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Research institutions

by Simon Nathan

Although a small player in the research world, New Zealand has particular strengths in agriculture, health and earth-science research. Research institutions include universities, Crown research institutes and private organisations.

Research in New Zealand

The primary aim of research is to create new knowledge, not only to increase understanding of the world, but also to be applied to the development of new products and processes. New Zealand is part of a global research network, and one strand of its research effort is to adapt overseas developments for the country’s own distinctive needs.

Small player

New Zealand is a small player in the research world, but has particular strengths in areas of agriculture, health and earth-science research. Being situated on the boundary between two major tectonic plates, New Zealand is a natural laboratory for the study of phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and ground deformation. For example, the GeoPRISMs project, supported by the US National Science Foundation, is examining processes in subduction zones.

Total spend

In comparison to other developed countries, the total funding spent on research in New Zealand is low. In 2012 the OECD average spent on research and development was 2.38% of gross domestic product (GDP), whereas in New Zealand it was 1.27% ($2.63 billion), up from 1.15% in 2002. The low figure in part reflects the lack of spending in New Zealand on military research, development of pharmaceuticals and large-scale manufacturing.

Three research sectors

Research in New Zealand is carried out within three sectors: business, government and higher education. Of the total 2012 research and development spend:

  • 45.4% was spent by the business sector
  • 22.7% was spent by the government sector
  • 31.9% was spent by the higher education sector.

An unusually high proportion of research funding comes from the state. The government also contributes to business sector research – 12% of total business expenditure in 2012. Government research funds are mainly allocated through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the Health Research Council, the Tertiary Education Commission and the Royal Society of New Zealand (Marsden Fund).

A PhD record

In 2013 the University of Canterbury enrolled 886 PhD students, a university record. The disciplines with the highest number of new enrolments were biological sciences, chemistry, civil and natural resource engineering, education and mechanical engineering. Of the 230 students who started in 2012, 48% were New Zealanders. The remaining students were citizens of 40 different countries, with the largest groups being from India, Malaysia and China.


In 2012 the number of full- and part-time researchers engaged in the government and higher education sectors was 27,700. Of these, 15,500 were postgraduate student researchers. This was a significant increase from 2002, when there was a total of 18,656 researchers, of whom 9,524 were postgraduate students. (The large rise in postgraduate students can be partly attributed to successful government drives to attract overseas PhD students.) The total number of researchers in the business sector in 2012 was 7,200.

Developing research organisations

James Hector

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.



Although universities are internationally thought of as the home of research and new ideas, relatively little research was undertaken in New Zealand universities during the first half of the 20th century because of small staff numbers and heavy teaching loads. Since the 1960s, when research-based PhD degrees started to be awarded, there has been a steady increase in the level of research carried out at New Zealand universities. In contrast with the more applied research undertaken by other organisations, university research covers a wide range of disciplines including the humanities, music and art, and includes both ‘blue-sky’ and applied topics.

Spare-time research

When William Morrell was appointed professor of history at Otago University in 1946, his contract specified teaching, examination and administration – but there was no mention of research. Although Morrell was a distinguished scholar, publishing books on Commonwealth and New Zealand history, his research was a spare-time activity undertaken mainly in vacations and periods of sabbatical leave.

The Education Act 1989 defines New Zealand universities as institutions of advanced learning, where research and teaching are interdependent, and where teaching is conducted by people active in advancing knowledge. The act also specifies that the universities have a role as ‘the critic and conscience of society’.

Performance-Based Research Fund

In 2003 the government decided to allocate research funding to the universities through the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF), based on three criteria:

  • quality of individual researchers (60%)
  • research degree completions (25%)
  • external research income (15%).

This has had the desired outcome of boosting the research output of the universities, and encouraging them to seek external research income. It is estimated that approximately 60% of university research is undertaken by graduate students.

The research output of the eight universities is unevenly spread. Auckland and Otago, the two largest, are responsible for 50%, while Massey and Victoria together contribute 25% and the remaining four universities (Canterbury, Lincoln, Waikato & AUT) combined undertake the remaining 25%.

Cooperative research

Centres of Research Excellence (CoREs) were introduced to encourage the development of cooperative research in the university system. Each CoRE is hosted by a university, and includes a number of partners from other organisations, Crown research institutes and wānanga.

In 2014 there were six CoREs:

  • the MacDiarmid Centre for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology
  • the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery
  • the Medical Technologies CoRE
  • the Dodd-Walls Centre for Quantum Science and Technology
  • Te Pūnaha Matatini Centre for Complex Systems and Networks
  • Brain Research New Zealand – Rangahau Roro Aotearoa.

In May 2014 government funding was announced for a further four CoREs by 2016, including a Māori CoRE.

Research centres

There was also a broad range of university-based research centres. The New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities at the University of Otago is an interdisciplinary centre that researches solutions to the economic, social, cultural and environmental development of cities. The University of Auckland’s Woolf Fisher Research Centre developed models to improve students’ educational achievement, particularly in Māori, Pacific and low-income communities.

Government research organisations

Crown research institutes

The government set up Crown research institutes (CRIs) in 1992 as government-owned companies, to undertake research in strategic areas of science that are of long-term importance to New Zealand. Each CRI was established around a sector of the economy or a grouping of natural resources so that each had a clearly defined purpose and range of clients.

CRI revenue comes from both the public and private sectors, with about half from government funds, mainly allocated through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. This funding structure means that much of the research undertaken by CRIs is applied science aligned to national research priorities. All of the CRIs undertake consulting work in their field of expertise, ensuring that there is rapid transfer of research results to clients.

