The next step for National Science Challenges

National Science Challenges came into being because basically, in Sir Peter Gluckman’s words, “Science makes our lives better and our country richer”. They were announced today by Minister Steven Joyce – with news also that the budget has been boosted by an extra $73.5 million on top of the $60 million set aside in last year’s budget.

nz national science challenges announcedNational Science Challenges came into being because basically, in Sir Peter Gluckman’s words, “Science makes our lives better and our country richer”. They were announced today by Minister of Science and Innovation Steven Joyce – with news also that the budget has been boosted by an extra $73.5 million on top of the $60 million set aside in last year’s budget.

The list of 12 challenges will be fed by $133.5 million allocated over the next four years, with more government money promised to come. With research areas spanning nutrition to high-value foods to biosecurity to technological innovation, they are expected to last 10 years.

The challenges were put together by a panel of experts from diverse areas of science, with submissions from the public, academia and industry. They are intended for “the good of New Zealand as a whole rather than directly benefitting commercial businesses, specific sectors, or private enterprises” – although they may of course “enjoy direct and indirect benefits”.

After much deliberation, the research areas are (drum roll please):

Aging well – harnessing science to sustain health and wellbeing into the later years of life

A better start – improving the potential of young New Zealanders to have a healthy and successful life

Healthier lives – research to reduce the burden of major New Zealand health problems

High value nutrition – developing high value foods with validated health benefits

New Zealand’s biological heritage – protecting and managing our biodiversity, improving our biosecurity, and enhancing our resilience to harmful organisms

Our land and water  – Research to enhance primary sector production and productivity while maintaining and improving our land and water quality for future generations

Life in a changing ocean – understanding how we can exploit our marine resources within environmental and biological constraints

The deep south – understanding the role of the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean in determining our climate and our future environment

Science for technological innovation – enhancing the capacity of New Zealand to use physical and engineering sciences for economic growth

Resilience to nature’s challenges – research into enhancing our resilience to natural disasters

A key point from Sir Peter Gluckman was the need to integrate social science with all the projects involving physical and natural science, in order to generate benefits for the community.

Another challenge put forward was the leadership role that the Government needs to step into in the science sphere, regarding public awareness of science, education in schools, and getting kiwis involved through observation and analysis.

Projects pitched with the most compelling strategies will be up and running first, says Joyce.

“Some challenges will be more ready than others. The more organised they are, the sooner they will get underway.” 

Their science and impact also affects the amount they will be allocated. He said he hopes at least three areas will be on the go by September, another three by March 2014, and the rest by the following September.

For those areas that lost out Joyce said the announced challenges “are not the be all and end all of the science budget”, reminding us there are still opportunities with, say,  the Marsden fund, CRIs, and universities. Some areas, such as climate change, are not defined in the list but can be “woven through” the areas.

Much scientist feedback is fairly positive, but Professor Shaun Hendy, deputy director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology at Victoria University, is not too happy. In a statement he said the Government invests less in physical sciences and engineering than other small advanced economies, ”leaving our economy perilously exposed to volatile commodity markets”, and that this list is just “rearranging the deckchairs”.

"I am disappointed that the process has failed to throw up anything that is really new or innovative. The challenges chosen will look like business as usual to many, albeit with a stronger focus on health sciences that perhaps reflects the Peak Panel's own interest in this sector