What must be embedded to modernise our research and science system? The treaty, of course (and don’t forget mātauranga Māori)

Latest from the Beehive

What had become a surge of ministerial announcements this time yesterday had turned into a tsunami at time of writing (around noon today).  Frankly, we can’t keep up.

We ended yesterday’s roundup of Beehive announcements with a statement on the PM’s virtual attendance at the East Asia Summit.  Since then, ministers have posted 16 new statements.  Several were Covid-related.

This was a good time for a smart press secretary to unload news of dubious government spending, hoping it will be buried by the other stuff, including Grant Robertson’s latest boast about how well the government’s finances are being managed.

Sure, core Crown expenses at $31 billion were $3.2 billion above forecast in the three months to the end of September – but, hey, that was all to do with Covid and the payment of wage subsidies and COVID-19 resurgence support payments.

But how well is spending being keep under control?

We wonder about this after Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti got to announce the news we were all bursting to hear – that Fifty Kiwi Kidsongs have been launched through the Ministry of Education’s Arts Online website. The project is a collaboration with Music Education New Zealand Aotearoa (MENZA).

The newly released classic collection has been specifically curated to capture a strong New Zealand identity. About a third of the songs use te reo and reflect te ao M​ā​ori and many include Pacific cultures.

The songs will be available as video karaoke tracks, and each complete song is accompanied by teaching suggestions, a full musical score and a track without vocals. They are aimed at children from Years 1-8.

Tinetti said  Kiwi Kidsongs were distributed to schools every year for almost 20 years until 2010

“… and now 50 of the classics including Fish and Chips and Individuality are available online”.

Hurrah.

“Kiwi Kidsongs made classroom and family memories. Songs like these support teachers to provide effective and rich learning experiences in music for their students which helps to make sure every child gets a great education.”

The cost of this project was not mentioned and the Taxpayers Union wasn’t too bothered by it.  But it did pounce on the Government’s $2.8 million handout to onion growers.

This involves Onions New Zealand and the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures (SFF Futures) fund jointly investing $6.02 million in a six-year integrated programme called ‘Humble to Hero: Transforming the New Zealand Onion Industry’.

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor enthused:

“We’re aiming to be the champion nation for producing top-quality onions with low inputs.

“This will include showing we have a reliable and traceable product, tackling industry greenhouse gas emissions, exploring smarter options to reduce waste, and embedding sustainable growing systems more widely. Each of these will add layers of value to discerning consumers.”

New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union spokesman Louis Houlbrooke, however, says:

“This is an eye-watering display of protectionist subservience to New Zealand’s influential onion lobby.   

“It undermines the spirit of our planned free trade agreement with the UK. How can we claim to support free and fair trade when we’re giving local onion growers an unfair handout? 

What happens when our trade partners respond to our onion subsidy with local onion subsidies of their own? Do we just keep throwing money at the industry in a taxpayer-funded international bidding war?”

An announcement with more profound implications for the country’s future was that the Te Ara Paerangi – Future Pathways Green Paper, has been launched by Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods and Associate Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall. 

This marks the start of a wide-ranging and collaborative “korero” – does this mean consultation?   – about the future of the country’s economically vital research, science and innovation  (RSI) science system.

The statement says:

“Our RSI system has served Aotearoa exceptionally well, but now it’s time to ask whether the system is set up as well as it can be to answer today’s pressing environmental, economic and social challenges, like climate change and child poverty.”

And what – do you imagine – does the government have  in mind to modernise the system?

A document signed in 1840, of course.

“Te Tiriti needs to be embedded right across the design and delivery of the system, and more opportunities need to exist for mātauranga Māori,” Ayesha Verrall said. 

We don’t recall research, science and innovation being among the most important considerations when the treaty was signed and we have forgotten the number of mentions they get in the text of the treaty.

The government says there will be a range of opportunities for people to engage with the Green Paper. Go to https://www.mbie.govt.nz/have-your-say/future-pathways/ for more.

The consultation will be open until 2 March 2022.

A whiff of what the government aims to do can be found in a speech delivered by Ayesha Verrall.

People are the core of the Research, Science and Innovation system, she said.

 Excellent people conduct excellent research when they have access to the right resources – including tools, data sets, facilities, and infrastructure … and equally as important – when they have opportunities for growth.

We know our research sector is not representative enough of New Zealand, and the nature of these jobs is often precarious – especially for early-career researchers.

Verrall referenced Professor Wendy Larner, who said in her final speech as President of Royal Society Te Apārangi – “The PhD is no longer an apprenticeship for a guaranteed university career.”

She said,

“To be blunt, there are now too many PhD graduates for too few academic jobs.”

Verrall agrees we must work “differently” to connect the large number of doctoral graduates with more diverse careers outside academia.

There are simply not enough traditional permanent positions available in universities, so many early-career researchers are forced to take on one short-term contract after another.

We also know only five percent of researchers identify as Māori, 1.7 percent as Pasifika – and only 25.7 percent of professors and deans are women.

We are taking action to address these issues.

Are we talking about social engineering?  

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