The minister missed the point

Last week Radio NZ put together a piece on grant funding.  The audio can be downloaded from here,-minister-at-odds-over-research-funding

Prof Juliet Gerrard, Dr Mark Green, Dr Robin Olds, Dr David Baddeley and myself all pointed out that the government grant funding system is in crisis because only 7-8% of applications are funded.  We also noted this made long science careers in this country almost impossible.  If I may add one other name, that of Sir Peter Gluckman, the government’s science advisor, who at a talk at the University of Otago Christchurch in 2009 called the time following the post-doctoral period of a scientists career as the “valley of the shadow.”  Many of today’s Professors went through that valley when there was considerably more light and less shadow.  Now, the shadows have grown long and dark and few make it through the valley.

Minister Joyce pointed out that we train twice as many science PhD’s as a few years ago and that most who go overseas “come back.”  I doubt the latter very much.  However, I am unable to find data on that.  What I did find was that the MOE themselves note the low rate of employment of PhD Natural and Physical Sciences PhD graduates.

“By field of study, graduates from ‘Natural and physical sciences’ had the lowest rate of employment [57%], while graduates from ‘Society and culture’ had the highest [65%]. Once again, this may reflect the limited employment opportunities for science researchers in New Zealand.”   (

The research was based on those who graduated in 2003.  There were 199 students in this group in 2003 and 262 in 2010 ( I wonder what the rate of employment is?

Minister Joyce, as one would expect, pointed out all that the present government has done for science in this country.  To be fair, they have done more than other recent governments.  Minister Joyce repeatedly pointed to the increases in science funding for various schemes.  These amount to about a 24% increase in total science funding since 2009. ie about 5 to 6% per year.  This may be compared to a consumer price index increase of about 10% over 4 years.  In other words, total government spend on science has increased at faster than the rate of inflation. Minister Joyce called this dramatic.  I wouldn’t go this far, but it is positive and good.  In the Christhurch Press, Dec 1, in an article about Sir Peter Gluckmann. Sir David Skegg, president of the Royal Society, describes the government increase for science as “modest”  and notes that “the much needed step-change in our national investment in research and development has not yet occurred…”  I couldn’t agree more.  What is needed is not 5% a year, but 50%.

Innovation is but a fraction of the tip of the iceberg.  (Work by Uwe Kils)

Innovation is but a fraction of the tip of the iceberg. (Work by Uwe Kils)

A few other thoughts:

The metamorphosis of the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology into the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment is symptomatic of a fundamental misunderstanding of both science and innovation.  Innovation for commercial gain is but a fraction of the visible fraction of the iceberg of science.  Innovation is built on decades of science in which the foundations are assembled molecule by molecule.  The results are a vast array of knowledge, largely freely accessible, which enables much social good and, yes, occasional commercial ventures.  The current pursuit of innovation innovation innovation threatens the very stability of the system.  If there are not scientists building the foundations, there will be little left for businesses to build on.

The grant funding system is broke.  It is time for politicians of all stripes to acknowledge that.  While additional funding is an essential element in saving our science, it is only part of the solution.  Fund scientists first, projects second.  To do otherwise is to commit the fallacy of picking winners in science – of trying to anticipate where science will be in 1, 2, 5 years.  It’s not possible and ignores that science is inherently unpredictable because it deals with what we don’t know, not with what we do.


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