Monday, October 05, 2015

An empty strategy

The government finally released its National Statement of Science Investment today, more than a year after releasing the draft. Its a significantly different document, lacking much of the information in its predecessor (for example, the news that they were planning to cut science funding by 15 - 20% over the next decade). The good news is that they've removed the material about trying to get the Royal Society of New Zealand to gag scientists from commenting on public policy via a code of conduct. Other than that, its exactly the sort of empty strategy document National loves to criticise Labour for: 66 pages of sweet fuck all.

The big news: they're planning to tinker with the science funding mechanism. Again. Whoop-di-do. If they spent the money they're planning to spend on external consultants to tell them how best to invest in science on actual science instead, then perhaps AgResearch wouldn't be having to sack 20% of its scientists and gut core capabilities. But the real problem is around the private sector.

New Zealand is a low R&D economy. Despite flinging around buzzwords like innovation, our business community is generally unwilling to invest in the future (foreign ownership is part of the story here: you don't invest in colonies. But the short-term thinking of our overpaid business "leaders" is a huge part of the problem). And the biggest offenders are those you'd think would have the most to gain: our primary industries like meat, wood and dairy.

The government's "solution" to this is to set an "aspirational" goal of increasing business R&D to 1% of GDP by 2018 - just over two years away. Its currently around half that. So, the government wants business to double its spending in just two years. And their plan to do this is... nothing. Or at least, nothing new or remotely credible given the scale of the challenge. Yes, they have Callaghan Innovation, which is supposed to hand out business R&D grants and co-fund (emphasis on the "co-") research. But the amount of money allocated isn't anything like what is necessary for the task, even assuming they get their maximum payoff for the funding. As for the government's "regional research institutes", they're a joke.

Basicly this is an empty strategy which commits the usual mistake of setting goals without any credible policy to back it up - exactly as they have done on climate change and energy. Its the same mistake, over and over and over again. But I forget: the purpose of the policy isn't to produce science or business R&D - it's to produce headlines saying that the government supports those things. And on those grounds, they'll be considering it a success, regardless of how much actual science is done.