Science Digest: Issue 16

There was no issue of S&T Digest/Alert last Friday due to the Waitangi Day commemoration. This special issue in the series is devoted to a joint statement by the two Presidents of the Society and the Academy relating to the future funding of scientific and technological research. Members may expect another Digest/Alert this Friday and weekly on Fridays thereafter.


The President of the Royal Society of New Zealand (Sir John Scott of Auckland) and the President of the Academy Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand (Professor George Petersen of Dunedin) have prepared a joint statement for submission to Government. Members are aware that there is considerable speculation as to the likely level of research funding in the 1998/99 and subsequent years; there is already some evidence that previously anticipated increases in research funding may not eventuate. The Royal Society is in a somewhat difficult position; it does not wish to give credence to rumour and be in danger of creating a self- fulfilling prophesy. On the other hand, members can justifiably expect the Society to take positive action to ensure that Government is left in no doubt as to the consequences of any curtailment of research funding increases. We have come to the conclusion that we cannot disregard the signals and must make our concerns known to Government at the highest level.

The statement by the two Presidents reads:

A major function of both the Academy and the Society Council of The Royal Society of New Zealand is to monitor scientific and technological activity within New Zealand independently of the political and administrative agencies of government. The Society has a statutory duty to respond to requests from the government of the day for opinions and reports on various issues. Equally, in order to fulfil its role as a non-governmental organisation, the Society must remain independent in terms of providing such opinion, whether solicited or not. At times, this critical role of providing detached, independent opinion or advice, will lead to tensions between the Society and those concerned with government administration, and even with people in specific sectors of science and technology. Many of these operate under constraints which limit or determine the perspectives which they can promote publicly. When tensions arise through possession of differing perspectives, the resolution of that tension should be a process which is constructive and in the interests of the wider New Zealand community.

If all was continually quiet on the politico-economic science and technology front, the Royal Society would not be fulfilling one of its functions. Equally, immersion in controversy must not be allowed to direct energy away from the educational, publishing, and general infra-structural support and promotion roles of the Society. The officers of the Society are well aware of the difficulties and hazards which result from this situation, but firmly believe that this dynamic environment is one which can operate to the advantage of all New Zealanders.

The article, ‘New Zealand puts its science to profit’, by Peter Pockley, that appeared in the January 29 issue of ‘Nature’, and the editorial, ‘Time to sweeten a bitter pill’, in the same issue, raise questions that are immensely worrying to those of us who are concerned for the future of science in this country.

There will always be different points of view on the success of the science reforms. The processes are still evolving. The reforms themselves are an incomplete experiment, instituted to test a particular hypothesis relating to politico-economic organisation. Rough edges have to be smoothed and time will be required for that. The ‘Nature’ article has some complimentary comments on the effect of the reforms but, inevitably, Dr Pockley’s comments on the organisation of science have already drawn criticism from those who feel that the position has been wrongly represented. Indeed, ‘Nature’ is this week publishing a correction to some of the information concerning Crown Research Institutes that it published. However, we must not let debate on detail obscure the really serious message of the article.

New Zealand science took a significant step forward when a strategy for research, science and technology, published as RS&T:2010, was launched by Rt Hon Jim Bolger, the then Prime Minister, on board the ‘Tangaroa’ on 21 August 1996. After many years of talking and negotiating, and particularly after a great deal of hard work on the part of the previous Minister of Research, Science & Technology (Hon Simon Upton), it seemed that the Government was convinced of what the scientists of New Zealand had been saying for at least 25 years and was making a firm commitment to the New Zealand people…’to achieve progress towards the following three broad goals: * Fostering societal values and attitudes that recognise science and technology as critical to future prosperity; * Ensuring an adequate level of investment in science as a component in national life which has a cultural value in its own right; and * Maximising the direct contribution of science and technology to diverse social, economic and environmental goals.’

Mr Bolger went on to announce ‘the Government’s commitment… that it would aim to increase public investment in research, science and technology to 0.8% of the gross domestic product by the year 2010’. He also pledged that ‘Investment in the Marsden Fund, which supports excellent research and researchers no matter what the topic of the research, will be increased and maintained at a level of 10% of the Public Good Science Fund, increasing it from its current [September 1996] level of $11 million to a level of approximately $33 million by 2000/01.’

In line with this last commitment, the Marsden Fund, which is administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand, had, by 1997 grown to $22 million and looked set to continue to be close to the expected level of $33 million by 2000/01.

The ‘Nature’ article reports something that we already knew, that there is a likelihood that growth of the Marsden Fund in 1998 will be significantly lower than we expected. The first indication of this came at the end of last year, when we were advised that we will be lucky to receive $1 million this year, let alone the $4 million or so that the previous government’s commitment would have required.

This threat to the Marsden Fund is bad enough, but there is more. We read that there is a ‘fear that the government will cut spending on R&D by as much as $40 million’, that the Minister of Research, Science and Technology (Hon. Maurice Williamson) ‘admits that future prospects for science and technology are not good’, and his belief that ‘baselines won’t grow’ despite the fact that ‘the government would need to spend an extra $25 million on research in this year’s budget, due in May, to keep up with the gross domestic product (GDP), currently growing at about four per cent a year’. This appears to us to be very bad news indeed. One might be forgiven for wondering whether the coalition government which, up to now, has honoured the commitment of the previous government, is having second thoughts about the importance of scientific & technological research to the New Zealand economy.

