ECONOMICS Science in Crisis

You wouldn’t have heard much about science policy during the election campaign. Political posturing on science doesn’t hit the headlines the same as, say, allegations about terrorists in our midst or demands for “the treaty industry” to be dismantled.
But science has been an integral part of the Government’s “Growth and Innovation Framework” which is key plank of its economic strategy. In the rhetoric, at least. The Science & Innovation Advisory Council, established by Prime Minister Helen Clark in 2000, was charged in 2001 with preparing draft innovation framework for New Zealand. The council made way in 2002 for the Growth and Innovation Advisory Board, set up to help to identify strategic opportunities and ensure the framework stays relevant.
The OECD has registered its approval – with reservations. Its recent report on the New Zealand economy says the Growth and Innovation Framework, and in particular the Government’s innovation strategy, appears to be well designed and notes that the innovation rate among firms is similar to EU levels. Business R&D expenditures, however, are well below the OECD average.
Indeed. Two-yearly surveys by Statistics New Zealand keep an eye on this spending. The 2004 survey showed healthy growth in R&D, totalling $1.6 billion in the survey period. Although not directly comparable with the 2002 survey because of changes in the design, there was an overall increase in total R&D of 13.1 percent between 2002 and 2004. That increase was largely due to an increase of 24.5 percent in private sector R&D, 8.4 percent in the government sector and 4.4 percent in the university sector. The biggest rises on sector basis in private sector R&D were within the manufacturing sector and in the computer services sector.
Overall, research and development across all sectors equated to 1.17 percent of GDP, up tad from 1.15 percent in 2002. But it is relatively low by international standards: Australia reported R&D expenditure as 1.62 percent of GDP in 2002; the OECD average was 2.26 percent.
Further investment in the Budget this year was intended to build on the Growth and Innovation Framework and pump more money into public science.
Lest no-one took much notice on Budget Day, Labour’s Mark Peck week or so later asked patsy question in Parliament: how is the Government continuing to support innovation in the New Zealand economy through research, science and technology?
Research, Science and Technology Minister Steve Maharey was keen to answer: the Government will invest an additional $204 million in research, science and technology over the next four years. This increase will bring total public spending on research, science and technology, excluding capital expenditure, to just on $600 million for 2005/2006 – boost of over 56 percent since 1999. New funding over the next four years includes $71 million to increase the competitiveness of key industries, and $47.8 million for infrastructure and development programmes for researchers and scientists, and into the health area, which will undoubtedly help the member.
The big issue is whether this money – like all the extra spending the Government can boast about as it talks of improving our health, education and so on – is being spent effectively. We have cause to wonder, on the strength of recent speech by Hamish Campbell, president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, to the Institute of Horticultural and Agricultural Scientists. It was headed ‘The Science Crisis in New Zealand’. It’s crisis of confidence, explained Campbell, who described himself as working scientist, not science manager (“so I do have some credentials – I feel as though I can talk as scientist”.)
He recalled telling an interviewer late last year he did not think he could encourage his children to go into science. He was unprepared for the response, resounding acclamation across the science community.
His argument; scientists want to do science but are squandering taxpayers’ money trying to figure out what science should be done and who should do it. “So much of the science dollar is involved in ridiculous competition which wastes precious resources,” he said.
Scientists also want security and career, but the funding agents are fickle. “We can be happily engaged on projects for two, three or four years, then suddenly the funding is switched off with virtually no explanation.”
Last year, agencies like the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences where Campbell works had big amounts of their government contractual income at stake: almost 50 percent if not more. “Our staff were traumatised,” he said, “yet we are expected to produce science.”
This is disquieting. When scientists are advising their kids to avoid science as career, what does that tell us about the growth and innovation framework?

Bob Edlin is regular contributor to Management.

Visited 2 times, 1 visit(s) today
Close Search Window