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David Lillis, John Raine and Peter Schwerdtfeger: Funding of Research in New Zealand

Updated: Aug 28

Mixing Traditional Knowledge and Science

The embedding of the Treaty of Waitangi, and an increased focus on Māori research and Māori researchers in our innovation system, follow similar trends in education and public health. According increased status to Māori culture and Māori researchers, also to Pacific research, in research funding decision-making may enhance the profile of Māori and Pacific in research and create needed role models for young Māori and Pacific people. However, negative consequences for our research sector are sure to follow.


We assert that merit­-based science is both effective and fair, and that replacing merit with social engineering such as critical race theory and ideological control will lead to damage in the foreseeable future (see also Abbot et al, 2023). We hold deep concerns about the proliferation of identity-­based ideology that seeks to replace core liberal principles, essential for scientific and technological advances, with principles derived from postmodernism and Critical Social Justice. Such principles claim routinely that world science is racist, patriarchal, colonial and a tool of oppression.


Science enables mankind to solve social, health-related, environmental and economic problems, develop new technologies and make informed decisions and so economic and other resources devoted to science should support such objectives. Thus, the contestable research funding system administered by the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment (MBIE) serves the entire research community, and a substantial fraction of total funding goes to the STEM subject areas - the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics, which are vulnerable to any move away from merit-based science.


Over the past ten years or so, a rapidly-escalating focus on stronger engagement with Māori and Pasifika has emerged, both as research participants and as partners or end-users outside research organisations. The inclusion of rangitahi (young people) in research teams and in leadership roles, particularly in National Science Challenge projects, has become much more evident, as has a strong focus on young Māori.


The most significant change is an increasing requirement to draw matauranga Māori and Māori participants into research grant applications under Marsden, Smart Ideas and Endeavour, and National Science Challenge Project funding systems through the Vision Matauranga section of applications. Formerly, inclusion of Vision Matauranga was optional, and all that was required was simply a box tick if Vision Matauranga appeared to be relevant. However, from 2022 onwards, applicants were required to justify why they should not address Vision Matauranga in their Smart Ideas and Endeavour Fund applications. Inclusion of Vision Matauranga is more workable in the social and environmental sciences, but tends to involve, for example, vitalist or animist beliefs woven into the narrative for what is in principle a project that is based around the modern science; e.g. restoring the life force or “mauri” of a contaminated lake or river.



The Performance Based Research Fund

One of our research funds is the Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF). Formulae used to allocate money to research organisations through this fund involve numeric weightings that are increasing for Māori researchers, Māori-oriented research and Māori postgraduate degree completion, and similarly for Pacific. The benefits may indeed include increases in Māori and Pacific employment in tertiary organisations and restoration of mana. However, the funding process must be designed very carefully so as not to disadvantage significantly other excellent research of potential value to New Zealand, attenuate the worth of non-Māori researchers, diminish the credibility of New Zealand research internationally, and induce declines in international university rankings and competitiveness in international tertiary education (Lillis, 2023a).


The PBRF is finite and shifts in funding between different areas form a zero-sum game, so that funding available for non-Māori will decrease inevitably. The scoring basis for shifts has been set through the new weightings and the relative weightings have little to do with science excellence but instead provide a mechanism for addressing equity issues.


We will not achieve long-term success in tertiary education or research by appointing academic staff on the basis of ethnicity or cultural background, rather than on genuine research and teaching capability. Many academics assert that excellence and relevance are the only acceptable appointment criteria, and that preferring one ethnicity over others will lead to divisiveness and erosion of quality.


In most of mathematics, the sciences and engineering, no form of traditional knowledge, including matauranga Māori, has any relevance because much traditional knowledge pre-dates the 17th-19th Century emergence of modern science. Moreover, while the various laws of physics within our earth-bound frame of reference have been demonstrated to be immutable, they are always open to new scientific discovery, whereas matauranga Māori is presented as a set of unquestionable beliefs that cannot be challenged by non-Māori.


Incorporating Vision Matauranga

Academics have tied themselves in knots to incorporate Vision Matauranga into grant applications by bringing into their teams researchers who can claim some fraction of Māori whakapapa, by working up narratives about how their research will benefit Māori (of course, the benefits of most research flow to all humans), and how they have made links with iwi groups for the implementation of their research outcomes. All of these are laudable intentions, and working for the benefit of end user communities is vital to our research efforts where it can be incorporated. Traditional knowledge can be included more easily in certain areas, such as the social sciences or ecology, than in others, such as mathematics.


However, in our experience, the expectation that Vision Matauranga will be addressed in physical sciences and engineering grant applications is all too often artificial, and largely contrived in order to ensure favourable consideration by review panels.


It is our view that MBIE’s encouragement of greater research engagement for, by and with Māori, is highly laudable. However, the observed drift towards mandatory inclusion of Vision Matauranga, the high likelihood that unfavourable consideration (or worse, jeopardising of progression in employment) will follow if Vision Matauranga is not included could distort the research funding system to the detriment of strong, high-quality STEM research funding in New Zealand.


