Loss of AgResearch jobs “will have huge ripple effect through the farming sector”

Dr Jill Stanley, Vice President of the New Zealand Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science, warns that the proposed loss of up to 33 scientists and 50 technical positions at AgResearch, will have a huge ripple effect throughout the New Zealand farming sector.

The primary industries account for over 50% of New Zealand’s export earnings, she points out, and agriculture is a big contributor to this. The rundown of research capability will impede New Zealand’s efforts to stay competitive in the international market.

The 2015 OECD report places New Zealand 27th out 34 OECD countries in terms of total spending on R&D as a percentage of GDP.

New Zealand’s poor performance is acknowledged in the National Statement of Science Investment, released this week.

In this statement, the Government outlines plans to increase both public and private sector investment to reach the OECD average by the 2020s.

This sounds admirable, says Dr Stanley, but she recalls Simon Upton as Minister of Science expressing the same desire during the science reforms of the 1990s and failing to bring about the necessary step-change in science funding.

The Government is also reviewing CRI core funding, which has not been inflation-adjusted since its inception.

“But will this be a case of too little, too late?

“Obviously, the affected staff will be feeling undervalued and vulnerable,” says Dr Stanley.

She says it is likely only a few of those who lose their jobs will find other jobs in agriculture within New Zealand. Many of the others will likely be lost to our competitors overseas, while some will find jobs outside the sector.

These redundancies will further discourage bright young New Zealanders from entering a career in the primary sector, at a time when we desperately need an increase in our skill base.

The heart of the problem appears to be lack of funding to retain this capability, says Dr Stanley. AgResearch has predicted a gap in revenue of more than $5 million this financial year. They have identified new areas that need 27 new staff, resulting in a net reduction of 56 positions.

Dr Stanley agrees that AgResearch should be responding to industry needs. But she says New Zealand needs a science system that is adequately buffered to allow for capability retention when shorter-term industry priorities change.

* The speech by Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce when launching the National Statement of Science Investment can be found here. 

Evaluation of Marsden Fund shows scientific output increased

A study by researchers at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research – a not-for-profit, non-partisan research institute – has found that Marsden Funding does increase the scientific output of the funded researchers.

The Marsden Fund is the premiere funding mechanism for blue skies science research in New Zealand. In 2014, $56 million was awarded to 101 research projects chosen from among 1222 applications from researchers at universities, Crown Research Institutes and independent research organizations.

Dr Adam Jaffe, director of Motu, said the research found a team that is given Marsden funding shows a 6-12 percent increase in their academic publications and a 13-30 percent increase in the papers that cite their work.

“Publications and citations are, of course, only proxies for research output. However, we expect successful research to be highly cited,” said Dr Jaffe.

But the researchers also found no evidence that the selection process could meaningfully predict the likely success of different proposals.

The application process for the Marsden Fund has two stages. An initial one-page proposal is reviewed by a subset of the appropriate panel and given a preliminary score. 71-84 percent of the proposals are rejected.

In the second stage, longer proposals are submitted and sent to external (typically international) anonymous referees for review. Applicants are given the chance to respond to referee comments before the panel scores and ranks the proposals.

“Interestingly, we didn’t find a link between a project’s future success and the rankings given to it by the second-round panel,” said Dr Jaffe.

“This means there is no reason to expect diminishing returns if Marsden funding were increased. It also means the significant resources devoted to the second round evaluation could be reduced without degrading the quality of decision-making.”

This analysis is based on 1,263 Marsden proposals who reached the second stage of review between 2003 and 2008. Overall 41% of the second-round proposals were funded. Around 25% of the proposals were Fast Start (funding for early-career researchers) and slightly more than half of these were funded.

The average researcher on these teams made six proposals and received 1.2 grants between 2000 and 2012. Motu researchers also identified the approximately 1500 New Zealand based researchers named on these proposals and examined their annual publication and citation record between 1996-2012.

“We were very foturnate to have access to all the funded and unfunded proposals, including their evaluation scores. This meant we could control statistically for potential bias driven by the Fund’s efforts to fund projects that are expected to be successful,” said Dr Jaffe. The Marsden Fund and the Royal Society should be commended for making these data availabe, something very few research funding agencies do.”

New Zealand spends less money on research, relative to its size, than three-quarters of the countries in the OECD.

The government is considering expanding public funding to narrow this gap.

But very little has been known about the efficacy of existing funding mechanisms until now, Jaffe said.

The working paper “The effect of public funding on research output: The New Zealand Marsden Fund”, was funded by the Motu Research and Education Foundation, Queensland University of Technology and the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment.

