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Funding of science: Collaboration not contest

Collaboration not contest should be the main ethic in funding of science

Research Institute head calls for a Collaboration Fund between CRIs and universities
7 November, 2007
“The time has come to fundamentally rethink how best to support and encourage New Zealand scientists. For almost two decades Wellington’s prevailing philosophy has been what more can scientists’ do for New Zealand. That question has to be reversed to ask what more can this country do for its scientists.
“Power is decisively shifting to scientists – not scientific institutions, but scientists themselves. The world needs scientists more than ever and relatively few are being trained compared to the international growth in demand for them. They are not commodities to be funded only when those with secure jobs in this country decide.
“Scientists are far more important to New Zealand than that and consequently the Government now needs to redesign its means of supporting scientists with funding,” said Dr Andrew West, Chief Executive of this country’s largest specialist research institution, AgResearch.

New Zealand persists in the view that head-on competition between research institutions, and between these institutions and universities, is the only way that scientists will be compelled to perform.

“This is not the best way to encourage performance” said Dr West. “There will always be competition for resources, yet it can be designed in ways that provide a reasonable degree of security and job satisfaction for scientists, whilst ensuring the relevance and quality of scientific output,” he said.
“Creating major insecurity and very substantial transaction costs is not the best way to win the hearts and minds of scientists and keep the best in New Zealand. The quasi- market for public science created with open contestability is far from a genuine market because institutional failure is not permitted and neither are takeovers. In this perplexing situation the degree of funding (and thus career) risk far exceeds what would be acceptable in the private sector with such infinitely specialised research equipment and infinitely specialised employees. Balance has to be reintroduced.

“One of the great successes of the Government’s tertiary education reforms has been the push for distinctive contributions – rightly welcomed by universities as it has distinguished different roles and therefore different funding mechanisms and formulae for universities and polytechnics. It is now time to apply that same philosophy of distinctive contributions to CRIs and universities. They also have different roles and also require different funding mechanisms,” said Dr West.

AgResearch therefore proposes three changes to the design and allocation of government’s research funding:

  • Continued support for the Performance Based Research Fund as a specialist funding mechanism for universities

  • Creation of an equivalent mechanism to the PBRF and of an equivalent sum of money as the PBRF dedicated to CRIs, called the Performance Based Transformation Fund

  • Creation of a new Collaboration Fund to be bid for by CRIs and universities acting in together, in partnership, so as to create combined transformational and educational outcomes.

“These changes would make an incredible, positive difference to science and scientists in this country. They would create a massive boost to CRIs – university collaboration for the benefit of the economy, environment and society, and generate enormous goodwill instead of the incessant squabbling we now see as a consequence of the dogma of maximal competition,” said Dr West.

“However, if maximal competition continues to hold sway as the prevailing ideology then AgResearch very strongly supports the NZ Vice Chancellors’ Committee call for the CRI Capability Fund to be opened up to full university access provided one other small change is made simultaneously. All AgResearch asks in return to university access to all Vote Science funding is that CRIs have full access to compete for all Vote Education research funding.
“If one believes in competition as the prevailing ideology, that there is no such thing as a distinctive contribution and that the “best science” must always be funded, then open access to all Vote Science and all Vote Education research funding by CRIs and universities is a very reasonable request don’t you think?
“It is not AgResearch’s preferred option, but it is certainly far, far better than the situation operating today and is one the Vice Chancellors must surely welcome given their recent call for the best science to always be funded,” he said.


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