‘Release the hounds’ Mr Joyce — let IRL get on with becoming an ATI

By Peter Kerr 01/05/2012

There’s so many ways to say aagghhh, what the hell is going on, that it is difficult to know where to start.

But, it is nearly six months since John Key (no less) announced the high-tech transformation of the science sector was to be kicked off.

Namely – and specifically – that IRL is to morph into an Advanced Technology Institute. We still wait for something, anything, to happen.

We’ve had reviews galore (indeed, it is close to reviews of the reviews) of IRL.

We’ve had the plan to absorb the Ministry of Science and Innovation into the MoBIE, or whatever its acronym is.

We’ve had an awful lot of nothing much — along the lines of Nero fiddling while Rome burns (though that was apparently quite unfair to Nero who was generally regarded as one of the better tyrants, see here)

All of which is pretty depressing at a time when doing something, anything, creating some movement and getting runs on the board, would be a bit of a tonic for the country.

Part of the irony of the situation is that it was IRL who suggested the transformation in the first place (and quietly promoted the idea through the Advanced Manufacturing Review and along the political process).

While it doesn’t suggest (and neither should it) that it has all the answers, simply by setting out on a journey to become a more effective half-way house between science and industry, it would be likely to evolve to become that.

Instead it appears that bureaucratic masters want to attempt the impossible of describing and prescribing what it should be, and what results it should deliver in a world that’s changing so fast that any document describing the same becomes redundant the moment it is written.

Look, a quick group hug would soon provide IRL with its riding instructions and allow it to get on with getting on. Part of that is expanded resources for Christchurch and Auckland and new construction at Gracefield to replace some buildings that existed before the Second World War!

What is required is a balanced plan put together collaboratively by industry (to keep everybody honest and ensure that the idea actually works), MSI (to provide world’s best ATI practice and government policy and compliance, and IRL (to retain the integrity of the organisation and to promote the best of what it has). By industry, how about representatives of companies with great track records in R&D and innovation like Scott Technology, F&P Healthcare, Resene and Glidepath.

The risk of industry alone deciding would risk ‘candy floss science’ — excessive focus on short term, applied studies of limited depth. A government-designed ATI — well – think about it then shudder the thought. IRL calling all of the shots on its own would risk the nation ending up with IRL in drag.

But how about Minister Joyce inviting all three to work collaboratively to draw up a simple model then appointing an establishment board to implement the ATI?

In the total, and it seems continued, absence of any sense of national science direction from government, mucking around and trying to dot mythical i’s and cross potential t’s of what an ATI should be doing is true fiddling.

At the end of the day, the ATI is going to be ‘doing stuff’.

In transforming itself, IRL will become much more engineering-oriented, and require specialised brains from the university sector.

The ‘production’ of such people is another aspect that IRL has lined up to happen in partnership with universities. (It is however important that there isn’t an over-emphasis on engineering vis a vis biological, physical and chemical sciences that are strengths of IRL and important to many New Zealand companies.)

But its hands are tied while ‘government’ mucks around doing nothing.

For goodness sake GET ON WITH IT — or put Graham Henry in charge.

Or – to quote ‘The Simpsons’ Mr Burns – ‘Release the hounds’ Mr Joyce.

0 Responses to “‘Release the hounds’ Mr Joyce — let IRL get on with becoming an ATI”

  • Great points Peter – just wanted to point out that from the science student perspective, we certainly aren’t waiting for the govt to do anything before helping IRL source the skilled employees needed to make ATI a reality. Chiasma (wgtn.chiasma.org.nz) is working closely with IRL to ensure that it has acess to the best and brightest that NZ universities have to offer, but also to produce students that have commercially relevant skills that they might not otherwise develop. Oh and we’ve done this for less than $10k in under 6 months. Take THAT MSI. It can be done, and if lowly students can fix part of the problem – why can’t you?

  • My understanding is that a new partnership has been implemented for IRL Christchurch/Canterbury Uni, and that the new leader has been recruiting his team, has guaranteed funding for a few years, and is due to move from IRL Gracefield to Chch in the next few weeks.

    IRL is also seconding some of its senior scientists out to industry for periods of up to 12 months. They are already providing on-site support to companies ( and taking some of their toys with them ). Once advantage of senior scientists is they often know what they don’t know.

    Technology growth and innovation are going to come from the agile and novel smaller companies that are growing, but don’t have resources for well-structured R&D based on understanding the science behind innovative technologies.

    The problem was, and still is, that company management treat R&D as a distress purchase. Throwing a lot of resources into irrelevant structures would be frittering away taxpayers funds, as with the National Pilot Plant of the 1970s concept, and much of MoRST/FoRST.

    I’d much prefer that IRL first decide who they can help, associate scientists with those companies ( secondment or direct personal communication ), and then ascertain how to provide resources for growth.

    It was made very clear that the bulk of the funding required for structural realignment would be from government asset sales programme, so that’s clearly the timeline.

    The companies you name should not be involved in determining the ATI structure and purpose. Most are large ( from innovations over decades ), and have very specialised skill requirements in their R&D programmes. The people who lead their technical divisions will have very specialist skills and knowledge of their industry/market. Might as well invite Weta Workshops management.

  • Good points guys, especially the relevance of Weta Workshops.

    I’ll re-emphasise though, no one knows what the future will look like, let them (IRL) get on with becoming an ATI, and it can/will evolve that way.