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A Step Forward?

In the last few entries here on New Zealand politics I have been a bit critical of the current government so I think its time to be a bit more positive again. I try to avoid political affiliations – even though I concede I am basically moderately left in my political views – so I do try to compliment the parties I would normally be critical of when they get something right.

The issue I want to comment on is the management of New Zealand’s crown research institutions (or CRIs). These are scientific organisations which are run by the government to produce scientific discoveries which can be used to improve the country in some practical way – which usually means economically.

The problem in the past (and its a problem shared by all research organisations here) is that the competitive contestable funding model has been a disaster. It has meant a lot of work by highly skilled and specialised scientists to produce proposals for funding that they usually didn’t get. It has created an environment of competition with other organisations where cooperation would have been better. And it has created a feeling of despair amongst many working scientists.

So I was pleased with what I heard in an interview discussing the findings of a task force on management of CRIs. Task forces seem like a good way to get reliable, expert information on a topic but they are often mis-used by making their terms of reference too specific or by stacking their members with people of a particular political persuasion. The silly stuff dreamed up by the tax task force (or working party or whatever it was) would be a classic example.

This task force seems to have recognised the problems I mentioned above and recommended a less competitive system with a less bureaucratic funding model for the future. Of course the recommendations haven’t been implemented, and the common sense ideas could easily be sabotaged by the free market nutters in the right wing of National and in Act, but I think the signs are that there might be genuine progress being made.

Here’s a few points I picked up from the interview…

Many of the CRIs were working reasonably well, but that was more despite the current system than because of it. Lessening the bureaucracy and backing away from the competitive system should improve the CRIs’ performance further.

There is a need for more collaboration but that is discouraged by the current competitive system. Why would one organisation cooperate with another that it is in competition for funds with?

CRIs must be accountable. This is a fairly safe statement of course because everyone should be accountable in some way. But what it actually means is very much open to question and I heard very little detail on this. In my experience greater accountability often leads to greater bureaucracy and a lessening in overall quality which achieves the exact opposite of what was originally intended!

CRIs are intended to be source of practical science where universities are intended more for pure science (without any immediate economic advantage). This is fair enough. I think science can be used for both. The pure science, which is often criticised because it does seem impractical, is how real progress is made so that does need to continue and as long as that happens I think this is OK.

One subject which was sidestepped was the possibility of increased funding for CRIs. The comment was made that the structure needs to be fixed first then the funding can be allocated appropriately. Well yes, fair enough, as long as the funding is made available because science in New Zealand is very much underfunded and the private sector is failing in this area, leaving the government as the major funding source.

I am not much of an enthusiast for the commercialisation of science so I think the government funding model is preferred anyway. If commercial input into practical science projects could be made that’s fine, as long as the pure science is left as it is.

So yes, this did seem to be a step forward. If the previous government had one big fault it was in its tendency to create bureaucracies. I have no objection to these being dismantled as long as that isn’t used as an excuse to downsize useful institutions as well.

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