An Open Letter to the Foresight Project on the Need for Strategically Targeted Basic Research in New Zealand

29 January 1999

Foresight Project
c/o Hamish Campbell
Ministry of Research, Science and Technology
PO Box 5336

Dear Mr. Campbell,

We understand that the Foresight Project is still interested in receiving sector submissions, even at this rather late date.

We, the undersigned, are all academic computer scientists in New Zealand. We write to express our general support for the Foresight Project, which we understand to involve planning for New Zealand with particular attention to directing future investment in science and technology.

We believe our sector has much to offer New Zealand. In particular, we could help New Zealand reach the goal, enunciated at the recent FutureActive conference in Takapuna, of developing a $10 billion per year industry in software and software-related services. Such an industry would obviously have huge flow-on effects on the rest of our economy.

Roughly speaking, a $10 billion/year software export industry would require 20 000 highly skilled software practitioners, each producing $500 000 per year in export sales. By a conservative estimate, at least two-thirds of these practitioners would hold tertiary qualifications in computer science, and at least three-quarters of these qualifications would be attained in NZ universities. In order to reach the FutureActive goal, therefore, our sector must educate 10 000 of the most highly productive members of our future society.

Our role in educating highly productive students goes hand in hand with our research efforts. We cannot do one without the other, because it is our research that keeps our staff and students near the cutting edge of our dynamic field. Even Microsoft, despite its huge investment in MSCE teaching, seeks to hire technical staff with tertiary credentials in computer science awarded by research-active institutions. Furthermore, our research provides the ideas from which new software products can be developed.

At present, in all New Zealand universities, we graduate a few hundreds of computer science students per year. In order to reach the FutureActive goal, our nation must set policies to encourage our nation's computer science departments to grow rapidly, ideally adding staff at the rate of 15% per year so that student numbers can grow at a similar rate.

Regrettably, under current conditions, our computer science departments cannot be expected to grow at any appreciable rate in the foreseeable future. We are not graduating more than a few computer science PhDs per year, from all New Zealand Universities, so we must to some extent recruit new staff from overseas. Staff pay rates are far from competitive by international standards in computer science, for example, roughly 20% below Australia and 50% below the United States. Student-staff ratios are larger than international norms in our field, and they are increasing. At least one of our largest universities is under such severe financial strain that funding to its computer science department has been cut over recent years, rather than being increased in response to growing student demand.

Our situation is not quite as hopeless as it may seem from the above. In particular, we do not believe it is necessary to offer pay at North American rates in order to retain and recruit staff, if we offer a competitive working and living environment.

We believe that increasing the level of governmental support for academic research in computer science is one of the most cost-effective policies available for making progress toward the FutureActive goal. This would help immediately in academic staff retention and recruitment. It would help in the near-term by increasing the number and quality of PhD graduands from New Zealand Universities, able and willing to take up academic staff positions in our computer science departments. By increasing the number and quality of our academic staff in New Zealand computer science departments, we would soon be able to educate and graduate a larger number of students with the knowledge required to be highly productive software practitioners.

We believe that some policy change is required, if our research is to be funded in a cost-effective manner. The New Zealand software industry is nowhere near mature enough, at present, to fund research in academic computer science at a level that would develop a $10 billion per year export industry. Instead, their present support is generally and understandably limited to funding some of our more advanced students to undertake development work with fairly short-term goals. This is of great benefit to our Master's programmes, but it does not help us recruit and retain the academic staff required to teach our undergraduate papers.

The Marsden Fund is incapable of directing a research programme toward strategic goals, such as that of developing a $10 billion per year export industry. Its laudable charter for "nonprioritised" funding prohibits such strategic action. Also, the majority of its funds are awarded to well-established researchers in well-established fields, not to emerging researchers in emerging disciplines such as ours.

The Public Good Science Fund currently uses a rather short time scale (at most three years, we believe) when reviewing proposals to fulfil, or achieve measurable progress towards, strategic goals such as that of increasing software exports. While such time scales may be appropriate for mature industries with well-articulated roadmaps for progress, we believe they are not suitable for emerging fields such as ours. Our software industry groups are just starting to coalesce, someday soon a "cluster" may emerge, and soon after this occurs we might expect our domestic software industry to provide appropriate guidance to the PGSF. At present, however, we believe the PGSF is very unlikely to obtain industrial guidance for its output -09 decisions of similarly high quality as it obtains in most of its other output categories. Furthermore, we believe that it is in the national interest for the PGSF to broaden its metrics of progress toward strategic goals in emerging areas such as ours, perhaps to the point of including such considerations as the quantity and quality of the students we graduate. Among the possible quality metrics might be our students’ employment rates in the New Zealand software industry, and their initial pay offers.

As noted above, all New Zealand Universities are presently in a cash-starved situation, so that short-range expedients and institutional imperatives must take precedence (where there is a conflict) over long-range strategic goals of New Zealand. However, we do believe that our Universities will respond quite strongly, rapidly improving our working conditions and our staffing numbers, thereby allowing our student numbers to grow markedly, if New Zealand research funding policies were modified so that our field were better supported.

In summary, we respectfully advise the Foresight Project that New Zealand has a critical need for a strategically targeted programme of research to allow rapid future growth in emergent, high-value export industries such as software and software services. Such a programme would be a cost-effective method for obtaining many of the Foresight Target Outcomes, especially in the "Anticipation and Creation of New Markets", "Infrastructure for a Knowledge Society", and "Wealth from New Knowledge-based Business".