NEW ZEALAND: Call for change in research funding

The system used to direct research funding to New Zealand's tertiary institutions has received a thumbs-up from an independent review, along with warnings that change and more funding are needed.

Since 2003, the government has used the Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF) to allocate research funding now worth NZ$230 million (US$156.8 million) a year among New Zealand's degree-granting institutions - universities, polytechnics, wananga, and private providers.

The funding, most of which was formerly tagged to per-student subsidies, has shifted toward universities and away from other types of institutions in the five years the fund has been running. Most of the money is based on six-yearly assessments of academics' research outputs, with the remainder calculated against the number of students completing research-based postgraduate degrees at tertiary institutions and against external research income.

Now a review of the PBRF by Englishman Dr Jonathan Adams says the PBRF is achieving its goals of identifying and rewarding quality research. But the review also warns that the improvements in research outputs created by the fund could be lost unless further money is put into it.

Adams is a director of Evidence Ltd, a company that specialises in analysis of research performance. He has been invited to join the working group developing Australia's new national research assessment system, has been a scientific advisor to Stockholm's Royal Institute for Technology and, in 2004, chaired the EC monitoring committee for the Evaluation of Framework Programme VI - Europe's effort to improve its research outputs.

Prior to these roles he worked for various universities, including King's College London, the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, University of Leeds and Imperial College London

"The negative effects of failing to add the necessary fuel to empower this stronger research engine for New Zealand are likely to be more serious and to offset the clear gains in research culture, activity and outcome that have been made in such a very short time," Adams writes.

He also suggests New Zealand should change a key aspect of the PBRF, one which has attracted strong criticism from university staff: its assessment and reporting of individual academics' research outputs.

His review says the research quality evaluation portion of the PBRF would be better based on groups of academics rather than individuals. This would prevent academics' employers using PBRF grades for performance management (something the grades were not intended for). It would also encourage PBRF participants to have a healthy mix of experienced and new researchers rather than concentrating on high-scoring, older researchers.

Adams says the focus on the individual appears to have created an undue focus on staff with established research track records, "undermining a sustainable profile of age and experience across a department". But he recommends the individual should remain the unit of assessment for the next quality evaluation in 2012 because it would be disruptive to change at this stage.

The review suggests New Zealand should find new ways of recognising and supporting research at polytechnics, private providers and wananga - all of which have done relatively poorly in the PBRF. Though institutions in those sectors conduct research to underpin their degrees as required by New Zealand law, it is often not at a level sufficient to attract PBRF funding.

The review says this is not equitable and suggests a new, lower level of funding for polytechnics, an entirely separate funding system for wananga (where Maori concepts of knowledge are different from the traditional Western concepts underpinning the PBRF), and for the private sector.

Adams has high praise for New Zealand's academics, saying they have an "incredibly high level of achievement". He also points to the country's "can do" culture which he says is "lacking in so many countries" and predicts that highly-skilled workers are likely to be New Zealand's most valuable commodity.

* John Gerritsen is editor of NZ Education Review.