Kiwi egalitarianism fragments the nation’s science efforts


Trying to be fair and even handed in that great kiwi egalitarian tradition may be having detrimental effects on the country’s science, and ultimately, innovation output.

New Zealand has a number of fragmented research centres and researchers scattered around the country, who, for the last 20 years or so have operated under a competitive model. This creates short-termism of outlook and a reduction in what might otherwise be achieved says the New Zealand Institute’s director, Rick Boven.

“The trouble we have here is not enough concentrated effort by specialists,” he says. “We’ve thought that we can drive scientific performance by competition, when the real competitors are offshore. We need to specialise and bulk up.”

Boven’s solution is the creation of (virtual) institutes, where geographically separated scientists could collaborate for the benefit of the country and themselves; an action Switzerland carried out a number of years ago. The European nation was recently ranked number one in the Global Competitiveness Report.

Fragmentation of research effort also leads to less connectedness Boven says. Small and geographically dispersed scientists “means the connections and relationships become assets of the individual,” he says. If the individual leaves in a small centre, generally speaking that knowledge does too.

“If you have a larger, concentrated entity, the connections and relationships are assets of the institution. Even if people move on, the assets are retained.”

The model of longer term, core funding that government is increasingly moving to for universities and CRIs, is applauded by Boven. This is because the competitive model of research funding has the tendency to be:

  • a model where scientists spend too much time applying for and trying to win funds
  • a model where funding is not certain. There’s danger of losing science capability and capacity, with short term rather than long term thinking
  • a model which encourages internal competition rather than co-operation

The development of science clusters in New Zealand would enable the country to “bulk up areas of specialisation,” says Boven

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About sticknz

sticK is by Peter Kerr, a writer for hire. I have a broad science and technology background and interest, with an original degree in agricultural science. My writing speciality is making the complex understandable. I am available for outside consultancy work, and for general discussions of converting a good idea into something positive
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