Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

National Science Challenges: Big science experiment leaves expert cold

Minister Steven Joyce is sure the 10 new National Science Challenges are a turning point for Kiwi science. Yet a prominent professor thinks it's too middle-of-the-road, Jamie Morton reports.

There had been considerable public support for a project to make New Zealand pest-free. Photo / Alan Gibson
There had been considerable public support for a project to make New Zealand pest-free. Photo / Alan Gibson

The National Science Challenges promised to be one of the most exciting experiments ever seen in our science and innovation sector.

With a hit list of issues to throw our biggest brains at, backed up by a special pot of taxpayer money to get the jobs done, the challenges offered a fresh, bold and basic model that everyday Kiwis could relate to.

When asked days out from their announcement on May 1 what he wanted from them, Professor Shaun Hendy made himself clear.

He wanted the chosen challenges to reflect the values of New Zealanders, and the enthusiasm with which Kiwis had embraced them in their forerunner, the Great New Zealand Science Project.

But two weeks on, the Association of Scientists president sees a lost opportunity.

"What disappoints me is that we seemed to have missed the chance to set ourselves challenges that would capture the public's imagination or that of the science community," he told the Herald.

"Instead, the process has resulted in a very generic set of challenges that align very closely with existing areas of science activity and as a result it will be hard to tell how much of this new science goes beyond business as usual.

"I would have liked to have seen the panel take a bolder, riskier approach to setting these challenges - that is, after all, how science advances."

The chosen challenges cover health issues from early childhood to aged care, a to-do list for technological innovation, and the science of our surrounds, from coastal resources, resilience to natural hazards and Antarctica's role in understanding climate change, to biodiversity and the on-going conflict between our freshwater quality and land-based primary industry.

Each of the projects, to be investigated over the next decade, would have research goals and an independent review of each challenge would be carried out each year.

Professor Hendy, last year honoured with the country's top prize for communicating science, said there had been considerable public support for a project to make New Zealand pest-free yet the idea received little prominence in the challenges.

"This is the type of challenge that would have excited me - tangible benefits, measurable outcomes and something that would have required many scientists and researchers to work together."

The clear winners were health sciences - seen in three separate challenges - and the primary sector.

The suggested "Fighting Disease" challenge garnered the most votes in the Great New Zealand Science Project, so was clearly something the public wanted addressed, he said.

"But there is also a strong primary sector flavour to several challenges and the primary sector is already the benefactor of a large share of our current spending on science.

"Did the public really want to fund more research aimed at further exploitation of our marine environment? Surely that is something that the private sector could fund."

Professor Hendy said the challenges' peak panel, chaired by the Prime Minister's chief science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman, had a wealth of expertise in the health and agricultural sciences, but was spread "quite thin" across physical sciences.

He felt that, where more meaningful challenges in this area could have been set, what had resulted was "a shopping list of small, insubstantial projects that will struggle to make an impact".

Professor Hendy was also concerned over what he saw as a lack of transparency in the process used to set the challenges, which he felt lent itself to lobbying by institutions.

As for funding, the $133.5 million committed by the Government over four years was a substantial investment in science, he said, but would prove relatively modest once it was divided amongst 10 challenges.

"It is clear that resource will be needed from other parts of the science and innovation system... if [the challenges] are going to really make an impact."

The minister overseeing the challenges, Steven Joyce, acknowledged the concept was in its early stages.

"Some challenges will be more developed than others, some will be about effectively filling in the gap of work that's already being done, and others will be a bit more from the ground up," he told the Herald.

Officials would be working with the peak panel initially, and then the science board to fully map out the challenges.

"They also need to have a good understanding of what other work is under way, but we are a reasonably small science community, so we should be able to scope that pretty easily."

Mr Joyce also agreed more work was needed to spread awareness of the challenges and their importance among New Zealanders.

Sir Peter Gluckman had been doing that in a post-announcement road show travelling around the country.

By the numbers

10 National Science Challenges chosen
$133.5m funding fronted up by the Government for the challenges
15 months before all challenges are expected to be up and running
792 supporters of the "Fighting Disease" section - the most favoured science challenge suggested as part of the Great New Zealand Science Project.

