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Hodgson: social policy conference

Friday, 26 November 2004

Hodgson: Opening address, day two, What Works social policy research and evaluation conference, 08:45 – 09:00, Friday, 26 November, Wellington Convention Centre

Thank you for inviting me to open the second day of this conference.

Yesterday the Prime Minister emphasised the importance the Government places in putting social policy on the national agenda to create a healthier, more skilled, more secure and productive society. She also emphasised the need for evidence about what works. And she reminded us all that her government understands that social and economic policy are linked. We cannot, do not, will not separate them. We do the opposite. We consider social policy as an economic driver and we see economic development as the source of a social dividend.

We place very substantial emphasis on growth and innovation as key contributors to improving our economic and social wellbeing. We are mindful that we have to embed social values in the design stages of innovation. And within science and technological innovation we are recognising that the social ends to which technology might be directed are as important as the technology itself. Science and technology is nestled in, nurtured by and influenced by the society in which it finds itself.

This conference is interested in “What Works” – From my perspective, as Minister of Research, Science and Technology, what works – means social research and evaluation that is relevant; that understands the complex links between the economic, social, environmental and cultural dimensions.

What works – means excellent research, with clear mechanisms through which research conclusions can influence policy making. What works - means research excellence, in methodology and practice. And what works – to me, also means making connections with other research disciplines to add new knowledge and insights to help shape policy making.

I want to give you an example of how I see the connection between social research and policy in helping to shape government’s economic policy directions. I said we place very substantial emphasis on growth and innovation. Being a government we therefore have a growth and innovation framework because governments do frameworks and we have a growth and innovation advisory board, as every framework might.

In 2003 the Growth and Innovation Advisory Board commissioned research on Kiwi Attitudes to Growth and Innovation to understand how to make growth more self-relevant. They wanted to know what worked and what didn’t work. The research was multi-method, qualitative and quantitative. It has provided some very revealing insights which challenge conventional thinking about how we should promote growth and innovation in this country.

The research has shown us that what is personally important to us is our quality of life, quality of education, quality of the natural environment and the public health system. Economic growth and economic motivators are well down the list. Push it a bit harder and you find that growth is a four letter word. Push harder still, for example by deploying a burning platform thesis – that is we really must get to work because we will otherwise slide right off the bottom of the OECD rankings and you achieve total turn off.

In short the public does not buy the often used language of many business leaders. The public respond by highlighting the costs and the disempowerment economic growth brings.

These findings, looked at in isolation, caused dismay among business, and some voiced it. But underneath those headline findings lurked a lot more. We seem to have a distinctly Kiwi version of growth that connects with what we value. Growth for its own sake is not valued. Most people saw the positive outcomes of economic growth as being ‘more opportunities for younger New Zealanders; a more prosperous New Zealand for future generations; preserving the things we love about New Zealand; and a better education and health system’.

Moreover the research showed a strong keenness for self improvement, on-going education, betterment. Kiwis displayed high aspirational tendencies. They don’t, as the myth suggests, want to clear off to the beach if it gets too hard. They displayed rising pride in their country and its attributes – rising because that part of the research has been tracked over several years. If the Kiwi slough of despond myth was ever true, it is evaporating quickly.

Ask about innovation, not growth, and the responses change. The Number 8 wire kiwi ingenuity cliché tends not to get paraded. The can do cliché, and the give it a go cliché do, but in quite a sophisticated or technical or elegant way.

A new myth is emerging to rival, for example, the United States myth that Tom Scott once encapsulated as “I was born into a log cabin I helped my father build”. By trying to describe the emerging myth I risk overstating it or misstating it but it goes something like: if its innovative, makes money, doesn’t screw up the environment and isn’t cynically deployed then I’m on for it.

It is a similar message to the one the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification received after its extensive polling on attitudes in 2001. In essence the one line summary was “If it will do something for us or our surroundings let’s take it to the next stage, but if it will do some thing to us or our surroundings let’s forget it now.”

I apologise for my somewhat folksy treatment of these complex interactions between society and development, or society and science, but both pieces of research were highly insightful for policy makers and politicians and therefore of great use.

All such research is predictable in retrospect but my test is whether or not the findings concur with what people predict before they study the results.

Increasingly the world is short of what we have – we are small and this smallness enables us to be connected – we see things at what you could call a ‘human scale’. We have a strong relationship with nature. We have good assurance and integrity about our food, and we are creative and innovative across our society. These ‘softer’ qualities are increasingly a source of advantage to us. Social science and research is key to understanding this better – how to preserve it, and how to capitalise on it.

Another study is currently underway which will take the results of the ‘growth culture’ findings and apply them to a workplace environment, examining how and to what extent these results influence the innovative style of enterprises and contribute to competitiveness, expansion and success. In short the research seeks to answer the question of how these “values” “add value”.

The work is pointing to innovation as being both a social, cognitive and cultural process as well as being driven by science, invention, skill development and commercialisation. We need to know what works for and against us, and how our changing social dynamic will affect our innovation rate. Our national characteristics contribute to our productive culture. They influence behaviour and practice and they impact on productivity, competitiveness and growth – sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. Underpinning these characteristics is the importance of people being able to make a contribution and to be acknowledged for doing so in a way that affirms their and our collective identity.

The place for social science research within other research is widening. AgResearch, for example, has boosted its social science capability a lot over recent years, as have other Crown Research Institutes.

A smaller example is the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology based at Victoria University where a social scientist is working with researchers in the institute to identify nanotechnology applications and potential social issues that some of these may raise. Since many of the reported novel or paradigm-shifting applications of nanotechnologies are many years from commercial reality, this early engagement and collaboration between physical and social scientists provides an opportunity for social research to help influence the nature and direction of research and development in nanotechnologies.


Solid progress has been made over the past three years to ensure excellence and relevance in social research and evaluation. Much of the credit for this lies with Steve Maharey. He and I work closely on many issues, including social science. It’s true that I am the Science Minister, but he is a social scientist, I am not. In 2001, we commissioned a report from the Social Science Reference Group chaired by Professor Sally Caswell, to strengthen the capacity and capability of the social science research system. Many of the recommendations from that report entitled “Connections, Resources and Capacities’ have been implemented, one of them is this biennial conference.

Most recommendations focused on the two major contributors to social science – within central government departments, and within the tertiary sector. The two groups are the focus for the Social Policy Evaluation and Research Committee (SPEaR) and the Building Research Capability in the Social Sciences group (BRCSS). Both initiatives are now up and running and have a considerable agenda of programmes underway to build social science capability.

I look forward with interest to the second report from the Caswell group on current and future priorities affecting the relationship between social research and policy.

I have confidence that we can build upon the value that social research and evaluation adds to Government policy making, and in its ability to be excellent and relevant in contributing to the wellbeing of individuals, communities and New Zealand.

I will finish with a research example that can demonstrate a direct contribution to social and economic outcomes at an individual, community and NZ wide level. This is the South Auckland Education study called “Picking up the Pace” This research has potentially changed the lives of children from low decile areas who were in effect expected to be underachievers. It identified innovative interventions involving communities, educators, researchers, and the Ministry of Education. The research had the result of substantially lifting the reading and writing achievement of new entrants. The future benefits in social and economic outcomes are, I think, obvious.

Thank you

ENDS

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