AgResearch moving house – let's have the full picture

By Grant Jacobs 01/08/2013 11

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.

Several media stories and an AgResearch news release have given some outline figures. From the NZ Herald we have,

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.[1]

The mayor of Hamilton has expressed disappointment,[2] 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[3] – 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.[4]

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.

While the hubs would address the word collaboration—raised in the Task Force report—it seems to me that the action to make these work is what the Task Force recommended,[See Appendix] that it is the funding and governance arrangements that mostly need to change, –

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.

While the hubs may bring players in closer physical proximity, would the benefit be stymied unless these issues are addressed also? For the venture to be successful the hub players would have to  interact with one-another, and outside players, in meaningful ways. The Task Force statement suggests this was an issue in the absence of, and independent of, hubs. It would be good to see what is planned in this sphere.
Again, I would like to have seen a prospective plan.
Another concern I have is if the (research) staff feel they are able to speak openly. This is a wider issue than and not particular to AgResearch or these particular plans; it also relates to CRI scientists speaking on science and other policy matters. There has been general and widespread comment that CRI staff feel they cannot comment in public about CRI issues or projects, or matters that impinge on related areas. While a separate issue, I feel it is worth being in mind (and worth noting the lack of comment from CRI staff in the articles presented on this topic at sciblogs, which I believe stems from this).
Others have suggested these moves are cuts in disguise, but for all the issues involved that I find unlikely.
There is also the research farms and how these relate to the research based on the stock. I lack background to cover this and in any event this piece is long enough already!
1. Among their work includes the Tuatara Genome Project; a blog covering this is being hosted here at sciblogs. (I have an article related to this, about the role of determining epigenetic ‘marks’ in genome sequencing in preparation.)
2. She refers to an innovation zone in their District Plan and a Waikato Agricultural Hub. There is a submission (PDF file) to the Hamilton City Council in May 2013 that, to my hurried reading, supports development of a (their words) “research hub” at Ruakura. (Remember, Ruakura is one of the two locations AgResearch is downscaling in their plans.)
3. In fact, in the past I have applied to work in much larger hubs.
4. For what it’s worth, my question was never answered by the Minister’s office; see comments after Crown Research Institute merger calls.

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.

Other articles on Code for life:

Ag Science hub to form near Christchurch, New Zealand

Crown Research Institute merger calls

Christchurch earthquake geology hour

11 Responses to “AgResearch moving house – let's have the full picture”

  • Regards my remark that “I imagine people in Dunedin would do the same,” the mayor of Dunedin, David Cull, has written on his Facebook page:

    “The announcement of significant down-sizing of Invermay Research Centre and 85 job losses over some three years is totally unacceptable, especially when new capacity is apparently going to be built at Lincoln to replace the already paid for infrastructure and buildings that will be moth-balled here in Dunedin. Government must reverse this trend of public taxpayer owned and funded institutions stripping resource from the regions and regional centres and relocating them in a few main centres. The destruction of regional capacity is mind-numbingly short-sighted and stupid, given its negative effect on the economic and social resilience of the whole New Zealand community. More on this later.”

  • It would be good to hear from AgResearch scientists or collaborators if they have thoughts to share.

    Dave Cull has also written another post at his Facebook page. He mentions that “$16 million was invested in Invermay just 5 years ago”.

    • According to the Otago Daily Times the CEO (Tom Richardson) of AgResearch is to offer a defense to criticisms on Monday. (There are reportage featuring into Today’s ODT such as this headlined article, Joyce urged to save jobs, and the editor calling for concerns to be expressed.)

      I’d like to add that I’ve tried to be neutral in pointing to others’ reportage and commentary on this. The balance of those I point to simply reflects what is out there.

      My own article is mainly pointing at the lack of an open prospectus, given it’s ultimately public monies involved, and to raise awareness of potential issues that might relate to the moves, particularly given the initial information now of several months ago didn’t show the full picture to the public. Indeed, I can’t but help wonder if a public prospectus / plans had been offered ahead of time if the CEO might not be in such a position of having to defend the proposal after it’s announcement – ?

