Further details of AgResearch’s plans to move (large) parts of its operation to create ‘hubs’ were released yesterday. As I had suspected earlier this involves substantially reducing operations in some parts of the country.
One hub will be created at Lincoln, which I introduced earlier; the Grasslands campus at Palmerston North is also to be expanded. I won’t speak much of the North Island part of this as I’m less familiar with the locations and science done there. (Fellow blogger Ken Perrott has written of the downscaling of the Ruakura campus.)
One of my concerns after the initial announcement of the hubs several months ago was that the disruptions and negatives of this would cause were glossed over in the initial announcement in a ‘positive spin’ exercise.
As Crown Research Institutes (CRIs), they are effectively owned by the public and I personally would have liked to see more complete communication of all aspects, not just a sales pitch, given the public monies involved.
In particular, I have been unable locate a document laying out the overall plan with an examination of the key issues and the estimated costs and benefits. I would like to have seen a publicly-released case for this before it was decided, but it seems that these actions have been decided at a high level as, for all practical purposes, a fait accompli.
The costs and impacts of these movements are wider than the tight focus on AgResearch itself in yesterday’s announcements. Elements include staff losses (potentially to overseas, which will incur downstream recruitment costs and project disruptions), downtime during the transition, the affect on collaborations, and so on.
About 300 roles would be based at Grasslands, 330 at Lincoln, 30 at Invermay and 90 at Ruakura.
“These proposals will add approximately 215 roles to Lincoln, and 45 to Grasslands, with approximately 180 roles proposed to move from Ruakura and 85 roles proposed to move from Invermay,” Dr Richardson said.
This would suggest the Invermay campus is to be downsized from 115 staff to 30, a substantial reduction. Similarly, these figures would indicate a reduction of staff at Ruakura from approximately 270 to 90.
The statements from AgResearch CEO Dr. Richardson, to my reading, indicate that entire sections of the organisation are to be shifted to new locations.
“Our science at Grasslands will focus on food, nutrition, animal health and forage. Lincoln will focus on farm systems and land use; as well as sheep, beef and deer productivity, supported by our
“–omics platform” (genomics, proteomics, metabolomics and bioinformatics). These locations have the right ingredients to create successful innovation hubs: the presence of agriculture-focussed tertiary institutions, other large research organisations, industry bodies and private sector companies.
“We will focus activities at our Invermay (near Dunedin) and Ruakura (Hamilton) campuses on specific environmental and farm systems regional needs,”
For example, I imagine this means the Animal Genomics teams is intended to be moved to be moved to Lincoln in it’s entirety.
The mayor of Hamilton has expressed disappointment, pointing at loss of links to Waikato University. I imagine people in Dunedin would do the same, and point to links to Otago University.
I imagine many staff and their families will be facing decisions as to if they wish to make the move AgResearch is asking of them. Some, for example, may not consider Christchurch (yet) sufficiently recovered from the earthquakes to be a good place to move their children too. (Bear in mind moves will not be before 2016.) Some may have the ‘two-body’ problem to consider – finding work for a partner is a common issue for couples where one (or both) is a scientist.
One comment in response to an earlier article I wrote on potential CRI mergers ends,
We’re not in science because we expect to get rich, but stability is really important.
Related remarks have been made to Radio New Zealand,
Jacqueline Rowarth, a professor of agribusiness at Waikato University, said on Wednesday past relocations from Wallaceville in Upper Hutt and at similar institutes overseas failed because just 10% of the scientists were willing to move.
Professor Rowarth said the AgResearch plan is likely to lead to a huge loss of knowledge and expertise. She said the staff are excellent and doing fantastic work, and this will just shake them up for little gain.
Housing might be another issue, but it is worth noting that the Lincoln hub sketch includes housing. Similarly, the AgResearch CEO has said relocation packages are to be part of the arrangement (as would be expected). It would be interesting to know the intentions and ownership plans for the housing shown on the hub plans. Is it targeted at students, staff or wider? Some larger institutes or hubs overseas own accommodation for temporary visitors, for example research staff on sabbatical or exchange visits.
AgResearch is clearly giving some lead time for employees to adapt, but I have no doubt many employees will still be concerned. (We are told there are to be no staff movements before 2016, however the “minimum of six months’ notice before their role is moved” looks quite short for research staff who are awaiting confirmation.)
One thing I’d like to raise, not mentioned in the releases, is that movements also impact on collaborations. Science collaborations often involve frequent meetings, to thrash out specifics of projects and problems. This means a wider range of science projects may be affected than just those in-house to AgResearch. (Proximity offered by hubs will be a benefit to those within the hubs.)
