Thursday, July 7, 2022

Restructure losses ‘may be huge’

The loss of experience and knowledge to the agricultural industry could be huge under the proposed AgResearch restructure, agribusiness professor Jacqueline Rowarth says.

AgResearch announced this month 180 jobs at Ruakura and 85 from AgResearch’s Invermay site near Dunedin would be lost to its Lincoln campus in a $100 million proposal to create large campuses at Grasslands, in Palmerston North, and at Lincoln.

“History tells us globally that only 10% (of scientists) will go (to the new site) and that’s a huge loss of capability,” Rowarth said.

“When Wallaceville in Upper Hutt and Hurley Pasture Research Centre in the UK closed, 90% of people, for a variety of reasons, did not relocate.

“A person not moving means sadly that their research will not continue, as their funding is moved to the new centres.”

Rowarth, a professor of agribusiness at Waikato University, said regions were already minimally served with research that met climate, soils, and systems requirements.

“The science community has been shattered. The latest announcement is the last straw for CRI research in anything but the bottom half of the North Island and the middle of the South Island.”

Rowarth said the role of levy bodies would become increasingly important now and as the biggest investors in research and development in New Zealand farmers, as the levy payers, needed to have more say.

The role of private consultants as the professionals who could integrate the research into the bottom line of farm business would need to step up.

“The concept of co-location for collaboration is about having enough funding to work together. NZ just does not have enough funding. The role relocation announced by AgResearch is actually about people, and top people.”

Rowarth doubted the proposal would serve the needs of agricultural productivity in the future.

NZ Institute of Agriculture chairman Doug Edmeades, a former AgResearch scientist, said the proposal would not do anything to help the real problem around agricultural research.

“What is being proposed is reckless in terms of the welfare of the staff and I think it’s thoughtless in terms of the problems confronting agricultural research. Research is about the people in the buildings, not the buildings,” Edmeades said.

The bigger picture concerned him. He said the restructuring of AgResearch would not address the major limitations of agricultural research in NZ, the lack of funding and flaws in the Crown Research Institutes Act.

AgResearch was caught in the time warp of management that wasn’t appropriate for science, Edmeades said.

“What is being proposed is reckless in terms of the welfare of the staff and I think it’s thoughtless in terms of the problems confronting agricultural research. Research is about the people in the buildings, not the buildings.”

Doug Edmeades

NZ Institute of Agriculture

Farm business consultant Andy Macfarlane said in the past 25 years the gap between the science and extension communities had been entangled in a model that had created sub-optimisation in the transfer of knowledge.

“We have the science but it is not necessarily getting to the farmer on the ground.”

Macfarlane, an AgResearch director, Lincoln University Council member and chairman of Deer Industry NZ, said the proposed concept was part of a much bigger picture to maximise value from the output of agricultural science.

“The outcomes will be just as critical in the future. It’s all about how we build resources to get long-term commitment to ensure we are utilising best use of resources more effectively and efficiently.”

Macfarlane has specific interest in ensuring not just farmers, but the extension people too, have access to good science.

“I see this as an opportunity for increased resources in general, including the Otago-Southland areas, for an increase in resources, particularly in the areas of farm systems, environmental and resource management,” he said.

It was an opportunity for all stakeholders to work closely together to generate more sustainable farm productivity and profitability across NZ.

“My understanding is that we have three years to work out how we best deploy our scientists and extension people to ensure the outcomes are delivered.”

Mid Canterbury-based agricultural consultant John Tavendale said farmers would be the losers under centralisation.

“Scientists sitting behind a desk are one thing but farmers need to relate to science in their own areas. Centralising will not give farmers reason to up-take and if farmers are not taking up research what’s the whole point in doing research?”

Pure science might be able to be centralised but applied science that required farmer uptake should still be done in the regions, he said. 

“Pure science is no problem but for applied science there are real issues.”

A final decision on the proposed shake-up is expected next month, after the consultation period.

Science NZ chief executive Anthony Scott said Science NZ had views that would be useful to have but given the proposal was in the consultation phase it was not appropriate to comment until the consultation led to a plan.

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