Call for merger of government science and higher education policy

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Science and innovation policy from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and higher education policy of the Ministry of Education need to be carved out and merged to create a new ministry to address New Zealand’s “over-competitive” and fragmented public science system and build an integrated relationship between its two arms.

Sir Peter Gluckman, director of Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland, says the New Zealand science ecosystem is increasingly “inefficient and unattractive and structural change is needed”.

In an address to the Life Sciences Summit in Wellington today, the former Chief Science Adviser to the Prime Minister, was critical of what he described as a “low-trust, high-compliance environment with layers of bureaucracy” and urged the government to consider a single ministry of higher education, research, and innovation.

There was a missed opportunity in the Te Ara Paerangi Future Pathways Green and White Papers which he says have failed to look strategically at the system as a whole and focused on largely on operational issues.

Sir Peter says Covid-19, climate change and conflict remind us that economic development, environmental, social, and political health are intimately intertwined with science, yet New Zealand has shown a strange ambivalence regarding what science can do for our future.

OECD figures show a sad story.

“Our investment by the state is still lower than any other relevant comparator small, advanced economy. Science as a percent of GDP has not grown much over decades and recent growth reflects private sector investment. Our research intensity which is the sum of private sector and public sector investment grew from 1.25% of GDP in 2009 to 1.41% of GDP in 2019, compared to most other small countries with whom we like to compare ourselves which have a research intensity in excess of 2.5%.”

Sir Peter says there are no major differences between our two major political parties on science – they both claim to support further science investment but their actions since the 1980s have shown little effective process.

“Every time a policy paper is written, the messaging is that greater investment will be left until economic times are better, a constant view of Treasury, rather than understanding science is a core underpinning of economic, environmental and social development – something all our comparator countries well understand. Deferral leads to the same challenges we now see in infrastructural underinvestment.

“Is the Crown Research Institute model of seven small corporate entities, largely separate from the university sector, best suited for the next decades? The university sector is seen by many as a vocational training system rather than an instrument of knowledge development and expertise for the benefit of society.

“The Productivity Commission did not even refer to the research role in its review (Maximising the Economic Contribution of NZ’s Frontier Firms). The major research incentive system in the university sector, the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF), is built around individuals and bibliometric indices. Yet globally, research performance assessment is rapidly moving away from these two components to look more holistically at impacts by collaborative groups and the behaviour of the institution as a whole.”

Sir Peter says we have policy weaknesses in both science and in higher education which are detached from each other.

“In many countries, policy between these two domains of public activity making is joined at the hip. Yet science is buried in a giant MBIE, and the Ministry of Education manages higher education alongside and through the same mechanisms as apprenticeship training. There is no longer a minister of tertiary education. No wonder there is inadequate progress on what must be a core policy domain  for every advanced country – how to develop capacities and exploit new knowledge. Many countries have seen the need to bring these two arms of policy together by combining them into a single ministry of higher education, research, and innovation.

“I have argued to both the government and opposition that we need to refresh our policies in both these domains and think about a merger.”

Sir Peter’s full speech Will science and technology drive New Zealand’s future thinking? is available here.

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