Stepping Back from Excellence

The trend towards new funding processes and priorities is particularly evident in the PBRF, where, following the PBRF Review report of January 2020, the PBRF has taken a big step away from its historic merit-based research excellence focus, towards a critical social justice focus where equity, diversity and advancement of Māori and Pasifika in research have resulted in a broadening and softening of the definition of research and what research performance looks like for the 2026 Research Quality Evaluation round. While around $315 M per annum is disbursed from the PBRF, New Zealand’s overall level of research funding is poor on a per capita basis, compared with Australia or other western nations. We cannot afford to divert ourselves into social justice activism using taxpayer funds that should be directed primarily towards excellent research that is relevant to the people, economy and environment of this country.


Drivers of Changes to Research Funding?

We acknowledge a pressing need to close gaps in health, income and education, and we accept that sometimes combative activism is necessary to effect hoped-for social change. But many of us are concerned about certain of these developments, especially in education, healthcare and in research priorities and funding.


Inequity and prejudice must be recognized and addressed where they exist, most effectively through education and establishing true equality of opportunity. However, aggressive activism and postmodern ideology currently threaten New Zealand, not least its social cohesion, education and science.


Disparities in health and education outcomes are often attributed to bias and racism. While it is entirely possible that pockets of conscious or subconscious bias exist, socioeconomic factors and other causes (for example, lifestyle choices and genetic differences contributing to disparities in health) are those that should be addressed primarily if present inequalities are to be closed.


Similarly, the observed low representation of Māori within the professoriate in New Zealand’s universities is ascribed to systemic bias. In fact, their representation is roughly that expected on the basis of relevant Ph.D completions (Lillis, 2023b) and, in any case, university promotions exercises are overseen by human resources staff and ethnicity is not declared. Of course, it is a perfectly legitimate question as to why we do observe lower representation than in the total New Zealand population. Indeed, we should discuss measures that improve education outcomes across all levels and for all ethnic and cultural groups, and to aim for greater representation of Māori, Pacific and other minorities within university faculties and other research institutions.


Recommended Actions

Here we suggest actions that could assist in preserving the integrity of research funding in New Zealand.

1. Review and rationalise the MBIE research funding system, given the pending completion of the National Science Challenges, and noting that this funding was vulnerable to capture by assertive research teams’ pet projects. The Endeavour Programme itself has also become less distinct from to the Marsden Fund. We need a fresh view of funding for fundamental blue-skies research, applied research and late-stage pre-commercialisation R&D.


2. Encourage research for, by and with Māori, but ensure that inclusion of Vision Matauranga within grant applications is entirely optional and that non-inclusion cannot be prejudicial to getting funded.


3. Ensure that the system is politically-neutral by ensuring that the proportion of funding going to researchers identifying as Māori to research that is embedded in Te Ao Māori aligns with national demographics.


4. Revert the PBRF to being politically-neutral, focusing on funding excellence rather than on social justice objectives. The latter may well be important in some cases but should not drive the overall PBRF system. This includes dropping the requirement for Māori co-chairs of panels.


References

D. Abbot, A. Bikfalvi, A.L. BleskeRechek, W. Bodmer, P. Boghossian, C.M. Carvalho, J. Ciccolini, J.A. Coyne,. Gauss, P.M.W. Gill, S. Jitomirskaya, L. Jussim, A.I. Krylov, G.C. Loury, L. Maroja, J.H. McWhorter,S. Moosavi, P. Nayna Schwerdtle, J. Pearl, M.A. Quintanilla Tornel, H.F. Schaefer III, P.R. Schreiner, P. Schwerdtfeger, D. Shechtman, M. Shifman, J. Tanzman, B.L. Trout, A. Warshel, and J.D. West, In Defense of Merit in Science. Journal of Controversial Ideas 2023, 3(1), 1; 10.35995/jci03010001, pp1-26.


Lillis, David (2023a). Capture of Research Funding in New Zealand?

https://breakingviewsnz.blogspot.com/2023/03/dr-david-lillis-capture-of-research.html

Lillis, David (2023b). Allegations of Racism in New Zealand Universities https://breakingviewsnz.blogspot.com/2023/03/dr-david-lillis-allegations-of-racism.html


Disclaimer

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers, and not of the universities with which they are or were formerly affiliated. We welcome any feedback and acknowledge that some of our post-modernist colleagues may be offended by our views.


David Lillis is a retired researcher who holds degrees in physics and mathematics, worked as a statistician in education, in research evaluation for the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, and for several years as an academic manager.


John Raine is an Emeritus Professor of Engineering and held Deputy and Pro Vice Chancellor roles across three New Zealand Universities. His responsibilities have included research, research commercialisation and internationalisation. He was Moderator for the 2012 PBRF Research Quality Evaluation.


Peter Schwerdtfeger is a distinguished professor in theoretical chemistry and physics and Head of the New Zealand Institute for Advanced Study at Massey University. His research is concerned with fundamental aspects of science.

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