The People who Saved New Zealand from Covid 19

NZ Herald, 29 July 2020

They weren’t on the lists of essential workers. They were available 24/7, and we couldn’t have progressed without them. Cabinet ministers, departmental officials, the media and public relied on them. They stayed up half the night so they would be up to date with everything happening elsewhere. They are sometimes the subject of derision with their pointy-headed concern for evidence and rigour. Who are they? University academics - from public health, social work, psychology, tourism, Pacific and Māori health, business, midwifery, obstetrics, computing and mathematics. They are virologists, epidemiologists, gerontologists, data technicians, specialists in data security and data forecasting, as well as economics and public policy experts. Across a range of expertise, we were there. How do we ensure the next generation will be there for the next crisis?

Every public policy input into the pandemic response, and how the months ahead unfold, is vital to record. We need evaluations, appreciative inquiry processes, community action research, case studies – the full range of sophisticated, rigorous research projects. Not in two years, when most of the scraps of paper have been tossed, and memories are not able to recall moral quandaries and small but vital details, but now. Government agencies cannot do this.

In the government funding announced by the Minister of Research, Science and Innovation, this is nowhere to be found. The sole announcement from the Tertiary Education Commission is for $25 million for frontline mental health and wellbeing services for tertiary students. Allowances are available for tertiary provision of apprenticeship and certificate courses. Other than for care workers, this is for the undeniably, overwhelmingly, male workforce based approach of shovel-readiness. One of the characteristics we can track historically is that when young men can get construction jobs, the ratio of male to female university student contracts, often to a 45:55 per cent split.

New Zealand has a large number of highly literate unemployed with good undergraduate and masters’ degrees and plenty of writing experience. Where is the assistance to get 200–300 PhDs launched for recording our Covid 19 period and recovery, equipping the scientists and researchers for the next generation of academics to call on in what is likely to be much more than a once in a lifetime event? Who will evaluate every government intervention? What can we bring home to ease supply chain dependence? Which small businesses do and don’t recover, and in which sectors? How will the rural areas and provincial towns manage challenges differently from the city-based priority investments? What happens to local government budgets, and where is that impact felt? How did the state broadcasters perform? What happens to legislative human rights and wellbeing assurances in a crisis? How did education providers respond to level 4, and what can we learn from that? What was the impact of two different levels of unemployment benefit? What government responses to the crisis incorporated climate change priorities as central? We need to record the death of theatre or the experiences of rural midwifery in lockdown. The research fields are wide open.

Twelve weeks at $490 per week, for those who lost their jobs and want to write a research proposal, would be generous. If you can be paid that to be unemployed, what about using it for something that will benefit all? An alternative would be to provide $40,000 per year for three years, plus fees, to complete a full-time PhD. Anyone who didn’t complete or who withdrew to take a job could see this revert to a student loan. Three hundred researchers would cost the same as the investment the government has made available for vaccine research, approximately $36 million over three years.

Good supervisors can have a top PhD proposal in operation in 3 months. Get a group of top scholars with more than 50 successful doctoral supervisions under their belt to receive the proposals – I can think of a list of highly qualified people to do this. The first round invitation for proposals could be for those with a masters degree at a high honours level. Three pages are all that is needed to be able to sort the chaff from the grain. Confine the applicants to New Zealand citizens who experienced lockdown here firsthand.

New Zealand university experts have played a significant role through lockdown and recovery. Their scholarship and learning would add up to tens of thousands of hours. Such specialists do not appear overnight. Roads, tunnels, bridges and rail infrastructure won’t be where we turn in the next crisis. Where is our investment to ensure we have the best academics in their fields, assisting the next generation of specialists to be ready for the inevitable?

Nowhere. Not important. Taken for granted. So short-sighted. What a lost opportunity.