Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: On Science

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  • Rich of Observationz,

    Our goal is to be 90% renewable by 2025

    Of course, by privatising power generators they are getting rid of the levers they could use to achieve that (rather unambitious) goal.

    We should actually be aiming for 100% renewable by 2020 and to go well beyond that in replacing transport and static fossil fuel usage by renewables after that date. This is actually very achievable (we have identified renewable generation projects that take us over 100%, but isn’t going to happen with a “market” that prices fuel according to current costs of extraction.

    It’s also something that can genuinely transform our economy by giving us a huge energy cost advantage over fossil-fuel dependent states. Something government should do (as opposed to much touted industrial policy fads – turning Waikekemukau into a ‘high-tech geomorphic innovation cluster’ is something that just isn’t in government’s gift. Or ‘transforming our economy through sport-based inbound tourism…’).

    Back in Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 4221 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,

    On CRIs - by "worked fairly well" Labour means, resulted in science funding being channelled into administration and business management that has produced no increased science outputs of any kind and (as far as I can see) a reduction in science publication. The CRIs have done no better than the DSIR and MAF did before them at a significant increase in cost.

    The CRI model also created competition and a pretty poisonous relationship and times between CRIs themselves and between CRIs and the Universities. In a small science community such as NZ that is not ideal.

    I'd happily see the CRIs scraped entirely as an experiment that didn't turn out to be as good as we hoped. Sadly too many administrators now depend on their continued existence so we just have to make the best of them.

    Regarding GE - the quote from Labour is

    The Royal Commission on genetic modification recommended a precautionary approach

    ... the key factor is that was 10 years ago! We have 10 more years worth of data that should be examined when considering this question. Much as I hate to suggest it but it deserves another commission.

    Final comment for now - The Greens are the only ones facing up to the rude disgusting fact that NZ puts a pathetic amount of money into science - half the OECD average, 1.31% of GDP! Of course the R&D sector struggles. Any politician that boasts about promoting innovation in that environment is telling porkies. Worth noting here that the 23% National put into my favorite funding tool Marsden (the most successful funding tool in NZ) has been frozen since then. The last Marsden round saw the lowest funding rate ever with no sign of it getting better :(.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3115 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    Meanwhile, the PMCSA says leave me out of it.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 17977 posts Report Reply

  • Hilary Stace,

    That postdoc funding issue is very big in NZ. The money is getting tighter and more elusive and the criteria now favours those several years postdoc and employed. So those who have just finished doctorates (and who are usually not securely employed), including some very clever scientists, are left with few options for funding and of course tend to go overseas and be lost to NZ.

    A few weeks ago a postdoc student from Canterbury started an open letter to the funders about the issue and within a few days had several hundred signatures from those affected, The LP policy appeared soon after.

    Wgtn • Since Jun 2008 • 1902 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Rich of Observationz,

    We should actually be aiming for 100% renewable by 2020 and to go well beyond that in replacing transport and static fossil fuel usage by renewables after that date.

    Yes, both Labour and Nats are disingenuous to only refer to electrical energy. Oil consumption for transport is fossil fuel based, and it doesn't need to be. There are lots of ways we could produce biofuels, and many transport initiatives to replace petrol with electricity, the most obvious being increased rail usage, and higher density urban areas. Rising oil prices could give NZ a very competitive advantage.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8039 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Hilary Stace,

    That postdoc funding issue is very big in NZ.

    Yeah the PM cheerfully announced new fellowships - what he didn't mention was that the money for those came from old fellowships he scrapped.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3115 posts Report Reply

  • izogi, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    The CRI model also created competition and a pretty poisonous relationship and times between CRIs themselves and between CRIs and the Universities.

    This certainly seems true. Some of the inside anecdotes I've heard from friends about interactions between entities that you'd think should get along, like NIWA and the Met Service, seem positively bizarre with the way information is aggressively defended for commercial use, except for carefully crafted working-together publicity stunts. And yet this is what the model encourages or requires of them.

    Any politician that boasts about promoting innovation in that environment is telling porkies.