These are the 10 sciences challenges that are poised to change our lives. How will they?

Challenge One: Ageing Well
How our economy and society will fare in face of the "grey tsunami" isn't the only big issue our projected elderly population growth poses.

Decision-makers also want to ensure our elderly retain their health and wellbeing as they live longer with health and science advances.

"We can use science to ensure that these extra years of life are lived without disability and as active, valued and contributing citizens," the challenges' peak panel reported.

"The key challenge is to maintain physical, psychological and brain health into the advanced years."

Key areas discussed included the prevention of frailty and falls, tackling the causes and prevention of neurodegeneration, and picking "modifiable" risk factors earlier.

All would help the country try to lessen a major health burden created by elderly requiring more aged care.

A previous study estimated that between 2006 and 2026, the number of people over 65 would swell by 84 per cent from 512,000 to 944,000.

The Mission: To maintain good cognitive, physical and emotional health into late life.

Challenge Two: A Better Start
Science could also bring benefits to Kiwis at the other end of life.

The peak panel noted the "scene-setting" nature of the early years was now internationally recognised - and New Zealand researchers had made a very important contribution.

It was being increasingly recognised that environmental exposures from conception through the early years could have a profound effect on lives.

Talks covered developmental epigenetics, gestation, maternal health, behaviour and education.

Professor Phil Baker, the director of the Gravida Centre for Research Excellence, said this challenged a hunger and demand by Kiwis for personal health knowledge "that all scientists now need to heed".

Researchers were looking at a range of relevant projects, including a study of how pregnancy complications and experiences could increase risk for heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and obesity.

The Mission: To understand the process of early human development and how environmental factors can influence life trajectories.

Challenge Three: Healthier Lives
Science is our best weapon against our most serious non-communicable diseases - obesity, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

The peak panel highlighted that obesity was a major and growing issue in New Zealand - 28 per cent of Kiwi adults were classed as obese in a 2009 survey, and rates were significantly high among Maori and Pasifika populations.

It was also rising in prevalence among children and young people.

The panel also recognised cancer as the major cause of death in New Zealand - 132 per 100,000 people annually - and Kiwis featured among the highest rates in the world for melanoma, colon cancer and lung cancer.

The panel suggested a more integrated scientific approach to research aimed at mitigation of these diseases.

The Mission:To understand the biological, environmental and social factors that contribute to effective disease prevention and management of our major non-communicable diseases at the individual and population level.

Challenge Four: High Value Nutrition
New Zealand boasted "enormous capacity" to leverage our primary industry and medical research to develop science-proven nutritional products with major market potential, the peak panel found.

"Globally the food industry is moving to develop high-value foods based on claims that they improve human health," the panel noted.

"But at the same time, there is a recognition that such developments need to be associated with regulatory oversight and the formal validation of higher level food claims."

The potential for validated food products with validated health claims for either health maintenance - or in some cases prevention of decline - was particularly high in Asia.

The Mission: To identify the clinical benefit of food-based interventions for important diseases, health maintenance and disease prevention, and to develop nutritional products from such research and test them to the level where regulatory approval for higher level claims in international markets is possible.

Challenge Five: New Zealand's Biological Heritage
The panel recognised our bounty of indigenous and introduced biodiversity - and also our alarmingly limited knowledge of it.

It found that new approaches were needed that viewed biodiversity management more holistically, where all elements of biodiversity contribute to sustaining our economy, environment and society.

There was the opportunity to leverage our investments to help unlock one of the great unsolved questions in ecology - the specific nature of interdependencies between the structure and diversity of biotic communities and the functioning of ecosystems.

"Resolving this question has immense implications for our society, especially through the delivery of ecosystem services."

The Mission: To resolve the interactions and interdependencies of biodiversity across a range of land uses and scales to support evidence-based decisions on biodiversity management that take into account economic, environmental, social and cultural values.

Challenge Six: Our Land and Water
It could be seen as the $20 billion question - how do we reap the benefits of our land-based primary sector while minimising ecological environmental impacts such as fresh water quality?

