Science has been a black hole for taxpayers' money. Governments of all stripes agree that science is something they should fund without knowing very much about it. They maintain Crown research institutes for the needs of primary industries and for studying the country's weather, geology, minerals and the like. They also fund research in universities and hospitals with few questions asked. The money is scattered around like water on dry soil in the hope that it finds some seeds of inquiry that will turn out to have social and economic benefits.
The present Government is trying something different. It has chosen the benefits it most wants for New Zealand and set aside a good portion of its science budget for research that points in a desired direction. This might not be the way that "pure" science prefers to work but the exercise has been led by a panel of scientists chaired by Sir Peter Gluckman, an adviser to the Prime Minister, and appears to be accepted.
The panel nominated 12 objectives for the "national science challenge" and the Government this month selected 10. Some of them are interesting. One is to tackle the illnesses of an ageing population, especially mental deterioration. That subject suggests the public has contributed more to the exercise than seemed likely when views were invited six months ago. The incidence of Alzheimer's disease and dementia is devastatingly apparent to families but has not ranked high on public health priorities.
Another goal is to give infants a better start, a subject that might not only invite more research into child abuse and parenting but might suggest ways that child development could help reduce this country's high rates of teenage binge-drinking, unprotected sex and youth suicide.
The "challenge" also includes familiar health concerns: obesity, cancer, heart disease, diabetes and dietary health. The latter also offers an economic benefit. The country's trade has a great deal to gain from research into food products and a nutritional validation system that distinguished New Zealand produce.
Research has been invited into the country's indigenous "biodiversity" and ecology and asked to reconcile agricultural development with clean waterways. The Government also wants to know more about the country's coastal and ocean resources, their environmental risks and sustainability.
Antarctic research is on the list, as is high technology, particularly in agricultural applications, and natural hazards, notably earthquakes.
The list has disappointed the president of the Association of Scientists, Professor Shaun Hendy, who says the chosen fields "align very closely with existing areas of science activity." He had expected "a bolder, riskier approach - that is, after all, how science advances".
He would have included an aim to make the country pest-free. But the eradication of deer, possum, rabbits and other introduced pests would seem to be covered under the goal of enhancing the country's biological heritage.
Too much of the new programme, in Professor Hendy's view, is devoted to agriculture which already receives a large slice of the nation's investment. Marine research too, he believes, should be financed by industry.
Ideally, all commercially valuable science would be financed in the private sector and public funds would be strictly for the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. But that hope faded long ago. Without public subsidies not much science would be done.
The national science challenge should encourage co-ordinated research and give all projects a sharper focus. Discoveries would be a bonus.