New Zealand scraps research reforms and infrastructure funding

Uncertainty gives way to despair as new government pulls the plug on Science City and turns its back on reform process

February 19, 2024
Tania Flowers rides her bike onto a damaged bridge over the Avon River to illustrate New Zealand scraps research reforms and infrastructure funding

An uncertain environment for New Zealand research has become much worse, scientists have said, after the new government scrapped a two-year old reform process and almost half a billion dollars of infrastructure commitments.

Science minister Judith Collins has confirmed that the government will abandon the Future Pathways programme initiated by the previous Labour government in late 2021.

The programme’s December 2022 white paper promised new national research priorities, better funding for Māori participation and a target to increase research and development spending to 2 per cent of gross domestic product by 2030. It also flagged a more coherent national policy, less “contract churn” for researchers and clearer funding for research overheads, while providing scant details.

Troy Baisden, co-president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, said the minister’s confirmation spelt the “quiet end of what was a very large attempt to reform a system that almost nobody believes is working well”.

“We had that big report, and we were feeling like we didn’t quite know where it was going, but at least we had the report. It is very worrying for everybody to try to think through what this means,” he said.

Ms Collins said she had also “discontinued” the Wellington Science City project, billed as the government’s largest-ever capital investment in science infrastructure. Last year’s budget included a NZ$451 million (£219 million) commitment to the project, which would have corralled health, environmental and technological research into three “hubs” in or near Wellington.

The National Party, the senior partner in the ruling coalition, has flagged massive funding cuts as part of its “100 Day Action Plan”. The document says public sector chiefs will identify “back-office spending not critical to front-line services” with a view to reducing expenditure by around 6.5 per cent.

Ms Collins, who is also attorney-general and defence minister, said she was discussing “how to best optimise opportunities” for the sector while recognising “the extremely tight fiscal environment we are dealing with” and bankrolling election commitments such as a biotech regulator.

One approach would be to “cut red tape”, she said. “The right mechanisms and regulations in key growth areas can enable science and innovation to play an even more important role in lifting New Zealand’s productivity and economic growth,” she said.

Professor Baisden, an environmental scientist attached to the University of Auckland, said Science City had been overly focused on buildings rather than scientific equipment and had overlooked issues such as how to accommodate an influx of scientists despite Wellington’s shortage of affordable housing.

“However, now that it’s cancelled, the situation is worse than it would have been if it had never been proposed,” he said. “A number of institutions had deferred or held back on maintenance or cancelled other plans that were already under way.”

Professor Baisden said that, as well as forgoing Science City funding, the research sector stood to lose close to NZ$100 million a year from the cessation of a decade-old collaborative science programme known as the National Science Challenges. It was due to be replaced this year by the National Research Priorities, part of Future Pathways.

He said the government’s “extreme cost-cutting” would exacerbate the “financial crisis” for research institutions. Universities in particular have suffered the combined impacts of inadequate funding increases, slumping domestic enrolments, rising operational costs and a Covid-induced downturn in international earnings.

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