The tao of science missed by National Science Challenges

The challenges are out. The committee has spoken. And now the critics respond.  Word on science street and in the media goes a bit like this:

Brilliant $73M more for science in New Zealand.  Well done Steven Joyce and the National Party.

Lacking in lustre.  These challenges are all a bit predictable. [eg Prof Hendy here]

Damn.  My research does not fit any of the challenges. [eg Dr Wiles here]

I sympathise with each of these opinions.  The National party has set a goal of 0.8 percent of GDP for science.  This is to be applauded. They have chosen a path of narrowing the scope of science to ensure it meets their own ideology of “government’s job is to grow the economy”.  This is reflected in the challenges and the language around them.  For example the challenge “High value nutrition: research to develop high value foods with health benefits” in the Peak Report document states:

There is enormous capacity to leverage both our primary industry and medical research to discover, validate and develop nutritional products with proven health benefits of significant market potential.

Some scientists seem to think that economic goals some how “devalue” science.  I am rather more pragmatic in suggesting that an economic return is an inevitable result of doing science.  The difficulty, though, is that any attempt to pick winners – and that is what the National Science Challenges does, fails to recognise that science at its best is not shackled but free to explore and expand.  Science by its very nature is at a frontier and a journey into lands unknown.  A pathway cannot be chosen for it and any attempt to do so will as often as not go straight past the pot of gold.

The National Science Challenges have been chosen by committee – there are “winners” and “losers” and the result is necessarily bland.  This is inevitable when science is done by committee.  Great science comes from great scientists who are driven to great discoveries.  It is driven by leadership, and leadership never comes from a committee.  On Morning Report this morning the interviewer and Prof Hendy both mentioned the US Space Program as an example of a truly exciting and great science challenge.  That challenge came from a great leader, President Kennedy, and while driven politically, the political goal was the same as the science vision.  Sadly, once the political goal had been reached the politicians turned elsewhere and the science community was left holding on to a few rocks and a vision shattered.

From my perspective what is needed for science in this country even more than challenges is vision and visionaries.  We need to fund scientists first and projects second.  Sadly, we have that priority completely around the wrong way.  Dr Wiles who ironically was one of the faces of science on the television campaign encouraging public submissions on the challenges is disappointed that her area of research, infectious diseases, is not acknowledged in a challenge.  I am disappointed that enthusiastic talented scientists like Dr Wiles are not directly receiving 3, 5, 10 year’s of salary and research cost support from this new money to pursue their vision. It’s not so much the topic of research as the researcher that counts.  I have a challenge for the New Zealand government.  And that is for their science policy to be evidence based (see Grant Jacobs’ blog post).  Part of that puzzle is whether it is best to fund researchers or to fund projects. This is why I say the Challenges have missed the tao of science – they are not in harmony with the way science is really done.  Let us run a trial.  Randomly select ten scientists and fund their salaries and $100K a year and let them pursue whatever they want.  Compare this to the results of randomly selected National Science Challenge funded projects with the same number of scientists involved.  The title of the trial could be “Is picking winners better than letting winners pick?


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