OPINION: When Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) were set up in 1992 it was an acknowledgement of the important contribution that science can make to the economy.
But, 18 years later, the CRI Taskforce report makes it clear that significant reforms are required, in the funding, ownership and governance of the eight institutes. It is essential that the Government now acts on the taskforce's recommendations, which have the potential to help boost economic growth and thereby lift New Zealand from the bottom of the OECD in terms of research.
The report says that the CRIs should be working for the nation's benefit, not their own. This might sound like a statement of the obvious but it is not always occurring now, as there is too much emphasis on research which produces results that CRIs can capture in their balance sheets.
A lack of a strategic direction is linked by the taskforce to the multiple lines of accountability for CRIs. They must be accountable to their shareholding ministers through the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, the Crown Ownership Monitoring Unit in Treasury and the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, each of which has its own perspective and requirements.
The taskforce sensibly recommends that there should be just one agency to handle the Government's investments in CRIs, as well as ownership and policy responsibilities.
Increasing CRI funding was not a priority for the taskforce, but changing the way in which it is delivered was required, as too much of it comes from competitive contracts. These are often short-term, whereas much good science takes time to produce results, and they pit CRIs against universities and the private sector, which should be regarded as partners of the institutes.
More funding should therefore be on a longer term basis to provide greater certainty, encourage strategic planning around the institutes' core purposes, and reduce the compliance costs of multiple contracts.
But as a quid pro quo for reducing the proportion of contestable funding, the taskforce has recommended measures to increase the accountability of CRIs to ensure they are delivering value for New Zealand.
Even if the recommendations are adopted, there will still be debate over whether particular research is worthwhile, such as genetic engineering, but the reforms should help to ensure that these decisions are made in a more measured manner.
The report has been well received by the CRIs. This is not surprising given that it would provide more funding certainty and, although it called for more collaboration between CRIs, it did not back further mergers.
Implementing the report would restore confidence that the Government is committed to research and development, given that it abolished the research tax credit. There has been no formal response to the report but the early comments of the Research, Science and Technology Minister, Wayne Mapp, are encouraging. Although he noted that the taskforce had not called for a funding boost for the CRIs, he intriguingly said, "That's not to say there isn't more money".
That comment will have the institutes closely watching the dollar signs in Finance Minister Bill English's Budget when he delivers it in May. And tertiary institutions, especially universities, might be apprehensive of what the implications of any CRI funding increase might mean for them.
Mapp also gave a veiled hint that the Government might move away from requiring CRIs to pay it a dividend. The fundamental reason for having CRIs, he said, was not to collect dividends from them, and he raised the prospect of pooling the money which would have been paid and reinvesting it in the institutes.
Mapp's comments flow on from those of Prime Minister John Key last month, when he said that although state spending would be tight, research would be a priority for new funding, and he noted that he wanted to get more research out of CRIs and into businesses.
If he is serious about achieving this and promoting CRIs as engines of growth, the taskforce report offers a blueprint for the future and its recommendations should be accepted.
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