RNZ: The end of the National Science Challenges, and where to next?

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July 8, 2024

From RNZ
By Claire Concannon and Ellen Rykers

Analysis – For the last 10 years, the New Zealand science ecosystem has featured a series of 11 big, keystone projects on big, gnarly challenges.

But now, as of 30 June, funding for the National Science Challenges has officially ended.

Scientists have been ringing the warning bell about what allowing this funding to end, without having a replacement ready, would mean in terms of loss of expertise.

Established in 2014, the idea was that each of the challenges would focus on a key science-based problem important to New Zealand – for example, Science for Technological Innovation aimed to tackle high-tech challenges to grow the economy, Ageing Well investigated how best to keep the population healthy as we age, and The Deep South focused on anticipating, adapting and managing risks linked to climate change.

This mission-led format was to encourage cross discipline and institution collaboration. More than $680 million was invested over 10 years.

Now, just one will be revamped in a new format, with dedicated funding behind it. The Resilience Challenge is ending, but a new Natural Hazards Resilience Platform will be established, hosted by GNS Science and funded through the Strategic Science Investment Fund to the tune of $70m over seven years. This includes support for the National Geohazards Monitoring Centre.

Scientists have been ringing the warning bell about what allowing this funding to end, without having a replacement ready, would mean in terms of loss of expertise.

But it is a rare bright spot. Scientists were dismayed at the lack of funding in Budget 2024.

“Worse than a nothing burger” is how professor Troy Baisden, co-president of New Zealand Association of Scientists and principal investigator at Te Pūnaha Matatini, referred to it in comment to the Science Media Centre. Researchers launched a Save Science Coalition in response.

While the science ecosystem is now without the National Science Challenges, it is also under wider review. The previous government launched the Te Ara Paerangi review, which aimed to increase research and development funding to 2 percent of GDP, along with a $450m+ plan announced in Budget 2023 to turn Wellington into a ‘science city’.

Both of these were scrapped earlier this year, with the current government instead establishing two new advisory groups led by Sir Peter Gluckman to review the research funding and university sectors.

Minister for Science, Innovation and Technology, Judith Collins, spoke with Kathryn Ryan about these reviews in late March, expressing concerns that the existing funding system is too competitive and unwieldy for researchers, relies too heavily on government support, and lacks impact in terms of commercialisation.

The revamped Endeavour Fund plan for 2025 – 2027 announced 2 July reflects this. “Commercialisation is essential to realising the social and economic potential of our science, innovation and technology system,” said Collins in a statement. The 2025 contestable fund of $55m is a decrease of $2m compared to 2024.

For the bigger picture, it is a breath hold until the two groups report back to the minister.

“The pressure is on Sir Peter Gluckman, leading two advisory groups which must make a case for the reforms to help us rebuild the mojo that drives investment and success across the science system and universities,” says Baisden.

“The groups will need to provide vision and hope for science and technology to address our biggest challenges”.

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Our Changing World has covered many National Science Challenge stories across the last decade.

The Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge funded the creation of a six-part video series about the challenges impacting our marine environment, and solutions to address these. You can find Turning the Tide on the RNZ website or YouTube channel.

[image: RNZ/test scientist doing laboratory experiments with fertilisers. Photo: 123RF]