Put science and research under the microscope – and a Budget boost is hard to find

There are around 4600 words in  Finance Minister Nicola Willis’ Budget 2024 Speech.

“Science” is not one of them.  Nor is “research”, “agriculture” or “horticulture”.

The usual batch of Budget Day press statements from ministers shows nothing from Judith Collins, Minister of Science, Innovation and Technology. She happens to be in Singapore, attending various summits and meetings related to defence and technology matters.

Nor was any Budget statement issued by Ministers with responsibilities for agricultural, horticulture and biosecurity.

Ms Willis kicked off her speech by saying:

The Budget delivers on key commitments.

For the first time in 14 years, hard-working New Zealanders will get to keep more of their own money through our Government’s tax relief.

We are shifting resources out of the back office of government into the front line.

We are investing in healthcare, schools and Police. 

We are putting New Zealanders’ money where it can make the biggest difference.   

Science, research, agriculture and horticulture – we may suppose – are not among the areas where New Zealanders’ money can make a big difference.

The Science Media Centre has sought expert comments – as best it can – on Budget 2024 and the future of NZ’s science sector.

The article says:

Science has been notably absent from the coalition government’s messaging around their first budget.

It comes as a major funding source, the National Science Challenges, wrap up next month after 10 years; and while the science and university sectors are still under review.

The SMC asked experts to comment.

  • Professor Nicola Gaston, Co-Director, The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology:

“This is not a surprising budget for science, research, and our universities, but it is a challenging one. I won’t bother commenting on the cancellation of projects planned by the previous government, but will reiterate that the long term trend is of attrition in the sector due to inflation relative to flatlined baseline funding.

“The 25% cut attributable to inflation over the last decade is now joined by the loss of the National Science Challenge funding established by Steven Joyce ten years ago. Maybe the key thing to point out here is that much of that was existing research funding that was reallocated to the NSCs. Losing that money from the system means a funding cut relative to 2014 even before we worry about adjusting for inflation. That is new.

“I am actually surprised that a Minister who has had a lot to say about the value of science has been willing to see such a cut in long-existing funding (again I am not talking about cancelled new initiatives here). Science and innovation are an ecosystem, and many of the outcomes that this government would like to see — tech skills development, commercialisation, business investment in R&D and the all important economic contribution that innovation can make — will be severely hampered when so many parts of that system are struggling.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Co-director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a NZ Centre of Research Excellence.”

  • Dr Lucy Stewart, Co-President, New Zealand Association of Scientists:

“Normally when assessing a Budget from the science policy perspective, we can look for bright spots – new spending and initiatives. Analysing this year’s Budget is an exercise in determining how bad the damage will be, on the back of previously-announced cuts such as the cancellation of the Science City infrastructure programme and the failure to renew the National Science Challenges.

“There is one genuinely welcome new initiative – funding for Geonet, the National Seismic Hazard Model, and the National Geohazards Monitoring Centre has been extended out until 2027, acknowledging the long-term nature of the funding needed to support this vital work in our geologically active nation. However, looking out to 2027 the Budget has also forecast a total of $35 million dollars of actual cuts to the Marsden Fund, the Health Research Fund, the Strategic Science and Innovation Fund, and the Endeavour Fund in that year – perhaps to generously give researchers three years to find new jobs overseas. Otherwise spending is essentially flat, in a time of record inflation and on the back of decades of underfunding of the sector. Certainly there is no sign of anything which could come close to making up for the loss of the National Science Challenges, which we have already seen translate into proposed job cuts in the public science sector.

“I expect to see more job losses across the sector before the end of the year. This failure to invest, at a time when the research and science sector has struggled to do more with insufficient funding for years already, will have inevitable consequences in loss of expertise as people move to better-funded research sectors overseas, as infrastructure continues to fail, and as research simply does not get done.

“Nearly forty years ago a target was set of 2% of GDP spending on research and development as appropriate for the high-skill, innovative economy successive governments have stated they wish to see this country become. With this Budget, we are no closer to achieving that and perhaps even further away.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am also the spokesperson for the Save Science Coalition, a group of organisations representing scientists which are campaigning against cuts to the public science sector.” 

Sources:  Beehive website; Science Media Centre


Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog