Science is golden... But where's the gold?

With our leading science organisations 'right-sizing' and science funding stalled, is the government's approach to science meeting the needs of New Zealand now and in the future?

Good quality science, data and insights are required to transform what is done on the land. Deputy Prime Minister Bill English was last year urging farmers to use "good science", while more recently farmers have been urging regional councils to base their policies on facts and evidence.

Increasingly, New Zealand needs science and economics to underpin good resource policy, but are the systems – and crucially – sufficient funding in place to make that happen?

Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser, has been stressing the need for evidence-led policies for some time (see his papers here). A keynote address to the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies Symposium in July focussed on the relationship between evidence, policy formation and implementation, and the interplay between the scientific community, the policy community and the political decision makers.

Sir Peter explained that traditionally the scientific community has tended to focus on the facts and data: with the gathering of information, decisions can be made based on interpretation. Increasingly, however, interpretation is being challenged, particularly by Society for whom policy is being made, and, as a consequence, by political decision-makers.

In his address Sir Peter suggested that the solution is to find a common understanding of evidence and how it should be assessed. He also pointed out that different stakeholders have different views on what constitutes evidence, how it is sourced, and whether it is sufficient to support one course of action over any other.

“The reality is that in a democracy, policy formation and political decision-making are and should be based on more than scientific advice alone,” he said. “Science alone cannot decide whether or not a society should accept a particular trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection.”

The classic economy versus environment dilemma has been a feature of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s reports on water quality and dairy expansion. Dr Jan Wright has been trying to provide the evidence from which policy can be formed and political decisions can be made.

Underpinning Dr Wright’s work has been the research done by scientists at the Crown Research Institutes, including those at AgResearch.

This is hardly surprising given that AgResearch is responsible for research underpinning environmental management of the approximately 12 million hectares of pastoral land in New Zealand (1.6 million hectares of which are in dairy farming) and the biggest component of the export economy.

What is surprising is that in AgResearch’s right-sizing exercise, a significant number of the researchers in the environment-economy area (including animal health, pasture science and climate change) have been ‘targeted’.

Landcare Research, ‘the lead provider of land, soils and biodiversity research to the New Zealand public sector’, made a similar ‘right-sizing’ announcement mid-year. It is revamping capability to meet new areas of funding. Scientists in ‘old areas’ have gone and new people are being employed to meet the need in areas of new funding such as the National Science Challenges.

The question has been asked since the science reforms in the early 1990s – is science policy enabling what is needed for the future?

The fundamental problem for the Crown Research Institutes is that funding is in many pools, and is not keeping up with inflation; a further problem is that criteria for success change.

Budget figures this year indicate that Core Funding has remained at $201.7 billion for the last three years. This is the funding to ‘create and maintain capability that is required for their core purpose and strategy’.

Biological Industries Research funding was reduced in the last budget from $94.92 million to $92.15. This funding is ‘limited to research and research applications to support productivity growth and sustainability of New Zealand’s primary industries, and the development of premium food and industrial biological products and technologies responsive to global consumer preferences’.

In addition, the funding for research to protect ecosystems and land and freshwater resources, about which all New Zealanders feel strongly, has been reduced (from $32.45 million to $31.54 million).

Funding providers have pointed out that more money for research has been made available through initiatives such as the Primary Growth Partnership. However, the direction is given by industry; industry focus is almost always ‘near to market’ and hence making money. This is understandable, but science is a long-term game. The OECD has shown that investment in research rarely generates any income before 8 years, and that 15-20 years is about the profit maximisation period. This means that being able to say ‘my investment created that result’ doesn’t happen within the political election cycle.

It probably won’t happen within the CEO tenure cycle, either. The driver to value is therefore short-term research, and security of funding has vanished.

Research funding for environmental research, which doesn’t tend to lead to a market where revenue can be gained, is evaporating. So is the capability to do that research.
Of importance is that current CRI management systems mean that it is the managers who decide what science is to be done, and where funding bids are made in response to what they perceive as new criteria for success, not the scientists themselves. Yet it is the scientists that pay the penalty when funding bids fail. The 83 redundancies announced by AgResearch as ‘under discussion’ target science and technical roles.

Concern has been raised in the media about ‘brain drain’ but the real concern should be for the next generation and what the employment signals are to the schools. The implications are already clear in New Zealand in the decline in interest in participation in the sciences at school. Assessment of school students’ attitudes to science/mathematics via the international comparisons TIMSS and PISA indicates that New Zealand students do not like learning science/ mathematics as much as their international counterparts, and see less value in learning science/mathematics. Yet these are the subjects increasingly regarded as the foundation for employment.

The Brookings report on the Hidden STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Economy, published in June 2013, makes the point clear: 20% of all jobs require a high level of knowledge in any one STEM field. Of particular interest is that half of all the STEM jobs are available to workers with sub-degree qualifications and these jobs pay 10% more than jobs with similar educational requirements.

Overall, workers in STEM fields play a direct role in driving economic growth, and are rewarded for their knowledge by above average pay - at least in America.

In New Zealand the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment Occupation Outlook suggests that job prospects are good, but fees are high and income only average… despite the evident need, we continue to send the signals that science is not important.

In some contrast, Occupation Outlook suggests that job prospects for Policy Analysts are moderate, fees are moderate but income is high… Although a degree of almost any sort can result in a career in policy, school students tend to aim for the shortest route to career, and link the job with the degree. Science does not appear to be the right route.

Scientists have been trying to provide the information that decision makers need, while working in an increasingly challenging research environment which is a function of policy. Improvements will be achieved only through a change in the policies around funding, project selection and also around education. 

The Deputy Prime Minister, The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment have made the importance of good scientific research very clear. The sustainability of the economy and the environment depend upon it and upon all parties having sufficient understanding to engage in productive and progressive discussion. Without a change in the policies around science funding management and science education, there will be no ‘transformation on the land’ – and New Zealand as a whole will suffer.