      I’ll admit I remain disappointed at the lack of discussion in here these comments. As I indicated at the end of my article, I didn’t expect commentary from those within the CRIs–they are poorly-placed to speak freely–but it’s disappointing to see no comments from those who collaborate with them, university staff who have no direct connections with AgResearch but who are familiar enough with aspects of this to give some insights and so on. I’m not suggesting commentary ‘should’ be negative of the moves, but that by expressing nothing how are the public to have an interest in science and science spending if a major event draws little commentary from scientists?

  • There have been several follow-on opinion pieces in the Otago Daily Times, including Exodus of scientists feared by former scientist Invermay director Conway Powell.

    CEO Tom Robinson wrote on the Monday. While his piece gave reassurances, as you might expect, it lacked the detail that I would liked to have seen. (As my title says, ‘let’s have the full picture’.)

  • Well researched and written! I am dismayed by the lack of response by many that could oppose this. I came accross your blog after I have canvassed counsillors via e-mail and in the case of Hamilton’s mayor by leaving a comment along on her facebook page. I also thought raising the issue with Waikato times, local MPs, business and farmer leaders / representatives and with Professor Jacqueline Rowarth at University of Waikato was appropiate. Media coverage has been very limited

    My e-mail below:

    I am highly saddened by the fact that Agresearch in Hamilton is shedding 180 jobs. Will we even have an Agresearch Hamilton facility in the future?
    My brother who is a highly skilled senior scientist and a very nice person is one of the people who recently (last Friday) lost his position. He has done first class research, attracted millions of dollars of funding to the organization through the research grant applications he successfully made for the team he leads and has published papers in top scientific journals during his time at Agresearch. He has been actively involved with his wife in the local community for years in Scouting NZ. He has a son studying engineering at Waikato, a daughter at Massey doing veterinary science and a daughter at high school.
    The stated drivers for the job losses locally seem to be that resources are to be moved mainly to the South (Selwyn, Canterbury, 37km from Christchurch) with new facilities (yet to be built) and proposed alignment with Lincoln University. On paper Palmerston North is also to gain more people. Dunedin is another big looser despite their fairly recently built Agresearch facilities. There is the stated intention that science “units” or “hubs” are to be realigned, re-structured, streamlined, made more efficient.
    The reality for the Waikato and specifically Hamilton is major. Perfectly adequate facilities built at great expense exist here. The people losing these jobs or facing the choice of relocating are mainly highly skilled specialists – they cannot simply do something similar and stay contributing to Hamilton and Waikato. Once you lose such a highly skilled local enterprise and business locally, you cannot re-establish this easily even if you retain buildings and facilities. This agricultural research “hub” has links into the local farming community, connections to the university, and gives Hamilton international scientific status. Obviously all those people living here and being productive community members is a good thing and loosing these people is a bad thing. In fact my hunch is that what will happen as a result of this restructuring and proposed relocating of people is that NZ is going to have a lot of good scientists leaving. The reality is that on an international stage getting new top scientists to come is difficult for NZ – I convinced my brother to come based on this being a good and safe country to raise his then young family. My brother would like to remain here with his family and loves NZ and the Waikato.
    What disappoints me is that at least so far there has been little reaction from local business leaders, the council, members of parliament , the farming community, Waikato University – or at least it appears that way from the media.
    Agresearch CEO Tom Richardson is reported as saying that surplus farms and other holdings will be sold to undertake relocation, $100 million will be invested into new campus facilities (at Lincoln) and there will be 280 job relocations and 180 losses at Ruakura (and 85 in Dunedin) but that “no final decision on the future structure of this crown research institute had been made”. He is also reported as saying “Individuals can be in one spot and work across New Zealand.”
    If surplus farms and other holdings are to be sold and reinvested and no final decisions have been made, should Hamilton not be making a strong case for reinvestment in existing facilities? Should someone not be advocating on behalf of the people living and working and contributing here? And why do teams have to be physically “co-located” in the same facility when the strong local farming community has links with Ruakura and “individuals can be in one spot and work across NZ”?. The local and fairly new “Waikato Innovations Park” is something Hamilton can be proud of and will be threatened also.
    I have a second home in Hamilton and hope to retire there one day (my daughters are at Waikato university) I will be supporting my brother as best I can, but this is a disaster for Hamilton if it goes ahead, even if one doesn’t have this personal connection.
    Dunedin seems to be trying to do something:
    “Business leaders are calling for Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce to review a decision by Agresearch to cut 85 jobs from Invermay near Dunedin and shift them to Lincoln or Palmerston North by 2016.
    Otago Chamber of Commerce president Peter McIntyre said the decision was so major for the region, with three-quarters of current jobs set to shift, that Joyce needed to ensure he was not being blind-sided by Agresearch chief executive Tom Richardson.
    And Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull is prepared to lead a delegation of regional “stakeholders” to put Joyce “straight” on the city’s economic and financial situation.”
    You are reported as being against these redundancies
    Are there any collaborations possible to get local community/academic/business political momentum to oppose the loss of these valuable people from Hamilton? Who else sees this as bad for Hamilton and is prepared to do something? I’d very much appreciate hearing about your views on this and any ideas you may have.
    Yours Sincerely
    Dr Harald Edwin Pfeffer

