National gets serious about more science spending

Helen Clark’s government is fond of strategies. But is it strategic?

Look at its new-spending in the 2006 Budget: of the $2.2 billion new operating spending, mostly on health, education and “working families”, $25 million goes to research, science and technology (RS&T).

Fixing up old people certainly gives them higher quality of life. But it says nothing about how today’s young are to have the higher incomes to pay for the care of the old of the future.

Likewise, rewarding university students for doing courses that will deliver them higher salaries than if they didn’t do them has limited value for the wages of everyday folk in the less-well-off suburbs.

By contrast, RS&T does have value for everyday folk by generating new products and processes 10-20 years down the track which make the country richer.

A strategic government, as distinct from one that publishes strategies, would have reweighted its new spending towards science in its first year and every year since and drawn on the bonanza revenues of the past half-decade.

Instead, the government’s spending on RS&T, while rising in dollar terms, has stalled around 0.55% of gross domestic product (GDP). It has an aim of matching the OECD average for government spending (0.68% in 2004) but has not yet committed itself to the $200 million-odd a year needed to get there. And that leaves aside the fact that private sector funding is a third of the OECD average in GDP terms, which suggests the government needs to do more.

Of course, innovation is not just science. Innovations in workplace practice and organisation can do much for productivity growth, for example. But RS&T is what gave us the kiwifruit, then the gold kiwifruit, and better grasses and healthier animals for our export cashflow industries.

Recently, in a logical extension of those traditional industries, RS&T has delivered high-value-added foods and food supplements and medical drugs.

Logically, as a country we would pour resources into such activity and thereby enhance our competitive niche against other countries that also produce food and are getting more productive and cost-effective.

John Key thinks so. After a trip to Singapore in April he gushed to the National party’s northern regional conference about that country’s five-year $10 billion Biopolis programme aimed at attracting top biomedical scientists’ and international companies’ research and handsomely funding its top students to top world universities but bonded to return.

Auckland University is building a new wing for its school of biological sciences, part-funded by private contributions. But that is tiny beside what Singapore, a non-biology-based country with a smaller population, is building. There is no raft of endowed professorial chairs or fellowships for top scientists.

Science here is done on the cheap. Hip operations are deemed far more important.

And had the government changed last election, there was no promise of better. National didn’t even publish an RS&T policy.

But Key’s Singapore epiphany appears to have lifted RS&T as a National party priority. The evidence is in a little-noticed speech last week by RS&T spokesperson Paul Hutchison.

Hutchison, too, has a model: Taiwan. He says Taiwan has set an RS&T target of 3% of GDP up from 2.4% now and three times our 1.1% total, including private sector spending.

Hutchison predicated his RS&T programme on a generally more business-friendly operating environment, with lower taxes attuned to investment in RS&T, lighter and better attuned regulation, including the prophylactic Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, and “high-quality migration” into a flexible labour market.

He then focused on training, retaining and attracting elite scientists with generous packages and conditions. “Top scientists are like top-performing athletes”, for whom special deals have to be done over a long time to “support and fuel them”.

Then he added, with Key’s explicit endorsement, that he would be “looking to increase the overall public and private investment” — in plain words, spend more taxpayers’ money. In an interview later he said government spending would need to be above the OECD average for some years.

And, while he does not propose big changes in the funding structure, he wants better alignment between universities, Crown research institutes, research associations and the private sector. “The private sector must lever off the public sector in order to achieve critical mass. We have a big catchup to do.”

And a big recovery: “Our largest private R&D company is downsizing in some areas of research”. And some research activities (including some by Fonterra) have moved to Australia.

Hutchison called for the country “to be far bolder in science”, to “create the right infrastructure and environment to ensure our next Nobel Prize winner is able to do the work right here.” The three past New Zealand-born Nobel laureates all worked offshore.

Words, words, glorious words. Hutchison and Key don’t have to deliver anything while in opposition and Key has said he will constrain public spending.

Moreover, just adding another $200-$400 million would still leave us in the dust behind several Australian states, let alone Singapore. And it wouldn’t allay the unseemly squabbling between the Crown research institutes and universities, hardly conducive to the best results from constrained resources. And the private sector probably wouldn’t notice.

But it does seem National is preparing to take science more seriously. And if it does, that might prod the government to take it more seriously, too — to substitute strategic action for publishing strategies.