Expecting an ROI from the Ministry of Science Innovation 'too simplistic': Joyce

'You don't just have money, a bunch of scientists, stir, and 'voila', an innovative thing occurs.'

The assertion that the $700 million a year spent by the Ministry of Science and Innovation should be subject to a return on investment, is “too simplistic”, says the minister in charge Steven Joyce.

Joyce was responding to a comment made by Orion Health CEO Ian McCrae, in which McCrae said that the country is not getting “good value whatsoever” from taxpayer funding of the MSI. “I think $600 million of it is spent to keep some research people happy... maybe it’s very harsh but we should at least know what return the country is getting on that investment,” McCrae told Computerworld last month.

But Joyce says McCrae’s suggestion is “too simplistic”.

“I think you could do that (an ROI) over the long term, but the reality is, in the case of public science and, if you like, what they call ‘frontier science’... this is by definition activity that is in the too early stage for private firms to do. So every government in the world has taken responsibility for doing a public science investment to encourage the science sector to have that opportunity to innovate, which can then be commercialised with the assistance of private firms,” Joyce says.

Joyce says that New Zealand’s public spend on science innovation is “not far below the OECD average”, and the challenge is to ensure that taxpayer investment doesn’t crowd out private investment. “The answer for the government is to look at where the market failure occurs and where it needs to assist to incentivise certain things.”

Science ecosystem

Where does Joyce think there should be assistance for ICT companies, to grow the export dollar?

“We’re going to keep looking at that and do an evaluation of what’s being done at the moment and what can be done in the future. I think it is important that we grow industries that don’t necessarily require subsidies from taxpayers and if they do then only for a short period of time because otherwise you really are convincing yourself to feel good, you’re basically paying taxpayers’ money to prop up an industry.”

Joyce says you have to grow an ecosystem. “You don’t just have money, a bunch of scientists, stir and ‘voila’, an innovative thing occurs.”

He points out that one of the "key enablers of innovation" is getting the right infrastructure, and he referred to the Ultra Fast Broadband network, which he set in place in his previous role as ICT minister. "My job will be to assist [Amy Adams] and facilitate not only the rollout, but also making sure that firms understand the opportunities."

IT the fourth science in schools?

In a speech to the Asia Pacific science policy studies research conference last week Joyce noted the “tremendous opportunity” in having a suite of portfolios that includes both MSI and Tertiary Education. Computerworld asked Joyce what he thought of McCrae’s idea that computer science should be the fourth science taught in secondary schools, that it should be elevated above physics, chemistry and biology.

“I can see how he’d argue that,” says Joyce. “But I don’t think that’s necessarily fair, they’re all important. I think the bigger question is: ‘are our teenagers making the right choices across that range of subject areas?’ and I suspect in some cases they’re not.”

Joyce says there is currently a review of careers advice in education and that involves discussions with the Tertiary Education Commission.

He says there are two things to consider – are there the places available for students, and do they have the motivation to study IT?

NZCS in schools

Computerworld asked Joyce about the New Zealand Computer Society ICT-Connect programme, which would see IT professionals go into high schools and talk about ICT careers. NZCS released a prospectus this week looking for sponsorship to fund the programme.

Will the government stump up as a sponsor?

“I just don’t know enough about the programme to know whether that would be a good investment or not. But what I do know is that there is a role for industry in, their own self-interest, to be active - evangelising in schools about their particular subject areas. I would encourage them to do so.”

NZCS says that the premier partner for ICT Connect – at $15,000 a year – has already been signed up. It’s Orion Health.

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