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Future Pathways reforms ‘will take years to bed down’

Image: Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment


New branch within NZ ministry is leading research sector changes

National research priorities, Māori involvement and the balance between competition and stable funding are all being considered as part of the sweeping research sector reforms being led by New Zealand’s government.

Prue Williams (pictured), the public servant in charge of implementing the country’s Te Ara Paerangi Future Pathways reforms, says the changes will take “years” to bed down.

Williams told Research Professional News that a new branch had been set up within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, comprising people who helped develop the reform agenda and others with existing responsibilities. Under her new title of general manager of future research systems at the ministry, Williams is in charge of a group of “workstream leads” integrating changes across the research funding system.

“It’s a multi-year programme that we’re laying out here. The intention isn’t to do things quickly; the intention is to be thoughtful about it.” There are “flow-on effects of decisions” to be considered, she said.

Workforce, governance and funding

The priorities outlined at the time of the Future Pathways white paper in December are being followed, Prue said. These involve addressing workforce issues and then governance and funding issues, with the major work of changes at institutional level expected to take the longest.

Among the workforce moves already made, Williams cited new Māori and Pasifika career development assistance announced by research minister Ayesha Verrall in February.

In governance and funding, a set of national research priorities is being drafted and will be subject to a sector consultation before being adopted, with a target of mid-2024, she said. These priorities will be “mission-led” rather than covering the whole of New Zealand’s research agenda.

“What I mean by mission-led is that we have an outcome that the government wants to address,” such as greenhouse gas emission targets and reducing inequities and life expectancy differences between Māori and non-Māori, she said. They will not fully replace the soon-to-wind-down National Science Challenges, because those covered almost all areas of research.

Investigator-led research will still have a place, she said. “There’ll still be plenty of opportunities for other things…It’s not going to cover all the capabilities that we’ll need.”

Competition and inclusivity

The Future Pathways consultation process revealed how the funding system “overplayed” competition, especially when it came to infrastructure and core funding, she said, adding that this had affected collaboration. She wants to ensure that “the future system still has that [competition] but we need this balance, and more stable funding”.

“We’re trying to be clearer about where competition should be and where it shouldn’t be.”

She acknowledged that many researchers felt that even once established they were still needing to compete, and that there “just aren’t enough funds”.

The changes taking place also recognise that traditional measures for assessing applications are not necessarily enough to help make the system more inclusive. The recent introduction of narrative CVs in the flagship Endeavour Fund grants is an example of change, she said. “We’re very aware that as funders, we set the culture.”

Institutional change will be on “a slower timeframe” because of potential disruption, she said.

Māori opportunities

A Treaty of Waitangi statement, relating to the protection of Māori culture within the research system, is also in the works. The existing Vision Mātauranga framework dates back 20 years.

The statement was promised as a priority in the white paper, but Williams said that New Zealand’s recent hurricane disaster and other adverse events had slowed it down and hampered consultation.

Researchers have been asking what exactly the ministry “wants the sector to do” on Māori knowledge, and the new statement will be “a really exciting opportunity for us to be clear about what we mean and what we want”.

She said it would cover Māori knowledge and opportunities for Māori people.

A lot of conversations

Since the white paper’s release, there have been several meetings and webinars with the research sector and “some of the groups that haven’t engaged very strongly with the science system lately”, including industry, business and government end users.

“There’s a lot of conversations going on at that level.”

Of the research sector itself, Williams said the feedback had been that “the devil’s in the detail”, which is a natural reaction when the exact path has not yet been laid out. The process has “raised a lot of expectations”, she said.