Where is science heading (or being led?)

Jeremy BurdonNZIAHS President
Jeremy Burdon NZIAHS President

I have only just become NZIAHS president, yet many aspects of science in New Zealand have been under scrutiny and being reviewed for several months or even years. From the school science curriculum to university education and research to the organisation and roles of the Crown Research Institutes (CRIs), everything is under the microscope.
The scrutiny includes the largest review of the country’s science system in 30 years, ultimately aimed at creating a fresh set of national “research priorities” for the country and tackling long-standing diversity gaps across our universities and institutes, particularly among under-represented Māori and Pasifika researchers.
Under the Te Ara Paerangi Future Pathways programme, the Government says it is restructuring the research system to embed the Treaty of Waitangi and enable opportunities for mātauranga Māori as well as to recognise that research is a global undertaking and build a system that stands alongside the best in the world.
The Government talks of reshaping the Research, Science & Innovation (RSI) funding system to ensure it gives effect to national priorities, reduces unproductive competition, and enables RSI institutions to respond to emerging opportunities. It is reviewing the design and shape of public research institutions (focusing on the CRIs and Callaghan Institute) to enable them to give effect to national priorities, encourage greater connectivity, and adapt to developments in a fast-changing world. And it is exploring how to develop the RSI workforce to ensure it is connected, diverse and dynamic, offering scientists and researchers attractive and flexible careers and career pathways.
This scrutiny and possible reform is occurring against the backdrop of a general election on 14 October 2023. So what are the implications and where can NZIAHS members find information?

Election policies

Research, Science and Innovation Minister Ayesha Verrall expected the overhaul would be phased in over the next few years, raising New Zealand’s research and development expenditure to two per cent of GDP over 10 years. With a General Election, the future of our science system will be determined not by Dr Verrall, the Hipkins Government or the advice that has resulted in the Te Ara Paerangi Future Pathways programme, but by the way that votes are cast at the ballot box.
Labour, National, ACT and the Green Party – the parties commanding the most popular support according to opinion polls – have very different ideas on the organisation of the science sector generally, and on specific issues such as climate change and genetic technologies.
The Science Media Centre has done scientists and researchers a huge service by putting questions on key science-related issues to the political parties ahead of the election.
Thanks to the centre’s work, we can check out the links below which provide the answers from responding political parties on:

Briefly, the responses to the Science Media Centre’s questions not unsurprisingly show that Labour intends implementing the Te Ara Paerangi Future Pathways programme.
The Green Party “largely” supports it and would act on the Te Ara Paerangi reforms (it particularly supports commitments such as focussing RSI on improving environmental sustainability and establishing long-term funding for public good science services).
National says it does not support Te Ara Paerangi Future Pathways, suggesting that it is an opportunity missed to look at growing the RSI system to enhance the economy.
ACT would replace Te Ara Paerangi Future Pathways science vision with a simpler and clearer set of priorities focussed on funding internationally credible scientific research for productivity and public good science.

Tertiary education

On the question of a response to funding pressures and widespread job cuts in the university sector, Labour has drawn attention to its provision of “the most significant funding increase in 20 years”, which includes the $128 million investment announced in June, in addition to increased funding in Budget 2023. Moreover, Labour says it understandsthe need for the sector to be sustainable in the long term and has announced a review into the higher education funding system, with a decision to be taken by the end of 2023.By then we may well have a new government, and National says the main job for the next government will be to get inflation under control to reduce cost pressures and accelerate the return of international students. This will help to keep costs down for domestic students. National says it will also undo the polytechnic mega-merger and return control to institutions and local communities, while implementing a funding model that provides stability and accountability.
ACT would retain overall levels of funding for university and vocational training, but deliver funding to universities on a per-student basis. Moreover, it would restore regional polytechs and industry-governed industry training organisations.
The Greens want government to develop a sustainable funding model for tertiary education and “will continue to work constructively with staff and students to ensure we invest in education as the public good that it is”.

