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Seeking Better Science

by Bart Janssen

I'd written some notes on this week's science funding announcement, announced in a pre-Budget speech by the Prime Minister, mainly to clarify my own thoughts. Russell was keen to tidy them up and run them as a guest post. So what do I think?

Any new money is good, there is no question that more new money is better than no new money and better than less money. So thanks.

So here’s the basic problem. New Zealand invests stuff-all in research and development. The government invests less than half the OECD average and business investment in R&D in NZ is even worse.

The dilemma is GDP growth and all the positive indicators of a healthy rich country are really strongly linked to R&D spending. In short with our current R&D spend NZ is stuffed in the future, but any spending by this govt won’t make any change for a decade at least so it won’t get them votes next year.

The govt keeps pointing the finger at business saying it’s your fault we don’t invest enough in R&D and business points another finger entirely. So I guess this package is the govt trying to give money to business to use for R&D maybe to get business into the habit of doing R&D.

So here’s how it breaks down. Note that $321 million divided by four does not equal $321 million so all my numbers will be per annum since that is the only relevant figure.

$24 million a year is being reprioritised.

My guess is that means money that is now going to Crown Research Institutes to develop products will be pulled out of the CRIs and transferred to the industries that would use/sell the product. Since those industries will likely simply subcontract the development work back to the CRI, my further guess is there is only a small loss due to various administrations taking their cut. This is more a philosophy change, and consistent with what Professor Sir Peter Gluckman has implied. (That's his lecture last month, The New Zealand Science System – into a brave new world, laying out his view of the changes to flow from the CRI Review.)

$56.25 million a year is new funding.

Of that, $47.5 milliona year is targeted to medium and bigger industries to develop products. Some of this money will establish research teams within companies and that has to be a good thing since it means more employers for scientists.

But much of this money is likely to be subcontracted back to CRIs, and to universities to a lesser extent. It is end-stage development money to take an established idea and turn it into a product. That’s good, but really doesn’t excite me much. For comparison: last year, the government increased Marsden funding by $9 million a year. For me there is a balance issue here – it's out of kilter.

$5 million a year in vouchers.

Which sounds very product development-focussed and confusing. Businesses spend these vouchers with CRIs to get research done, which is apparently different to what is happening now? Colour me confused.

$2.75 million a year and $3.4 million a year to build/establish technology transfer offices and improve the systems for transferring technology from CRIs to business.

Sigh. Someone really believes the CRIs are chock-full of wonderful ideas that if only we had more MBAs in nice offices to capture those ideas then we’d all be rich. It really isn’t true and pretending our CRIs are wonderful places if only we could capture their brilliance is not going to improve the quality of science being done.

Don’t get me wrong: I still believe the CRIs have scientists able and keen to do better, I just don’t think any of this kind of funding encourages any improvement.

If that sounds like I'm down on the CRIs, it isn’t meant that way. The CRIs have ideas and science that is good, but it is a fact that only a very small percentage of good ideas can ever be converted into products. The solution is to produce more ideas. This funding won’t produce more ideas.

$6.25 million a year for Rutherford scholarships

Great -- except they are $200,000 each and it costs $350-400,000a year to fund one scientist. It would be nice if someone could actually explain that to the accountants in Wellington. $200,000 = half a person, which is useless. No wonder the government is worried about numeracy skills if this is what the Wellington accountants come up with.

$3 million a year to attract elite scientists.

Which is good, but again someone needs to teach the accountants in Wellington how to add. A good early-career tenure track scientist in the US can expect a lump sum of $US1 million or more to start their lab, in addition to their university salary which is twice what end career scientists in New Zealand can expect to earn, plus access to free student labour.

Why would they give that up to come to New Zealand? This is a great idea but woefully under-funded. It might be enough for one scientist but even then they would expect to be guaranteed funding streams for five years.

$11 million a year for big science infrastructure.

So after that what do I feel about it. Well there is new money and most of it will end up in the CRIs and Universities after the businesses have taken their cut and subcontracted the work. But it’s almost all late-stage development funding for established ideas. So where is the idea generation that Professor Gluckman talked about?

The worst part of this is that it means the decisions about which projects should get money are now in the hands of business people who are focussed only on their business. It doesn’t matter if the work is poor science, it will get funding because it is business-focussed. I hate seeing poor science being done with our taxes. Some of it will be good science -- but that will be a matter of luck and sheer bloody mindedness on the part of the scientists doing the work.

To me, this feels like more of what we’ve had for the last 20 years, more and more focus on getting products from the wealth of ideas that is present in our CRIs.

But here’s the problem, and it’s a deep dark dirty secret … our CRIs are now full of good (but not great) scientists who are focussed on taking ideas from overseas labs and applying them to New Zealand crops/industries.

Which is fine. But it can’t and won’t create new industries, nor will it get you patents, nor will it get you a transformation of the New Zealand economy. To get novel products you need a large pool of novel ideas, most of which will never directly lead to a product.

As Professor Gluckman pointed out many ideas fail to develop into products and we need to accept that failure rate. You can’t force every idea to become a product and the only proven way to get more products is to generate more ideas and that is not the aim of this funding.

Those same scientists could do great work if they had the funding for it but they don’t. Those same scientists would produce new ideas if we let them, but we force them to develop products with clear business plans already established before we start the work. Novel it ain’t. It’s pedestrian mostly. There are good people in the labs and they do sometimes squeeze the time and money to do good novel work, but that work then gets ignored because there is no business plan with a clearly identifiable product.

The only funding that can lift that kind of novel work is based on pure science quality, like the Marsden Fund. Which also has a very good record of producing patents and new business ideas. Just for comparison, in 08/09 the Marsden Fund handed out $54 million. My personal belief is you would have far more impact on New Zealand's economy by doubling the Marsden fund than you will see from this Budget.

Bart Janssen

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