From the Chief Executive: A glass probably not half full

26 June 2018

Thirty years ago an organisation called the Social Science Research Fund Committee (SSRFC) allocated $311,440 in 16 grants to social science research projects outside government agencies. That’s an average of just under $20,000 per project or roughly $38,000 in today’s money. Most projects were carried out by university academics and clearly there were minimal overheads being charged! A range of different disciplines (mainly psychology and sociology) were represented and going by their titles, few projects were directly linked to any policy application. However, the SSRFC also supported establishment of a social sciences working party to advise the Government on future directions, promoted the use of four databases to facilitate communication among researchers and enable contact with ‘non-specialists’, published reports and ran seminars. A fair chunk of the non-grant funding was used for attendance at international events.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The need for funding, networking, publishing and access to social research is ever-present and has been addressed by a number of initiatives over the years. There has also been a continually growing emphasis on ensuring that research is relevant and able to be applied. In quantitative terms, the amount invested in social science is far more than could have been dreamed of in the 1980s. For example, two of the National Science Challenges with significant social science research components have respectively been allocated $3.5 million and $4.8 million per year for up to 10 years. Many research programmes funded through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the Tertiary Education Commission, the Health Research Council and other government agencies also contain elements of social science, and of course Superu and the Social Investment Agency have been putting money into research. But it’s not easy to tease out what the total national investment is. In some ways this is a good thing, because social science that is ‘embedded’ in multi-disciplinary programmes can have greater impact. On the other hand, it is difficult to get a strategic overview of New Zealand’s investment in policy-related social science research. Are we investing enough, and in the right places?

Things used to be more transparent, but not necessarily better. In the early 1990s, non-departmental, contestable social science funding was allocated by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FRST) through four thinly-sliced ‘output classes’ which together contained about $1.6 million, or 0.5 percent of the total funding available through the overall Public Good Science Fund (PGSF). Social scientists weren’t happy about getting such a small piece of the pie and argued their case for more, via a comprehensive priority-setting process overseen by an expert panel. A multi-criteria decision framework was used to frame the panel’s decisions, including criteria such as ‘strategic importance’ and ‘research leverage’. I was servicing the panel and present at a meeting when the first round of scoring against criteria was processed, and raw results indicated that roughly 30 percent of total funding should go into social science! This would have turned the science system on its head and to say that there was uproar in the room would be an understatement. Such an outcome was politically untenable and it was decided to use the model “only to provide indications of direction and strength of shift”.

So rather than getting a boost to $80 million (and other sciences a concomitant decrease) the amount allocated to contestable social science research was projected to increase over five years to $4.5 million (2 percent of the total PGSF). As far as I can tell, this amount (in both nominal and proportional terms) has made its way through various manifestations of contestable funding up until the present day. If the $4.5 million had kept pace with inflation, it would now be $7 million.

This is a very simplistic comparison but it’s safe to say that social science remains a poor relation, notwithstanding 12 reviews of the sector since the days of the SSRFC. A number of agencies and initiatives have come and gone, as described in For whom the bell tolls, a report published by Superu in April this year. Some fine people have come and gone too. I particularly remember Raewyn Good’s passionate work for the Social Policy Evaluation and Research Committee (SPEaR) and the Association of Social Science Researchers. It’s lovely to see Raewyn being commemorated through an annual award from the Royal Society.

So things are not all bleak. Aside from pockets of extra funding for research on social questions, the work of the SSRFC and SPEaR are to some extent reprised in ESocSci and The Hub. Thinking about the complex nature of evidence and its use in policy is continuing to advance. Treasury’s Living Standards Framework brings more attention to bear on the components of social and human capital, and there’s even talk of carrying out research into the (human) behavioural factors which contributed to the importation and spread of mycoplasma bovis.

But it still seems strange that at a time when so many of the large problems that New Zealand faces are social in nature, we invest so little in social science research. And there continues to be a lack of broad strategic oversight of the field. As Superu exits the stage, I remain hopeful that this gap will one day be filled.

Dr Malcolm Menzies

Chief Executive

Latest updates:

From the Families Commissioner - Evidence and the 'Three Strikes' law

The case for individualising benefits

Cataloguing research related to Pacific people

We close forever on 29 June - here's where you'll find our work

Last update: 26 Jun 2018