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Budget 2024 And The Future Of NZ’s Science Sector – Expert Reaction

30 May 2024

Science has been notably absent from the coalition government’s messaging around their first budget.

It comes as a major funding source, the National Science Challenges, wrap up next month after 10 years; and while the science and university sectors are still under review.

The SMC asked experts to comment. 

Professor Nicola Gaston, Co-Director, The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, comments:

“This is not a surprising budget for science, research, and our universities, but it is a challenging one. I won’t bother commenting on the cancellation of projects planned by the previous government, but will reiterate that the long term trend is of attrition in the sector due to inflation relative to flatlined baseline funding.

“The 25% cut attributable to inflation over the last decade is now joined by the loss of the National Science Challenge funding established by Steven Joyce ten years ago. Maybe the key thing to point out here is that much of that was existing research funding that was reallocated to the NSCs. Losing that money from the system means a funding cut relative to 2014 even before we worry about adjusting for inflation. That is new.

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“I am actually surprised that a Minister who has had a lot to say about the value of science has been willing to see such a cut in long-existing funding (again I am not talking about cancelled new initiatives here). Science and innovation are an ecosystem, and many of the outcomes that this government would like to see — tech skills development, commercialisation, business investment in R&D and the all important economic contribution that innovation can make — will be severely hampered when so many parts of that system are struggling.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Co-director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a NZ Centre of Research Excellence.”

Dr Lucy Stewart, Co-President, New Zealand Association of Scientists, comments:

“Normally when assessing a Budget from the science policy perspective, we can look for bright spots – new spending and initiatives. Analysing this year’s Budget is an exercise in determining how bad the damage will be, on the back of previously-announced cuts such as the cancellation of the Science City infrastructure programme and the failure to renew the National Science Challenges.

“There is one genuinely welcome new initiative – funding for Geonet, the National Seismic Hazard Model, and the National Geohazards Monitoring Centre has been extended out until 2027, acknowledging the long-term nature of the funding needed to support this vital work in our geologically active nation. However, looking out to 2027 the Budget has also forecast a total of $35 million dollars of actual cuts to the Marsden Fund, the Health Research Fund, the Strategic Science and Innovation Fund, and the Endeavour Fund in that year – perhaps to generously give researchers three years to find new jobs overseas. Otherwise spending is essentially flat, in a time of record inflation and on the back of decades of underfunding of the sector. Certainly there is no sign of anything which could come close to making up for the loss of the National Science Challenges, which we have already seen translate into proposed job cuts in the public science sector.

“I expect to see more job losses across the sector before the end of the year. This failure to invest, at a time when the research and science sector has struggled to do more with insufficient funding for years already, will have inevitable consequences in loss of expertise as people move to better-funded research sectors overseas, as infrastructure continues to fail, and as research simply does not get done.

“Nearly forty years ago a target was set of 2% of GDP spending on research and development as appropriate for the high-skill, innovative economy successive governments have stated they wish to see this country become. With this Budget, we are no closer to achieving that and perhaps even further away.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am also the spokesperson for the Save Science Coalition, a group of organisations representing scientists which are campaigning against cuts to the public science sector.” 

Professor Troy Baisden, Co-President of New Zealand Association of Scientists; Principal Investigator at Te Pūnaha Matatini; Affiliate at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research; and Honorary Professor at the University of Auckland School of Environment, comments:

“Today’s budget doubles down on a pattern spanning four decades, in which New Zealand’s governments have been world leaders in choosing not to invest in the future. Aside from 1991, I doubt there’s ever been such a clear case that we’re determined to fall behind peer nations with our investment in research, science, innovation and technology. The same goes for the tertiary education sector.

“The budget is worse than a nothing burger for science. The relatively positive support for GeoNet and key capability at GNS Science appear to be propping up areas previously funded by the Earthquake Commission (EQC) and the National Science Challenge on Resilience.

“There are no other bail-outs for areas of national importance that had been supported by National Science Challenges, which received about $97 million per year in their peak years, with $64 million this year and no funding after next month. There are also no new bail-outs or capex support packages for the ‘Science City’ institutions in Wellington, most notably Callaghan Innovation.

“Given the composition of the coalition, farmers might have hoped for some new research, but if there is I can’t spot it. Instead, the Ministry of Primary Industries is cutting about $4.6 million per year from its Sustainable Land Management and Climate Change Research in coming years (a total cut of $13.6 m over 3 years).

“The total lack of new funding comes on top of the inflation over the past year, and on a background of flat or decreasing funding. Out in 2027 and beyond, there’s a plan to pare back flagship contestable research funds, including Marsden and Endeavour by a small but significant amount.

“The Table of Estimates produced with the budget also allows us to look back, from an estimate for the year just ended to finalised funding in previous years. Funding for the entire tertiary education sector has flatlined, following the period when Government helped stabilise the sector during the pandemic’s impacts. It seems there is no expectation of resuming the growth rate of about 24% between 2012 and 2019.

“Government research and development (R&D) increased even faster, but is now declining. Excluding the R&D Tax Incentive and similar categories, our investment appears to have increased from about $820 million in 2015 to $1.4 billion or more in 2020 and 2021, falling back to $1.15 in recent years before stabilising at $1.1 billion.

“This explains why times feel tight in parts of the sector doing well, and desperate in others. That should come as no surprise, as cabinet papers from 2021 to the present have expressed a lack of confidence and sought reforms, which will now extend in the university sector.

“The pressure is on Sir Peter Gluckman, leading two advisory groups which must make a case for the reforms to help us rebuild the mojo that drives investment and success across the science system and universities. The groups will need to provide vision and hope for science and technology to address our biggest challenges with effective strategies in areas such as primary industries, and coping with climate change and hazards. Peer nations are investing more and more, and we should as well.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Receives and applies for government and university funding for research and teaching.”

Professor Frederique Vanholsbeeck, director of Te Whai Ao Dodd-Walls Centre, comments:

“The biggest line in this Budget is about the $3 billion tax cut. So it is not a budget set to invest in our future.

“Looking at the net result for the tertiary education sector, it is very sad. The clear losers are the students, it will cost more to study not just in actual cost but also taking into account inflation. $50 a fortnight will not pay for that first-year of fees-free study that is now gone. The shift to final-year fees-free is to save money.

“Funding for research is losing as well. The Health Research Council and Marsden allocations have not increased so given the galloping inflation, it will mean fewer grants or grants that won’t cover as much of the researcher’s salaries. This is a real problem since we have more and more researchers on fixed contracts and they need to fund their salary using grants like Marsden and HRC fully.

“MBIE Endeavor Fund is slightly increasing (5%?) but not in line with inflation or just. Together with the loss of the National Science Challenges, this is a real loss for research funding.

“There is a net decrease in contestable funding. I could not find an increase in funding for CRIs and universities. Most of the lines with research in their titles are either equal or below last year, an actual decrease once inflation is taken into account. In a fully costed model for science funding, allocations for grants needs to keep up with inflation. The number of PhD students is set to decrease. This government is not investing in Aotearoa as a knowledge-based economy.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am the director of the Dodd Walls Centre for photonic and quantum technologies and the president of the Australian and New Zealand Optical Society. My work benefits from science and research funding.”

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