    FRNZCGP, NZMCR 15706, M.B;Ch.B. (Univ. Stellenbosch)
    Pfeffer Medical Services Ltd
    41 Miriama St. P O Box 27
    Taumarunui 3940
    New Zealand
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  • Dr H Pfeffer,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts & email.

    “Media coverage has been very limited”

    As you’ve spotted, local media coverage down this way has been fairly good, although there is a lack of detail about the proposal. Coverage understandably has a wider focus on regional investment, especially as the region has lost out in other things too for example the closure of the railways engineering group in favour of importing the products from overseas. I’ve no feeling for how much traction these efforts are getting.

    There is not a lot coming from AgResearch itself. I believe this is in (large) part because the staff can’t speak about AgResearch matters. (Or at least that’s my understanding.)

    It’s shame to hear about your brother losing his job. I know of at least two at Invermay who have left AgResearch* and there is some words about closure of one of the research sections** in the local press, although my memory is that this was planned some time before the development of plans to shift staff to new ‘hub’ facilities.

    (* Both from managerial ranks. **I haven’t time [nor, I confess, inclination!] to track down the information about section closure at this moment.)

  • I’d be very interested to know at what higher level these decisions were made or driven. The eighty page Agresearch statement of corporate intent is the plan.,%204MB%29.pdf

    The process has started. It is a big machinery grinding into gear but I do believe it could be made to grind to a halt or change direction.

    But who signed off on this and more importantly who can change this?

    Politicians are sensitive to people power. Was this a political decision?
    Who lobbied for this?

    Fonterra surely wants good resources of scientists nearby. Local farmers through Agresearch Hamilton liaising with them and participating in the Field Days must surely be opposed. But what about Christchurch farmers lobbying the government? Most farmers are “true blue”, so is it a lobby group from them that has used the idea of “reinvestment in Christchurch”?
    It is also always good to look at the “money trail”.
    But apart from almost certainly be doomed from the perspective and point that agribusiness professor Jacqueline Rowarth makes, this is likely to cause financial pain and intents of better efficiencies are paper pipe dreams.

    The only thing I can think of in trying to stop the process is at a
    political level. If enough people organize to oppose it and there is enough “political heat” someone with the power to do so (The prime minister,minister, cabinet) should stop or change this ill thought through idea.

    Dr Harald Pfeffer

  • The big problem with Agresearch and other research orgnaisations that have continued to exist from DSIR days is the dirt they live on. The original pieces were effectively acquired for a peppercorn or delivered to the organisation as a govt gift.

    Now the bean counters argue that since it is farm land, it can be sold as dairy country. We all know what the value of that land is. Astronomical. And then the BCs have the gall to say that the organisations must have a return on their assets that are now valued as cow country.

    This is madness.

    Folk may remember the hue and cry when city parks were going to have a monetary value put on then by the Rogergnomes. A park is a park. The idea was thrown out. National Parks looked likely to have a book value – again exorbitant – put on them and that too was beaten off.

    Likewise, research farms should be treated the same way. They are research farms until they are no longer research farms. I would have a good bet that there would not be many Agresearch scientists who agree that this is a good idea to sell the farms.

    Other CRIs have had the same problem. Some have sold their buildings for short term gain and rented them back. They are paying for that now. Especially in Christchurch.

  • Now the bean counters argue that since it is farm land, it can be sold as dairy country.
    Well, land immediately surrounding Ruakura is unlikely to end up under cows, given Tainui Group Holdings’ plans for the inland port.