Using our brains, for a change

On his recent visit, Professor Lord Robert Winston added his voice to the chorus advocating greater emphasis on science if NZ wants economic growth.

Our research spending — both public and private — is pathetic. (Except, most recently, for some agricultural research.) We spend a little over 1% of GDP, or $700 million odd, on research. This is well below most other advanced economies — half the OECD average and a third of some OECD countries — and is often cited as a reason for our poor relative economic performance.

We’re in the same league on funding/GDP as Spain, Italy, Turkey and Greece. Yup, the same group we’re part of on the GDP per capita table.

That Kiwi scientists and academic researchers do so well in international league tables is partly because they are so accustomed to doing so much with relatively little. And they’re cheap. But their high productivity only partly compensates for the poverty of funding, and in the meantime, we lose our edge.

Despite what the bureaucrats seem to think, scientific infrastructure is fragile. It’s been frustrating to watch as entire research teams locate offshore, lured by funding.

And the funding processes provide little reward for engaging in an often capricious game. I know of one NZ professor, the most internationally recognised of all the NZ academics in his field, who has simply given up on the FRST funding process. Much easier to collaborate with Australians and hook into serious research money.

With the increasing internationalisation of R&D, we’re also missing out on big opportunites to make science a major earner.

The current government has made some moves to improve things. It devoted a modest amount of extra funding over recent years to try to partially close the yawning gap with academic salaries overseas. But this year it dropped the ball.

More positively, last year it introduced a 15% tax credit for R&D expenditure. Tax breaks for R&D are standard in most other OECD countries. The Fast Forward Fund for innovation in the pastoral and food sectors is another step in the right direction.

Anthony Scott’s piece in the Herald today discusses Lord Winston’s remarks. (Scott is CEO of Science New Zealand Inc., which represents the nine Crown Research institutes.) He repeats Winston’s point that in a small economy we should take a focused approach and “build on excellence”. This may mean not concentrating extra funding in the blue-sky Marsden Fund as some have suggested. Scott also noted:

“Winston also advises avoiding the stultifying requirement to identify the economic value of all research before beginning. Sometimes science must lead a sector. It needs space and funding to explore ideas that may disrupt and challenge existing practices and products.”

Clearly, before we start pumping more money into the likes of FRST, we need a major overhaul of our funding processes, overseen by independent scientists and experts.

Well, it’s election year. Let’s see what the politicians have to offer…

[Note: It was interesting to see The Hive pick up on Scott’s Herald piece. For the loony right there is no need for state funding of science. The market ought to take care of this, oughtn’t it?]

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One Response to “Using our brains, for a change”

  1. MacDoctor Says:

    There is clearly a need for both sorts of funding. Market based funding is driven by profit and scarcity of resources. Whereas the former is a constant driver, resource limitations are variable, meaning that private R&D funding is also variable. An obvious case in point is the sudden increase in oil pricing, making a basic commodity expensive. Now the oil price is north of $100/barrel expect a sudden rush of spending on R&D for alternatives to the use of oil. Expect vehicle consumption to drop to only 1 -2 liters per 100km or lower. Expect plastic manufacturing to find alternative production methods. and so on.

    This is why OPEC is actually desperate to lower the price. Currently their only saviour is, weirdly, biofuels. While there are false incentives to the biofuels market, the R&D dollar is going there, not into true alternatives (yet another reason to shut down all government biofuel subsidies).

    But to get back to the point. The state can not provide enough money to subsidize all R&D. State research funding should be directed mostly to “pure” research (that is not productivity or resource aligned and not disguised political spending). It should not go to propping up private R&D. Typically, state funding incentivizes only the conventional, rather than the “blue sky” research that produce the serendipitous moments we need to make the REAL technological advances. If the state funds that type of research and allows the market to do what it does, we can expect some real breakthroughs in the next five to ten years.

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