Smothered by paper

There has long been debate about the best way to allocate funds for research. How much money should go to prosaic but essential tasks like maintaining the seismograph network compared to investigating new crops or the human impact of disasters? During the era of government reorganisation in the late 1980s it was decided that a simple solution would be to allocate all government funding for research by competitive bidding, undertaken annually. This led to a vast bureaucratic exercise over several months, involving a huge number of people and generating a mountain of paper.

While doing the research for an upcoming Te Ara entry on research organisations, I came across an article in the DSIR (Department of Scientific and Industrial Research) staff newsletter for March 1991, which brought back memories of my own experiences of this approach:

In the paper trenches

The photograph that accompanied the original article

Fighting the paper war

Co-ordinating this year’s Departmental bids to the Foundation was a monumental task in more ways than one. If stacked vertically the 105,000 pages would tower close to eight metres high. While this stack comprised 12 complete sets, the job of assembling the 239 individual programme bids was still a massive one.

Six Headquarters staff worked virtually full-time for three months to ensure the bids were delivered on time. An equivalent of fourteen months full-time work was accumulated by the six between October and February. And this was just the tip of the iceberg. Much of the preliminary work had been devolved to divisions this year. Photocopying costs alone, even at discounted nine cents per page, came close to $10,000.

The process of gathering all the bids began last September. David Johns, one of the co-ordinating team at Headquarters, said they had been trying to get it moving since May. The current 19 outputs had to be translated into 40 outputs for the 1991/92 round.

Assistant Director-General Dick Clarke supervised the process and had the job of reading through the almost 270 draft programme bids over the Christmas period. The revised bids were received by 23 January and delivered to Xerox, who worked flat out for four days to have them ready to meet the 31 January deadline. Results from the bids should be known in June.

The bidding exercise was supposed to demonstrate transparency and fairness in the allocation of government resources. The final result, faxed out as a single page list three months later, did not inspire much faith in the process, especially as behind-the-scenes negotiations over the next few weeks resulted in considerable modification. Twenty years later the funding allocation system is simplified, much of the funding is allocated on a medium to long-term basis, and it certainly generates less paper.

By the time research funding in the university system was reorganised in 2003, competitive bidding was quietly dropped. The Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF) operates on the basis of trying to reward the quality of research – another untested experiment, but one that is less agonising and time-wasting to the participants. It will be very interesting to see the results of the latest PBRF exercise as they are released over the next few weeks.

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