25 Sep 2015

Research 'abandoned' in AgResearch cuts

10:47 am on 25 September 2015

AgResearch staff are being forced to abandon burgeoning careers and years of important work is being cast aside, a scientist says.

Chemical research in a science laboratory.

Photo: 123rf

The Crown research institute has confirmed it will cut the jobs of of 33 scientists and 50 technicians during the next year, as part of a restructuring to cope with a $5 million cut in funding.

Their research in greenhouse gases, animal and forage sciences and on-farm tech support is being scaled back, while 27 new roles are being introduced in food security, Maori agri-business, high value foods and innovative food products.

AgResearch chair Sam Robinson said the changes were in response to a changing demand.

"These areas are reducing because the sector doesn't see the need for them, as agriculture and the need for science that supports agriculture changes ... through time," he said. "There are areas we are increasing our effort in science in response to the sector's needs."

But Federated Farmers president William Rolleston said the agriculture industry was in need of climate research, and that should not be sacrificed.

"We want to see a science sector that's increasing its output not decreasing it, not necessarily picking particular subjects in a vacuum of information. It's about the overall picture," he said. "We know the government wants to diversify the economy, and we actually support that, but we don't want that to be done at the expense of agriculture."

Mr Rolleston said AgResearch should examine its tactics in attracting new funding both from government and the private sector.

Labour Party economic development spokesperson [http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/political/284856/agresearch-restructuring-bungled-labour

David Clark] said the industry was under threat, and the government needed to step in to stop job cuts.

"Steven Joyce needs to step in and stop this shambolic cycle of restructures. He needs to sack the board and start again," he said.

"Over the last three years they have shed dozens of scientists. They are going offshore, they are taking New Zealand's potential export earnings with them."

Shaun Hendy, director of the Te Pūnaha Matatini centre of research, said decades worth of research was being abandoned in favour of new areas.

"Science seems to be a zero-sum game these days, where if you want to do anything new you have to get out of areas where you might have been building up expertise for decades, and that's not really the way to build a resilient science system," said Mr Hendy.

"It takes decades to get to the forefront of your scientific career, and to have your job eliminated by market forces maybe mid-way through your career is not the sort of signal that we want to be sending."

Mr Hendy said some of the scientists would be able to fill teaching roles at universities, but most would have to move overseas in order to find work.

It's not the first time staff at AgResearch have had to fight for their jobs.

In the last five years, 70 science and technical roles have been cut and 90 non-science roles.

Professor of Agri-Business at the University of Waikato Jacqueline Rowarth said these scientists have had to go through that all over again this week.

"Some of these people who are being let go...actually went through a fairly brutal contestable process for their jobs just a year ago," she said.

"These people who have been through that process, secured a job and have secured funding for the research they need to do are now shocked to find they're no longer required."

Dr Rowarth said staff had been told not to speak to media, or even their managers, about any of this.

"Somebody just rang me up and said, 'don't describe this as a human resource issue, it's an inhuman resource management issue'," she said.

"It's actually extraordinary that you would treat anybody like that."

She said because there's not enough government funding, important scientific work is at the mercy of industry preferences.

"The problem with these Crown research institutes is that they're being told they need to get funding from industry, and so about 50 percent of their funding comes from industry, but industry likes short-term projects." she said.

"Some of the comments being made around AgResearch are that, if you aren't in areas that will bring you a quick buck, you know, a big reward quite quickly, they're not interested."

Dr Rowarth said long-term research areas like climate change were not focused on because they did not generate income.

She has echoed the Labour Party's call for the government to sack AgResearch's board, and said it should go even further and sack its management as well.

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