Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Q&A: Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce

Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce. Photo / Warren Buckland
Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce. Photo / Warren Buckland

The just-launched "Entrepreneurial Universities" scheme aims to bring between 15 to 20 big-name researchers to New Zealand, with our universities bidding for the opportunity to host them and their research teams. Modelled on overseas schemes, the $35 million investment is funded out of Budget 2016's $761.4 million "Innovative New Zealand" package and will involve 50/50 partnerships with individual universities. Following yesterday's announcement, science reporter Jamie Morton put these questions to Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce.

Q. Where exactly has this type of scheme been successful?

A. It's been modelled on different places.

A number of countries have had programmes, at various times, that look to attract top researchers at the top of their games.

The New Zealand context is that we are quite a small part of the world's science system - about half a per cent of it.

So we're a small country, and if we can attract more top people - and we've got some great top people at the moment - then we can probably expand our reach in key areas, which helps with our overall innovation eco-system.

Q. In the other countries, to what extent were the programmes government-funded?

A. It's been a range.

We like the 50-50 model because it means that the individual universities have a lot of skin in the game.

If they are putting up their own resources alongside Government resources, they will obviously take a lot of care in the sort of people they are trying to attract, and just in trying to make a real difference.

And talking to a number of [universities yesterday ] who were represented [at the scheme's launch], they were completely comfortable with that approach.

Q. So this doesn't mean that our best researchers aren't up to scratch?

A: Not at all.

In fact, this is the right time to be doing it, because we are making a big investment in our existing researchers as well.

There have been big increases, in the [Health Resources Council] money, in the Marsden Fund money, and in the Endeavour Fund.

The investments that have been made in the National Science Challenges, the Catalyst Fund, there's a lot of investment being made, so I think this is just one additional element alongside ery significant growth in investment in science.

There is $410m over the next four years in the science budget alone, and most of that flows to university and [Crown Research Institute] researchers.

Q. How will New Zealand keep what these international researchers come here and develop?

A: Ultimately, it'll be down to the individual universities' IP [intellectual property] models, and they have a set of criteria, in terms of the amount that's shared between the university, the department, and the researcher.

Of course, you want the universities to create more income from their research, but you probably, more importantly, want to see more spin-out companies and more researchers trained by these people who understand entrepreneurialism as it applies to university IP.

That's the real benefit.

Q: How long do you think it will be before we get real results, and an impact on our economy?

A: Look, it's going to happen over a period of years, that we'll get the first researchers in.

Our aim is to get the first ones recruited and set up in New Zealand next year, but it's all about getting that snowball going faster.

We've got a strong story of innovation here now, and a growing reputation internationally.

This is just getting the snowball rolling bigger and adding to what's already there.

Q. So what happens after the four-year period? Are we locking ourselves into a precedent here?

A: No.

The fund is for a continuing $10m a year, it's just that it's always counted over four years because that's the projection period for the Budget.

So it's a fund that rolls on $10m a year, but I would expect the individual researchers and their teams to be incorporated into the universities more generally.

And one of the things that we'll be consulting with the universities on is how we recycle it into new teams and new people after three-to-five years.

Q. Do you think our research sector is really going to be attractive enough to lure big names here in the first place?

A: Absolutely.

We have a reputation as one of the top university countries in the world.

All of our universities are ranked in the top three per cent, and there is no other country that can say that because we have consistently high performance among our universities.

So they are very well regarded internationally.

We have a growing reputation as a research and development centre - very clever companies [are] coming out of here and there is a lot of interest from places like Silicon Valley, the med-tech sector in the US and Singapore, and from companies keen to invest.

And that's important in terms of attracting the sort of people we are looking for.

On top of that, we've got a wonderful lifestyle, which is the envy of most of the rest of the world.

People forget that from time to time.

The ability to do great science, to develop great innovations, and also do it in an environment that New Zealand provides, is pretty special.

Q. How are we going to actually monitor or measure the researchers' contributions? Is there going to be any evaluation system?

A. Yes, we'll evaluate.

The new systems we've now got in the science sector is we are evaluating the performance of all of our science.

There's actually a whole evaluation of the performance of the science system due out in the next little while, and we are also standardising the measures across the science system.

But one of the important things is that we have put a lot into the science system over the last little while, and from my colleagues' perspective in Cabinet, they want to be sure that we are measuring and evaluating this rigorously.

And I think that they are entitled to expect that.

We have gone from a position where the science budget was a bit of a Cinderella, to it being a serious player in the Government's investment, and it's important that we be measuring and evaluating that.

- NZ Herald

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