Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33 No. 8. 10 June 1970
University research programmes
University research programmes
In the past the universities have been, if not insensitive, at least unresponsive to criticism of this kind. In certain respects the universities cannot be held wholly to blame. In this country a generation or so ago they were financed on a pitiful scale, mere cinderellas. They were consistently denied the opportunity to take on their unique role, the pursuit of knowledge. Research was not to be a function of the universities in New Zealand, but was to be done by Government. Those fields in which research began in the New Zealand universities simply reflect what happened to be the interests of determined individuals who saw research as a necessary activity, and found their own ways of initiating it. Today the scale of university funding is such that research is ho longer a virtual impossibility to all but a few dedicated fanatics, but can proceed continuously and effectively over a wide front on modest if not generous budgets.
Government departments with active research programmes complain now that the fields of research in New Zealand universities are not those of importance to New Zealand. Twenty and thirty years ago they could have seen to it that this did not happen, for by appropriate encouragement and funding-and the funding need only have been small—they could have got university departments to embark on research in fields of national importance. We are now in the situation that there are areas of university research within which the direction ought to be changed.
But even now the major government research organisations are grudging in committing resources to bring about changes which they themselves wish to see. The scheme of doctoral fellowships recently introduced under the administrative control of the National Research Advisory Council met steady, and at times strong, opposition from certain government departments on the Council before it was finally adopted. Yet, for a tiny sum, these scholarships provide an opportunity for government research divisions to influence profoundly the directions of university research. Once a university staff member has become involved in a new research field and finds research in it stimulating and productive he is not likely to abandon it. A change of direction then has every chance of being permanent.
There is not much point in raking over the past if one cannot learn from it. There can be hardly any doubt that government departments have been antipathetic to university research in the past The signs of the conflict have not yet all gone. But the universities, which now have large research commitments, in manpower, in capital equipment, and in running costs, must recognize that they now commit consequential sins. Only a minority of the research fields active in the universities are chosen with any kind of eye for the national interest They still reflect the personal enthusiasms of individual university staff. There is not much real coordination of effort, whether between university and industry or government. Or between one university and another, or between one department and another within a single university. Research equipment grows incresingly sophisticated and increasingly expensive. Not to attempt coordination is a waste of scarce cash. It also wastes scarce research talent. One of the standing complaints of all research workers in New Zealand, whether inside or outside the university, is that of Isolation. But if New Zealand research workers were to make a serious effort to coordinate their work, and to operate in related instead of unconnected fields, dialogues could take place frequently and profitably within the confines of the New Zealand coastline. The pace of research could only be quickened. I sometimes suspect that a reason for not doing this is that it would remove the excuse for the overseas study leave that is now so well entrenched a rite m both the universities and the government scientific services. Both kinds of institution are more inclined to give leave of absence for overseas study than to promote exchange or interchange within the country.
I have dealt in some detail with a specific aspect of the university's unresponsiveness to national needs—namely in research. Prodded by such influential public figures as the present Minister of Finance, the universities have recently become much more sensitive to the need for orienting their activities in nationally important directions. But it is not enough just to think about it. Is is important to act.
Action can be slow and reluctant, giving way gradually under insistent pressures from outside. Seen to be unwilling, it is unlikely to win friends. Or it can be initiated willingly within the universities, who can seek out the advice and suggestions of those groups interested in their output. It is clear to me that this is the kind of action needed. Of course, if the universities do not believe a change of direction is desirable, they had better come out into the open and say so, flatly and unequivocally.