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OPINIONScienceMay 15, 2023

The research sector needs investment now – for the good of our planet and people

a microscope and two test tubes, one with a tree inside, against a green and blue backdrop
Image: Tina Tiller

The government must stop kicking the can down the road and deliver the long-promised increase of R&D investment in Thursday’s budget, writes Nicola Gaston.

With many others in the scientific community, I will be watching the government’s budget announcements closely for details of the Te Ara Paerangi – Future Pathways process to reform New Zealand’s science and research infrastructure. The road map outlined in the white paper released last year told us to expect announcements on fellowships and research priorities to guide the direction of future investment.

What is a research priority, you may ask? Well, that is to be seen, but in essence they have been framed as areas of strategic importance to Aotearoa New Zealand, into which new government investment in research, science and innovation (RSI) will be directed. One obvious example to me – in the wake of the most recent state of emergency in Auckland – is climate change. Another might be in health, and particularly health equity, with the different health outcomes for Pākehā, Māori and Pacific New Zealanders having been repeatedly mentioned by Ayesha Verrall, the minister of health as well as research, science and innovation, as being unacceptable.

So in some sense, priorities are easily identifiable. On the other hand, the more easily we can identify them, the more likely they are to be areas where the scientific research has already made the case for them. I have said before in responding to government budgets that the scientific community should look for and celebrate budget decisions that implement scientific advice, as much as we should look for new funding for science. The mounting infrastructure debt – a deficit of infrastructure investment – exacerbated by the effects of climate change is one such area; similarly, direct and targeted investment into the health system is probably the best way of improving health equity. Government priorities are not exactly the same as research priorities, no matter how important they are.

So what do we need research priorities for? 

The need to guide new government research investment is one of politics, in a way – if research funding is to be increased, goes the argument, the public must be given an explanation of what the money is for. And I hardly disagree with this – transparency of our research funding system is very important. But while I call it an issue of politics, it is also a very apolitical problem.

There is a longstanding bipartisan expectation of new investment to move the dial towards the current government’s goal of increasing R&D investment to 2% of GDP. As the National Party first pointed out in 2019, there’s a year-on-year deficit of $150 million of investment accumulating while the government fails to act, and that deficit lies behind the need for the Te Ara Paerangi reforms to lead to significant investment. 

Successive governments have agreed on the principle that increased funding in research, science and innovation is needed for economic diversification and development. The National Science Challenges, established under Steven Joyce as minister of science and innovation, were a first attempt to move the dial. However, the attachment of new funding to research priorities proved in that case to limit the capacity of the research sector to absorb the intended new funding. The need to create new structures through which the funding could be delivered had a massive overhead – and I say this as someone who very strongly admires the teams of researchers who rolled up their sleeves and got on with making the challenges work. They did amazing work with the funding received, but it was hard work to get off the ground.

I mentioned fellowships as a second area where we might be likely to see announcements. These function somewhere at the other end of the strategic scale, prioritising investment in excellent researchers with good ideas. These are particularly important for diversity in our research sector as they can be targeted to support early career researchers, for example. 

However, there is a clue in the Te Ara Paerangi documents about why fellowships are seen positively by the ministry in charge, MBIE: they are an inherently short-term investment. In addition, they can be justified as being about building capacity in the sector, to prepare it to be able to absorb more money than what it is currently capable of.

The following statement in the white paper did not outrage me the first time I read it: “The RSI system is not well-placed to absorb the increased funding that is necessary to prepare us for the future.” 

In the white paper it is linked to problems such as incentives to unhealthy competition between our universities, which I agree with.

Hundreds of staff at the University of Otago are currently expected to lose their jobs, with inaccurate budget forecasts by university management being blamed. Those inaccuracies relate directly to the structural “unhealthy competition” mentioned above, as student numbers fluctuate year on year and small percentage changes can have large consequences. Most problematic, however, is the assumption by university managers that advertising budgets or spending on student facilities drives student choice, and that therefore it is something they can control. The impact of the cost-of-living crisis on students does not seem to have been factored in.

Outraged yet? Redundancies are not limited to any one university in New Zealand – they have been playing out across the sector since the onset of the pandemic, and are continuing. Notably, some of the staff affected are researchers leading MBIE-funded research programmes. They are the necessary “capacity” to absorb research funding, and we are in the process of losing it.

So here is what I believe we need to see in this budget: the long-promised increase of R&D investment to 2% of GDP. It can be done through current structures – the Marsden Fund, MBIE research investments and capability funds, and perhaps even through the PBRF which delivers baseline funds to universities. Through fellowships for early career researchers, absolutely. So long as it is money that will get to people doing the work, it will be money well spent.

Structural change in the sector can still be made over time. But we need to get on with making the financial commitment in this year’s budget rather than pushing it out another year and compounding the existing infrastructural deficit in our research sector. I am confident that the scientific community is up for the challenge. 

Nicola Gaston is a professor of physics at the University of Auckland and co-director of the MacDiarmid Institute.

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