Thursday, 28 January 2021 10:55

Editorial: A stupid version of lotto

Written by  Peter Burke
New Zealand has been living off the back of its scientists. New Zealand has been living off the back of its scientists.

OPINION: There used to be a phrase that stated that ‘NZ lived off the sheep’s back’.

That was a myth — just like the nonsensical ‘No 8 wire’ concept.

The reality is that NZ lives off the back of our scientists who have created new plant and grass varieties, breeds and types of sheep and cattle that thrive in our climate. Not forgetting farm machinery and systems that have made NZ one of the best and most profitable farmed landscapes in the world.

Most of the science that achieved these gains was done before someone decided to ‘reform’ the science system, dismember the Ministry of Agriculture and DSIR and create things called CRI’s.

The primary sector is now at a crisis point because successive governments have allowed the funding of agricultural science to almost disappear. They have done this by creating a so called ‘competitive’ system, where highly-skilled scientists are expected to go begging for funds to some high-falutin science board and respond, at times, to some bizarre requests for proposals.

Competitive sounds nice and gives the impression that the system is efficient and that good science is being delivered. However, this is a myth!

When highly-skilled scientists have to spend up to 50% of their time writing up bids, that means that they only have 50% left to do the work. Is that a bureaucratic definition of efficiency? And what about the cost of the large departments in the CRI’s and universities dedicated to peer reviewing these bids before they leave the organisation?

The science money it seems is going to pen pushers – not the men and women in lab coats.

There is no longer a dedicated pool of funding for agriculture like there used to be, so ag scientists have to compete for money from a large pool – which funds universities, social science, medical science and god knows what else. Where is agriculture?

The primary sector has for too long been treated like a second-class citizen by all political parties, yet in the Covid environment, we hear Jacinda Ardern saying the saving grace for NZ is its ag sector. Well, show us the money! 

Megan Woods, as science minister, needs to completely overhaul the system and cut out the misnamed competitive system and give agriculture a fair slice of the funds. And specifically, give our highly-skilled ag scientists more time to spend in their laboratories rather than playing the lotto science funding game.

Peter Burke is the founder and life member of Science Communicators Association of NZ (SCANZ).

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