We are challenged to find the challenges: a window of opportunity

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Close up view of someone at a panel taking notes on paper

Two weeks ago in Auckland I co-chaired a meeting of advisors on science and economic policy from a number of small advanced countries. A feature of the more successful small advanced economies has been their sustained public investment in research and development — but in small economies it is not possible to do everything in science, and choices need to be made.

A lot of the discussion focused on three contemporary issues (I will return to other topics discussed at a later date).

Firstly, how does one assess the value of public investment in research, especially when a significant proportion of research has its value to society in areas broader than simply direct economic transformation (although the latter must be a critical and key driver of policy settings). This question is at the heart of decisions policy makers must make as to the priority they give to public investment in R&D versus other aspects of public expenditure.

Secondly, can one and how should one assess the impact of research. The European states have been quite active in considering this issue, but it is not easy as impact means very different things to the academic and researcher versus the policy maker and public.

Thirdly, the vexed question of priority setting within the public science system. Because in a small country there is neither the funding nor the capabilities to do everything that a large science system can do — choices have to be made, but with what granularity? Research with value and impact must be of high quality and that requires certain features, such as critical mass, adequate funding, appropriate infrastructure and a degree of certainty; on the other hand a quality academic enterprise needs scholarship across all domains.

Choices are being made when governments assign levels of funding to different funding agencies, but choices are also made in deciding on the types of funding tools and the focus on individual or strategic direction. What is the appropriate balance between investigator-led research and strategically driven research initiatives? How much focus needs to be given to developing critical mass and ensuring national focus, rather than the institutional and individual focus that tends to dominate in public science systems?

With the increasing utilitarian focus on public investments, this creates interesting policy dilemmas. Thus the question emerges: should there be explicit priorities in a small nation’s funding system? Both Ireland and Finland, for example, have very explicit processes in place in setting science priorities.

Within the context of this discussion, an exciting and important initiative has been announced by the Minister of Science and Innovation: public and academic consultation on National Science Challenges. The idea of the challenges is to identify strategic initiatives that the science community can coalesce around that would add significant value to New Zealand. The examples of what a challenge might be given on the websites and on TV highlight the broad canvas of possibilities, from environmental and social to economically focused.

The public consultation is important — it will engage the public in having greater ownership of their investment in the science system, and help both them and the policy maker understand how important science is to our national future. But the consultation with the research community is equally important. We need to identify where the best in our research community spanning across institutions and disciplines can coalesce on some well defined strategic questions where a concerted research effort could have major impact on our economy, environment or social capital. There is no point engaging in wishful or fanciful thinking — we are a small country and we must build on what we are good at. This is not the place to pretend we can build something out of nothing, whereas by better linking up and filling identified capacity or capability gaps science could make a substantial difference.

Beyond the identification of the challenges themselves and their funding, this exercise will have long echoes in influencing how one thinks about the future of the New Zealand science system and the impact and value proposition of public investment in science. It will influence thinking about how science priorities are determined.

I will be chairing the expert panel that will assess the challenges and make a recommendation to Cabinet as to which of them will be funded. We will be looking for research proposals that will truly advance New Zealand’s economy, environment and/or society. I hope there is broad engagement — please look at the websites for further information. There are separate sites for the public and for research providers and research users.

The National Science Challenges exercise is a very important opportunity for New Zealand and the science system; it must not be squandered.

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