Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Science and innovation: NZ can do better

Collecting better performance data will help the Government more effectively invest in science, Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce says. Photo / File
Collecting better performance data will help the Government more effectively invest in science, Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce says. Photo / File

New Zealand's science and innovation system is trailing comparable economies in some key areas, a new report has found, sparking a fresh call for more investment in home-grown research.

An innovation commentator has also highlighted concerns with Kiwi research and development progress, calling it "anaemic".

The Science and Innovation System Performance Report, published by the Government this week, found our sector is relatively small, but efficient when it comes to scientific publications produced per research dollar.

But while New Zealand's research quality was better than the OECD average, it still fell behind what Australian and other "small advanced economies" like Ireland, Israel, Switzerland, Singapore and Denmark were producing.

The country produced relatively fewer graduates in STEM subjects than these comparable countries, but numbers were growing.

New Zealand was also successfully attracting significantly more qualified scientists, and technology and engineering professionals than left overseas each year: the net inward migration of these professionals was more than 2000 in 2015.

While New Zealand's total expenditure on research and development had grown by 77 per cent in real terms since 2000, companies were still reporting low levels of such innovation, and progress toward pushing business R and D over one per cent of GDP remained "slow but steady".

The report, the first of annual series, also found that New Zealand had strong expertise in niche areas like astronomy, energy and physics but did relatively little research in these areas.

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce said the report offered a performance benchmark against other OECD countries and increased transparency about how public funding for science and innovation was being invested.

It follows last year's National Statement of Science Investment (NSSI), which set out a 2025 vision of a "highly dynamic system" that enriched the country and made a "more measurable contribution to our productivity and wellbeing".

"Achieving the NSSI vision will require reliable, timely information and robust evaluation of science and innovation system performance," Joyce said.

The Government had invested in this year's Budget $410.5 million in new science and innovation funding over the next four years.

"We know that better performance data will enable us to target our growing science investments effectively and to maximise their long-term value to New Zealand."

Science commentator and Auckland University physicist Professor Shaun Hendy said available data on the system's performance showed that it performed well on a per-dollar basis, but could do with further investment.

"Relative to the small advanced economies, our recent performance has remained decidedly mixed across a range of measures," Hendy said.

"While MBIE awards itself a pass mark on its goal of lifting business R and D to 1 per cent of GDP by 2018, for instance, the data in the report provide little assurance that this is on track.

"Despite all the attention that business R and D has received in the last few years, it remains anaemic.

"This is very disappointing as it limits the long term growth of our economy."

Hendy noted the number of post-doctoral fellowships available for early career researchers had taken a "significant hit" a few years ago when the Government cut the country's national post-doctoral fellowship scheme.

"The numbers in this report suggest that the rest of the science and innovation system has not filled the gap left by this scheme, but at the same time this deserves further scrutiny."

- NZ Herald

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