It isn't rocket science but it's moving at last

John Key was going to be science minister but diverted down a cycleway to tourism. He is now retracing his steps.

Innovation is a central driver of productivity growth. But it was not one of Bill English’s four “areas” of “initiatives to lift productivity” in his budget in May. Overall spending on science went down.

Recent speeches by both Key and English have included innovation. Key is now quietly reaffirming the importance of research, science and technology (RST). Reluctant RST minister Wayne Mapp declared this month that �RST will be expected to play a bigger part in improving our economic performance”. A small National backbench science committee has formed.

And Sir Peter Gluckman is settled in to his part-time post as Key’s personal and official Chief Scientific Adviser, a post Key first mooted to him last year.

Sir Peter is an entrepreneur-scientist, both at home and in international collaboration. He could have been referring to himself when he told the Australia-New Zealand Leadership Forum in Sydney 10 days ago that the most intellectually-entrepreneurial scientists are also the most business-entrepreneurial.

So Sir Peter was never going to disappear behind the ninth-floor curtain, shrouded in confidentiality. Within days of taking office, he embarrassed ministers with his take on folic acid.

Moreover, he is not only science-savvy and business-savvy but also media-savvy, good for a headline. He has strong, critical views about the quality of science reporting. Expect a lot more from him.

At the core of the RS&T debate is money. The private sector spends a fraction of other developed economies’ private sectors. This is not because the public sector crowds it out, as a scientist argued in the New Scientist recently. Public sector spending here is below the rich-country average, too.

This is a legacy of the Treasury’s narrow libertarian doctrine of the 1990s. Crown research institutes (CRIs) were required to be companies, doing business for business and making a profit. Universities were paid for student bums on seats.

The public spending focus was on getting scientific discoveries across the valley of death into technology startups. Meanwhile, the science available for translation into innovation was running thin — in agriculture, running out.

The 1999-08 Labour-led governments set up the centres of excellence in universities and funded CRIs for some long-term research. But they also cut spending as a percentage of GDP.

English’s budget showed his suspicion of science. He has told Sir Peter — and the world — he wants to know what bang he is getting for his buck. In that, English-graduate English is a fitting successor to social history academic Michael Cullen.

Sir Peter has rephrased English’s question as: “Is science an indulgence or is it at the core of our economic development?” But Sir Peter’s question was rhetorical. He has said: “The science community has slipped into a format of desperation and frustration and begging.”

That is a sadly accurate conclusion. But Sir Peter’s answer is not simple. And on this point he and English are in synch.

First, a country of 4.3 million can’t do everything. Second, we have the most competitive bidding system in the world via too many funding avenues and far too many institutions. Third, a small country requiring peer review of all applications for funding is a recipe for mediocrity. The result is “very confused behaviour across universities and CRIs” — and an exodus of good scientists. That Sir Peter and Sir Paul Callaghan (also an intellectual and business entrepreneur) have stayed here is a puzzle.

So, fourth on a list of four RST “themes” identified by Mapp, who is now warming to his task, is “simplifying the entire system”. Mapp wants that sorted by the end of the year.

That can’t come soon enough. For 20 years governments have operated as if New Zealand should be only a technology-taker. That is not how — to recite Sir Peter’s list of small countries making real use of scientists — Singapore, Israel, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Switzerland think of science. All are richer than New Zealand and the gap is widening.

Sir Peter’s answer (apart from truckloads of money) is cross-border collaboration. He has done it as a scientist, in Singapore, China and Europe — and that way gets more bangs for his bucks. He wants a lot more.

Last week Key took Sir Peter’s route and signed up to Australia’s bid for the massive Square Kilometre Array astronomy project, which promises high-end jobs in both countries. Sir Peter wants to greatly expand the number of joint projects in biotechnology and other fields, including in joint centres of excellence.

Sir Peter is doing the stirring Key expected. Now for Key to lift his own game out of tourism and on to the route for real riches. Sir Peter said in Sydney: “A scientifically literate and engaged society at all levels is more likely to be ambitious, innovative and productive.” Over to Key.