Hopefully, there are good grounds for dismissing this as an unworthy thought. At the recent launch of the ‘Foresight’ Project, both the Prime Minister and the Minister enthusiastically endorsed the view that the future of the New Zealand economy is intimately linked to progress in science and technology.

In any case, there is more to it than this. There was small print behind Mr Bolger’s simple announcement of a government target of science spending as a percentage of GDP that made it clear that this could only be achieved if the increased spending on the government’s side was accompanied by significant increases in R&D investment by the private industry sector. The ‘Nature’ article makes it clear that this has not occurred. It seems that total non-government investment in R&D has gone backwards rather than forwards. Clearly a major aim of the Foresight Project is to impress upon industry that they have to do their bit if they expect the government to keep up the impetus of growth of the PGSF.

Nevertheless, we believe that there are points here that do need to be clarified. At the least, it is necessary for the government to make a clear statement that it does accept the commitment (which we understood at the time to be politically non-partisan) to honour the RS&T:2010 strategy and that it will continue to increase public spending on science and technology in accordance with that strategy.

The threat to the Marsden Fund (which is not linked to GDP) is immediate and urgent. In a response to the ‘Nature’ report, Paul Hargreaves, President of the Association of Crown Research Institutes, has said ‘It is a reality of New Zealand’s limited financial base that we can not afford the pursuit of knowledge in science, for the sake of knowledge, to the extent that many would like’. This, of course, completely misses the point of the Marsden Fund (a fund that is as important to CRIs as it is to other scientists in New Zealand), that progress in technology depends upon progress in science.

Any society that ignores that simple fact does so at its peril. The Marsden Fund is there for New Zealand science, and thus for New Zealand technology, as a whole. It is an essential part of an overall strategy, embodied in RS&T:2010, aimed at facilitating this country’s ability to benefit from what the Foresight Project calls the ‘knowledge revolution’. As such, it is an essential pre-requisite component for the success of the specific long term aim. The overall objective is the harnessing of technological developments to the benefit of New Zealand’s economy.

Developments in science and technology are often unpredictable and their emergence depends upon the existence of a reasonably substantial level of activity with a significant proportion (at least 50%) of funding being provided on a long-term (5-10 year) basis. The process of discovery in science is ‘wasteful’ inherently and does not fit easily into accountancy-driven models, but the lessons from North America and Europe are clear. Countries with a strong science-technology base accept the ‘wastage’ of essentially non-directed research because the gains from the unpredictable outweight the ‘disadvantages’.

We are a small country. We do not have the population and tax revenue of most Western European countries, but those are just the features that require us to be that much smarter than our competitors, and we have long been used to doing science on a shoestring. But enough is enough and we must put our weight behind the Minister in persuading his colleagues and Treasury that the lid has dropped as far as it can go. The Nature article has alerted us to these problems in the nick of time.

As Presidents of The Royal Society of New Zealand and of the Academy Council of the Society, we will do all we can to ensure that our concerns are drawn to the attention of the Government. But time is running out. Action must be taken before the 1998 budget is finalised. We call on all who value science to add their voices to ours and speak out against any threat to the future of New Zealand science and technology. We call on the Government to reaffirm its commitment to the spirit and specific goals of RS&T:2010 and to ensure that priority continues to be given to the provision of sufficient funding to achieve those goals. Any other course threatens the future living standards of all New Zealanders.

John Scott, President, The Royal Society of New Zealand George Petersen, President, Academy Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand

Comments on this issue from Constituent and Affiliate Organisations, Fellows and Members are invited. We will not be alone in making a case against any drastic change in Government’s research funding policy. The Minister of Research, Science and Technology (Hon Maurice Williamson) and several other Cabinet members are no doubt fighting the good fight to protect the funding position. Many research institutions and universities together with our own Ministry and Foundation are also giving the Government the benefit of their advice. However, this is an opportunity for the S&T community as a whole to make its position known and lend support to the initiative taken. Let us know your views, this is an important issue and we need to know we can speak with authority on your behalf.


‘Nature’ Erred: This week’s issue of ‘Nature’ (5 February) carries a correction to the 29 January article on New Zealand science and technology. ‘Nature’ admits to an editing error that led to the statement that, in the five years to 1995/96, the number of support staff in Crown Research institutes ‘tripled to more than 900’. This should have read: ‘increased by about 350 to more than 900’.

ACRI Response: We have noted that the 30 January statement from the President of the Association of Crown Research Institutes (Mr Paul Hargreaves) in response to the ‘Nature’ article was substantially edited by the NZPA before release to the daily press. We have mounted the original response on our website separately.

An Invitation: If members wish to take up the invitation of the Society and Academy Presidents to comment on the research funding issue, they may use a dedicated e-mail address we have opened for this purpose –

All comments and suggestions received from members will be referred to the Presidents and taken into account by the Society when considering future action. Make sure you make your contribution by fax, post or using the e-mail address quoted.

Science Digest- S&T Alert is published by The Royal Society of New Zealand, which is a statutory body incorporated under The Royal Society of NZ Act, 1997: see


This file created on 13 February 1998, last amended 16 February 1998