A tough challenge for Key's science adviser
UPTON AT LARGE - BY SIMON UPTON
OPINION: Sir Peter Gluckman is the best thing to have happened to the science sector for a long time.
Strictly speaking, he hasn't just happened. He has been happening for decades. But not as a special adviser to the prime minister. Sir Peter has spent his career tenaciously building an admired research empire in the (globally unlikely) setting of a New Zealand medical school. It would have been much easier to do it in North America.
In commandeering his skills, the prime minister has taken a calculated risk. Whatever the terms of his brief, my bet is that he will have the influence of a minister outside Cabinet. He is the sort of high-calibre individual that countries with different constitutional arrangements, such as the United States, can more easily accommodate. It would have been a gross waste of talent had he tackled the parliamentary route to political engagement. The prime minister has saved him the trouble and signalled to the sector that he will be advised by one of its most impassioned advocates.
It needs him. He is being parachuted behind the lines of a worryingly demoralised sector. His arrival will create waves. He does not suffer fools gladly and his force of personality guarantees that few hostages will be taken in combat. Those who manage the science system are in for a challenging time. So are ministers.
He will have to walk a fine line between puncturing some of the institutional silliness that we have managed to invent and plunging the system into a wholesale upheaval. He knows as well as anyone the limits of bureaucratic control over publicly funded science. Every model has its flaws, and scientists are generally bright enough to exploit them.
I long ago formed the view that it did not matter how you tried to allocate resources, good scientists would basically do what they wanted to - and that we should be pretty relaxed about that. Politicians and managers just don't know enough about the essentially creative drivers of research to try to manage them. That is not an argument for simply leaving truckloads of money at the lab door and expecting a hail of discoveries. But it is an argument for being modest about what governments can claim to be able to achieve.
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Governments should be able to explain the broad priorities that govern the expenditure of taxpayer dollars on research. Defining them shouldn't be hard. There are obvious core interests that are forced on us as a result of our geological, bio- physical and cultural particularity. If anyone thinks, for example, that we can leave a wide range of natural and biological risks to look after themselves, they should be shown the door.
Surprisingly, there seems to be no mechanism whereby the Government sets overall priorities. Instead, a plethora of funding initiatives has grown up, all of them fiercely contestable. To make sense of the jungle, scientists in different institutions have been exhorted to collaborate. The result is that vast effort is expended in cobbling together improbably co- operative bids.
And in place of broad priorities, governments have followed the path of so many countries trying to second-guess the future wellsprings of prosperity. Bio- tech and IT suddenly became flavour of the month. There is little evidence that governments are good at this stuff.
Attention would be better expended ensuring that those with the necessary business skills can access and commercialise the opportunities that arise in the ordinary course of research. These are frequently unforeseeable and depend on the quirky insights of researchers and investors. This raises the sensitive issue of whether the Government's expectations as owner of the Crown research institutes make sense.
CRIs were established each with a clear sectoral focus at arm's length from bureaucratic meddling. As a species of Crown-owned business, they were supposed to be run in a prudent fashion that would maintain their physical and human capital without recourse to the shareholder. But it was never envisaged that they would generate regular dividend streams to the Government. Being overseen by boards with private sector skills, it was hoped that they would be a key conduit for the commercialisation of intellectual property arising from their long-term research mission.
These expectations need to be reviewed. Ironically, universities have often proved to be much more porous and accessible to private investors. The incentives on boards and managers in CRIs may in fact stand in the way of a vibrant public-private research partnership.
Sir Peter will have to address all these issues. It would be a pity, though, if he became immured in the turf battles and institutional Lego of the science sector. The biggest contribution he could make would be to catalyse a new love affair with what science can offer us. If he can reach a hard-headed understanding with the minister of finance about what that means, we will know he has succeeded.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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