Building Blogs of Science

The road to science funding (is full of speed bumps)

Posted in Science and Society by kubke on December 1, 2009

At any given point in time there is a boundary between that which is known and that which is unknown and, precisely, the role of science is to grab pieces of that ignorance, study it, transform it into knowledge and, in doing so, broaden the human landscape.” Marcelino Cereijido [1]

New Zealand science is facing a crisis, one that would not be easy to solve in the best of scenarios, and less in the midst of an economic crisis. Finding a solution to the role of science in New Zealand cannot be divorced from the process of economic recovery.

At the heart of the problems are issues associated with research funding, as well as issues associated with the culture within which science currently operates. A recent document put forth by Ministry of Research Science and Technology [2] has ignited a debate that was long overdue.

At the centre of the debate is the question of how funding should be distributed and which areas should be prioritized. Unfortunately, this time New Zealand cannot afford to get it wrong.

The problem with science funding in New Zealand

To say that he level of R&D investment in New Zealand compared to other countries is low would be an understatement [Ref. 3, p.5]. R&D investment as a percentage of GDP shows that while the USA sits at above 2.5% (with a target to reach 3%), New Zealand sits below 1.5% mark. This is a relatively small increase with respect to the mark of about 1% in 1980. New Zealand’s 5% increase over the last 30 years is in contrast to countries like Australia and Denmark that, while having similarly low R&D investment in 1980, have been able to catch up with the USA having now reached almost equivalent levels of R&D investment. Although NZ’s government contribution is somewhat low in comparison with other countries, the great majority of the gap in these figures is due to a lack of industry contribution.

Yet equivalent levels of government investment do not seem to translate to equivalent levels of funding. At a panel discussion organized by Stratus (U of Auckland) on November 19th [4] Jill Cornish showed that the Health Research Council in New Zealand invested in 2007 about $NZD 10.2 per capita while equivalent figures were much higher for Australia (NHMRC, $NZD 34.6), the UK (MRC, NHS, $NZD 54.3) and the USA (NIH, $NZD 126.0). And this is a big problem. Although Key’s government increased the level of science funding in the 2009-10 budget, as Paul Callaghan stated:

“That leaves New Zealand’s’ per capita GDP investment in R and D unchanged at around 0.52 %, way below that of Australia, the OECD average, and small economies like Finland, Singapore and Denmark, all of whom have built prosperity from innovation.”

The bottom line is, science in New Zealand will not be competitive at the global scale without bridging the existing R&D investment gaps. And the government needs to find a way to get more private input into R&D.

The continuum between basic and applied science

It would be very hard to imagine that Hodgkin and Huxley were thinking of brain machine interfaces as they recorded the action potential from the giant axon of the squid, or that Fernando Nottebohm was thinking about stem cell therapies for neurodegenerative disease when he came across the first irrefutable evidence of adult neurogenesis. As Peter Gluckman said in his lecture [3]:

”This should remind us that science so often has its major impacts a long way from where it started.”

I have heard many argue ‘why not let the richer governments fund basic science, we can use their discoveries’. The answer to that is because that means never being ahead or on par with the game. Any scientific paper that is published today, is the result of an idea that is several years old. The authors have by then probably moved on to bigger and better things, and, if their work had any commercial value, the deals have probably already been struck.

There is a long road between the process of discovery and technology development, but the latter cannot happen without the former. Peter Lee, Gillian Lewis and Jim Metson all highlighted this point at the Spark Stratus panel discussion [4]: when it comes to basic science, we never know where the revolution will come from. The one thing we can be certain about is that innovation will not happen without basic science investment.

The problem with the science structure

According to Dick Bellamy, the current system is unsustainable for a small country such as New Zealand. There is a lack of critical mass in almost every area: we have little pockets dispersed all around the country. And this is a concept that Gluckman continuously insists on: we should drop our egos at the door, stop acting as competitors and begin to behave as collaborators.

Gillian Lewis [4] recognized that without private investment in R&D the burden of funding commercial science falls on the government. As a consequence there is not enough funding for commercial science and not enough funding for the basic science. This does not lead to economic growth. Or as Peter Gluckman put it:

“Our funding system has been extraordinarily focused on private sector‐directed public sector research.”

We are all fighting for a very small slice of a very small cake. And we are not particularly keen on sharing it.

The solutions

The process of commercialization is not money limited but idea limited, and basic science has historically shown to be essential for the types of new discoveries that lead to innovation. But we can improve on the way that scientists operate by increasing the level of collaboration and data sharing. Peter Gluckman said in his lecture [3]:

“A large part of my report focuses on the issue of technology transfer – the export of knowledge out of CRIs and universities to business. Part of that must be through open innovation. That is, universities and CRIs must get better at making knowledge freely available to firms and maximising the value of their work for “New Zealand Inc”.

Choices need to be made, and that means setting priorities, and ultimately decisions will be constrained by the democratic process. Peter Shepherd [4] suggested that Unviersities need to have a new social contract. This means sharing between different interdisciplinary groups as well as sharing with the public. Science in New Zealand will not have much chance of prospering until the public values science and its scientists. Scientists need to communicate the value of science, how it affects our daily lives and emphasise where the roots for commercial implementation come from. Gluckman’s concept of open innovation should certainly help formulate this new social contract.

There is no doubt that industries in New Zealand need to begin to take responsibility over the burden of R&D investment that has been placed on the government, and set it free, so to speak to fund ideas, discovery and innovation. Finishing with Gluckman

“The science we do impacts on people’s lives – and we cannot always predict how”.

It is up to us, the scientists, to tell that part of the story.

  1. Marcelino Cereijido. La nuca de Hussay [Houssay’s nape]. Fondo de Cultura Economica ed. 2000 (my translation from p.187)
  2. New Zealand Research Science and Technology feedback document. (October, 2009)
  3. November 26th, 2009. Peter Gluckman’s lecture at the University of Auckland ”The Evolution of Science, where is New Zealand Going?”.
  4. November 19th, 2009. Panel discussion: “Today’s basic science inspires tomorrow’s new technology; What is the right balance for New Zealand” organized by Stratus (U of Auckland). Participating in the panel were Prof Dick Bellamy, Prof  Paul Callaghan, Prof Jill Cornish, Prof Jim Metson, Dr Peter Lee and Prof Peter Shepherd; moderated by A/-Prof  Gillian Lewis.

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