Rod Oram has a column in the latest Sunday Star-Times (not online) that discusses reforms to science funding. There’s some good points in the article (and a few others I don’t agree with so much), but the main thing that struck me was when he discussed the scientific and commercialisation work that the Crown Research Institute (CRI) Industrial Research Ltd had done on superconductors:
But it will take many years to develop the product lines into sizable businesses – and the chance of New Zealand being home to much of that is minimal. We have virtually no experience, scale or markets in these areas of science, technology and manufacturing.
From a commercial perspective it was completely the wrong science to pursue. We must focus instead on the life and environmental fields where we have the scale and the leadership to attract international collaborators.
Sounds sensible. But here’s Paul Callaghan, probably New Zealand’s most high-profile scientist, in his 2009 book Wool to Weta. Transforming New Zealand’s Culture & Economy:
Given our capability in physical sciences and engineering, I think we could generate many more start-ups of the Rakon/Navman variety, and if a fraction of them succeed we may do far better than via the biotechnology route favoured by government. (p. 15)
. . . I am not advocating spending less on biotech research. But I am suggesting that we shouldn’t apply blinkers, that we do have a track record of producing great businesses out of physical sciences and engineering and that we have the potential to a great deal more. (p. 17)
. . . We should discard the myth that because we are good at farming, our best high-technology future lies necessarily in biotechnology. (p. 20)
I have a great deal of admiration for both Oram and Callaghan. I think they are two of New Zealand’s most insightful writers on science and innovation issues. Yet on this crucial issue of where we should be focussing our research capability, they fundamentally disagree.
Who is right? I do not know. But I do think this is an important issue, and it’s striking that this disagreement hasn’t really come to light before now. What that says to me is that (while successive governments have set out ‘official’ views) there hasn’t really been any robust public discussion about where New Zealand should be putting its science dollar.
One other thing: Oram suggests that we need “politicians and bureaucrats to give up micro-management and second-guessing and learn how to trust the scientists, their managers and directors to make good science and business decisions.”
Again, sounds good. But if you give the money to Industrial Research Ltd and leave them to make decisions, they aren’t going to invest in the life and environmental fields, are they? That’s where other CRIs are focussed, not IRL.
Key decisions about the appropriate allocation of science funding between different areas have already been made via the creation and funding of the eight CRIs. In fact, arguably the Jordan taskforce’s recommendations, favoured by Oram, would ‘lock in’ the current allocation for longer.
Which is fine. Unless, like (apparently) Oram, you think that we’re focusing too much of our energies in some areas and not enough in others.
If so, then maybe we need a more contestable free-for-all without any ‘ring-fenced’ pots (which Callaghan seems to favour), and trust the [sic] “bureaucrats” who allocate it to make right decisions. But isn’t that exactly the opposite direction from what the Jordan taskforce, apparently uncontroversially, is recommending?
In any case, that won’t really resolve the Oram-Callaghan debate. Anytime the system makes the ‘wrong’ decision, it will still be easy to blame the ‘politicians’ or the ‘bureaucrats’, when in reality maybe it’s just that if you want things to go in a particular direction, then you have to set the basic operating framework with that direction in mind.
To me, that suggests that we need to have a well-informed public discussion about where we ought to be focusing our efforts, and why. If so, it will need to start by acknowledging that there are smart people with good arguments on both sides of the debate, and no easy answers.