Not in narrow seas

A blinkered vision for science – and constant restructuring – threaten one of our most important sectors. Max Rashbrooke examines the state of science in New Zealand.

“Science”, as professor John Evans recently wrote in the Otago Daily Times, “is fundamentally a provider of unexpected understanding”. It’s a beautiful definition of both the process of science – continued, open-ended investigation – and its endpoint: discoveries that no one could have anticipated. This kind of research is essential for society’s well-being and continued progress, not to mention the economy.
It is not a view of science currently in favour with our government, however. As Evans pointed out, the latest Statement of Science Investment, produced by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, insists that all science research “should have a strong line of sight to the eventual benefits’’, defined as the ability to grow “new, knowledge-intensive [commercial] enterprises’’. In a comical twist, the statement seems unable even to describe basic science on its own terms as the first, most essential kind of research; instead it defines it using the concocted phrase “’far-from-market discovery research’”.

This is the world we live in: one where everything has to be defined, no matter the contortions required, with reference to commercial outcomes, since these are – presumably – the sum total of life. This approach will significantly damage our society: think of all the great discoveries, such as penicillin, or X-rays, or a million others, that were made because scientists were free to investigate whatever they wanted, unconstrained by short-term commercial pressures.

Business requirements are not irrelevant, per se, but to think that the income-generating plans of New Zealand companies for the next few years is the same as the wider national interest is nothing short of delusional.

Not only is this approach socially damaging, it also makes little economic sense. As economist Mariana Mazzucato set out in The Entrepreneurial State, the technologies on which the iPhone relies – including touch screens, lithium-ion batteries and even the internet – were discovered by scientists working in public research institutions. In the United States, the majority of new drugs, known as new molecular entities, are discovered by government health institutes.

These innovations would not have been possible without government-funded science. And, as with previous generations of scientists, the researchers making these breakthroughs were working not to commercial timeframes but as part of programmes of pure discovery. “Far-from-market” indeed.

The current attitude towards basic research is worrying, but so too is the state of the sector. All elements of government suffer from “restructuring fever”, since reorganisation is one of the simplest ways for politicians to look like they are doing something, but science has perhaps been affected more than most. Research carried out by the Parliamentary Library last year found at least seven major restructurings of the science sector since 1985, most notably the establishment of the Crown research institutes in 1992. And this unsettling change continues. In October, AgResearch, the CRI focused on the pastoral, agri-food and agri-technology sectors, announced 78 jobs would go as part of a restructure aimed explicitly at making it more commercially focused.

In terms of job losses, this is possibly the biggest change in the sector since the CRIs were created, and it spells bad news for basic science. So too does the recent creation of Callaghan Innovation, which absorbed staff from the old Industrial Research Limited into a new body designed to be a “shop-front” for New Zealand companies wanting to do research and development.

When Callaghan Innovation launched, Shaun Hendy, a high-profile scientist and science communicator, said its success would hinge on whether it could increase the number of scientists at the expense of bureaucrats. But having started life with 258 scientists and engineers, and 158 non-scientists, Callaghan now has just 199 scientists and engineers, and 179 non-scientists. Nor has it necessarily been a commercial success: the agency’s 2013/14 annual report showed commercial revenue was $5.3 million below budget, “due to lower than expected demand for both overseas and domestic research services and products”.

In all these changes, a huge number of talented, experienced scientists have been lost from the system. It often takes years for scientists to get to the point where they are doing their best work; that skill base and institutional knowledge will be difficult or impossible to replace, even if New Zealand did return to funding basic research better. And in the current climate that looks unlikely.

As Evans wrote, “Citizens need scientists who are licensed to reveal the unimagined to us.” But we don’t seem to be giving them that licence.