Science Policy, Social Sciences & The Humanities

Published: Wed 4 Apr 2001 04:25 PM
Hon Pete Hodgson Speech Notes
Science Policy, The Social Sciences And The Humanities
[Address to Stout Research Centre Seminar, Victoria University of Wellington]
Thank you, to the Stout Centre, for the invitation to speak today.
This is the first time since I became Minister of Science that I have been asked to speak about social science, the humanities and Maori research.
I should open with a disclaimer.
I’m not a social scientist. Worse still, I’m another kind of scientist. I’m a vet, which means I had an education heavy in the biological sciences.
That has been leavened somewhat by more than a decade of involvement with public policy, as a Parliamentarian. And by a couple of years’ academic involvement with social science here at Victoria, as a student of the Master of Public Policy course.
But my education in the biological sciences has had a lasting effect on the way I think. You may want to bear that in mind, because we all filter our views through our training.
I want to tackle the topic you’ve given me by starting with an overview of where this Government is going with science policy.
Where we’re going is towards a transformation of the New Zealand economy.
As a Government we keep talking about economic transformation because we mean it. It is shorthand for a vision that informs much of what we're doing - in economic and industry development, in education and training, in research, science and technology.
New Zealand is unusual amongst developed nations in having an economy still heavily reliant on primary sector commodities. Most countries with that kind of economic profile are in the Third World.
That's one of the reasons why we've been sliding steadily down the OECD rankings since the 1950s.
To halt that slide, to start climbing back up, we need to add more value to what we produce as a nation.
That doesn't mean giving up on primary production. It means enhancing and renewing its products. It means trading in expertise, intellectual property, technology.
It means more diversity than primary production, enhanced or not. It means making more money out of stuff by adding knowledge to it, and making knowledge itself into stuff we can sell.
That's the transformation we're talking about.
To help us get there we're working with the idea that New Zealand has an innovation system. It's the infrastructure that allows an idea, a scientific discovery, or a technological breakthrough to be turned into a business or an industry.
Key elements of that system include the education system, public and private sector research and development, our technological infrastructure, venture capital, intellectual property protection, incubators, and most importantly our human resources - in both innovation and the skills to commercialise it.
The Government is focused on making New Zealand's innovation system work as well as it possibly can. There's no single measure that will achieve that. We have to tune up the whole by paying constant attention to each part.
In science policy that has meant starting with the obvious and increasing the public investment in research.
The money available for research, science and technology went up by about 10 percent in the last Budget, which was twice the increase in total Government spending.
We included in that the largest ever injection of support for private sector research and development – because private sector R is very low in this country by developed nation standards.
We've set up a group called the Science and Innovation Advisory Council, a kind of think-tank feeding ideas directly to the Prime Minister.
We’ve eased the tax treatment of R so that it is all now immediately tax deductible.
We’re setting up a Crown Seed Capital Fund to accelerate the development of the venture capital market, at the end that finances brand new ideas.
And I’m about to announce a strengthened programme of support for incubators, like Victoria’s Innovation Greenhouse, that are set up to help commercialise new products and technologies.
So the focus is very much on innovation: how it happens and what the Government can do to help it happen more.
So where might social science exist in that framework?
Are you dealing with a Government that runs the risk of seeking an economic transformation unaware of, or unconcerned by social issues, social policy, social research?
The answer to the first question is an emphatic yes. The answer to the second is an equally emphatic no.
Let me explain.
We are a centre-left Government and that means we are not prepared to do things in a linear way. Social and economic policy are two sides of the same coin. That much we have internalised in how we think, all the time.
We know that globalisation will tend to widen the rich-poor gap – and we think the explanation is that the upper echelons of the labour market will be more internationally mobile and able to command international salaries, while the service sector will not be, and will settle for lower wages.
We understand that the future of the nation-state is tugged at both by global and sub-national influences. The world will become more important; the Wellington region will become more important; New Zealand will become less important.
As that happens, a stronger sense of nationhood matters – a sense of our identity as a nation, a feeling for our place in the world and a stronger shared belief in our collective potential and independence.
We will not progress that unless we know our history, unless we are tracking and analyzing the contemporary changes in our society, unless we know and relish the riches of both our traditional and contemporary cultures.
Note how the Prime Minister took the Arts and Culture portfolio – for the first time ever – and consider the significance of that decision.
We will not achieve without self-knowledge in the widest sense – and that is what the social sciences, the humanities and the pursuit of Maori knowledge are about.
So what state are they in?
I want to register my concern that social research, in both capability and quantity, is the poor relation in the New Zealand science base.
That’s provocative, I know. So let me lay out the picture.
The science funding I’m responsible for as Minister of Research, Science and Technology totals a bit more than $470 million a year.
Most of that money is distributed to researchers by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, the Health Research Council and the Royal Society of New Zealand, which administers the Marsden Fund for ‘blue skies’ research.
Less than 4 percent of Foundation money goes to social research, which encompasses social science, humanities, and the social science components of industrial and environmental research.
Just under 10 percent of Marsden Fund money goes to social science and 4 or 5 percent to humanities. And the Health Research Council spends about 10 percent of its funds on social research, mostly in the public health area.
Those are small shares, but they are also a small part of the picture.
There will be social scientists here who have done plenty of research without ever gaining access to any of those funds.
That’s because most of New Zealand’s social science is done as teaching research in our universities.
Research into society and culture makes up almost 30 percent of all university research, according to one assessment by the tertiary sector a few years ago.
That figure sounds a little healthier, but I’d be very surprised to find many university researchers in the social sciences or humanities who are feeling sanguine about it.
