Scientists raise questions about secret review of $1.6bn funding programme

New Zealand Herald science reporter Jamie Morton has reported the questioning of the Government’s refusal to release a review of a major science initiative that just received hundreds of millions more dollars of public funding.

The National Science Challenges, a set of 11 collaborative efforts, bring together thousands of researchers across different institutions and aim to tackle the biggest issues facing New Zealand.

Launched four years ago after each was finalised by a Government-commissioned peak panel, they range from work around freshwater and natural hazards to healthy ageing and nutrition, the challenges.

Funding – projected to reach a total investment of $1.6 billion – was allocated for 10 years in five-year periods, so that performance and future direction could be reviewed.

Last week the Government’s announcement of its approval of $422.5 million, bringing investment so far to $680 million, followed a mid-way performance review by the Government’s Science Board.

Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods said the review had shown the challenges were “fundamentally changing the way science is being undertaken in New Zealand”.

The Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) provided the Herald with a summary of the review, which stated the challenges were delivering collaborative programmes, supporting “excellent science” and had “appropriate governance and decision-making processes”.

But Jamie Morton reported the ministry had withheld the full review, prompting it to request the report under the Official Information Act.

The ministry’s strategic investments manager Danette Olsen was reported as saying the ministry did not release assessment or peer-review reports that supported investment decisions made by the Science Board.

“This empowers reviewers and experts to provide their free and frank advice, and also protects potentially sensitive information and intellectual property.”

The New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) was “extremely concerned” by the ministry’s secrecy.

“This is public funding used for the national good,” president Dr Heide Friedrich said.

“The NZAS would welcome for review information to be made public, and thus contributing to a healthy discussion on research funding mechanisms.”

Science commentator and past NZAS president Professor Shaun Hendy was also critical of the process.

“Normally, scientific reviews of research programmes like these would be kept confidential, but the public were important stakeholders in the challenges and even played a role in selecting them,” he said.

“I think the lack of transparency in the selection of the challenges by the peak panel, particularly where this deviated from the popular voting, demands a higher level of public scrutiny than we might ordinarily ask for.”

Hendy said there had been some wins from the challenges – more than 150 projects were under way, delivering more than 400 publications since 2014 .  But they had also put an “extraordinary level of stress” on the science system.

“There has been a lot of discussion about the resource that is going into their governance for instance,” he said.

“Furthermore it would be very helpful of we had some public data on who is being funded and for what.

“Right now, it’s very hard to tell whether the challenges are engaging with emerging researchers or whether, as some of the criticisms have suggested, the funding is going to an old boys’ network.”

Another prominent scientist, MacDiarmid Institute co-director Associate Professor Nicola Gaston, said one of the biggest concerns around the challenges and their funding was an original indication they would provide a “de facto science strategy” for the country.

The development of the Government’s National Statement of Science Investment had gone some way to removing concerns around funding, because it had made clearer the relationships between different parts of the sector.

“However the balance between complexity and efficiency of our research system is a delicate one that does need monitoring — for now I would say that the stability provided by this continued funding is absolutely what the sector needs.”

Professor Hendy still wanted to see a tough audit of the way the challenges were selected, procured and contracted, “so we can figure out how this might be done better in the future”.

The 11 challenges are “A Better Start”, “Ageing Well”, “Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities”, “Healthier Lives”, “High-Value Nutrition”, “New Zealand’s Biological Heritage”, “Our Land And Water”, “Resilience To Nature’s Challenges”, “Science for Technological Innovation”, “Sustainable Seas” and “The Deep South”.

The biggest amounts in the second round of funding went to Science for Technological Innovation, Our Land and Water and High-Value Nutrition ($72.7 million, $69.3 million and $53.2 million respectively).

MBIE planned to release summaries of reviews of each of the challenges this week.

Source:  New Zealand Herald

Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog

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