Wanted: more motivated scientists

Science Minister Pete Hodgson will celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Crown research institutes (CRIs) this evening (Monday) with stern words from his ministry about the “fragility” of the research system ringing in his ears.

The Ministry of Research, Science and Technology (MoRST) wants “new processes to create a more motivated and focused research community”, which it broadly hints is low in morale. For a government that has made “innovation” central to its economic programme, these words have a special urgency — and they come after three years in office.

The 1990s National Science Minister, Simon Upton, was particularly proud of devising the CRIs. His similar competitive model for health failed in the court of public opinion. The science model largely escaped attack.

Questioning of the CRI model — Crown companies competing for public sector funding, administered through stand-alone agencies, and part-funding themselves with private sector contracts — was mostly confined to disgruntled scientists.

Many of the complainants left and Upton was left with a model that worked. With one exception, in social research where the CRI collapsed, the CRIs thrived financially — to the point where Hodgson was last year able to raid their balance sheets for his venture capital fund.

But is it science? Is there enough fundamental science being done. Is it geared to the nation’s overall innovation needs? Are CRIs too obsessed with winning private sector contracts?

To those asking such question MoRST has given some comfort in its post-election briefing.

It commended the Upton reforms but noted they were reforms of systems and processes.

“Relatively little attention has been paid to defining what New Zealand specifically expects, by way of economic, environmental and social outcomes, from its research and innovation system,” the briefing said, sounding like a veiled and uncomplimentary reflection on the 1990s market mantra.

“The competitive purchasing approach has undoubtedly delivered significant benefits in quality and value of research outputs,” the briefing said. “But some fragility in the research system has emerged.”

MoRST said the “unusually high” level of contestability for funding gave high flexibility in meeting changing government investment objectives. But it also “can cause significant volatility in long-term research”.

And, ominously, for our future as an “innovative” nation, MoRST added that uncertain funding “is often the key difficulty in recruiting and retaining high-class research teams”.

The environment also “offers CRIs relatively little latitude to use their own judgment and expertise to identify and invest directly in those areas they think will benefit New Zealand in the long term”.

So what are Hodgson’s riding instructions from his ministry as he heads into a second term in his favourite portfolio?

* Clarify objectives, roles and responsibilities, including a “high-level statement of what the government expects the system to deliver”.

* Provide a better focused purchase policy framework so it focuses on the “broader contributions research, science and technology could make to government goals”.

* Negotiate funding more and rely less on contestable funding to “create a climate where research organisations are more valued”.

* Fine-tune the government’s expectations so CRI performance benefits the nation as a whole — by implication, rather than just contributing to the CRIs’ balance sheets.

* Get sectors working together.

The briefing throws out broad hints of a down-in-the-dumps research community — not an attitude likely to drive us into the 4 per cent-a-year growth category. MoRST said Hodgson will know he is succeeding when “researchers respond positively”, “surveys of morale demonstrate a motivated and focused community” and “government agencies reflect a consistent and coherent view”.

Sobering thoughts for Hodgson to think about amid this evening’s cocktails.