Opinion: The Government is looking for a new model of science funding, so along with a small group of senior scientists and engineers we've come up with some recommendations.

Image of dropper dropping dollar (sign) drop into test tuber

New Zealand science is at a crunch point. The coalition Government is looking for a new model to provide increased efficiency and effectiveness. Over the last few weeks, we have been part of a small group of senior scientists and engineers who got together to think about what this change might look like, and we have just submitted our recommendations to the Science System Advisory Group. Here are some of our thoughts.

Research matters

Research funding should not be seen as a luxury for the benefit of an elite few to satisfy their scientific curiosity, but rather as an essential investment in the country’s prosperity. If we don’t invest in innovation, we will not maintain our quality of life.

In 2021 the combined investment by the New Zealand Government and industry was 1.47 percent which compares with Australia 1.66 percent, Denmark 2.89 percent, the UK 2.0 percent and Sweden 3.41 percent. The OECD report puts New Zealand Government funding at 0.29 percent of GDP (OECD average is 0.5 percent). As much of that isn’t linked to inflation, the actual budget for funding research has been eroded substantially.


New Zealand’s science community is relatively small but highly connected. We must avoid parochialism and exploit complementary skill sets and resources across the whole country. We would like to see more Centres of Research Excellence along the lines of the present CoREs, but with a clear mandate to deliver outputs in both basic and applied science and, in combination with industry, to deliver outcomes that have health, social, environmental, educational or economic impact for the New Zealand taxpayer.

Working with industry

The national university sector needs to have much greater connection with end-users. This could be through creating more industry-linked PhD scholarships, encouraging more internships, or providing incentives for universities and industry to work together. Growing industry-academic engagement would enhance innovation in industry, provide more relevance for some university research, and enhance job opportunities for postgraduate research students. The UK and Australia have introduced ‘doctoral training programmes’ – typically four-year PhD programmes (as opposed to the normal three-year model) which can include internships, clinical placements, project management and/or entrepreneurial skills training.

New Zealand and the world

If we want world-class research, our teams must participate in international science projects and apply to international science funding agencies. In assessing proposals, funders should formally prioritise those which intend to work with globally top-ranked researchers and institutions. This ensures that the quality of research is judged against international standards, allows researchers to tap into much larger research funds, and leads to new international collaborations and new career opportunities for graduating PhD students. It can also help with creating international connections for the startup companies that come out of research labs.

New Zealand has an opportunity to attract top international research students, particularly as anti-immigration policies in the US make that a less attractive option. The Government’s foresighted policies of allowing international PhD students to pay only domestic fees and granting these students post-study work rights, are critical to making us an attractive destination – we cannot afford to retreat on either. We should also look to ensure we reduce delays in processing student visas for graduate students – waiting several months is a significant deterrent.

Meanwhile, we need to invest more in getting talented young Kiwi scientists and engineers to return home after gaining overseas experience. The Rutherford Discovery Fellowships are valuable, but we need more of them and they need to offer more funding to make a difference.

Longer funding cycles

If we want significant economic outcome from scientific research, we need to take a longer-term approach to research funding. The typical three-year grant cycle is very challenging for continuity and momentum. Our current model of annual grant project submissions with no opportunity to revise and submit a better proposal is a wasteful barrier to innovation and many researchers can only survive by writing many grants for relatively small amounts of funding. In the US, for example, the National Institutes of Health has three funding cycles a year, and explicitly allows for resubmission and renewals. Funding agencies should also be required to provide much better feedback to failed applicants than they currently do.

Science equipment infrastructure

We urgently need a national fund for essential items of research equipment that are too expensive for one research group, or even one university, to fund. We cannot attract top quality people and we cannot do world-class science with second-rate equipment.

Innovation parks

We need innovation or technology development parks. Creating startup companies out of research labs is on the first step on the path to economic benefit, but these companies must be supported for many years as they grow to become self-sustainable. All require help with business management, IP protection, financial investment, dealing with regulatory issues (especially in the biotech and MedTech areas), and gaining access to national and international markets. Many also need access to resources such as clean rooms and specialised manufacturing equipment that is too expensive for a startup company but can easily be shared across a sector. Keeping these innovation parks close to the research heart of a university is important for access to the research skills and IP from the university, but also for ensuring that these companies help graduate students see the impact of their research.

Distinguished Professor Sir Peter Hunter, co-founder and former director of the Auckland Bioengineering Institute.

Professor Julian Paton, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Auckland

Professor Kurt Krause, Department of Biochemistry, University of Otago

Distinguished Professor Geoff Chase, Faculty of Engineering, University of Canterbury

This article reflects the opinion of the authors and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, A new model for science funding, 29 May,. 2024

Media contact

Margo White I Research communications editor
Mob 021 926 408
Email margo.white@auckland.ac.nz