Budget good for science, but where's the roadmap?

The national budget announced today contained a raft of announcements on research, science and innovation funding.

Bill English delivers the 2014 Budget
Bill English delivers the 2014 Budget

The only big surprise is the news that additional centres of research excellence will be funded from 2016, bringing to ten the total numbers of CoREs that will exist. That’s a clear endorsement by the Government of the CoRE model of doing research and will open up opportunities for those who missed out on the current CoRE funding round. The news that a Maori search CoRE will be funded will placate those who were outraged that existing CoRE Nga Pae o Te Maramatanga missed the cut this year for renewed funding. Maori research will be a focus in future, it is just unclear what form it will take.

Sciblogger Shaun Hendy well summed up the treatment science received in the Budget:

“It is still frustrating to see another budget go by in the absence a coherent national science strategy. Although the science sector will be pleased with what is on offer this year overall, we are still very much in the dark on where our science system is headed in the long term.”

Notable changes include:

– $56.8m more for contestable science funding (over three years, beginning in 2015/16)
– Plans to reform the contestable funding system, including a new National Statement of Science Investment, aiming to make the system “more flexible, less complex and more closely focused on research that is of relevance to NZ”
– Expansion of the Centres of Research Excellence – $53 million over four years will be added to existing funding to boost the number of CoREs to ten by 2016. In addition to the six successful CoREs previously announced, three more will be selected in a closed tender from the 21 unsuccessful applicants of that previous funding round. The final CoRE will be a Maori Centre of Research Excellence, chosen in an open tender
An additional $67.9 million for tertiary science education (an 8.5 per cent increase per equivalent full-time student)

The Science Media Centre rounded up reaction from scientists and researchers. Here’s what they had to say…

Dr Nicola Gaston, President of the NZ Association of Scientists (NZAS), comments:

“The funding for additional CoREs is very welcome. The loss of CoREs such as the Allan Wilson Centre and Nga Pae o te Maramatanga served to highlight that this is a very successful funding stream for science and research in New Zealand. Six CoREs is probably too few, given the diversity of the research areas that are covered by the CoREs, coupled with the expectation that there will be turnover as new ideas and collaborations emerge.
It is a little disconcerting to see the goalposts in any contestable funding process being moved after the fact, but the CoRE process to date has been well run, which justifies confidence in the process going forward. The establishment of a Maori Centre of Research Excellence which is still contestable, but not in direct competition with all of the other CoREs is well justified, and should hopefully strengthen the ability of M?ori researchers to contribute to all areas of research in New Zealand in the future. Progress in this respect is well overdue.

“The boost to contestable science funding is also excellent. The impact of moving funding to the National Science Challenges from the pool of contestable funding was always an issue of some considerable concern. We have also seen a shift towards industry-facing projects from this funding stream, which has increased the pressure on the Marsden Fund, so additional support in this area is also well-justified.

“The boost to support of tertiary students in the sciences is very well justified. However the government focus on STEM subjects should not be used to question the value of an arts degree: there are many areas of research in which interdisciplinary work is producing real world outcomes with increased impact, and the creation of a false competition between science and arts subjects is, in my opinion, very unhealthy.

“The funding to Callaghan Innovation for ‘the development and maintenance of science, engineering, technology, design and other strategic capabilities’ is being cut by a third. This is not surprising, given that Callaghan Innovation are on record as seeing no need to employ specialist researchers themselves; it is however a sad end to the story of Industrial Research and the history of the DSIR in the Hutt Valley. It is unfortunate to see such funds in the budget tagged with the reference to the ‘Advanced Technology Institute’: if I remember correctly, the advertised plan was to double the non-university workforce in physical sciences and engineering, rather than decimate it.

“In summary: this government clearly understands the real economic benefits of investment in science. However, the balance between science that produces outputs in the short term, and the science that creates significant advices in understanding in the long term – including the development and maintenance of capability in New Zealand – is something that we need to keep an eye on.”

Shaun Hendy, Director of Te Punaha Matatini and Professor of Physics at the University of Auckland, comments:

“This is a good budget for science, and reflects its importance for the future development of New Zealand. I am pleased to see funding for another three Centres of Research Excellence. The CoREs do almost everything the National Science Challenges are supposed to achieve and more, so it pleasing to see their value being recognised by the government. I am also very relieved to see that the government will back a Centre of Maori Research Excellence, after Nga Pae o Te Maramatanga missed out in the latest CoRE round. Support for Maori research is crucial if New Zealand is to grow and develop further as a country. It is also good to see an increase in funding for students taking STEM subjects at universities – graduates in these subjects are in short supply in the wider economy.

“Nonetheless, it is still frustrating to see another budget go by in the absence a coherent national science strategy. Although the science sector will be pleased with what is on offer this year overall, we are still very much in the dark on where our science system is headed in the long term.

“For instance, we still don’t have a good sense of the future direction of Callaghan Innovation. Their capacity for research and development continues to be wound down. Although a significant portion of Callaghan’s researchers were transferred to universities this year, these researchers are now at the mercy of an oversubscribed contestable funding system, and over time it is quite possible we will see an erosion of our national capability in the applied physical sciences as a result.

“Although the government continues to flirt with tax incentives for R&D, I would very much like to see Minister Joyce take the plunge and admit that R&D tax credits were a good idea. It would also be good to see him acknowledge the extent of our shortfall in post-doctoral fellowship funding – the lack of post-doc positions in New Zealand is of very real concern for emerging scientists. It’s probably too much to expect him to address these issues in election year.”

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