Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Govt announces new $35 million fund to attract world-class researchers

Minister Steven Joyce said the fund would be modelled on similar other programmes around the world. Photo / Andrew Warner
Minister Steven Joyce said the fund would be modelled on similar other programmes around the world. Photo / Andrew Warner

Bringing big-name international researchers to New Zealand universities will be the aim of a new four-year, $35 million fund just announced by the Government.

The so-called "Entrepreneurial Universities" initiative is designed to attract world-leading entrepreneurial researchers to New Zealand to further strengthen the country's universities and fast-growing innovation sector.

The programme would involve the Government entering into a 50/50 partnership with individual universities to attract and support named researchers and their teams to work in the university for an initial period of three to five years.

It was expected the fund would be enough to attract up to 15 to 20 world-leading researchers and their teams to the country.

The programme followed an approach to Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce and the Tertiary Education Commission earlier this year by the University of Auckland, and would be modelled on similar other programmes around the world.

"Entrepreneurial Universities is all about attracting more of the world's leading researchers and their teams to locate their labs here and base themselves in New Zealand," said Joyce, who announced the new scheme at an event in Auckland this afternoon.

"We are especially wanting to recruit people with an established record in innovation and entrepreneurship in the top 'maker' disciplines, to help grow the pipeline of excellent innovative start-up companies in New Zealand, and train the next generation of scientific entrepreneurs."

New Zealand's universities already had a good reputation for excellence, he said, with all eight universities ranked in the top three per cent in the world.

"However it's a very competitive world out there," Joyce said.

"We need to keep challenging ourselves and keep adding to our hi-tech sector. Entrepreneurial Universities will strengthen our research and start-up capabilities and add to the learning opportunities for our undergraduates."

Dr Andrew Cleland, chief executive of the Royal Society of New Zealand, welcomed the move.

"World class research carried out in New Zealand provides valuable intellectual property and improves capability, both of which will increase the value New Zealand can realise from cutting edge innovation," he said.

"The nation can only benefit from more companies working closely with global experts in our universities to create world-leading products and services they can market to the world."

It was "vitally important" that New Zealand continued to be seen internationally as a place where world class research was carried out, he said.

"This increases our ability to attract and retain global thought leaders working at the cutting edge in their research disciplines."

New Zealand researchers often travelled to meet their peers, and having more of their peers come here through this scheme "could well lift the horizons and improve the experiences of our aspiring researchers", he said.

University of Auckland physicist and innovation commentator Professor Shaun Hendy argued it was more important to have a well-funded science system.

"The world rankings of New Zealand's universities have been sliding for some time now, and this has a big impact on their ability to attract full fee-paying international students," he said.

"One of the goals of the new scheme will be to slow this decline by recruiting top academics from overseas who can improve university rankings."

Many countries had similar schemes, but while the new investment might slow the decline for a short while, what would keep our rankings high in the longer term was a better funded and functioning science system, he said.

"In the long run our low funding success rates, the lack of post-doctoral fellowships, and the intensely over-managed science system that has evolved in the past few years will make it hard for our universities to retain these star researchers."

The scheme was part of Budget 2016's $761.4 million "Innovative New Zealand" package and would complement big increases in the funds for researchers already based in New Zealand.

Across the Marsden Fund, the Endeavour Fund, the Catalyst Fund, the Health Research Council, and other associated investment mechanisms, the Government was investing an extra $410 million over the next four years in New Zealand science, Joyce said.

The initiative was consistent with the National Statement of Science Investment, and was a key initiative in the innovation stream of the Government's Business Growth Agenda.

The University of Auckland's vice-chancellor, Professor Stuart McCutcheon, said that in other countries, such schemes had been shown to create spin-out companies and high-value jobs for academics.

"In the long run, this is really all about ways in which we can create exciting new companies and new jobs for New Zealand's young people."

Professor John Raine, pro vice chancellor of research and innovation at the Auckland University of Technology, expected universities would pursue the scheme keenly.

"New Zealand has some areas of science and engineering, and in business and the social sciences, where we have world leaders and where we should be attracting international teams to work with our researchers for a period of time."

Raine saw particular opportunities across health and medical technologies, big data technologies and analytics in agritech, horticulture and tourism.

Professor Rod McNaughton, academic director at Auckland University's Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, said the move was "welcome recognition" of the growing importance of entrepreneurialism within universities.

"The cutting edge researchers and their teams attracted to New Zealand through this scheme will be role models who demonstrate how an entrepreneurial mindset enhances scientific research and its ability to be translated into benefits for society and the economy," he said.

"While the investment is primarily targeted at STEM disciplines, all faculties will benefit as universities learn how to become more entrepreneurial and increase their capability to support the entrepreneurs in our midst."

Dr Craig Stevens, president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, said the scheme showed how the Government was continuing to implement the National Statement of Science Investment, complementd the investment at the investigator and mission-led end of the research spectrum.

But he had some reservations, and questioned whether the Government thought home-grown talent was up to the job.

"We hope the groups chosen complement rather than compete with present skills - if it can be done well and with care then it could see some great ideas and energetic people injected into the New Zealand science scene."

Dr Stevens also noted that the amount of time and money set aside was relatively little.

"It will be interesting to see what kind of world-leading researchers they do attract as it is not clear that the fund is particularly lucrative," he said.

"$35 million, doubled with university support, is then split over four years and 15 to 20 groups.

"That starts to not be a lot of money per group especially when you factor in the need to build unique research facilities and stakeholder connections from scratch."

Dr Stevens argued there had to be a vision beyond three to five years for these groups.

"What happens after five years? Like any research, entrepreneurial research can have some quite long timelines."

- NZ Herald

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