Similarly, moving scientific laboratories is not like moving house. On-going projects cannot always be moved, or not easily. Large volumes of samples would have to be moved. Equipment re-installed. And so on.
The point being, I’m not convinced the public is aware of the extent of disruption that is likely to be involved, the downsides as well as the potential gains. You would expect this would negatively impact on Agresearch’s earnings over the transition period, a loss that would have to be recovered by the new arrangement. Again, I would like to have seen some plan prospectus available.
There is also the aspect of if the hubs will be successful. Lest I be giving the wrong impression, I am not opposed to hubs – my main concern is with the lack of complete information in the public sphere (and empathy with the staff affected in a way they would not like).
A few years ago a Task Force reported on the CRIs. This paragraph from the Executive Summary captures some key points,[See Appendix]
We do not believe changing the number of CRIs, their ownership status, or their employment arrangements will significantly improve their contribution to New Zealand. The question is not how many CRIs New Zealand should have, but what structures will best provide research services that address the problems and opportunities New Zealand faces. It is our opinion that the main factors impeding CRI performance relate to their funding, ownership and governance arrangements,
The Task Force appear to not have examined the formation of hubs.
I have to admit the thought occurred to me that these hubs might be considered mergers by a different name. You could consider it an alternative arrangement from the players involved in the fuss about a statement that CRI mergers were on the cards in 2011.
With that in mind I can’t help wondering if what the Task Force wrote about mergers might well apply to creation of hubs also (bearing in mind the differences too),
8.7 In our view, and in the view of the CRIs we interviewed, the cost savings that might result from mergers would be unlikely in themselves to justify the costs associated with the change. The Taskforce was unable to find evidence that cost savings in overheads would in themselves justify merging one or more CRIs and we do not recommend any such action.
we believe that existing funding and governance arrangements for CRIs inhibit collaboration, position natural partners such as universities and firms as competitors, and interfere with CRIs’ adoption of best-practice research management. Governance and institutional arrangements can be considerably simplified so that CRIs have a stronger sense of purpose and direction.
Appendix – Executive Summary of the Report of the Crown Research Institute Taskforce (PDF file)
CRIs play a pivotal role in New Zealand’s innovation system
Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) matter to New Zealand. Their importance is increasing as science plays an ever more critical role in the nation’s economic development. Research and the other services provided by CRIs help address New Zealand’s most pressing issues: achieving economic growth by making the tradable sector more productive; improving the sustainable use of natural resources; and managing exposure to risks that could otherwise destabilise society, the environment and the economy.
Research and development generates profound and enduring benefits for New Zealand society. Ongoing government investment is essential. The Government established CRIs to improve the economic, environmental and social wellbeing of New Zealand, and they are delivering substantial benefits. However, the evidence received and our deliberations have led us to conclude that CRIs can and should contribute much more.
CRIs have the potential to be powerful engines of economic growth, forging national and international collaborations at the cutting edge of research and science. CRIs already attract international attention because of their strong links to business, government and other science organisations. We believe, however, that through greater collaboration CRIs can perform much better. Such collaborations will, the Taskforce believes, become more important in delivering benefits to New Zealand.
What needs to change so that CRIs contribute more to New Zealand?
We do not believe changing the number of CRIs, their ownership status, or their employment arrangements will significantly improve their contribution to New Zealand. The question is not how many CRIs New Zealand should have, but what structures will best provide research services that address the problems and opportunities New Zealand faces. It is our opinion that the main factors impeding CRI performance relate to their funding, ownership and governance arrangements, as follows:
• Currently, it is not clear if a CRI’s objective is to create value for itself, as a company, or to generate value for New Zealand. Current ownership arrangements seem to place undue emphasis on research and development that produces outputs that individual CRIs can capture in their statements of revenue and balance sheets, rather than on research that contributes to the wellbeing and prosperity of New Zealand. This can reduce quite significantly the overall impact of government investment in CRIs.
• there are multiple lines of accountability that dilute the CRIs’ sense of purpose and direction. each CRI is accountable to the shareholding Ministers, directly and through the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (the Foundation), the Crown Ownership Monitoring Unit in Treasury (COMU), and the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology (MoRST). Each agency has its own perspective and requirements.
• CRIs are heavily dependent on competitive contracts, which are often short-term relative to the time frame in which science produces results. This makes it difficult for CRIs to operate strategically.
• we believe that existing funding and governance arrangements for CRIs inhibit collaboration, position natural partners such as universities and firms as competitors, and interfere with CRIs’ adoption of best-practice research management. Governance and institutional arrangements can be considerably simplified so that CRIs have a stronger sense of purpose and direction.
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