Monday, May 09, 2005

Science funding

Last week I linked to a Listener interview with Australian author Tim Flannery (The Future Eaters, The Eternal Frontier) in which he discussed his upcoming book on climate change and the need to adopt nuclear power. But that wasn't the only thing he talked about; in passing he criticised the terrible state of scientific research in New Zealand:

New Zealand has dropped the ball badly in terms of funding research. "A decade ago, you used to be an absolute leader. You were doing brilliant things. But there seems to be no ongoing funding or commitment. There's no permanent jobs. You've got some really passionate, brilliant people living hand to mouth."

This morning's Herald has a perfect example of this: Trevor Worthy, one of New Zealand's best palaeontologists, has failed to secure further funding from FoRST. As a result, he's likely to follow the well-trod path to Australia, where they care enough about scientists to offer them secure jobs and proper funding.

This is symptomatic of the wider problem with science funding in New Zealand. During the 90's government-funded research was reorganised along market lines, in accordance with the funder-purchaser-provider model which worked so well for health. The old DSIR was broken up into a number of Crown Research Institutes (CRIs), which would compete for funding from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FoRST). Overall research priorities (how much money is allocated to each area) were set by MoRST. This was supposed to make things more efficient. Instead, it has led to an erosion of New Zealand's science capability. The problem is twofold. Firstly, research contracts are doled out on a "winner take all" model, with a five year lifespan - so if a researcher or team misses out, they must survive on a shoestring for five years. But scientists, if they are to remain any good at what they do, have to keep on doing it - they can't just wait around twiddling their thumbs for five years and still be able to put together a credible bid. When combined with the extremely tight specialisation in science, this means that research teams whose bids for funding have been unsuccessful tend to disappear, either taking early retirement, or disappearing overseas. This erodes both our pool of knowledge, and the very competition the funding model requires in order to work.

If the government is even halfway serious about building a "knowledge economy", it needs to start doing something about this. Otherwise, we're going to see a slow death of scientific research in this country, with consequent effects on the rest of the economy.


I know two of the most prominent paleontologists in the country, and this guy isn't one of them. He might be media-friendly, but his field is very small and not very important to new developing areas of science, unlike Fordyce of Otago or Campbell of Auckland. And from what I understand, much useful Moa research has moved to genetic studies.

Overseas paleontologists of his nature are more commonly employed by museums and/or funded by private grants. Funding him out of the general science fund seems stupid.

Paleontology has big problems in NZ, but if the Government spends more tax dollars on scientific research then I (and likely many other scientists) would prefer it goes to more general scientific research with wider applicability, or blue skies research with no obvious short-term returns.

Also Nature etc are general journals not indicative of progress in individual fields.

Posted by Antarctic Lemur : 5/09/2005 05:06:00 PM

London doesn't attract financial companies because it's a cheap place to do business.

Silicon Valley is a bloody expensive place to start a software company.

Boston (okay snobs: Cambridge, Mass.) is an amazingly expensive place to start a biotech company.

So why are they there? Critical mass. Banks attract banks, IT companies attract IT companies, biotech attracts biotech. They have a supply of skilled people, they have centres of excellence, they have universities churing out recruits and (just as important) they have a reputation which attracts more people, more investors, more companies. Hit the critical mass and people come because it's the place to be.

Wellington is seeing that in film right now - we have critical mass, there are the people and resources on hand, so more films are happening, which keeps up the rep and the supply of people.

But likewise if you drop below a critical threshold and they leave because there's nothing here for them - and then it's all over.

'Knowledge Economy' - ha! The govt is all talk, and no strategy, and no money.

Posted by Icehawk : 5/09/2005 05:08:00 PM

My observation is that MoRST are not particularly discerning in respect of what AL calls general scientific research with wider applicability. I was at a meeting there recently where the general principle seemed to be "take a large number of people who don't know what's going on, and average their views".

Absolutely agree we need to get this right, but its pretty difficult with the size of our gene pool.

Posted by Jock : 5/09/2005 09:53:00 PM

Another reason why the funding strategy is pushing it uphill is that funding priority is often given to applied science rather than pure science. This is problematic because science is a largely capricious endeavour, meaning that you never know where the next important discovery is coming from. So while the market-based system rewards projects that are likely to have decent near-future results, it does nothing for those projects that on the face of it seem mundane or without commercial appeal, but in the long run will lead to more significant scientific findings: therefore, there should be a more sizeable fund that stimulates research that isn't commercially driven and that is of value for its own sake besides simply funding science that sells well.

Posted by Anonymous : 5/09/2005 11:40:00 PM

Actuall I think you can tell generally speaking what is productive scientific endevour.
I notice in my time in academia that students tend to want to do productive research and staff tend to want to do unproductive research. Why?
Well because the staff are more interested in publication and it seems that is best done via tautology. [ahh Im bitter eh]
Also particularly productive projects have occured where businesses have paid students to do certain research . somthing I think should be encouraged.

Posted by Genius : 5/10/2005 07:18:00 AM

The madness to me is that it was so predictably not going to work - it doesn't even make idealogical sense in that research/science fails to meet the criteria of a 'market' in so many areas - transparency of information, free availability of resources etc.

As already pointed out, creativity isn't necessarily amenable to a schedule.

Also, the types of people who make good scientists (or teachers, doctors, whatever) don't necessarily make good entrepeneurs when it comes to grant applications etc. It's a waste of their time and talents to try and deal with them that way. And the predictable consequence (think health) is emergence of a professional bureaucratic layer to fill the gap whose role it is to chase funds, and who add little value to the research.

The previous structure of permanent research institutions providing security in the form of paid permanent jobs, with some checks and balances on their outputs is better suited to science in a 'market' the size of NZ.

Posted by Anonymous : 5/10/2005 09:00:00 AM

While we're giving the right their well-justified bollocking for screwing up scientific research in NZ, let's not forget to credit all the airheads on the left who've made "scientist" pretty much a term of abuse, and who've successfully persuaded their fellow dim bulbs in government to put moratoria on various kinds of research we were pretty good at. Take a bow, luddites.

Posted by Anonymous : 5/10/2005 11:14:00 PM

Contrary to the impression given by Antarctic lemur, Trevor Worthy's work is held in high regard by New Zealand paleontologists and by many overseas fossil vertebrate workers. As for his field being "very small" he has been studying the entire recorded Pleistocene and Holocene fossil avifauna (as well as other verebrates), which is far more diverse than the fossil cetacean fauna that Ewan Fordyce works on. He certainly does not "just" work on moas.

Ewan Fordyce and Kathy Cambell are undeniably making very important contributions to NZ paleontology, but they aren't the only ones. Antarctic lemur presumably isn't aware of the ground-breaking studies made by people like James Crampton and Chris Hollis(GNS), George Scott and Roger Cooper (ex GNS) or Bruce Hayward (Geomarine Research).

The genetic studies on moas have been possible only because there are plenty of relatively young remains (typically only a few hundred years old) so it has been possible to extract some of their DNA. One of Trevor's projects is the very rich Middle Miocene fauna from Central Otago. These fossils are too old (about 12 to 15 million years) to yield DNA, so paleontologists are obliged to use good old "traditional" approaches, i.e. studying the bones themselves.

Trevor Worthy's studies are throwing a lot of light on the origins of the NZ terrestrial biota and their ecological relationships. I realise of course that this sort of thing doesn't impress your average bean counter (or I assume, Antactic lemur), but things are in a sorry state if commercial applicability is the touchstone for scientific research!

Posted by Anonymous : 5/11/2005 03:21:00 PM