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Universities call for an independent national research council

07 March 2022 | news

Woman researcher at work in a laboratory. Image: Unsplash

Aotearoa New Zealand’s eight universities are calling for the Government to establish an independent national research council to set national research priorities and provide strategic oversight of the country’s research, science and innovation (RSI) system.

The call is made by Universities New Zealand – Te Pōkai Tara (UNZ), which represents the universities and their Vice-Chancellors on a wide range of issues, in its submission to Te Ara Paerangi – Future Pathways, the major multi-year review of the RSI system by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

The council would be comprised of leading researchers and big-picture thinkers who understand New Zealand’s social, health, economic and environmental context.

It would be at arm’s length from the Government and focused on priorities extending beyond the vagaries of political cycles.

Although independent, to set priorities it would work with government; Māori; Pasifika and other communities; researchers and research providers; and stakeholders such as business and other organisations.

Independent national research councils are common practice in other countries such as the United Kingdom.

New Zealand’s national research council would determine national research strategy, oversee investment in the national research infrastructure needed to deliver on the strategy, and advise on strategic investment over long-time horizons in research programmes and research capability to drive international competitiveness and enhance wellbeing.

The council would give effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, including by being responsible for prioritising mātauranga Māori, the careers of Māori researchers and research that advances the wellbeing of Māori communities. It would include a dedicated fully funded capability operated by Māori for Māori communities.

The council would also be responsible for promoting Pasifika research, the careers of Pasifika researchers and research that advances the wellbeing of Pasifika communities.

It would commission research that enabled it to analyse the performance of the RSI system and identify any gaps, including around equity, diversity and inclusion.

In its submission, UNZ commends MBIE for being willing to rethink the RSI system, agreeing it is timely to look for ways to ensure the system not only is fit for purpose but builds further on its current international standing and quality.

As well as responding to the questions MBIE raises in its Te Ara Paerangi – Future Pathways Green Paper, UNZ addresses key issues it considers have received too little or no attention in the paper – for example, the contribution of Pasifika researchers and research and the importance of New Zealand’s participation on the global research stage.

UNZ says any future system “should be based on principles of excellence, adaptability to change in the economy and society, diversity, inclusion, transparency, and national approaches to investment where those are most effective”.

Critically, it says, investment in research in New Zealand must be significantly increased if any future intervention is going to be effective in bringing about positive and lasting change for the country.

“Successive governments have explicitly supported a target investment in research of 2% of GDP. However, even though 2% is below the OECD average of 2.5% of GDP, New Zealand is still well short of this target.

“We need to abandon our unrealised aspiration of being below average and develop an achievable pathway that will raise total research funding through greater public investment and stronger incentives for the private sector to build its commitment to research investment, especially in sectors that offer the highest dividend for the application of new technologies and ways of thinking.”

Read the full UNZ Te Ara Paerangi – Future Pathways submission [PDF].