It's been two months since Paul Goldsmith filled Steven Joyce's shoes as Science and Innovation Minister. Science reporter Jamie Morton spoke with him about the state of the sector and some of our scientists' big concerns.

Do you have any background or interest in science or is this a clean slate?

Well, what have you got?

I always loved the sciences at school and enjoyed it, and it's one of the frustrations of life that you can't do everything.

I can remember my best subject being chemistry but I ended up doing history because I loved that slightly more.

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So I've always been interested in science and, in fact, my dream job as a young boy was to be a nature documentary cameraman.

That was what I always wanted to be, but somehow I didn't achieve that.

But back in the 1990s, I spent three years working with Simon Upton who was the minister of science under Jim Bolger and Jenny Shipley, and I was his speech writer and press secretary, so I had three years' exposure to the sector at the stage and enjoyed it a lot.

What are the issues in science that you're personally interested in?

We talk a lot about the importance of a strong science sector, and [research and development] sector more broadly, to strengthen the economy, and that's very important.

But science, more broadly, is about deepening our understanding of the world that we live in, our physical environment, but also the human condition; to solve our problems; and to contribute to the world.

There are some people who think we can just sit back and benefit from all the scientific advances around the world, but it's important that we contribute as well.

There are certain things that I think New Zealand should be striving to be world class at, and we are, in little pockets.

If you think of the fact that we have one of the largest [Exclusive Economic Zones] in the world, in terms of our oceans, then it makes sense that we have real genuine world expertise in that area.

We do in Niwa and I'm pretty determined that we continue to build on that and strengthen that and likewise in environment and in geological things.

We live in a place with earthquakes and volcanoes and we have an economy based on pastoral industries, so I'm [also] pretty determined that we build on our real strengths in those areas.

What will be your relationship be with the Prime Minister's chief science advisor, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman?

Well, a good close working relationship.

I've already had several conversations with him.

I've known him for many years, independently, and he's a very good man and a very high-quality scientist and a broad thinker.

So I'm very fortunate to have a wide range of advice coming in from the MBIE [Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment] as the lead government agency, but also from Sir Peter, and also from the many, many people involved in the Crown research institutes and universities.

But it will be a close relationship.

Do you think R&D is growing at a fast enough rate, and do you identify with the philosophy of your predecessor, Steven Joyce, that it drives the economy?

Like I say, investment in R&D is absolutely an important part of building a more productive and competitive economy, which is the broader goal that we have.

It's not the only thing, of course. Investment, more generally, is fundamental.

But certainly, over time, lifting the research intensity of our economy into higher value products is a good thing, and certainly, that's why the Government has substantially increased its investment in R&D to nearly $1.3 billion a year, this year, and we are aiming to get to $1.6 billion by 2020.

So, yes, we think it's important.

But the rate that it's growing ... you're happy with that?

Yes.

As science minister I'll be advocating for more, as you'd expect, but I'm conscious of the fact that we have to maintain fiscal discipline generally, across the board, and the Budget process is pretty robust.

But I'll certainly be fighting for science on the caucus side.

Do you have any personal ambitions for the National Science Challenges?

We've set them up and they're working away on their various questions that they're trying to resolve, such as ageing well, or our land and water.

So my main task over the next few months will be to get around the researchers involved in them and really make sure that they are getting on with it and that there is a clear path towards achieving to what we set out to achieve.

You've got no plans to tinker with any of them?

No. I think it's important that we have a stable area where everybody knows what they're doing and they can just get on with it.

What are your thoughts on the pressures researchers face to get funding, where they may have to accept commercial funds and potentially embroil themselves in conflicts of interest?

It's a bit of a false either/or description that you're saying there.

I think it's important ... for some areas to be focused on independent, long-running deep science.

That's an area that's particularly funded by the Marsden Fund and goes on in universities and is part of the long-term funding arrangements that we have with Crown research institutes [CRIs].

But it's also very important for other parts of the science sector and the broader science sector to be engaged with the business community and with industry generally.

And it's not just industry that commissions science, it's quite often government departments and local councils ... a whole lot of things.

The fundamental underpinning of our science strategy is the twin pillars, I suppose, of excellence on the one hand, and relevance on the other.

But if CRI scientists are having to go to companies or commercial sources to get funding, you don't see that as particularly a bad thing?

No, no indeed.

But I could throw a statistic at you, actually: Between 1996 and 2013, academic-published papers in New Zealand written in collaboration with industry were cited more than twice as much on average as those that were not.

But, I mean, that's one example. It can be a positive thing and it is fundamentally something that we are encouraging.

The point is that the science sector is broad and there will be some who will be much more focused on responding to the needs of particular industries, and there will be others that will be taking a slightly longer view, looking at some of the long-term problems that we've got to deal with.

Do you think the "critic and conscience" role that university researchers have should extend to CRI scientists? And do you think CRI scientists should have a role just as open in talking directly to the public?

I've got no current plans to make a change to the "critic and conscience" role in relation to CRIs, that's a university thing and appropriate for the universities.

Obviously the sciences absolutely have a role to play in communicating with the general public in a sensible way and that's an important function that they have.

CRIs, which are institutions that have got a range of relationships with a range of organisations, including the Government, they have their processes and as minister I haven't gone into the detail about that.

But it's important for all New Zealanders that we have access to fact-based research.

We're seeing the New Zealand Association of Scientists preparing to march in April over threats they see being posed by the new US Administration. Do you share any of their concerns about what the Trump presidency means for scientists and their ability to research and communicate independently?

I haven't seen the details of what the people organising that event have said and, no, I don't want to comment on President Trump's view on science.

Certainly, New Zealand has extensive research links with the United States and we will do everything we possibly can to deepen those relationships and make sure we can produce high-quality science and there is a lot going on.

But the only point I'd make is that research and quality science is the absolute bedrock of an informed, fact-based and reflective society.

That's what we want to live in and that's what we are focused on.

Do you have any thoughts on Callaghan Innovation and its current performance?

Yes, it's very important that Callaghan does well.

There's been a new CEO appointed last week, Victoria Crone, and certainly I will be pretty clear in my views to the board of Callaghan that we've got high expectations for the organisation.

It's a relatively young organisation that is put together of different parts.

There is linking the New Zealand business community and the research community, that's one role; the second is the administration of all the grants; and the third one is in its own research and high-value manufacturing, and I'm determined that they do each of those three things very well.

I think there are some areas where it's going well and there are other areas where they can improve.

So that's where we'll be working closely with the board over the next few months.

Where are things at with the fund to bring international scientists to NZ, what are your aspirations for this fund?

This is the Entrepreneurial Universities initiative; the aim is to attract entrepreneurial scientists to our country and then bring along a research group.

There'll be some who might be interested in New Zealand; in a topsy-turvy world that we live in, New Zealand might seem like an attractive proposition to some.

So, anyway, the application period closes in mid-March and people are putting their feelers out and coming in.

So we are hopeful that process will be productive.