When James Hector was appointed to undertake a national geological survey in 1865, he was the first professional scientist employed by the New Zealand government. Within three years he had established the New Zealand Geological Survey (later GNS Science), the Colonial Museum (later the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa) and the New Zealand Institute (now the Royal Society of New Zealand). Hector was also responsible for a range of activities including weather forecasting, standardisation of weights and measures, and the time service as well as serving as the government’s scientific advisor.
Hector gave high priority to rapid publication of research results, and was responsible for the compilation of a series of handbooks covering aspects of local flora and fauna. He started publication of the annual Transactions of the New Zealand Institute in 1868, and edited each volume for the following 35 years.
By 1880 museums had been established in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, each with a scientist in charge. By default they became the main scientific organisations where information could be obtained on a range of biological, agricultural and geological issues.
Politicians vs experts
Politicians are sometimes wary of experts – according to wartime British prime minister Winston Churchill, experts should be ‘on tap rather than on top’.1 The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) was unique among government departments in being headed by experienced scientists. Its advice, based on the best research available, was not always accepted by politicians.
Department of Scientific and Industrial Research
There was little coordination of research in the early years of the 20th century. This was of concern to leaders in the industrial and manufacturing community, who could see the gains in production overseas as a result of research, leading the government to set up the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) in 1926.
Ernest Marsden, in charge of the DSIR from 1926 to 1947, established a group of research associations, jointly funded by specific industries and the government. The challenges of the Second World War led to major expansion of the DSIR so it could undertake background research to support industrial ventures based on local materials. By its 50th anniversary in 1976, the agency employed over 2,000 staff in 20 research divisions. It was undertaking research covering climate, geology, the marine environment, native and introduced plants and animals; developing better plant varieties; and providing scientific advice to industry.
From the 1980s there was a continuing reorganisation of government departments. The DSIR was instructed to adopt a ‘user-pays’ approach to research, and the government decided to make all research funding contestable. A move to separate policy and funding functions led to the formation of the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology (MoRST) and the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FoRST). The DSIR was abolished in 1992, and replaced by 10 semi-independent Crown research institutes (reduced to seven by 2014) undertaking both commercial and government-funded research.
Eventually the policy of separating policy and funding was quietly abandoned. In 2011 MoRST and FoRST were combined to form the Ministry of Science and Innovation. The following year MSI was absorbed into the new Ministry of Business, Employment and Innovation.