders to be consulted”, it insists.

The council would also take an interest in research that benefits wider Pacific communities. The submission accuses the green paper of overlooking “equity for Pacific research and researchers”, which earned a “minor reference” in just one of the report’s 82 pages.

The submission also says New Zealand is “well short” of its target for research spending to reach 2 per cent of gross domestic product – which itself is well below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average of 2.5 per cent.

“We need…greater public investment and stronger incentives for the private sector to build its commitment to research investment, especially in sectors that offer the highest dividend,” the submission says.

“A lot of good ideas are not being funded,” Mr Whelan said. “We’ve got a system that just doesn’t have the level of funding for the number of researchers.”

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (1)

Before lobbying for more research funding, Wheelan should consider how to spend research money more effectively. His UNZ endorses PBRF, correct? Moreover, UNZ opposes any substantial change to the PBRF process. Now, he expects the taxpayer to throw more money at NZ research to make up for all of the funding PBRF wastes on incentivising box-checking? This, instead of funding research of actual value and the genuine upliftment of indigenous researchers (instead of a few self-appointed gatekeepers)?