The meaning of “excellence” is worth examining with regard to the public funding of science projects.
The Government has dipped into the Strategic Science Investment Fund and – taking “excellence” into account – decided to to boost four projects, one of them aimed at teaching Siri to speak Te Reo.
Siri – according to Wikipedia – is a virtual assistant that is part of Apple Inc.’s iOS, iPadOS, watchOS, macOS, tvOS and audioOS operating systems.
None of the projects announced by Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Wood involves agricultural and/or horticultural science.
Dr Wood – obviously delighted with the way “excellence” has been interpreted to decide which projects will secure SSIF funding – made special mention of the Te Reo project in her press statement.
The Taxpayers Union is not so thrilled. It’s press statement, challenging the wisdom of this spending, was headed $13 million teaching Siri to use Te Reo is an IT boondoggle.
A boondoggle is a project that is considered a waste of both time and money, yet is often continued due to extraneous policy or political motivations.
Dr Woods said the four projects to be funded “range from teaching Siri to speak Te Reo to crunching large amounts of environmental data collected via satellites”.
“The projects were chosen on excellence, and will help New Zealand to address some of our greatest challenges like bringing Te Reo into everyday digital interactions, and building a picture of climatic and ecological trends,” Megan Woods says.
“To harness the benefits of data science, New Zealand needs to be at the forefront of emerging data science technologies. The new investment will significantly lift New Zealand’s capability, provide fresh and ambitious thinking to support international and national collaborations in cutting edge data science research.”
Collectively the programmes provide a wide coverage of data science research and make good use of unique New Zealand data sets, Dr Woods said.
“They have strong domestic and international collaborations involving a number of New Zealand universities and research organisations with strong links to end users.
“Greater use of advanced data science across the economy, environment and society will create new ways of working, helping to position New Zealand for a sustainable, prosperous and inclusive future.”
Data science involves extracting useful information through different methods of recording, storing, and analysing data.
The Strategic Science Investment Fund’s purpose is to establish and support longer-term research programmes of mission-led science critical to the future of New Zealand’s economy, environment and wellbeing.
This is the first SSIF investment in a fund dedicated to data science research.
The Taxpayers Union said the $13 million research grant for Te Reo voice recognition technology is a poor use of taxpayer money.
According to the union’s statement, the project is hoped to allow people to ask Siri or Alexa things like how to “find a choice as kai of panipopo” . This will “ensure a New Zealand identity is firmly embedded in the digital world”.
Taxpayers’ Union spokesman Louis Houlbrooke says:
“This is a classic case of taxpayer money being poured into a shiny, fashionable IT project that is a nice-to-have at best. These projects should be left to private companies who have an incentive to keep costs under control and develop technology that people actually use.
“Someone on the median wage would have to pay income tax for 1,500 years to cover the cost of this project. This money could have been used to provide more much-needed measles vaccines, or even tax relief.
“The entire Strategic Science Investment Fund appears to be rife with fuzzy spending initiatives and corporate welfare. This is the same fund that last year allocated $5.4 million for research into shoe leather. The fact Minister Megan Woods is proudly putting out press releases about this kind of spending leads us to wonder whether she has taxpayers’ interests at heart.”
The successful programmes announced by Dr Woods are:
- A language platform for a multilingual Aotearoa: Starting with Te Reo. This will develop a multilingual language platform to that will enable New Zealanders to engage with technology in the language they use or aspire to use every day. World-leading data scientists from New Zealand, Cambridge University, Oxford University, Mozilla and Māori communities will work on this project in a unique collaboration. (Te Hiku Media and Dragonfly Data Science, $13 million over seven years).
- A data-science driven evolution of aquaculture for building the blue economy: This will develop innovative data science techniques that will enable the aquaculture industry to produce high quality, low-carbon protein efficiently and at large scale, without impacting the environment. (Victoria University of Wellington, $13 million over 7 years)
- Time-Evolving Data Science / Artificial Intelligence for Advanced Open Environmental Science: This will focus on developing new methods to deal with environmental datasets that are collected in large volumes over time, ranging from broad scale satellite images to single point measurements on the ground, in the water or air. (University of Waikato, $13 million over 7 years)
- Beyond Prediction: explanatory and transparent data science for life and social sciences: This will develop new methods that discover, gather and integrate useful data with minimal human intervention. (University of Auckland, $10 million over 7 years).
Sources: Minister of Research, Science and Innovation; New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union.