Genetic technologies

Differences are obvious, too, in party positions on gene editing technologies and how these are used in conservation, medical, primary sector and so on. Labour says New Zealand regulations have not kept pace with the better understanding of the benefits of GMOs and wants to ensure the GMO regulations contribute to better outcomes for New Zealanders through more research, innovation and development, and improved access to biomedical therapies and medicines. It wants to take “measured steps” to update the regulatory settings. The changes on which it would seek public feedback would apply only to laboratory settings and for biomedical therapies that use biology and organisms, like cells, to create products that improve human health.National would remove the effective ban on gene editing and GMO technologies to help deliver on its climate change goals “and potentially unlock access to breakthrough technologies in medicine and conservation”. Its commitment is set out in its Harnessing Biotech policy. National would establish a dedicated Biotech regulator to support access to the latest advances in science and innovation while protecting New Zealanders against adverse outcomes.
ACT would replace the Hazardous Substance and New Organisms Act with new biotech legislation to enable gene editing technologies that is based on science and assessed against the risk to the public. Harmonisation with equivalent jurisdictions would be a guiding principle – if something is acceptable to the EU, then an importer of a compound shouldn’t have to go through the same tests for New Zealand. Decisions should be made by a technically and scientifically competent regulator without political interference.
The Green Party supports the limited and ethical use of GE biotechnology in containment and supports maintaining a zero-tolerance approach to the import or release of viable GE-derived organisms/products. Any law change must be based on public agreement and understanding, sound science and the result of a robust public consultation process. Te Ao Māori perspectives must be recognised. The Greens say the field release of GE crops would put the reputation and success of New Zealand’s growing organics sector at risk.

Science teaching

The country’s voters will not be going to the polls to support candidates or parties on the strength of their science policies alone. We can only hope, therefore, that the outcome happens to result in the successful provision of science for public and private sectors in New Zealand, and in a commitment to ensure the supply of well-trained scientists who are provided with the facilities necessary to do their research.

This training starts in the schools where children should learn the fundamentals of science alongside literacy and numeracy. Towards the end of their school careers, it is to be hoped that some of them have developed an interest and enthusiasm for science, thereby allowing the selection of topics that set them up for a university education and science careers.
A further requirement is that they are taught ‘how to learn’ as the change from classroom to university can be challenging as they move to the more self-led independent learning as occurs within universities.
From the universities through undergraduate to postgraduate study, the skills of scientists are learnt and experience gained to equip them for careers in either the private or public sector.
In a world where many things nowadays are viewed through a short-term lens, science careers call for long-term consideration – it can take years to acquire the valuable knowledge and skills needed to make valuable scientific discoveries in the pure science or commercial fields.
The current reviews of science in schools, universities and CRIs – and whatever the next government does to translate these into reforms – provides an opportunity to ensure that the various components are made fit for purpose and align to provide New Zealand with the science it needs to improve the wellbeing of all.


NZIAHS presented two awards at an Auckland Section event earlier this month. Dr Grant Thorp received a NZIAHS Fellowship and Dr Simona Nardozza received the Emerging Scientist award. Grant gave us a presentation of his time in Australia “Going nuts in Australia – nine years of research with almond and macadamia”.

2023 NZIAHS Canterbury Forum

“Building Resilient Production Systems”
Stewart 1, Stewart Lecture Theatre, Lincoln University, Lincoln
Wednesday 25th October 2023 9.00am to 3.00pm

The topic has been chosen because of the devastation wreaked by Cyclone Gabrielle illustrated failings in the resilience of not just our physical infrastructure, our land management systems, and communications systems, but also illustrated how many of our key primary industries are less resilient than they may need to be in future. This forum will address the resilience of our agricultural and horticultural production systems, with emphasis on not just the systems themselves, but also on the resilience of their supporting infrastructure, science, and financial systems.

Link for the Programme and to register: