Treasury advisers were over-ruled on science funding they challenged

It looks like the science sector got more money from this year’s Budget than Treasury officials considered prudent.

Paul McBeth, from BusinessDesk, has been looking into some of the Budget documentation and found Finance Minister Bill English was advised to put off funding several new science programmes for a year. They doubted it would provide enough value for the money invested.

The advice was contained in two aide memoires made public in the past week.

The Treasury officials said they backed plans for targeted funding in bodies that had proved themselves and were ready for investment, such as the Marsden Fund, Pre-Seed Accelerator Fund and Health Research Council.

They were dubious, however, about immediately injecting new funding into the regional research institutes, Catalyst Fund, and Strategic Science Investment Fund, contending they were unable to “demonstrate sufficient evidence of value”.

“We support in-principle decisions to increase funding for these mechanisms, but consider that deferring funding decisions at this time would help ensure the greatest impact and value for money from further funding,” Treasury officials said in a Feb. 5 report to English.

“We therefore consider Budget 2017 will present a greater opportunity for broader increases in public research funding to make a contribution towards the government’s objective of increasing public research funding to 0.8 percent of GDP.”

The Treasury  also recommended delaying increases in funding for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s contestable science fund and Crown Research Institutes’ core funding so that recent reviews could either be completed or assessed.

McBeth reports:

“If further funding is budgeted for science and innovation funding in future budgets before 2019/20, then it would seem likely that the ‘target’ of $1.6 billion could be reached (or exceeded) more gradually over time,” Treasury officials said in an April 8 document to English. “This would ensure the ‘target’ is reached through further, future investment in areas of the science system which have a high level of investment readiness and proven excellence of outcomes.”

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce obviously won the funding argument.

The biggest beneficiary of the extra $410.5 million funding over four years he announced on Budget Day was the MBIE contestable fund which was renamed the Endeavour Fund.

On June 29 Joyce explained that the increase was tilted towards mission-led and investigator-led programmes which typically have a longer horizon than commercially focused projects “because we’ve done quite a lot previously at the close-to-market end”.






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