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The role of research in national development

8 June 2004

The role of research in national development

Comments by Hon Steve Maharey at a Council Meeting of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Science House, Wellington.

Introduction

Today I welcome the opportunity to speak to you about the role tertiary education, universities in particular, and the importance research has in the continued growth and development of our country. I also welcome the opportunity to respond to any questions you may have, or comments you may wish to make.

Importance of Research

A substantial and vital contribution to New Zealand’s research effort is made by tertiary providers and the role they play is crucial role in the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

The Labour Party's 1999 tertiary education manifesto, 'Nation Building: Tertiary Education and the Knowledge Society', was a vision of a strengthened tertiary education research community harnessed to make a significant contribution to the nation's sustainable development.

This government has strong and long-standing commitment to the development of a prosperous and confident knowledge-based society, which recognises, builds on, and values the special things that make New Zealand and New Zealanders what they are.

That kind of society can provide a sound basis for economic prosperity and social inclusion, but it won’t just happen. It will require a persistent, long-term, focus on quality, innovation, continuous improvement and entrepreneurship. As part of this, the people, the organisations, and the management and funding systems, in the tertiary sector need to stimulate, to facilitate, to demand, and to celebrate the highest standards of excellence in research.

Creating Knowledge

Why? Because creating and sharing knowledge is fundamental to growing New Zealand’s knowledge economy and society. We will only be successful in achieving our national goals when the relationship between research and innovation is fully developed.

The Tertiary Education Strategy sets a clear direction for strengthening research, knowledge creation and uptake for our knowledge society. The Strategy promotes the building of research capabilities and the quality of research as well as more effective linkages with business and other external stakeholders and greater alignment with national goals. High quality research will underpin knowledge creation and technology transfer that is linked to the achievement of New Zealand's national goals.

Our vision is for research to be at the forefront of our economic, social and environmental development. Elevating research to a position of high strategic importance within the tertiary education system is long overdue. Over the last decade tertiary education and research has not been made a priority in the way that it should have been.

Universities as leaders of research

This means our focus must be placed on universities as the key leaders along with crown research institutes of basic and strategic research in New Zealand.

Universities contain some of the best brains in the country. They are a wonderful local and national asset. Universities must take a leadership role in the pursuit of an innovative and highly skilled economy. They are also bridges between businesses and the knowledge that can make a difference to their success.

It is essential that we now reposition universities as the institutions to influence the direction and quality of our research and ensure that they become the elite institutions that they were intended to be.

We should be striving towards a research community, which is defined by increased global connectedness and networks with international research peers.

At the same time our tertiary system here in New Zealand should be dominated by collaboration and the sharing of knowledge between tertiary education organisations and other research providers, and the communities that they serve.

Linkages need to be encouraged between other tertiary providers, industry, and other research users. The tertiary sector must take responsibility for engaging effectively with these communities to disseminate new ideas, products and services that will be relevant.

Distinctive Contributions Paper

The TEC has recently released a consultation paper on the Distinctive Contributions of Tertiary Education Organisations. I welcome this paper because it focuses on significant questions about the broad role and place in the system of the various tertiary education organisations. These are questions that we need to be asking in order to recognise the importance of universities and polytechnics and their significant research and knowledge sharing roles.

I also encourage you to participate in the consultation process. It is through debate and engagement across a range of sectors that we will truly achieve a tertiary education system to be proud of.

In New Zealand, research is at the very core of what defines and distinguishes a university. Universities generate new knowledge. They should also have a key role in supporting communities and national development goals through being a repository of knowledge and expertise, questioning existing knowledge and being innovative.

It is essential that we now think about what particular features will characterise universities and how they will best perform in the future. We must ensure that we maintain a high and internationally credible threshold for our universities.

One of the key issues contained within the consultation paper is whether universities need to have a strong postgraduate profile with a considerable proportion of students in postgraduate research. One way of achieving this could be through the introduction of minimum benchmarks.

Another issue is the level to which our universities should be involved in providing sub-degree programmes. Currently the extent to which sub-degree courses are offered by universities varies extensively. In some locations sub-degree programmes act as bridging courses to familiarise learners with study in a university environment. In different locations other types of tertiary education organisations provide such courses. We need to consider to what extent universities should be funded to provide sub-degree programmes and how such programmes relate to our goals for universities within the tertiary sector.

There is also the question of whether universities should be bound by our legislative requirements. Currently legislation states that degrees must be taught be people mainly engaged in research. The question here is does this enable universities to be responsive to the needs of learners and provide relevant and innovative education.

These questions provide a good starting point for us to think about how we want to distinguish the role of universities from other tertiary education organisations. If we are to reposition universities we must work together to achieve a common understanding of the tertiary education system we are trying to build.

Tertiary education initiatives

The government has introduced a wide range of tertiary education initiatives to help build this system.

In the field of research alone, key initiatives have included the establishment of seven Centres of Research Excellence, the Building Research Capacity in the Social Sciences initiative and the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF).

All are central features of the Government's Tertiary Education Strategy 2002/2007.

Investment – Vote Research, Science and Technology

The Government is committed to building the quality and capacity of research. We will invest $212 million of new funding in research, science and technology over the next four years. The funding will increase the number of research partnerships with industry and support New Zealand researchers to participate in international collaboration initiatives.

In particular, this funding will enable research for industry to increase by $75 million over four years effectively supporting the strategic research underpinning the development of new products, services and processes. This commitment to research also means the development of a new International Opportunities Fund available to researchers who have the opportunity to participate in international research initiatives. This will help New Zealand to be a competitive player in the global market for scientific projects.

Advanced Network for Research and Education

My colleague Pete Hodgson has recently announced a new phase of the international super high speed research and education internet link - a super link between tertiary education and research organisations in New Zealand and overseas.

