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New ministry to help speed up science research

Monday 9th August 2010

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Getting a faster laboratory-to-loot link, and hence a quicker pay-off for New Zealand research and development is a major goal through creating the Ministry of Science and Innovation, according to its minister, Wayne Mapp.

The new ministry, to be officially created later this year, will bring together the Ministry, and the Foundation, for Research, Science and Technology, and combine their respective policy and implementation roles under one simplified banner, he said.

“We want companies to have a singular ability to know where to go, early and simply, for knowledge and solutions, and not be confused about who does what,” Mapp told BusinessDesk.

The importance the government has placed on getting science out of the laboratory and into the commercial world is evident in that the science portfolio, and more specifically its innovation component, was the only ministry apart from health and education, to receive a May 2010 budget increase.

An extra $321 million over four years for investment in new initiatives was announced by John Key, with the centerpiece being a $234 million increase over four years to support business research and development.

Just under $190 million is earmarked under Technology Development Grants (TDG) to co-fund larger businesses already involved in their own R&D, and help fast track innovations into sellable products. $20 million has been tagged over four years for trial technology transfer vouchers, which firms can use as a co-funding means to pay universities or public research groups to complete a project.

Another $11 million over four years is to support technology transfer from research organisations to businesses, and the commercialisation of new products and processes.

The TDG will tend to aim more at companies with their own R&D capability, the voucher scheme for those, generally smaller, companies without their own R&D capacity.

Mapp said this business innovation co-funding model followed a substantive examination of the past 51 grants made by TechNZ. The ministries looked for overall evidence that the scheme was worthwhile, “and that was good enough to justify expansion,” he said.

The TechNZ schemes are still based on a 1:1 investment by government and individual businesses, but with more of a focus on measuring the marketability of a product or process rather than measuring whether a successful product or process was developed Mapp said.

“The important question is whether you sell something as a result of the R&D,” he said. “You might have developed something, but selling it’s the key.”

Mapp said an important model in for the government’s thinking around science innovation has been Queensland, and its Smart State Strategy adopted in 1998. Under a systematic approach the Australian state, which shares population and economic similarities to New Zealand, made a concerted effort to link government and the research and development sector and business.

“This was put as a priority, and they’ve sustained it over a long period,” he said. Queensland has enjoyed growth levels above New Zealand, John Key has made science the centre of government thinking, and the prime minister’s background means he understands the connection between research and growth, he said.

“Past approaches have been too ad-hoc, there hasn’t been enough of a systematic approach, and we’ve been good at talking and not so good at action,” he said. “While some may say there’s not enough dollars, given the money we have the question becomes how do we spend it reasonably.”

Mapp said the government’s innovation focus has been aided by the country’s first chief science advisor, Peter Gluckman, non-politically popularising the notion of why research matters for economic growth.

The roles of Gluckman, and fellow scientists such as Paul Callaghan and Peter Hunter in providing authority and mana on science and economy matters means the new chief executive role at the Ministry of S&I can have an important change.

“That person’s key challenge will be implementation,” Mapp said.

“It is not as much about being a champion for science, but getting in place the programmes that the government has announced and getting them visible to businesses. The more short the communications chain, the more we can simplify innovation, the better.”

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