The panel also recognised our export food production - which is worth more than $20 billion annually - was under increasing global pressure from demands on food safety.

"Our opportunity is to sustain growth in productivity by harnessing and developing smart technologies in precision agriculture, plant and animal genetics, bio- and agri-technology, information and decision-making tools, and systems modelling throughout the food supply chain, and so revolutionise New Zealand primary production," the panel found.

The Mission: Future productivity growth in high value food and other products from the primary sector comes from the use of new tools, technologies, plants and animals that allow economic growth while explicitly recognising and incorporating defined, measurable and expected environmental constraints.

Challenge Seven: Life In a Changing Ocean
Like our biology on land, our huge oceanic and coastal resources are poorly understood.

NZ's exclusive economic zone sprawls across 4.4 million sq km of marine waters, yielding $1 billion in annual exports from wild fisheries alone. Now, our coastal marine environment is changing rapidly.

The challenge would combine the development of new technologies for biological and environmental assessments across four themes, including ecosystem services and functions and sustainable resource management.

"We would seldom think of 'exploiting' our land-based environments these days," said Lincoln University lecturer Dr Victoria Metcalf. "It's time we got serious and applied similar philosophies to our oceans."

The Mission: To expand the knowledge base of our coastal and oceanic biological resources to better define the ecosystems and understand the role of environmental and human-derived changes in the management of marine resources including oceanic geo-resources within environmental and biological constraints.

Challenge Eight: The Deep South
Antarctica, across the Southern Ocean, is entwined with our predicted climate change.

The peak panel noted that relatively subtle changes in ocean currents could have "dramatic" effects on our climate and ability to farm and live as we now do.

Yet we had little understanding of the interactions from changes to the Antarctic such as ice melt raising sea levels and the impacts on ocean currents, the panel said.

The challenge would comprise three core themes: understanding complex interactions, future options for management based on changes in the Southern Ocean, and consequences for change and resilience involving marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

It offered an opportunity to become a global centre for Southern Ocean research.

The Mission: To determine how the Antarctic influences the oceanic/climate interfaces through the Southern Ocean to build predictive models of potential impacts on marine resources and understand interactions between the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and wider climate systems and their potential impacts on New Zealand.

Challenge Nine: Science for Technological Innovation
Kiwis are celebrated for their innovation - and there was endless potential to capitalise on our technological savvy.

As suggested by the peak panel, this might come with needle-free injection technologies for agriculture, or using natural products such as collagen extracts, manuka honey and BSE-free bovine pericardium, in wound healing, tissue engineering, regenerative medicine and prosthetic implants.

Robots may play roles as fruit harvesters and human-friendly interfaces in rest homes, or as autonomous marine drones.

The challenge would focus on five themes: finding and developing novel materials; robotics and automation; sensors and actuators; design and manufacturing; and IT data processing and modelling.

The Mission: New medical device technologies that improve health outcomes for New Zealanders, reduce healthcare costs and generate export earnings; Improved yields in our primary industries; New materials from sustainable sources; New monitoring technologies for maintaining sustainably productive agricultural environments.

Challenge 10: Resilience to Nature's Challenges
Violently pushed to the fore by the Canterbury earthquakes, resilience to natural disasters stands as a truly unique challenge for New Zealand.

Next to two tectonic plate edges and an underwater subduction zone, Kiwis face volcanoes, quakes, tsunami, tornadoes, cyclone, flood and drought.

The inter-agency, Government-funded Natural Hazards Platform is a working model of the collaboration the challenges aim to achieve.

Focus areas would include geological and weather hazards, fire, risk models and resilience - both in engineering and society.

"Further effort in researching and communicating hazard impacts and options for mitigation can bring about further significant benefits to New Zealand's resilience in social, economic and infrastructure areas," said platform manager Dr Kelvin Berryman, of GNS Science.

A workshop in Wellington last week brought together 150 experts to help map out future research areas.

The Mission: Understanding hazards, and how to mitigate, prepare, respond and recover from disaster.

- NZ Herald

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