In 2014 there were seven Crown research institutes:

  • AgResearch (agricultural research)
  • ESR (environmental and forensic science)
  • GNS Science (geological resources and hazards; isotope science)
  • Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research (land-based science)
  • NIWA (ocean and atmospheric science)
  • Plant and Food Research
  • SCION (forestry research).

In addition to research, the CRIs carry out other scientific activities that are funded as essential government services. These include fish stock assessment, forensic work, seismic monitoring, climate monitoring, biosecurity services and oversight of measurement standards.

Fighting for control

Agricultural research was handicapped for many years by rivalries between the Department of Agriculture (responsible for animal science) and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (responsible for plant science). With the formation of AgResearch in 1992, agricultural research was finally co-ordinated by a single organisation.

Natural hazards research

Research aiming to increase New Zealand’s resilience in natural hazards (including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunami, landslides and floods) is co-ordinated through the Natural Hazards Research Platform, which includes CRIs, universities and other organisations. The Joint Centre for Disaster Research (Massey University and GNS Science) undertakes research on the social impact of disasters on communities.

Callaghan Innovation

In 2013 the government set up Callaghan Innovation to accelerate commercialisation of research and technology in New Zealand. It is a stand-alone Crown entity that incorporates former CRI Industrial Research Ltd as a research company.

Other government agencies

A number of government agencies undertake research as part of their function. At an operational level, the police undertake forensic research, mainly contracted to ESR. The Department of Conservation carries out research relating to preservation of local ecosystems both in-house and on contract to universities and CRIs. Other agencies undertake work relating to research as part of their regulatory functions. For example, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment regulates the intellectual property regime, and ethical advice and approvals are carried out by the Animal Ethics Committee administered by the Ministry for Primary Industries.

Social science research

Government agencies also carry out social science and humanities research. Both the Health and Social Development ministries undertake or sponsor research into a range of topics, including families, crime and employment. The Ministry of Social Development produces the annual Social report, which tests a range of social indicators to measure New Zealanders’ wellbeing. The Ministry for Culture and Heritage researches the history of state activity and how it has shaped New Zealand life.

Research associations and consultancies

‘Research association’ is a general term for non-governmental research organisations. Many of the research associations are represented by the Independent Research Association of New Zealand (IRANZ).

Industry-linked research associations

Within many industries there is a need for research, often on specific problems related to the use of local materials or environmental factors. Groups of companies have agreed to form industry-based research associations, with funding from members, government grants and commercial revenue. Some research organisations are supported by industry levies, mandated by specific legislation, including the Building Research Association of New Zealand, DairyNZ and the Heavy Engineering Research Association.

Beer and baccy research

Two of the earliest research associations were the Hop Research Station and the Tobacco Research Station, based in the Nelson area. Both concentrated on developing varieties that would grow well in local conditions. Overseas tobacco varieties were eventually replaced by locally bred varieties Waimea and Kuaka, which had high resistance to disease.

Private research associations

A small number of research associations have been started by individuals or trusts to undertake research in specific areas or topics, and rely on endowments, charitable funding and contestable government funding. There are two major private research groups.

  • The Cawthron Institute is based on a bequest from Thomas Cawthron, who left his estate for research in the Nelson region. Today the institute has about 180 staff, concentrating on research into aquaculture and freshwater ecology.
  • The Malaghan Institute of Medical Research is focused on finding cures for a number of diseases including cancer, asthma and multiple sclerosis, with emphasis on understanding and using the body’s immune system. It is named after Les Malaghan, a major benefactor.


A small but significant amount of research is undertaken by private consultants, ranging from large engineering consultancies such as Opus to small groups and individuals. These specialise in areas ranging from geotechnical assessments of building sites to archaeological and historical surveys. Most of their work is done for clients, so is under-represented in the research literature.

Private consultants and non-government organisations also undertook social science research, focusing on social, economic or educational research. In 2014 these included:

  • the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, which conducted and evaluated educational research and produced research-based products like tests and journals
  • the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research, which undertook economic research, provided economic forecasts and made regular surveys of business opinion
  • Research New Zealand, which conducted and evaluated business and social research
  • the Salvation Army, which undertook social research on a range of issues, including families, housing and crime.

Scientific societies and museums

Scientific societies

New Zealand has about 60 scientific and technological societies that coordinate and promote specific research disciplines. The larger societies include the New Zealand Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science, the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry, the Geoscience Society of New Zealand, the Meteorological Society of New Zealand, the Hydrological Society of New Zealand and the New Zealand Institute of Forestry. Most of the societies have a regular newsletter or journal and a website, and hold regular annual or biennial meetings. The New Zealand Association of Scientists has members from all disciplines who are interested in policies relating to the philosophy and organisation of science.

Royal Society of New Zealand

The New Zealand Institute was renamed the Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ) in 1933. It functions as a national academy for the sciences, technology and humanities, consisting of a federation of individual societies as well as individual members and elected fellows. Although modelled on the Royal Society of London, the RSNZ has a much broader membership. It plays an important role in the promotion of knowledge in schools and society. It also administers the Marsden Fund, a ‘blue skies’ investigator-initiated research fund, on behalf of the government. In 2014 the Royal Society of New Zealand published eight journals concerned with both general and specific aspects of New Zealand science.


Museums in the main centres include some research staff who are responsible for the curation and conservation of collections assembled from both New Zealand and overseas. Much of the research in archaeology and ethnology in New Zealand is undertaken by museum staff, who also have specific knowledge of local history and natural science.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Simon Nathan, 'Research institutions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Simon Nathan, i tāngia i te 22 o Oketopa 2014