July 26, 2008

Agricultural research killed by bureaucrats

Research killed by bureaucracy
By Clive Dalton

New Zealand scientist Dr John Baker's comments in a recent 2007 farming publication on "what's happening to NZ science" was refreshing. Dr Baker led the team that developed the Cross Slot no-tillage drill at Massey and then by his own company. He lived like many of us through the old regimes of funding by MAF and DSIR and though we got frustrated and always wanted more funding, compared to the set-up today, we were in clover.

Dr Baker comments that under the guise of "accountability" sub layers of minions have appeared to shield the short-term CEOs from the stuff-ups that inevitably appear further down the track when they have left. The average CEO these days only serves 18 months of their three-year contract, leaving with a fist full of dollars and a frustrated board who then repeat the same mistakes.

This modern madness assumed that there was no accountability in the old days. Not true, as at each research station we had a Director who was answerable to the Director of Agricultural Research, and above him was the Director General of Agriculture and then the Minister. That was it!

We had scientists and scientific liaison officers getting results from research stations to farm advisors in each area all the time. The term "Director of Corporate Communications" had not been invented because any company that has one is stuffed, as nothing of use will get out to those who need help. There'll be plenty of spin and power point presentations of what's "gonna" be done – but that's all.

Evidence for my concern is today's sheep industry. In the old days New Zealand had the world's top sheep academics at Massey and Lincoln, then in MAF there were at least 20 scientists working on sheep. These were supported by animal husbandry officers and sheep and beef officers, who had all trained at Massey or Lincoln. Now they've all gone!

This must be a major cause of the current parlous state of the sheep industry. Recent meetings around the country to find what's wrong are a great idea, and I hope they find solutions and not just who to blame. If they decide what has to be done, I hope they know who is going to help farmers do it.

I get upset when I hear the cry by bureaucrats for more agricultural scientists. I could list scores of them who took redundancy or early retirement as a result of their actions. What young person would want to face the cost of two degrees and no career structure in the funding setup that exists today?

As John Baker points out, the great salvation of "user pays" which was supposed to attract commercial funding has in fact killed innovation under layers of bureaucratic accountability. Only large organisations can now face the cost of buying science in New Zealand.

The whole Kiwi philosophy of innovation epitomised by Doug Phillips's hundreds of inventions at Ruakura with No 8 wire and bits of rubber is now dead. Today to get the money you have to ensure an "outcome" before you start. How stupid is that? Under this regime the tiger moth with a drum full of super hanging below would never have got off the ground.

Any small innovator with a good idea these days has nowhere to go. A CRI will welcome them as a source of funding to keep their bureaucracy going, and they would have to pay the massive fees demanded by an Ethics Committee. Then to cap that, there'll be restrictions by the funding body on your the Intellectual Property.

A frustrated scientist mate told me recently he's had a gutsfull of "consortia"! He said that if you have an idea you have to form a consortium, and after spending months producing mountains of bumph and having endless meetings to source funding, your consortium mates vote for the work be done at another centre. Your idea has been nicked so you now have no funding and no job.

The AC Neilson 2006 survey of where farmers get their information says a lot about today's system. Farming newspapers have the top score of 45% followed by 9% for neighbours, other farmers, family and friends. Universities and CRIs score 0%!

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