On Monday, 5 October the Minister of Science and Innovation, Hon. Steven Joyce, launched the National Statement of Science Investment 2015-2025 (NSSI). Following the release of the NSSI the Science Media Centre asked me to provide observations on the final document. The four objectives below were in my mind as I reviewed the document (in the tight timeframe provided). These observations were published, along with other responses in the Science Media Centre’s Science Strategy Launched – Expert reaction article. 

Writing a strategy on how the government should invest in science over the next 10 years is not easy. Not only is government-funded science one of the more complex areas of public policy, it is a significant investment that deals with approximately 1.5 billion dollars of taxpayers’ funds. It is both complex, as there exists a wide range of stakeholders with differing objectives, and important, because it is one of the few levers New Zealand has to improve economic outcomes for future generations.

As a result of Report 9: Science Embraced: Government-funded science under the microscope we proposed a strategy, outlining four objectives for the publicly funded science system – what we have referred to as the strategic intent. These are outcome-driven objectives to help guide decision makers in terms of what this investment will deliver. If the investment does not meet one or a mix of these needs it should not be progressed. The four objectives are:

  1. to inform public policy;
  2. to improve the physical and mental health of New Zealanders;
  3. to increase the financial security of New Zealanders; and
  4. to contribute to solving global problems.

As part of our Public Science project we submitted during the public consultation on the draft NSSI in August 2015. Our submission concluded by saying that ‘The task for MBIE is to act as a guardian for the whole system. This requires MBIE to also focus on how to make institutions, scientists, science assets and the regulatory framework work together to deliver great outcomes for New Zealanders over the long term. This is not an easy task.’ (p 26)

Our response is repeated here:

1.      Key points of interest:

  • This latest NSSI sets a broader role for MBIE. Rather than predetermining and controlling the system, you get a sense that MBIE is aiming to be the guardian of the science investment system. This is very positive from our perspective. You get a sense that MBIE really wants to look at the system in many different ways. For example, rather than putting in place concrete rules and commitments, it aims to be more responsive, putting in place initiatives and principles to gather information and evidence on how the system operates in practice (what is working and what is not). For example, the creation of an annual system performance report (page 55), the creation of a new international science and innovation strategy (page 61) and a commitment that the NSSI will be refreshed every three years (see implementation timeline on page 64).
  • We really applaud the recognition and importance placed on talent. On pages 47 and 49 the emphasis is on attracting, developing and retaining talent. This aligns with the four integrated work streams of our TalentNZ project: grow, attract, retain and connect talent.
  • We believe that the Regional Research Institutes are a good idea, and look forward to seeing how this initiative is implemented over the next few years. (page 57)
  • The Statement incorporates more design elements/diagrams that explain the narrative, which we believe is a very important tool going forward. (e.g. the map on page 7/8)

Areas to watch:

  • An assumption that low-risk projects is a bad thing (see page 30 – ‘Too much of our science and public science investment, across government and industry, is currently focussed on low-risk projects with more certain short-term impacts’). We believe risk must be calculated in terms of costs, risks and benefits, rather than what is arguably implied here. Risk should further be reviewed in terms of magnitude, probability and timeframes.
  • An implication that productivity is the key deliverer of wellbeing (see page 32 – ‘Productivity growth is the primary means to deliver higher wellbeing for New Zealanders’). We do not agree with this statement as a strong judiciary, good welfare/health system for the poor and aged etc are also the primary means to deliver higher wellbeing.
  • Lastly, we really like the quote on page 24 ‘Government’s role is to … be the principal long-term investor in generating new ideas research where social returns are potentially high but private returns are uncertain.’ We believe this is a key change in that it has moved away from a focus on innovation per se (and to some extent the old OECD definition of innovation), and is looking more deeply at what invention and progressing an idea means in practice. We also really like their diagram on page 31.

2.      What are the more significant changes being proposed to the science funding system?

  • Change to a broader role as noted above.

3.      Have submissions during the consultation period been adequately reflected, in your view?

  • Unlike the Draft NSSI document, this Statement was a pleasure to read. It is easy to understand where MBIE will focus and the tasks MBIE will prioritise going forward. There still exists a few areas where more transparency would benefit the reader (see below).

4.   Will these changes be welcomed?

  • We think so, as it is more inclusive – not promising it knows all the answers but wanting to work with sectors to help them make a difference.

5.      Are there any areas where greater clarity is needed?

  • The Statement sets out the Indicative Implementation Timeline on page 64. It would be great to flesh this out further (which no doubt MBIE will do) as this would provide further accountability and transparency into the process.
  • Relating to the National Science Challenges it would be good to know how these fit into the different sectors (discussed in Section 2 [page 22] and Section 4). In September 2014 a new research area for the New Zealand’s National Science Challenge – Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities was announced. It is not immediately obvious where this research area falls within the different sectors. We consider that this document would benefit from illustrating how the challenges align with the sectors.
  • Further attention should be given to the sectors in Section 4 (pages 35–52) and how they interrelate. The headings of each individual sector differ, and this could be seen as confusing to some. Section four actually has eight headings but we think in reality only six are sectors e.g. the health sector, primary industries, manufacturing sector, ICT sector, environment and an other sector.
  • Further, although we appreciate the six sectors exist, there is a risk that these will be seen in isolation when reality they are very integrated. There is a need to understand this integration to understand the synergies that occur across sectors. For example, both the ICT and the environment sectors have a strong impact (risk and opportunity) on the four remaining sectors. MBIE are likely to be thinking about how these sectors might integrate in practice but the Statement would benefit from making this clear.
  • The primary industries sector (pages 38 and 39) needs more work and thinking; it is not as clear as the other sectors.
  • The environmental sector (pages 44 and 45) focuses on the importance of information which we consider will be helped with the move to environmental reporting (ER Act 2015). We would have liked to see this initiative integrated into this part of the Statement.
  • Further, we feel the environment sector deserves more in-depth consideration of how instruments and institutions could be developed going forward. For example, as part of our One Ocean Project which explores how New Zealand might best manage its oceans, the McGuinness Institute is collaborating with a number of other parties to explore the idea of an ‘Oceans Institute’ for New Zealand. The creation of an oceans institute would be a practical way to bring people together to work towards the management of oceans for the good of all New Zealanders. The proposal is to establish an independent policy institute for the Pacific and Southern oceans, possibly based in Wellington, New Zealand. The primary function of this institute would be to (i) bring together information on our oceans, (ii) connect stakeholder perspectives for constructive discussions and (iii) advocate for the delivery of evidence-based policy advice on oceans to government and the general public. Ultimately, the oceans institute would exist for the public good, and as such must act for the benefit of all New Zealanders.

We will be publishing a proposal for the creation of an oceans institute in November which will be sent to every MP. If you are interested in receiving a copy of this please email us at oneocean@mcguinnessinstitute.org.

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