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Science funding shake-up heralds innovation agenda

Science funding shake-up heralds innovation agenda

by Pattrick Smellie

Oct 23 (BusinessWire) - The Government's has unveiled an important chunk of its slowly emerging innovation agenda today with the publication of proposals to radically simplify funding for scientific research by the Minister of Research, Science and Technology, Wayne Mapp.

"The changes we will deliver in the next six to nine months are arguably the most significant in 10 to 15 years" in science policy and will be a centre-piece of the 2010 Budget, Mapp told BusinessWire in an exclusive interview.

Bearing the heavy stamp, as well as the credibility, of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser, Professor Peter Gluckman from the University of Auckland's Liggins Institute, the feedback paper proposes trimming to fewer, more strategic "priority areas" of RS&T investment. The proposals relate mainly to the funds administered by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, the Health Research Council and the Royal Society of New Zealand. These relate mainly to Crown Research Institute funding.

University funding through vehicles such as the Performance-Based Research Fund and Centres of Research Excellence is not affected. Nor is a considerable volume of agricultural and climate change research funded by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Five key areas of science funding are now identified:

High tech industries
Biological economy
Energy and Minerals
Hazards and Infrastructure
Health and Society

Those headings strategically bundle 16 areas previously separately funded under the Labour Government.

Separately funded streams of Maori scientific research disappear despite Maori scientific research issues being dealt with explicitly by an advisory process, and the Foundation for RS&T's TechNZ fund to support high-tech industries will be folded mainly into the high-tech industries spend area.

The decision to create energy and minerals as a separate category is understood to have occupied considerable time at the Cabinet committee stage, and is consistent with Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee's enthusiasm for increased mineral exploitation to fuel economic growth at higher than recent historical rates. Renewable energy and efficiency research will fall within this category.

At the core of the proposed new approach to funding are three outcome areas that are crucial to any scientific ambitions:

Attracting and keeping top talent in New Zealand;
Building international scientific relationships;
Building and maintaining a research infrastructure that plays to strategic needs and opportunities.

Feedback on the approach is sought by November 18, but it received immediate endorsement from the university sector's peak body, the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors Committee for its "strong sense of direction".

Mapp says one main objective is to stop the trend identified by the OECD in 2007 about the New Zealand system, where "too many people are spending too much effort on applying for funding".

Longer term funding would give research institutions greater certainty, and obvious experts in particular fields should presume funding rather than having to justify it.

"If you know a certain CRI will do all rainfall or hydrological work, then just fund it," he says. "We don't need to make that contestable."

The discussion document identifies economic growth as the primary driver for government research investment, and will stress the importance of research that shows "pathways to results" as New Zealand develops a "full scientific value chain from discovery to exploitation".

(BusinessWire) 14:13:31

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