Minister’s redefinition of the purpose of CRIs is questioned by president of the NZAS

The New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) is surprised by comments made by the Minister of Science and Innovation, Steven Joyce, in apparent contradiction of the Crown Research Institutes (CRI) Act, 1992. The Act describes the first two principles of operation for CRIs as undertaking research ‘for the benefit of New Zealand’ and ‘pursuing excellence’, said NZAS President, Dr Nicola Gaston.

Minister Joyce has said that ‘Crown research institutes are about commercial science, that’s why they’re there’, but benefit in the Act is not narrowly defined in terms of commercial outcomes.” said Dr Gaston.

“It also includes a requirement for ‘social responsibility by having regard to the interests of the community in which it operates’.”

The Minister’s comments come after widespread concerns were expressed at the announcement of large-scale redundancies at AgResearch, the CRI responsible for agricultural science.

“Inflation has been allowed to erode the core funding that AgResearch receives from the government, exposing its science capability to the short-term priorities of the sector, based on precisely this misunderstanding of the balance of scientific work that CRIs should support,” said Dr Gaston.

“CRIs need sustained programmes of fundamental research so as to maintain a competitive edge, in order to deliver on their overall purpose.”

Dr Gaston notes that the Act outlines specific circumstances where maintaining capability and excellence is essential.

“The Act states that the Prime Minister may give directions to Crown Research Institutes during emergencies relating to civil defence, and to animal or plant disease. Directions can also be given by ministers in relation to international issues, presumably including issues such as climate change, epidemics and biosecurity. The CRIs must retain expertise for such situations”, said Dr Gaston.

The NZAS is a nationwide association of practising research scientists spanning the universities, technical institutes, Crown Research Institutes, government departments, industry, museums, other science institutions, and independent researchers.

AgResearch culling plans draw criticism

Aggrieved scientists aren’t alone in questioning the latest bout of proposed layoffs at AgResearch and the Government’s science policies.

A New Zealand Herald editorial notes that AgResearch is about to cull about 83 positions in research areas where, it says, “customer demand and the potential to create impact for New Zealand is decreasing”.

Customer demand is not something scientists used to have to worry about, but after the economy was exposed to world markets Crown research institutes were obliged to earn their income from industries. Since then, scientists and other research staff have suffered the insecurity and trauma that happens in all organisations in changing markets, and it never gets easier.

The redundancies at AgResearch are partly offset by plans to employ 18 scientists and nine technicians in new roles where demand is growing but the net reduction in 56 positions will be painful for those no longer required.

The editorial acknowledges  the slide in dairy prices since early last year may have reduced the industry’s research funds

…but neither AgResearch nor Federated Farmers have said that is the reason for the cuts. AgResearch has not said where its customer demand has declined, nor where it sees rising demand for that matter. Federated Farmers has blamed “inadequate funding” and “a lack of strategic planning” in agricultural research.

Its president, Dr William Rolleston, recalls that a Government taskforce in 2010 recommended core funding for Crown research institutes, along with more autonomy for them. “While this has happened,” he said, “the development of the National Science Challenges has tied up a significant proportion of core funding and made governance responsibility unclear.” It sounds like bureaucracy still prevails.

Dr Rolleston wants an increase in their core funding, which has not been adjusted for inflation since 2011, but he also believes AgResearch could be more effective in attracting funds from the Government and the private sector. New Zealand’s agricultural science is shrinking, he says. “Scientists are disillusioned and our youth [are] discouraged from science careers.”

If this is true, the Herald argues (“and scientists in a position to speak publicly say it is”) the country’s leading farmer organisation should help do something about it.

The sector contributes half the funding of some research programmes that are vital to further developing its products, improving its biosecurity and environmental performance and responding to the challenges and opportunities of climate change.Public funds inevitably come with bureaucratic procedures and programmes that can change on the whim of governments. These needlessly unsettle professional staff and undermine morale. Scientists need their farming sector funders to be alongside them, resisting capricious reorganisation and keeping them working towards discoveries that will keep New Zealand ahead of the game.

Anthony Robins, writing on The Standard blog, draws attention to a consequence particularly dear to his own heart:

Research cuts send negative signal to aspiring scientists

Just over half of AgResearch staff have been employed at the crown research institute for less than two years, a “staggering” figure says the New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS).

NZAS president Dr Nicola Gaston said by making the cuts the Government was telling young New Zealanders that careers in science were not for them. “This is a deeply concerning level of staff turnover for any organisation, let alone a science agency engaged in long-term research programmes which require continuity and stable working conditions,” Gaston said. …

Robins tells National everyone opposes cutting agricultural research. He further says it blows away even the pretense that the Government cares about climate change and demands: “What the hell are you doing?”


AgResearch consulting staff on proposed staff reductions

AgResearch has confirmed it is consulting with staff about a proposal to reduce scientist and technician roles in areas where customer demand and the potential to create impact for New Zealand is decreasing.

