Thursday, 13 March 2008

research funding

i'm really pleased to hear about the extra $700 million research funding for the agricultural and food sector. scientists have definitely had a rough time in this country, although things have been getting better in the last few of years.

i know a little bit about our public research organisations, having known closely people who work in this area. the worst period would have to be the 1990's, which saw drastic cuts to the science budget, every year. there were endless rounds of redundancies, restructuring and name changes. i swear, every two or three years there would be mounds of obsolete stationery due to the latest name change.

all staff moved to contracts that were dependent on the latest funding round. their jobs were under threat every year, as they waited to see whether or not their funding bids had been approved. i watched the stress this caused, and the health problems. these were people who were well settled, with kids at school and mortgages to pay. it was devastating for those who did lose their jobs, and there were many. those in their 50's were practically unemployable. and it wasn't much easier for the survivors, watching what was happening to their colleagues, and wondering if it would happen to them next year.

it wasn't like they could go on strike. not only was the employment contracts act a barrier, but who would pay attention? they weren't going to have the impact of, say, university lecturers going on strike.

it's easy now to see how destructive this underinvestment was. new zealand is lagging well behind when it comes to R&D investment, and there is no economic growth without innovation. i don't doubt that some reform was needed in the scientific community in those days. however, there was no recognition that the best quality research comes when there is a freedom to experiment, to go off on tangents, and to fail. actually, some very important learning comes from failure. all of that requires a high level of investment and security of funding.

the research budget has been going up in recent years, and the funding cycle is no longer annual. there is also job security, in that jobs are no longer on the line if funding doesn't come through. this has much reduced stress levels and improved the working environment for our scientists.

and the new research funding is yet another step in the right direction. the best part though, is that the private sector is stepping up and showing a willingness to put money in. no doubt the changed tax rules around R&D expenditure is an added incentive for our companies to put in the money that they should have been putting in years ago. it's good policy all round.

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