    Talk to nearly any scientist who relies on competitive grants and they'll have stories about frustrations of rarely being able to do what they do best, and instead spending large portions of their time creating applications for funding, having to explain (or make up) likely results before they have any results to "prove" their research is worth funding more than the next person.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 254 posts Report Reply

  • merc,

    Earthquake, mining, oil exploration, wetlands and funding outcomes research would seem to be sitters ;-)

    Since Dec 2006 • 2468 posts Report Reply

  • DCBCauchi, in reply to izogi,

    Talk to nearly any scientist who relies on competitive grants and they’ll have stories about frustrations of rarely being able to do what they do best, and instead spending large portions of their time creating applications for funding, having to explain (or make up) likely results before they have any results to “prove” their research is worth funding more than the next person.

    I suspect you can replace ‘any scientist’ with ‘anyone’ in that sentence.

    Since Feb 2011 • 320 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole,

    Even Act would enforce regulations more strongly.

    After first paring said regulations as far as they consider could possibly get past the electorate, of course. But at least they'd enforce the remaining clichéd-European-dairy-based-food of regulations that might survive the paring exercise.

    The pit from whence crawl… • Since Mar 2007 • 3733 posts Report Reply

  • Richard Grevers,

    Indeed. The reason the electricity companies have built so many gas-fired power stations (more than we need as "peakers") is that the price of Maui gas is well below international averages (and industry pays about 20% the rate residential customers do). No more new gas stations because the gas is running out now. Residential and commercial use each account for 3% of consumption - power generation is 59%.
    Pohokura has only extended our gas supply to 2020-ish. Imports of natural gas will be at world prices and have a major impact on industrial users. Also, there was so much opposition to a LNG terminal at Port Taranaki (since half New Plymouth was in its explosion risk zone) that the idea was scrapped.
    So, a valuable resource which could have earned the energy companies top dollar if mainly used for residential/commercial applications might have lasted another 120 years. But it was squandered in 30.
    While much of the blame must rest with the Muldoon Government for setting that in place, sensible energy companies would have increased gas tarriffs so that it was comparable with electricity, utilising the profits to build new renewable generation. But that was never going to happen in a competitive environment.

    New Plymouth • Since Jul 2011 • 115 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to DCBCauchi,

    I suspect you can replace ‘any scientist’ with ‘anyone’ in that sentence.

    It’s more relevant in some sectors than others. Screen producers: it’s their job to Find Money to Do Stuff. Scientists and artists, not so much.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 17977 posts Report Reply

  • JacksonP, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    Sadly too many administrators now depend on their continued existence so we just have to make the best of them.

    Do we? That seems to be a very strong argument in itself to scrap it. Last I looked 'administration' and 'scientific research' were not synonymous.

    Auckland • Since Mar 2011 • 2072 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Russell Brown,

    True. Performers don't usually have to spend significant time creating and delivering the pitch (unless they are also producers).

    You could argue some staff in CRIs and tertiary institutions are the equivalent of the producers whose job is to secure the resources. Sadly, such "back-office" jobs are regarded as superfluous by this clueless government, and there are plenty of highly-trained scientists filling out forms - or heading overseas where their expertise is valued.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 15762 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Russell Brown,

    Kinda. Writing grants IS part of the job for a scientist. It's a discipline that focusses an idea into something concrete that can be assessed to make sure it isn't a piece of crap.

    BUT what we have in NZ is scientists being asked to describe in detail how their science will lead to a product that will benefit NZ, including path to market and industry partners. That bullshit is NOT part of the job and since at the moment grants are assessed on the crap rather than the quality of the science ...

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3115 posts Report Reply

  • stever@cs.waikato.ac.nz, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    Absolutely. And it's so often demonstrably a farce as we all make up various numbers.

    For example, I've been asked to say what extra income my science will make for NZ in the next few years.

    Trying to honestly answer this, I ask the relevant ministries what the total for currently existing industry in the relevant area is. The answer is usually, essentially, "We don't collect those figures, but we do for this whole, huge area that includes your area."

    So, using that as a start, and then trying to guess what size the area I'm interested in is as a proportion of the larger whole, I then make a further guess as to what increase in income my science will make (and this is a complete guess---let's say it'll make 1% difference in five years....)---so a guess gets multiplied by a figure arising from a guess at a proportion of a ministry's rough figure, and that then becomes a "data point" that someone assesses me on.

    All this is sort of an illustration of bad science---a number gets derived in some dubious way and then, because it looks "precise", it's imbued with significance, it's history is forgotten and it takes on some sort of legitimacy just because it has to---there are no data in the country that allow the calculation to be legitimate, but this is, apparently, "better than nothing", so it gets used.

    It's pretty clear it's nonsense, but the factI'm required to do this also makes it clear that our science funding regime is completely unfit for the job it's meant to be doing.

    Hamilton • Since Nov 2006 • 47 posts Report Reply

  • Geoff Willmott,

    CRIs. It's worth drawing specific attention to the 'Powering Innovation' report which appears to inform a large part of National's policy. This is aimed at doubling the size of IRL ($200m increase in funding), growing its presence in Auckland and Christchurch, and focussing towards applied rather than fundamental work. One can be cynical about these directions, and whether the money will actually come through (given what happened with the new Marsden money), but it would be churlish not to recognise this as a good thing and challenge Labour to match it or do better in their upcoming policy detail.

    2c:
    - this money would support regrowth of science in Chch, which is obviously A Good Thing.
    - On the HR front, it is good that the proposed changes encourage jobs in science/engineering, and mobility between CRIs, universities and companies, BUT there are still gaping holes in this strategy regarding training of scientists and engineers (including that PostDoc issue) and providing the kind of job security that might make a science job more attractive than real estate speculation
    - the focus on business engagement is good politically and could make some real impact, but it will be no good if it is to the detriment of fundamental science.
    - it is particularly encouraging that this report focusses on the high-value manufacturing area, where opportunities for international growth in niche areas are arguably much greater than in primary industry (cf Sir Paul Callaghan)

    Bart's comments:

    On CRIs - by "worked fairly well" Labour means, resulted in science funding being channelled into administration and business management that has produced no increased science outputs of any kind and (as far as I can see) a reduction in science publication. The CRIs have done no better than the DSIR and MAF did before them at a significant increase in cost.

    The points re: increased admin and decreasing hard science outputs may well be valid. However the point of the CRI exercise supercedes these, and requires contibution or engagement with society. CRIs now do this in a manner that is surely far superior than what was happening in the 1990s. The general public will be aware of what GNS now provides, for example.

    I'd happily see the CRIs scraped entirely as an experiment that didn't turn out to be as good as we hoped. Sadly too many administrators now depend on their continued existence so we just have to make the best of them.

    By which you (and JacksonP) must mean the CRI model rather than what makes up the CRIs themselves. Yeah there are political and administrative arguments and inefficiencies but you make it sound like there is no good, important science involved. How do you propose to do it better? This report looks like it is at least trying to answer that question.

    Agreed on Bart's (and others) point regarding over-emphasis on competitive funding, and the absurdity of the funding process. Of course.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 13 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,

    Ok having looked at the various answers three times now one thing strikes me as absolutely clear.

    None of the parties believe science and innovation is important.

    The longest and most detailed answers came from National. However much of the detail was fluff. Where there was substance it was focussed on commercial goals and commercialisation. Again the myth that we do enough science now we just need to commercialise it better.

    The most important question - 6 Research and Development

    In 2009, Australia was ranked 12th among OECD member countries for its spending on R&D as a percentage of GDP and New Zealand was ranked 27th. What is your party’s approach to encouraging R&D in general, and in particular, among New Zealand businesses? What policies would you implement to encourage private sector R&D?

    Was failed by each of the parties miserably IMO.

    Act believes that magic will happen and people (fairies?) investing in NZ will invest in R&D.

    Greens are the only party acknowledging our miserable investment in R&D (half the OECD average). Their plan is to apply a carbon tax and put that money into "industry-related R&D". I don't believe they will ever get such a tax through and I don't believe they would actually put money into quality assessed science. I could be wrong. On this question The Greens are closest to a viable answer.

    Labour after having been responsible for gutting science funding during their 9 year term now say they'll allow business to do science for NZ and encourage that with a tax credit. Yes a tax credit for R&D is a good thing but it does not replace government funded quality assessed science. Why should business fund R&D when Labour doesn't care about R&D? Labour continues to dodge the responsibility for the damage they did in their terms and plans to continue underfunding science.

    National claims all sorts of credit but the hard reality is when the GFC hit National froze R&D. They simply don't believe that science and innovation can help New Zealand and are unwilling to spend our money in that area. They continue the path initiated by Labour to force all of New Zealand's science into industry co-funding where funding is awarded to those projects that claim to be able to provide economic benefit in 3 years. But why would industry fund science if the government won't bother?

    Overall it is clear that none of the parties actually believe funding science and innovation can be of any benefit to New Zealand, this despite countless studies showing quite the opposite. Our chief science advisor to the PM has been most clear and vocal about these issues. If they did believe in R&D the simple answer would be to increase funding to OECD averages, starting 2012. Anything else is just telling porkies to the public.

    As far as science is concerned this election is looking dire indeed.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3115 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,

    Sorry to be so utterly negative. I guess I had hoped that one of the parties would actually support science by increasing, ya know, funding. Silly really.

    That disappointment has led to a rather negative view of the details of their policies. For me it seems all a bit shuffling of deck chairs.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3115 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Geoff Willmott,

    However the point of the CRI exercise supercedes these, and requires contibution or engagement with society. CRIs now do this in a manner that is surely far superior than what was happening in the 1990s.

    Bearing in mind I joined the DSIR and have been a scientist in a CRI throughout their existence, I respectfully disagree. I don't believe that was the rationale at all for creating the CRIs. At the time we were told that become a state owned business would free us from the obligations of a government department. It would reduce administration. Allow us to manage budgets better. Allow us to form partnerships with businesses. Allow us to create spin off companies. I don't remember ever hearing anyone say it would improve our engagement with society.

    Yes we do engage with society more now. But I don't think that had anything to do with being a CRI. It is simply the case that their is a much greater effort by scientists now to interact and engage with interested members of the public (the uninterested one we bore to death - a kind of natural selection process).

    Also technology has allowed more interaction. It's possible to hear and see pieces of science all over the web now in a way that simply was not possible in 1991.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3115 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Geoff Willmott,

    but you make it sound like there is no good, important science involved

    For which I apologise. We and many other groups are doing really cool science. You don't want to get me started on the stuff we are discovering about branching in plants (besides until we get the paper accepted I can't).

    BUT we do less science in NZ now than we did in 1991. And much less in the CRIs. Part of that is crippling underfunding - yes I'm going to point out government funding is less than half OECD average AGAIN. But part of that has stemmed from the CRI structure itself IMO.

    The CRIs were meant to allow more and better science to be done and get it to industry. They haven't made the improvement intended. We might argue (discuss politely) whether they are worse than the DSIR but they are demonstrably not better than the DSIR and they have a larger (combined) administrative structure. You could make a strong case for merging them all into one or maybe three institutes arguing for administrative cost savings (maybe not real) but more importantly arguing for scientific synergy (probably real).

    It is worth noting that in the entirety of New Zealand, including all CRIs and Universities we have fewer PhD scientists and most US Universities.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3115 posts Report Reply

  • NBH, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    Part of that is crippling underfunding - yes I'm going to point out government funding is less than half OECD average AGAIN

    Are you sure about that Bart? I readily admit I don't have the numbers to hand and am happy to be corrected, but my understanding has always been that public expenditure on R&D is resonably consistent (in %GDP terms) with the OECD average and our usual reference countries. It's our private sector's incredibly low expenditure on R&D that brings our overall expenditure level miles below the average.

    Wellington • Since Oct 2008 • 90 posts Report Reply

  • linger,

    scientific synergy (probably real).

    This.
    If anybody was at all serious about improving the application of scientific research in NZ, they’d have to be encouraging interdisciplinary work (which amongst other things expands the range of possibilities for application of solutions in apparently unrelated domains).

    The apparent strategy for achieving this at present is to have one person left doing all of the research...

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 808 posts Report Reply

  • linger, in reply to NBH,

    Up until the late 1980s, yes; but government funding has been slowly decaying in real terms since then (and proportionally more used for admin rather than actual research).

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 808 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to NBH,

    Are you sure about that Bart?

    Yup. Government funding of R&D is half OECD average. Overall funding for R&D in NZ is even worse but since it is very hard to change business funding for R&D I'm only really interested in what the government can actually do themselves. Since they have the power to directly control that they carry the responsibility.

    The chief science advisor to the PM has given the latest numbers in several of his speeches.

    As a whole, we spend only 1.2% of GDP on research, about half of that from the  public sector and half from the private sector.

    from his speech at NIWA last year

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3115 posts Report Reply

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