Election 2014: research funding

This election, increasingly annoyed by the research funding situation, I decided to become (almost) a single-issue voter, and concentrate on what parties want to do to improve NZ’s chronic underfunding of science and research. My feeling after many election campaigns is that New Zealand just doesn’t value these things as much as other countries. However this may be unfair – we have had a more democratic system than many other countries, public goods are known to be underfunded if left to individuals, and more successful countries like USA have tended to fund research by stealth (under the Department of “Defense”) rather than make a strong case to the voters, or by fiat (e.g. Singapore). In any case, it is clear that as a country we have under-invested for decades, and that our relative slide in living standards is largely owing to a productivity problem which can (only) be fixed by increasing investment. Paul Callaghan (someone for whose work I have great respect, but I don’t use titles like “Sir” on principle) and Shaun Hendy (now my colleague at University of Auckland) have made this case at length in recent years, for example in books such as Wool to Weta and  Get Off the Grass. If you believe that “growing the national cake” is important, then this is a critical political issue.

The NZ Association of Scientists has made a submission (to which I made an infinitesimal contribution) to the National Statement of Science Investment feedback process, which sums up very well the problems with the current government’s policies. So much time in recent years has been wasted rebranding and reorganizing, losing institutional memory in the process ignoring the real problem: not enough money. Every new initiative seems to be funded by killing an old one, and this zero-sum attitude appears to be entrenched.

A very perceptive colleague in my department sent me the following:

… rather than attempting to become more like the “average” OECD nation with respect to R&D, I think it’s most likely National (and perhaps also Labour) will continue to (try to) emulate Ireland’s performance, i.e. to continue to run a lean/mean R&D machine with very little governmental funding.

I’m picking on Ireland because of a presentation I attended yesterday (http://www.royalsociety.org.nz/events/world-science-week-new-zealand/research-impact-its-meaning-and-assessment/) — the presenter from Ireland (Prof Ferguson) dropped some hints that suggest, to me, that folks in MBIE have been paying close attention to his story.

Ireland runs in the bottom-half of the EU pack for governmental R&D expenditure (only about 0.5% of its GDP!), but ranks near the top of that league for R&D impact on national economy (as measured by the EC).
NZ gov’t also spends about 0.5% of GDP on R&D, i.e. we’re running neck-and-neck with Ireland, suggesting that our government “merely” has to make our country more closely resemble Ireland in a few other ways before we’ll also enjoy a top-of-league economic payback on R&D expenditure. …

The NZAS also asked political parties some good questions  about their R&D policies. Not all the parties have responded. None of those that have responded are making the kind of commitment that I think is essential: double the Marsden Fund, for example. You can see the questions and answers here and make up your mind.

Governments worldwide apparently see research as an engine of economic growth (which perhaps it is) ignoring the less tangible benefits to be gained from intellectual growth.  A major side-effect of adopting the research mentality is better decision-making. Roughly speaking, my feeling is that businesses and government should try to learn how to run themselves more like the worldwide scientific/research enterprise, instead of trying to make it conform to their models. This involves (in theory) some well-known practices that still seem not very well used in wider society: avoidance of hierarchy (no authorities, only experts); recognition of human cognitive fallibility and processes devised to ameliorate it, such as methodologies for assessing evidence; using the wisdom of crowds to aggregate information; continuous improvement and a humble recognition that the “final” answer has probably not been obtained. Much current political practice seems to use the opposite of each of these practices.

If we allow the further degradation of our decision-making capability, other policies, no matter how good they may seem, will not be implemented properly. So, I will base my vote to a large extent on policies on research and tertiary education, with some serious attention to ethics and trust.


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