A big science investment – but where’s the transparency?

by Peter Griffin / 17 November, 2018
The impacts of climate change is one of the key areas the National Science Challenges are examining. Photo / Getty Images

The impacts of climate change is one of the key areas the National Science Challenges are examining. Photo / Getty Images

The Government has approved over $420 million in additional funding for the National Science Challenges, a decade-long series of projects supposed to tackle big issues facing society.

But the reasoning behind the increased investment, which follows a mid-way review of the 11 National Science Challenges by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Science Board and brings the total spending on them to $681 million, will not be publicly released.

Confidentiality didn't stop the previous Government from releasing the results of its assessment of the Marsden Fund, the country's biggest blue skies research fund that distributes over $80 million in funding to researchers each year.

Instead, Minister of Research, Science and Innovation, Dr Megan Woods said in a statement that the review shows the Challenges were “fundamentally changing the way science is being undertaken in New Zealand” and were “truly world-leading”.

We will have to take the minister’s word for that, despite the scale of the investment.

Megan Woods. Photo / Getty Images

NOTED requested access to the review documents underpinning the Science Board’s decision to greenlight the additional funding. However, an MBIE spokeswoman said that the Ministry would not release assessment or peer-review reports, so as to “empower reviewers and experts to provide their free and frank advice, and also protect potentially sensitive information and intellectual property”.

A summary document outlining the review process was released to NOTED, but features no detail of the review findings or how any of the Challenges have progressed against their agreed targets. NOTED has requested the review documents under the Official Information Act.

The lack of publicly available information about how the Challenges are tracking has sparked alarm in the scientific community, in no small part because all 11 of the Challenges will receive the maximum funding amount set by Cabinet in 2013. That's a substantial increase on the initial funding tranche in many cases.

That means no funding variations and no obvious change in strategic direction for any of the Challenges, many of which received criticism in their formative years for being overly bureaucratic, lacking in direction and top-heavy with management.

"At the time I was very disappointed that the Challenges didn’t really include anything that would capture the public imagination,” said Professor Shaun Hendy, Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, a Centre of Research Excellence at the University of Auckland and board member of Callaghan Innovation.

“Five years on, I think we have seen some great wins from the Challenges, but I am surprised we’ve seen all of them refunded to the tune of their original fiscal envelopes.”

The newly appointed president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, Dr Heide Friedrich, said the association was supportive of boosted science funding given that New Zealand lags other countries on research and development spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP).

But she too was concerned about the lack of transparency around the review findings and the lack of any financial variations to the funding.

“Adjustments or indeed more substantial changes to the detailed distribution of funding should have been expected, taking into account what we have learned over the last five years,” said Friedrich, an environmental engineer at the University of Auckland.

“As is, there is the potential to favour particular groups that were locked-in in the early stages, when the process was not well-understood. Funding seems to be spread very thinly so that many researchers appear involved but only with small amounts of funding.”

MBIE assembled 11 review panels featuring 28 international and 27 domestic panel members to review the Challenges, which span research areas including the impacts of climate change, building resilience, nutrition and technological innovation.

As to whether the Challenges are delivering value for money for the taxpayer, the closest the review summary comes to passing judgement is noting that “there is a general consensus from those working within the NSCs that this way of funding science is having a positive impact on the culture of how science is done in New Zealand”.

“Many of the internationally-based review panel members commented positively on the impact
that NSCs are having on the culture of science,” the summary added.

The Challenges will now run out the remaining five years of their lifespan. But their future structure or funding position beyond that period is unknown.

For Hendy, the lack of review information was a missed opportunity for the science sector, in general, to learn from the successes and failures of the Challenges.

“I would like to see a robust audit of the way the Challenges were selected, procured, and established so we can learn how this might be done better in the future. The science community would benefit from knowing what worked and what didn’t, and given that the public were involved in their selection, they also deserve some insight into this."

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