Covid-19 has underscored that the Government cannot address issues of magnitude alone. Dawn Freshwater looks at where universities fit into our country’s recovery. 

University researchers have shown remarkable agility in their response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

They have conducted research in new fields, collaborated across traditional disciplinary boundaries and joined forces with colleagues across New Zealand and internationally.

Our researchers have also demonstrated a commitment to open access publication ensuring their work is widely and rapidly accessible without charge.

These are some of the key findings of a report published by the Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment on New Zealand’s Covid-19 research response.

The findings reinforce the importance of university research. During the Covid-19 crisis, we have seen outstanding examples of the value of university-based research and researchers who have made important contributions to informing the Government’s goal of eliminating the virus from New Zealand. Research will play an equally vital role in economic and social recovery as the Government leverages research, innovation and capability development to build a new knowledge rich, sustainable economy in the context of considerable global geopolitical and economic shocks.

New Zealand has worked hard in recent years to sustain a world class research environment against a backdrop of a globally low investment in R&D. The current Government has set the bar appropriately high, committing to creating a productive, sustainable, and inclusive future that works for all New Zealanders, and achieving the 2 percent of GDP threshold for investment in R&D in line with other OECD countries. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of research to the health and resilience of our society.

Following the pandemic, the Government’s immediate focus has been on maintaining critical support for existing public services and supporting key infrastructure investments. However, policy and investment decisions made today must strike a careful balance between addressing immediate needs while setting New Zealand firmly on a path towards a more productive, sustainable and inclusive economy.

Research and innovation will be critical to addressing the challenges we face as a nation, including worryingly high levels of mental health issues and family violence; comparatively low levels of productivity and innovation, and huge pressure on our ecological environment. Tackling the challenge of transitioning to a low emissions economy will require far-reaching societal change in New Zealand, as elsewhere in the world. University research in marine science, atmospheric science, green chemistry, sustainability and environmental engineering will be critical to developing innovations to help reduce our impact on the environment and transition New Zealand to a low-carbon economy.

Covid-19 has underscored that Government cannot address issues of magnitude alone and tackling New Zealand’s long-term challenges requires a collective effort. This provides an opportunity for universities to work closely with government, industry, community organisations and other stakeholders to provide key knowledge and expertise required to address challenges, create new economic opportunities and build capability. For example, close university-industry collaboration in areas such as data science, advanced manufacturing, healthcare and agriculture can dramatically improve the efficiency of existing methods of production and commercialise new products and services across industries and sectors.

The disruption caused by Covid-19 presents an unprecedented opportunity for a reset with a focus on creating the economic transformation needed to generate high-value, green jobs and create equity through a focus on those communities that are most exposed to the social and economic implications of the pandemic.

It provides a unique opportunity for reimagining many of our industries and sectors and addressing our persistent productivity challenge. University research will be instrumental in realising transformational change and building a more equitable and inclusive society.

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