Who will scientists vote for?

More than 50 scientists and researchers came together this month to quiz politicians on science policy ahead of September’s election.

Scientist robot2

The science forum, co-hosted with the New Zealand Association of Scientists, gave PSA members the opportunity to ask questions about each political party’s priorities for science and how they see government’s role as an employer of scientists.

The PSA represents a significant number of people across Crown Research Institutes, local government, public service departments, DHBs and other crown entities to whom science policy is of the upmost importance, both in their working lives and in making their voting decisions at election time. The forum was live-streamed to the PSA website for those that couldn’t join the discussion in person and has been viewed by over 100 members since the event.

The forum included a panel discussion with Minister for Science and Innovation Paul Goldsmith, Labour’s Innovation and Science Spokesperson Dr Megan Woods, New Zealand First MP Tracey Martin, Green MP Gareth Hughes and The Opportunities Party (TOP) Candidate, Geoff Simmonds.

Dr Simon Chapple, Director of the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University chaired the discussion fielding questions about how we lift the status of science in Parliament, whether we need a commissioner for science and what solutions are needed to support success in the sector.

One long-serving PSA member told Working Life that the needs of the science sector doesn’t always fit neatly into an economic model: “If New Zealand wants to walk the talk on its innovation agenda, we need to recruit more scientists – that means making sure they can make a living even when their ideas and research doesn’t fit neatly into the government’s economic agenda.”

Minister for Science and Innovation, Hon Paul Goldsmith, announced a $21 million funding boost for New Zealand science researchers at the forum - a welcome surprise to researchers in the room.

The Minister said the Government’s view of the role of science is threefold. He said science supports solutions to national challenges, like biodiversity, and water quality. He said science supports evidenced-based decision making for both government and business, and that science supports innovation and competition with New Zealand’s international markets.

The Minister said too often New Zealanders are good at coming up with ideas, but not good at turning those ideas into companies that employ New Zealanders.

Labour MP Megan Woods said Labour’s focus on science starts with education. Woods, who worked at Plant and Food Research before entering Parliament, said Labour wanted to see more collaboration between CRIs and universities and wanted to work to ensure scientists have access to better post-doctoral support. She also said we needed to make more of the chief scientists within government departments and shift our thinking so that scientists serve parliament, not just the executive.

New Zealand First MP Tracey Martin talked about her personal links to science, telling members her father-in-law, a Department of Scientific and Industrial Research Scientist, had schooled her on the recent devaluing and commercialisation of the sector. Martin said New Zealand First wants to see the public good, rather than simply “net good” be central to science policy.

Green MP Gareth Hughes talked about his passion for science, which started when a school essay competition took him to Wellington to visit DSIR. Hughes said that at a time when science is under attack globally government needs to support scientists to speak up. He said the Green Party wants to see more scientists in the media talking to the urgency of addressing climate change and water quality.

TOP Candidate Geoff Simmonds said that TOP would be making an announcement on Research and Development funding in the weeks leading up to the election to boost science funding. He said in New Zealand we need to think about value, not volume if we are to grow our economy.

After the forum, New Zealand Association of Scientists President Craig Stevens said taking time to debate the place of science in society is important: “Discussions like this really help to tease out ways we can work with government to improve the status of science and how it is viewed and used by society.”

“Compared to other countries, New Zealand doesn’t support science as much as it could. We need to see a shift in the way we value and understand science,” Craig Stevens said.

Party Key points
  • STEAM not STEM
  • Review PBRF
  • Review the National Science Challenges
  • Fund Marsden
  • Support scientists to run for parliament
 New Zealand First 
  • Public good to be considered when developing science policy
  • Review PBRF
  • Review and extend science scholarships and grants
  • Increased funding for science by 1.4bn a year, tracking towards 1.6bn
  • Support for Callaghan Innovation
  • Support commercialisation research through the work of KiwiNet and universities
Green Party
  • Supports upgrading the position of Chief Science Advisor to an independent Commissioner for Science.
  • Review PBRF
  • Create a cross-party group responsible for science
The Opportunities Party
  • Adjust tax settings skewed against science
  • Increase finding for R&D
  • Free up public servants to advise parliament, not only Ministers
  • Crack down on gag clauses