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On Science Policy

It is difficult to wade through the science policies of the political parties. Like many policy statements, they are crammed with uplifting phrases: The future of science in New Zealand is critical to the growth and prosperity of the whole nation. If New Zealand is to remain within reach of the world's most advanced societies, our scientific literacy and ability to manipulate and adapt emerging technologies will be crucial.

You can't fail to agree with these concepts, but what do the policies suggest for the future of science in New Zealand? It can be hard enough to get a grip on what's happening in science now, let alone what the future might bring.

The last eighteen months have been a time of upheaval for the country's scientific community. The science reforms have been revolutionary. At the top level, cabinet ministers and senior administrators appear happy with the reforms. The massive changes undertaken over the past few years are seen as producing a science sector that will be effective and efficient.

Despite the political ramifications of the Labour-led reforms, National agrees that the moves have provided a "sensible change in emphasis".

The new Ministry for Research, Science and Technology is supposed to provide the policy advice. The associated Foundation provides the funding and management. This should let the science agencies get on with research once they have clearly identified their priorities and goals. The contestable pool of funds will encourage scientists to be more competitive and more cost-effective.

It sounds good, but you get a different feeling from the people actually involved in science. University researchers, laboratory technicians or DSIR librarians -- they all seem apprehensive about the future. Cutbacks in staff and funding have many worried. Others have already left the country, searching for a more secure future overseas.

The very language used produces a frustrating barrier. "Public good research", "outputs", "science providers", a full-blown jargon invented specially for the occasion. The bureaucrats and bean-counters are beating on the laboratory doors, demanding entry and accountability.

Most of us would agree that some form of assessment and cost-return analysis is necessary if New Zealand is to get the most from its science funding. The difficulty arises in convincing scientists that politicians have the ability to appreciate fully the advice they are given. This is particularly so in areas of basic research where commercial applications and public utility are not immediately obvious.

Michael Faraday got to the heart of the matter when challenged by some MPs to prove the utility of his experiments into electricity. He replied:

"I do not yet know what use it will be. But I am sure that one day, gentlemen, you will raise taxes on it."

Vicki Hyde is the editor of New Zealand Science Monthly.