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  • Writer's pictureZahra Shahtahmasebi

Research, science and innovation - lobbying to fix a fragmented system



I’ll always remember the words that have defined my career as a journalist: “The world will always need good science writers.”


I first heard this at a conference run by the Center of Investigative Journalism and as a student in the midst of a science degree, this line in particular made me sit up straight. Ever since, I’ve known that this is what I want to do.


The next time I attended the conference, I had my degree and was training to be a journalist. A key topic discussed by delegates was the role of science in journalism.


What became clear through the discourse and sticks with me to this day was the realisation that science is everywhere, from laboratory experiments and the creation of new medicines, to water quality and climate change to the research methods we use to write our articles. But more important than that was how integral science is to improving and progressing our society.


Former Prime Minister Chris Hipkins described science as the latest evidence base of what works and what doesn’t, showing what we can do better in the future.


Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, investment in science and research helps address the most important issues we face in our economy, environment and society by advocating for appropriate solutions. In turn, Aotearoa relies on it to form good policy. And as we know, the ability to engage with the government over matters of importance is a key tenet of lobbying and advocacy.


The Science Media Centre has long been a key player in this, helping Kiwis to understand the science world by promoting accurate, evidence-based reporting on research and facilitating closer working relationships with the media and the research community.


Former Secretary to the Treasury Gabriel Makhlouf sums it up well in a speech he made in 2013, where he describes the important role public servants play in helping both ministers and the community to understand the information and what choices they have.


“It is too easy, perhaps even negligent, to leave ministers to make decisions with insufficient information, without the best possible evidence and without learning what has gone before.”


Every time a new medicine is approved for use, it’s not without the latest research and international guidelines. When the New Zealand government banned offshore drilling in 2018, this came from evidence that showed the disruption it was causing to our environment. The elimination strategy that saw us successfully stamp out the first wave of COVID-19, and was applauded by the rest of the world, was informed by the work of scientists.


The lessons from the pandemic saw Aotearoa not want to be caught on the back foot. As part of Budget 2023, the previous government called for three science hubs to be established in Wellington. One of these hubs would focus on health and pandemic resilience, to ensure Aotearoa remains prepared with the latest evidence in case of future emergencies.


While COVID-19 highlighted the strengths of our research, science and innovation system (RSI) and how it can be improved, it also revealed the lack of trust some people had with scientists and researchers, not just in Aotearoa but globally.


But, scientists and a well-functioning RSI are essential to creating a healthy Aotearoa. Our RSI system is made up of a number of organisations, either owned by the government or privately. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) funds and supports programmes to build a system that will “transform New Zealand into a more diverse, technologically advanced, smart nation”. It works with likes of the Institute of Environmental Research (ESR), a Crown Research Institute that plays a vital role in public health and forensics; Callaghan Innovation, a government agency that supports other companies to be innovative; and the Health Research Council (HRC), responsible for managing the government’s investment in health research to improve quality of life for all Aotearoa.


Peter Lennox, Chief Executive of the Institute of Environmental Science and Research. Photo: NZ Herald


There are many others - Motu is an independent group focused on economic and public policy research, whereas Cawthron is the largest independent science institute in Aotearoa. Both Science NZ and the New Zealand Association of Scientists advocate for science and scientists, promoting public awareness and influencing government policy.


But in a recent speech, our former chief science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman calls our RSI system “fragmented”. He cites our proud history and decades of excellent science but that there remains a strange ambivalence towards what it can do for the future of Aotearoa. Case in point, our national investment is still lower than the OECD average.


In 2018, the government set the goal of increasing the amount of investment spent on science and innovation to 2% by 2028. While Budget 2023 pledged the largest capital investment for science, this spend still only makes up just under 1.5% of our total GDP, leaving us well behind the OECD average of 2.7%.


And despite the fact we have lots of good scientific work being done up and down the country, small, independent companies are suffering, due to the fact they don’t have access to the same support mechanisms as universities and research institutes.


Universities themselves are under threat in the current climate of job cuts and department closures to save costs, leaving many senior academics jobless and an exodus of bright young Kiwi to Australia.


At the end of 2022, the Labour government announced major reform of our RSI system, which, they say, had up until then served the country well for the last 30 years. The multi-year, reform programme, Te Ara Paerangi aims to establish national research priorities, embed Te Tiriti principles and invest in mātauranga Māori, as well work to attract, develop and retain workforce.


The reforms acknowledge the system is not perfect and that too often we are seeing success from our scientists despite the system, not because of it. Change is crucial to ensure Aotearoa can keep up with the rest of the world.


Political party representatives participate in a 2023 election debate on Research, Science and Innovation. From left: Moderator Will Charles, Dr Parmeet Parmar (ACT), former Minister Hon Dr. Ayesha Verrall (Labour), current Minister Hon. Judith Collins (National) and Dr Lawrence Xu-Nan (Greens). Photo: Chris Loufte


Both the National and Act parties opposed Te Ara Paerangi. In the lead up to the 2023 election, National’s science spokeswoman Judith Collins criticised the reforms, saying the government “lost an opportunity” to look at growing New Zealand’s RSI system, without saying what the party planned to do instead. Whereas Act said it would withdraw Te Ara Paerangi, replacing it with a simpler, clearer set of priorities to “fund internationally-credible scientific research for productivity and public good science”.


The coalition government is yet to confirm whether or not the reforms will be scrapped, but it looks likely after a letter sent by Hon Judith Collins KC at the end of January stated her plans to discontinue it.


The direction of science should always be towards addressing the current issues, working towards new innovation and showing what changes can be made to further Aotearoa as a nation and also remains a healthy and sustainable place to live.


So to ensure science can still play its important role in informing policy decisions and what the two major parties do not disagree on, is that the sector needs to be given the space and resources to grow, with more money going to the areas that matter, and creating a sustainable workforce of both public and private researchers.


And no matter how many breakthroughs we make, sharing them with the world is just as important - and again I’m drawn back to those all important career-defining words about “good science writers” and why we need them. These writers play a key role communicating the important work led by these innovative Kiwis to ensure our politicians and our people are kept up to date, but also to rebuild the trust and combat the antagonism that the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted.


Zahra Shahtahmasebi is a rising young journalist currently working in the not-for-profit space. Based in Tāmaki Makaurau, she predominantly writes on health, and politics with personal interest in women’s health. She was awarded the nib Health Journalism Scholarship - junior at the Voyager Award in 2021 and was runner up for the Le Mana Pacific Award in 2023.

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