More Funding Needed for Universities to Secure NZ’s Science and Technology Future
New Zealand’s tertiary education sector is in trouble. So too is Aotearoa’s future capacity to function effectively as a knowledge-informed society with an economy that is underpinned by technology. In the last 6 months, most of our universities have announced financially-driven restructures involving significant staff losses. This equates to hundreds of jobs lost from each institution, with over 10% of their workforce to be cut. Capability in crucial STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects will be damaged.
The New Zealand Institute of Chemistry (NZIC) is the professional society of chemists that operates throughout Aotearoa, representing chemists from industry, Crown Research Institutes, legal, analytical and educational sectors (secondary and tertiary staff, and students). We are gravely concerned about the latest announcements of sweeping job losses at Otago University and Victoria University of Wellington, as well as reductions of STEM programmes at Waikato University, on the heels of major staff cuts at Massey University and Auckland University of Technology. The irony is that the losses come as the government announces a $450 million investment to make Wellington a “Science City” through collaborations between research institutes such as GNS, NIWA and Callaghan Innovation, and these very universities that are proposing significant cuts in their science programmes. The ambitious research strategy goals outlined in Te Ara Paerangi, striving to grow the New Zealand economy through investment in Research, Science and Innovation, are also compromised by reductions in tertiary education STEM programmes.
Chemistry underpins all sciences, from climate change to vaccine develoment. It is one of the core science subjects in secondary schools because it provides both a fundamental understanding of the structure of matter and the basis for technological innovations and solutions. Contrary to popular imagery, chemists do not just don white lab coats and watch coloured mixtures of bubbling liquids. NZIC members are developing new high-efficiency solar cells, measuring the contaminants in our water and air, finding the next breakthrough in medicine, making greener building materials and biofuels, improving the flavours of beer and wine, determining the safety of food and vape additives, studying how to decrease the methane production of cattle and much much more. All of these important contributions require interdisciplinarity and collaboration between multiple science subjects. Thus, universities need a broad expertise base: job cuts in any discipline gravely threaten this.
Our concerns about the disinvestment in chemistry (and other sciences) at New Zealand universities are that:
Our universities are training the scientists, teachers and innovators of tomorrow, and we as a country need them to be exceptional. They will be facing ever-increasing challenges, as climate change, scarcity of resources, misinformation (e.g. about vaccines or water fluoridation), infectious diseases, antibiotic resistance, and population growth challenge our society. New Zealand, especially, has the additional challenge of being a remote nation with a small domestic market. We need to accelerate our innovation, underpinned by excellent science and technology, in order to succeed economically and environmentally. For this, Aotearoa requires cutting-edge research, teaching and innovation, and our university sector has been, currently is, and must continue to be a major player in achieving this.
UK universities experienced similar financial constraints, and their consequences, in the 2000s. After several closures (and threatened closures) of chemistry and physics departments, the government recognised that chemistry and physics were “strategically important but vulnerable subjects” due to the high costs of laboratory space, chemicals, equipment and the necessity of direct supervision of laboratory work by academic staff. The result of parliamentary investigations and reviews was increased funding for chemistry and physics disciplines.
The NZIC urges the New Zealand Government to provide the inflation-adjusted relief needed by our tertiary education sector so that we, as a nation, can meet the positive and ambitious research strategy goals outlined in Te Ara Paerangi and to make Wellington Science City a reality.