Crises in the Cris: the Science Reforms Have Been Failed

Listener 22 October 1994.

Keywords Governance; Growth & Innovation;

We were told that the separation of scientific research funding and providing would result in better research. (The funder is the Foundation of Research, Science and Technology – FRST, pronounced “forst”; the main providers are with corporatized profit oriented Crown Research Institutes – CRIs, pronounced “crises”).

The ideologists who imposed the reforms knows the truth. Things are going to be better as a result. A scientist must continually be sceptical. Karl Popper, the greatest twentieth century philosopher of science who died last September aged 92, advised “let it be your ambition to refute and replace your own theories”. So a scientist might ask, are the reforms succeeding or failing?

A part answer comes from a questionnaire distributed by the New Zealand Association of Scientists to their members. The typical respondent had been a scientist for 27 years, and had 49 scientific publications. The 400 plus respondents are mature experienced scientists. About a third were in CRIs, a third in universities, and the remainder scattered through the private sector, and other government agencies and educational institutions.

The questionnaire covered a wide range of issues. Two are useful for assessing the reforms. The scientists were given a seven point scale ranging from -3 to +3. The averages are reported in the table – a positive number means on the whole they thought there was an increase, a negative a decrease. The larger the number the better (or worse).

One question was whether in their own field of science there has been more or less good science and bad science. For both New Zealand as a whole, and in their own research institutions, the respondents thought that good science had decreased, while bad science increased.

Why they might think this can be seen in the response to the second question of how the reforms impacted on their organization. The good news is it appears that access to international linkages has increased. But on all other measures – international standing, attracting and retaining top scientists, and working conditions – they thought things were getting worse, often substantially so.

Now I must, as a scientist (I am a member of the Association) and a statistician, say that surveys such as these must be interpreted with care. None of the questions are obviously biased, to give a desired outcome, but the respondents are self selected by being members of the Association, and being willing to fill in the 10 page questionnaire.

It is not obvious, though, what is the effect of such self selection. You might think more discontented scientists were likely to respond, but equally so might the enthusiasts. Moreover the Association does not cover very well the most disgruntled scientists: those who have been forced out of their profession, or forced overseas. (Asked if changes in their employing organizations over the last five years had led to scientists going to jobs overseas, 68 percent said yes. Perhaps that is where the improvement in international linkages comes from.)

In summary the survey respondents on the whole do not consider the reforms have been a success. There are plenty of anecdotes to support of view the deteriorating quality of science research. There are also counterexamples (a smallish minority of the respondents seem to approve the reforms). The survey suggests the balance is in the negative.

The chief anecdote at the moment in the problems of the Institute for Social Research and Development, the smallest and newest of the CRIs. There are various views as what has happened. One is the management was poor; another that all good research is subversive, and since social science research is subversive to the established political order it is not going to be funded properly.

Although surprised at the speed of its demise, I held the view from their beginning that the reforms were fundamentally flawed, and an ISRD would not prosper under them. I would like to be proved wrong, but the survey supports my assessment. If so the ISRD was only the most vulnerable of the CRIs. Many of its weaknesses are occurring in other research institutions according to the survey. More CRIs may collapse.

The effects will not be immediate. The world ends “not with a bang, but a whimper”. The winding down and demoralization of science will have effects long after those who instigated the reforms have retired. (The same thing seems to be happening in education and health services.)

Popper worked in New Zealand on political philosophy rather than science. The message of the two books he wrote here was about the dangers of fanatical revolutionary movements. The crisis creeping up on us in science from the reforms are a nice illustration of how right he was. Scientists would do something about it, ideologists will stick to their theories in the face of overwhelming contradicting evidence.


In your own field of science, do you feel that the changes in the organization of New Zealand science over the last five years have resulted in more or less… In Your Organization
Good Science? (-.4)
Bad Science? (+.2)

Good Science? (-.4) Bad Science? (+.2)…. In New Zealand
Good Science? (-.7)
Bad Science? (+.3)

How do you think your organization has been affected by the restructuring of New Zealand Science over the past 5 years in the following areas?

International Regard (-.5)
Ability to Attract Top Scientists (-.9)
Ability to Retain Top Scientists (-.9)
Access to International Linkages (+.1)
Access to Facilities (-.3)
Access to Support Staff (-.8)
Salaries (-.8)
Other Working Conditions (-.8)