Our science system needs a big overhaul


Research, Science and Innovation Minister Dr. Megan Woods says our science system does not adapt quickly to changing priorities.


Research, Science and Innovation Minister Dr. Megan Woods says our science system does not adapt quickly to changing priorities.

OPINION: You must applaud our scientific institutions for the way they have met the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Crown Research Institute ESR has done a great job with lab diagnostics, wastewater testing, and monitoring for Covid-19. The vaccine alliance, led by Professor Graham Le Gros of the Malaghan Institute, has made enough progress to begin testing a Kiwi vaccine booster shot early next year.

Our universities have stepped up to offer valuable research and advice in viral modeling and public health. The response to this and previous crises – including the Christchurch earthquake and Rena oil spill – shows that the country’s scientific capacity can serve us well when we need it most.

But the The government’s latest snapshot of the science sector, released last week, points to worrying issues. We still lag behind most other small advanced countries in research and development spending. Our scientific workforce is fragile and undiversified.

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“I’m not going to water down the areas where we can improve,” Research, Science and Innovation Minister Dr Megan Woods admitted last week, stressing that our system is not designed to quickly adapt to changing priorities.

There are glaring examples of this everywhere. Our R&D efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are fragmented and underfunded. We should be a leader in the field of genetic technologies, but a lack of strategic direction and our aversion to genetic modification has largely overlooked the biotechnology boom.


Dr Joep de Ligt, Head of Biometrics and Genomics at ESR, talks about the creation of the first PCR test for Covid-19 and the genome sequence performed on the first positive sample from New Zealand.

Our science is not living up to its potential and the government knows it. He has long planned a redesign and his Green Paper Te Ara Paerangi Future Pathways released last week is the start of that process.

The elephant in the room will be the status of the Crown Research Institutes (CRI) which were established 30 years ago. It was never entirely clear whether their priority was to make money or to undertake cutting-edge research.

“This creates tension and a strong focus on the business performance of individual IRCs which can hamper collaborations that would contribute to national benefit,” notes the Green Paper.

Our basic research infrastructure, such as laboratories and critical databases and collections, has suffered from a lack of investment and support. Our Research centers of excellence get at least government funding, but many researchers must constantly scramble for grants and private funding to stay afloat. Expensive projects, such as National scientific challenges, need a serious overhaul.

Stuff science columnist Peter Griffin.


Stuff science columnist Peter Griffin.

The development of our workforce is poor. Early career researchers, in particular, face a precarious existence. We are losing some of our best scientific minds to better paying jobs and more prestigious institutions abroad.

At the end of the day, the pot of money we spend on science is not big enough. Politically, it is difficult to increase it when there are so many problems to be solved. But without doing science in a smarter way, we’re going to fall further and further behind anyway.

What we need then is not a rearrangement of the deckchairs. We have the opportunity to reinvent a science system that will help us meet the challenges and opportunities ahead.

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