Some NZIAHS members may have cast their votes already in this year’s general election. For those who haven’t, and who are putting respective science policies high in their considerations – well, here are some observations about what we know are party positions along with my wish list for science issues I would hope are tackled by the next government.
In our previous newsletter we set out the responses we received to three questions we put to key politicians in the Labour, National, Green and New Zealand First parties. The responses came from Damien O’Connor (Labour), David Bennett (National) and Eugenie Sage (Greens). Despite repeated requests we received no responses from New Zealand First and – in retrospect – perhaps we should have approached other minor parties.
I was pleased to see that all three MPs who did respond place a high value on science, from Damien O’Connor’s very clear statements about the important role that science plays and that it needs to informs the key issues and decisions made by Government, to David Bennett’s and Eugenie Sage’s comments on the need to promote STEM subjects and facilitate careers in science. But none of the respondent equated this with a need to spend more money in these areas, especially to ensure that meaningful jobs in R&D actually exist.
Eugenie Sage touched on the need for a strong matauranga Māori perspective in research and science and to “promote diversity in the science workforce”, whereas David Bennett went further by saying scientific awareness needs to reach ‘Māori and Pasifika communities as there is a consistent under-representation of Māori and Pasifika in science as a whole and specifically in the primary sector. These are laudable statements, but there was no suggestion of how this should be done and who will pay.
The second question – dealing with the importance the parties attach to the primary sector – drew a mixed response. National and Labour both stressed that agriculture was represented on their front benches but neither offered further detail on why advocacy for the agriculture and horticultural sectors – important contributors to the economy – appears to play second fiddle to social issues. Perhaps it is because most New Zealanders (hence voters) are now found in urban centres, although none of the recipients ventured that maybe this is good reason to have even stronger advocates for the agriculture and horticulture industries.
The third question related to the Billion Trees initiative and its implications for land use and the environment.
I was pleased that Damien O’Connor talked about the need to “plant the right tree in the right place” and suggest that elite soils will be better protected. David Bennett stated the obvious – that the Billion Trees programme was a political promise (some would say stunt) and reiterated the need for the right tree to be placed in the right place. He targeted the Resource Management Act as being problematic in this matter.
Eugenie Sage touched on the need to ensure standards that “better address issues such as species diversity; protection of productive, food producing land; and wilding conifer spread”. All admirable things, but – as with the other two respondents – she was light on detail or specifics.
I would give them all B- grades, or a pass for effort and sentiment, but suggest that they won’t get an A – not from me, anyway – unless they can provide more detail in their responses and not simply deliver simplistic throwaway lines and platitudes.
Here are commitments I would like to hear, albeit we didn’t ask for it specifically in our questions:
- Increased public expenditure on R&D in ag and hort.
- A mechanism to ensure the taxpayer R&D spend is publicly accountable (but Eugenie Sage did laudably say “The Green Party will maintain core support facilities such as libraries and specimen collections, and promote open and shared data” and “will require all results of publicly funded research to be published and held in the public domain, with proceeds from patents, licensing, etc, being reinvested.”
- An effort to set a clear strategy in place to improve farming practice and profitability while reducing environmental impact. Targets need to be set to be realistic and to maximise sustainability, be it environmental, economic, social and cultural, and these need to be set with pragmatic timeframes in mind. Farmers need to be involved in the process from the start.
- Clear messages as to how taxpayer funding could be spent to grow the workforce in agriculture and horticulture, and how to better understand and bridge the urban-rural divide such that current worker shortages can be met from the urban community.
It’s up to you, good people, to determine which party or combination of parties is the most likely to bring my wish list to reality in government science programmes after the general election.
While we sift through party policies to help us decide how to cast our votes, let’s not forget the position – or the plight, perhaps – of the universities from which the next generation of scientists will graduate.
As we have reported on the NZIAHS website, the two major parties are taking differing positions on Massey University proposals to reduce its science academic staff. National’s science spokeswoman Parmjeet Parmar says she’s worried at the scale of proposed cuts and has called for the Government to step in.
Education Minister Chris Hipkins says universities are autonomous and it would be inappropriate for him to intervene.
The university’s plans are aimed at reducing spending by $18.1 million a year, including $11.7m of staff cuts in the College of Sciences.
One aspect of this is that universities, unlike many big businesses, didn’t fleece the taxpayer of wage subsidy support – yet they have all suffered financially from the loss of foreign students. Massey’s budget trimming is also a symptom of the shifting sands that are science funding and management in New Zealand.
I believe we have pushed too far down the pathway of regarding scientists as tradeable commodities, which is all very well for a free market economy but ignores the simple fact that it typically takes more than 30 years to train an effective scientist.
Factor in short-term political thinking, election cycles and popularism, ever diminishing funding opportunities, a vastly bloated government and university bureaucracy, and too little money remains to trickle down to the scientist’s lab bench or paddock. This is a recipe for disaster.
My experience is that on-line learning – as proposed to help contain costs – is a failure for anything practical (like science), COVID-19 lockdowns have strongly reinforced that view.