Nor is there a sufficient social research infrastructure. There are very few actual centres of social research, the Stout being a notable exception.
On the issue of quality I feel there is no substantial strategic direction to the bulk of social science. I haven't yet discovered a framework for evaluation of it by the main consumer, the public sector.
Personally, as a consumer of social research I find gaps all over the place.
In my own portfolios I find I don't well understand the behavioural aspects of energy efficiency, or the preconditions for a culture of entrepreneurship, or the effects of an expanding forestry industry on rural communities.
As a Cabinet Minister I struggle to know which adult literacy education programme works, and why; which factors contribute to some low decile schools performing spectacularly well; or whether the hospice movement is meeting the needs of Maori or psychogeriatrics.
Granted, it’s not unusual for politicians to have to make decisions with insufficient information, with a high level of uncertainty.
I have to do that often, for example, as Minister of Fisheries.
But it seems to me that the information gap is wider with social science than with other forms of science.
Of course there are examples of excellent social research of the type I'm looking for.
I'll cite the New Demographic Directions project being led at Waikato University by Professor Ian Poole.
It's addressing the need for a rigorous social and demographic evidence-base to inform policies on reducing inequalities, supporting families, enabling Maori development, building human capital and living with cultural diversity.
The research itself is informed by strategic engagement with policy makers and other end users.
So it may be that the information gap I see is partly due to the science being done, after all, but not often finding its way into Cabinet papers – or even into the state sector.
I know that there are times when social research is published and then treated with derision by politicians who do not wish to receive the findings. I'm sure there are occasions when social research is not even undertaken for that reason.
Another part of the reason may be that one of the career drivers for some of you is success in getting papers published in overseas journals. Those journals' perceptions of what is important and valuable may not necessarily correlate with what is important and valuable in the New Zealand context.
And another part of the reason may be that government, at all its levels, isn’t as clear as it should be on what research it wants for the future.
Steve Maharey and I are working on a review of that last issue.
We’re in the process of setting up a social science stakeholder reference group, through which we aim to get a conversation going between the public sector and social science practitioners.
We have an awkward question to put to departments of state.
It is: “What do you want to know 10 or 20 years from now?”
If we can get good answers to that – good clear answers – then I believe the social science community will deliver.
I think it’s fair to say that the failure of government to be an interactive and clear-thinking consumer of social science has its consequences.
I think that if the state gets its thinking straight, the social science sector will respond.
My perception, which you are welcome to challenge, is that we will shift from a blur of individual efforts, some no doubt brilliant, to foci of considerable capability.
I don't think that capability or those foci are in sufficient evidence yet.
In short I think the state has an issue to address and this Government is of a mind address it.
Let us, as your main consumers, speak with more clarity. If we do, then social science research will, must, coalesce around those areas where the customer’s need is greatest.
But I want to make another point – this time about the humanities as well as the social sciences.
It is that there are not enough students choosing these fields of study.
Too few of our brightest and most ambitious see the social sciences and humanities as worthy of their attention.
The good news is that understanding shifts in perceptions, preferences and judgements is the very stuff of social science and the humanities.
Yours are disciplines uniquely able to analyse and respond to changes in your own popularity.
I think one of the answers might be some movement in our universities back towards a more generalist view of undergraduate education.
We are in an era of galloping specialisation.
It is supposedly driven by the imperative of providing choice. But the implied choice we end up offering our young people is, I think, a false one.
It says specialise early, find your niche fast, or resign yourself to an uncertain and insecure future.
Well, the story of work in the late 20th century has been one of increasing uncertainty and insecurity. The 21st century promises more of the same.
And it is specialists who are most at risk.
Ask a scientist.
It is the generalists who are best equipped for survival in a rapidly changing society and labour market.
But New Zealanders, for reasons a competent social historian could no doubt explain, have tended to view higher education as a kind of advanced trades training.
The notion of university as preparation for life, for citizenship, has a feeble hold here.
University is more commonly believed to be where you go to become a lawyer, a doctor, an accountant, a vet, a marketing professional, or maybe even a scientist.
Well I think it should not be possible to become any of those things without getting acquainted with the social sciences and the humanities.
Especially not a scientist.
Those broad social objectives I mentioned earlier, the goal of a confident, alert, self-aware nation, will remain distant if we do not counter the misconceptions that literature, for instance, is a branch of the entertainment industry rather than a source of knowledge, or that psychology is merely training for the therapy industry.
And it is increasingly urgent, in my view, that we begin to undo the bifurcation between a scientific education and a humanist one.
I'm a case in point.
As a youth I was very well trained. I've been seeking to become educated ever since.
I want to wrap up with just a few comments on Maori and science.
The opening position is kind of obvious.
If we are going to transform New Zealand into a more knowledge-intensive economy and society, then Maori have a vital contribution to make, and just as much to gain.
I am acutely aware that we need to do a lot more to bring Maori into the science workforce, and to respect and make use of Maori knowledge.
Ancient and modern knowledge is being lost or passed over. Unless we are determined that western scientific method has a franchise on wisdom then that is a decidedly bad idea.
So we’ve made a start by creating a new funding category in the last Budget for Maori Knowledge and Development.
The Foundation and the Health Research Council together have $3.5 million for this area. Tenders closed in February 2001, so it will be interesting to see what gets done.
By funding research aimed specifically at the goals of Maori advancement and knowledge, we can increase Maori research capability.
We can capture the benefits and ambiguities of an earlier and very different belief system.
In doing so we may all gain an increased understanding of the issues that underly disparities affecting Maori.
That is, quite simply, in the best interests of all New Zealanders.
Thank you for your attention.
If I’ve ruffled some feathers, now’s the time to throw your eggs.

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