What will be the largest rethink of New Zealand’s science system in 30 years – ultimately creating a fresh set of national “research priorities” for the country - has been largely welcomed by leading players in the small but fragmented sector.
There’s also cautious optimism the three-year makeover will tackle long-standing diversity gaps across our universities and institutes - particularly among under-represented Māori and Pasifika researchers.
The proposed revamp, outlined in a white paper launched by Research, Science and Innovation (RSI) Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall this evening, would come in three major phases.
The first would be an overhaul of the workforce itself, including an expansion of research fellowships and applied training schemes, along with another programme aimed at attracting more international talent to New Zealand.
“There will be a stronger focus on people, with an emphasis on building sustainable and fulfilling career paths in science, improving diversity and addressing precarious employment,” she said.
Alongside that, the Government will set out how Te Tiriti o Waitangi should be better embedded in the system, with a statement to be released later.
The second phase, beginning in 2024, would set yet-to-be determined research priorities that tackled the most important issues facing New Zealand.
Verrall told the Herald these would pick up from the National Science Challenges - set under the previous National-led government and funded until 2024 – while incorporating much of the work already done within them.
“But [the new research priorities are] different, in that we really want to see a greater scale of funding and activity, and a real focus on that pathway to impact.”
That meant giving researchers more time to build up relationships with communities, businesses or start-ups to drive their discoveries into new products or approaches, she said.
The third phase, from 2026, involved implementing the changes across the system, ensuring there was funding and governance in place to support more mission-led science.
Verrall expected the entire process would bring our science system closer to a long-stated goal of raising New Zealand’s research and development expenditure to two per cent of GDP over 10 years.
“What we’re showing through the white paper is we have a pathway to being able to address these big challenges and also grasp new opportunities – and that’s part of the case for reaching that two per cent target.”
As it stood, our current science system – designed back in the 1990s, around the time our corporatised Crown Research Institutes came into being – wasn’t working for researchers within it.
The paper described it as being characterised by “siloed institutions” and “unproductive competition”, with researchers instead calling out for more collaboration.
It also flagged some other big long-standing issues: namely a lack of support for early career researchers - who’d be backed by new training and equity schemes - and a need to be more responsive to Māori and Pacific communities.
While encouraged to see the reforms embed Te Tiriti in the overhauled sector, she was concerned about how this would actually be done – especially if that work fell on the shoulders of already overworked and underpaid Māori researchers.
“I also hope embedding Te Tiriti will not be limited to certain portions of this reform - but will instead be appropriately centred in every single part.”
And while she was pleased to see Māori and Pacific fellowships and others for early-stage researchers, she said these wouldn’t address an “overwhelming precarity” in the sector.
“With only 45 per cent of researchers employed in tertiary education having permanent contracts, we need wider sector shifts to incentivise organisations to reduce precarity.”
She also noted a lack of detail in the paper about how PhD researchers – the poorly-paid workhorses of our science sector – would be supported, as did University of Auckland Rutherford Discovery Fellow Dr Sereana Naepi.
“It is heartening to see the commitment to stable workforce development, particularly as a first step priority,” Naepi said.
“However, these initial steps need to be followed up with a whole-of-career outline; New Zealand invests in our research sector qualifications and ideally we would create a system that retains and rewards researchers for their commitment and work.”
Toha Science’s Professor Shaun Hendy, meanwhile, pointed out the difficulties in setting national research priorities.
“The establishment of the National Science Challenges was the closest exercise the RSI system has run in recent times, and the process somehow managed to bury climate change and outright exclude infectious disease,” he said.
“I think that shows the risks of a process that focuses on near-term political agendas and privileges the views of a select group of senior researchers.”
The conversation, Hendy said, would need to be much more inclusive and future-focused.
“And the key to getting buy-in from the sector for any new research priorities will be to put new money on the table rather than rearranging already stretched existing funds.”
The Prime Minister’s chief science adviser, Dame Professor Juliet Gerrard, ultimately felt the blueprint well reflected the more than 800 submissions that had been received on the previous discussion paper.
“I think there’s a real opportunity for the science community to stay engaged and work through the details of the proposals that follow, and support the Government to create a system that’s fit to fund.”