New Zealand Universities, Polytechnics, Wananga and Crown Research Institutes will be the first to benefit from the link.

The link, which will be know as the Advanced Network for Research and Education, will mean users can share information at speeds around 20,000 times faster than dial-up and 400 times faster than domestically available high speed internet. This will enable much greater collaboration between researchers and the multiplication of computing power through the linking of computers across New Zealand and around the globe.

We see this new link helping New Zealand participate at the cutting edge of research, development and education.

Performance-Based Research Fund

This government has also committed an additional $33 million into the PBRF over the next four years – another example of our continued investment in research and research capability. The PBRF is about achieving research excellence in the tertiary sector. It was designed to encourage and reward researchers and institutions at the top of their field.

You will be fully aware that the results of the 2003 Quality Evaluation of the Performance Based Research Fund have put the spotlight firmly on the significance of research. The results are a comprehensive assessment, for the first time of the pattern of quality academic research in New Zealand. Results show that the large numbers of researchers in New Zealand are at a high standard and well recognised internationally. They also reveal strength in many subject areas and in most of our universities, in such diverse areas as philosophy, earth sciences, history, and chemistry. In particular the longer established academic disciplines have extremely productive research cultures.

The 2003 Quality Evaluation provides a sound basis on which to measure improvement to quality and provides excellent information for tertiary education organisations themselves and for their students and stakeholders. It has also raised a number of interesting issues for both government and the tertiary sector about the role of universities and how to further enhance the quality of their research. Looking forward there are a number of opportunities for improvement. We will be working with the sector to support these opportunities.

Building Research Capability in the Social Sciences (BRCSS)

The government has made available $1.5 million per annum for five years to build social sciences capability in New Zealand by filling skills gaps, and producing a larger pool of more highly skilled social science graduates and researchers. This is the Building Research Capability in the Social Sciences initiative (known as BRCSS).

This will link future and emerging researchers to established high quality researchers and provide mentoring and structured development opportunities for emerging social scientists.

It also aims to increase the quality of the social sciences in New Zealand by building a critical mass of research capability and knowledge around focused areas and lift the relevance of social science research by supporting research into areas that underpin national development goals. This initiative has real potential to improve the ability of stakeholders such as industries, communities and the government to understand and tackle issues of national significance.

The TEC has just completed a process of assessing proposals for this new funding. I was pleased to hear that the proposals received not only reflected high quality, but also greater collaboration within the tertiary system and connection with other external stakeholders. These are key change messages of the Tertiary Education Strategy. The TEC is currently negotiating a contract for this funding and I expect to be able to make an announcement shortly on this.

Centres of Research Excellence

Having administered the initial phases, the Royal Society is uniquely aware of government’s commitment to Centres of Research Excellence (CoRE). We will be encouraging CoRE through enabling them to operate at arms length from Government. Ours will be a light-handed approach.

The role of the CoRE is to support leading edge, international-standard innovative research. The CoRE are expected to foster excellence and contribute to New Zealand's national goals – economic transformation, social development, Mäori development, environmental sustainability, infrastructure development, innovation.

The CoRE are expected to transfer the knowledge generated to those who will use it. I believe that the seven new CORE are set up to do that. They cover a range of disciplines – Molecular Ecology and Evolution, Molecular Biodiscovery, Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, Advanced Bio-Protection Technologies, Mathematics and its Applications, Growth and Development, and Mäori Development and Advancement.

Like BRCSS, the CoRE, too, reflect this desired shift to stronger linkages with external stakeholders, and greater collaboration and rationalisation within the system. The CoRE are primarily, but not exclusively, inter-institutional research networks, with the researchers working together on a commonly agreed work programme. Being familiar with their first annual reports and business plans, I now look forward to future reports on how well they are achieving their objectives.

Growth and Innovation Pilots

In addition to the areas of research, the government is investing in $27 million over the next four years in Growth and Innovation Pilot Initiatives (Growth Pilots). The Growth Pilots have been introduced to help build the capability of Tertiary Education Organisations to underpin the development of the focus sectors for the Growth and Innovation Framework, namely biotechnology. design and information and communications technology. This initiative was established to assist the strengthening of tertiary sector links with business and to foster greater entrepreneurial culture across the system.

Collaborating for Efficiency

We are further supporting new ways of tertiary education organisations working together with business and industry. Objective 34 of the Tertiary Education Strategy seeks "Improved knowledge uptake through stronger links with those that apply new knowledge or commercialisation of knowledge products" with a focus on stronger connections between research providers and end-users. The question of how these stronger links can be encouraged and whether or not this encompasses a more active commercialisation role for TEIs is now an issue being explored by government agencies and other organisations.

A recent study undertaken by the TEC and Tertiary Advisory Monitoring Unit of the Ministry of Education through the Collaborating for Efficiency project suggests that the commercialisation levels of leading New Zealand TEIs are on par with comparable institutions overseas. The study also indicates that there is a significant capability gap between New Zealand TEIs in terms of their ability to pursue commercialisation opportunities.

Commercialisation is only one of the much wider suite of knowledge transfer activities such as the development of new courses and academic publishing in which TEIs are expected to engage. Changing the culture of TEIs is critical to enhancing this role and, in particular, ensuring that TEIs proactively embrace the idea that new knowledge generated should be utilized for the betterment of society.

Conclusion

In conclusion this government is creating a strong infrastructure and providing resources required to assist the New Zealand grow sustainably and participate on the international scene.

A strong tertiary sector and well-developed research infrastructure are just the entry stakes. We are living in turbulent times where economic competitiveness and sustainability are concerned. New Zealand needs to constantly innovate to reach our national goals.

We must not only learn how to learn better, but we must apply what we know in new ways. The basis of any knowledge society is constant innovation and new discoveries.

ENDS

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