Research should be a clever and risky business

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Out of focus aerial shot of a crowd of people walking in a city.

In my recent discussion paper Which science to fund: time to review peer review? I discussed some of the challenges facing science systems. As I have considered elsewhere, there are clearly some differences between big and small science systems – for example it is unrealistic for small countries to imagine they can sustain cutting edge research in every domain and explicit choices need to be made, even while ensuring that academic scholarship is sustained across a broad canvas. There is an increasing focus in science policy, even in large countries, on thinking how to prioritise research expenditure. It was certainly a major topic of discussion at the forum of small advanced nations held in Auckland in November 2012. Parenthetically, I write this while travelling to follow up that meeting in bilateral discussions with the participating states to confirm the programme we have agreed to work together on. Prioritisation is also an important component of the thinking behind the National Science Challenges – the panel that will advise Cabinet on these will be announced next week and I look forward to chairing some very important discussions and considering the many suggestions that have come forward.

But beyond that domain-focused approach to science priority setting, there are two other very important dimensions. The first is the need to focus on the people doing the research. We have tended for over two decades to play that down in our assessment process, yet the evidence is clear that recent performance and skills in research leadership are critical in the allocative process – the exception is obviously the need to have systems that allow for new entrants. I canvassed the issues in my discussion paper Which science to fund, and Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society of London and Nobel laureate, made very similar remarks in his recent speeches in Auckland and Wellington.

The second dimension, which I also addressed, is the need to promote both interdisciplinary and intellectually more risky research. There is little doubt that our funding system, with its highly specific portfolios, has disadvantaged multidisciplinary research, yet this is where so much innovative science occurs. The traditional structure of university science sadly also contributes to intellectual silo-ism. As I discussed in my paper, there is no doubt that a constrained system with a sub-optimal grant assessment process favours conservative research over that which is truly novel. Too much of our scientific enterprise has become unduly conservative and risk-averse with consequences that will incur a significant cost to New Zealand in the long run. This issue extends well beyond our shores – just recently the (US) President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) published a report Transformation and opportunity; the future of the US research enterprise which observes that too much investment is for incremental research because the peer review process rewards safe bets. The report recommends that research funding agencies adopt mechanisms to encourage transformational interdisciplinary science and focus on high-risk research efforts led by investigators with a strong track record.

I would contend that in a small science system like New Zealand’s that is expected to leverage exceptional value from modest amounts of available funds, the need to think in similar terms may be even greater.

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