AgResearch Chair Sam Robinson announced the company must balance shifts in its sector’s research needs – and therefore revenue – with the need to respond to emerging science opportunities to maximise impact for New Zealand’s pastoral sector.

Declining R&D investment in some areas meant the Crown research institute was facing a significant and ongoing funding challenge in those areas. While both private sector and Government revenue is increasing in other areas, its net science revenue is forecast to be $5.3 million less this financial year compared with 2014/15.

Robinson said:

“We are therefore consulting with our staff from today on a proposal to reduce science staff in areas of shrinking demand. Combined with recruitment planned in areas of growing demand, this would mean a net reduction of 15 scientists and 41 technicians at AgResearch in the 2015/16 year.

“We propose to reduce by 33 scientist roles and 50 science technician roles in areas where customer demand and the potential for impact is reducing.

“This proposal is partially offset by the recruitment of 18 new scientist roles and 9 new science technician roles in areas of growing customer demand and Government investment, such as the areas where we were successful in the 2015 MBIE Science Investment round. The net reduction in positions would be 56 in total.

“These proposed changes are consistent with our overall strategy for science and what we have identified with our customers. We do not intend to completely stop research in any particular area. We are working closely with our stakeholders to ensure we continue to deliver to their needs.

“This is a difficult time for our people and they are our first priority through this process. We will be consulting with our staff on what’s been proposed and listening to their feedback before making any final decisions,” Mr Robinson said.

A decision on the proposals is expected to be made at the end of next month.

Genetic variations identified to enable improved dairy cow fertility

LIC scientists have discovered new genetic variations which can impact a cow’s ability to carry a calf to full term.

The variations are known as Fertility2, Fertility3 and Fertility4, and are carried by about 2% of Holstein-Friesian dairy cows and 1% of crossbreds.

LIC chief scientist, Dr Richard Spelman, said it follows the 2013 discovery of Fertility1 in the Jersey breed and concludes 18 months of DNA sequencing research which focussed on fertility and calf survival.

“All three variations have the same effect on fertility and calf survival, with origins in the New Zealand dairy cow dairy population dating back to sires born in the 1970s.

“These are recessive genetic variations which mean an embryo will be non-viable if both the sire and dam have a copy of the variations and pass them on; even if both parents are carriers, only one in four of their progeny will be affected.

“When an animal has two copies of the variations the animal will die in utero. Our research shows that the cow carrying this foetus will then be empty, which means it will not lactate the following season. No live animals have been seen with two copies of the variation.”

The farmer owned co-operative, which supplies genetics to breed approximately three-quarters of the national dairy herd, has published a list of its artificial breeding (AB) sires that carry the variations on its website.

DataMate will issue alerts to reduce the frequency of matings between two carriers of the variation, as it does already with Fertility1 and other undesirable genes including CVM, BLAD and Small Calf Syndrome.

“These variations will have little impact on a farmer’s mating decisions this spring, but what they do provide is a solid genetic explanation for why some calves do not survive through to birth, resulting in an empty cow.

“It allows farmers to make more informed decisions to manage and minimise this risk on their farm.”

The variations were discovered as part of LIC’s DNA sequencing programme, which aims to map variations in genes in a cow’s DNA that can impact production and health.

It utilises a large sequencing dataset developed by LIC scientists and co-funded by the Ministry for Primary Industries through the Transforming the Dairy Value Chain Primary Growth Partnership programme, led by Fonterra and DairyNZ.

The programme has led to previous discoveries including the Small Calf Syndrome gene, a fat gene which impacts milk composition and a variation which impacts a cow’s ability to regulate body temperature and cope with heat stress.

US court ruling hailed as good news for bees

GE Free NZ has welcomed the the US Appeal Court’s cancellation of the approval for the Dow Agrosciences chemical Sulfoxaflor, a neonicotinoid, because it is considered highly toxic to bees. The ruling said “the federal regulators erred in allowing the insecticide onto the market.”

A press statement from GE Free NZ says many seeds for crops are sprayed or coated with the neonicotinoid insecticide, these have a persistent systemic toxic effect over the life time of the plant and are found in the pollen, flesh and honey sourced from the crops

Genetically engineered corn seeds are routinely coated with neonicotinoids. These GE seeds and are sourced to make high fructose corn syrup which is increasingly being used to feed bees over winter.

The New Zealand Environmental Protection Agency approved the importation and manufacture of the Sulfoxaflor neonicotinoid in 2013. The EPA committee decision said that they would have negligible adverse effects for human health and to the environment and there will be benefits associated with its release”.

“New Zealand has had a massive die off of bees this year and it could be linked to pesticides such as Sulfoxaflor” said Claire Bleakley, president of GE Free NZ. “We call on the EPA to follow the US directive and immediately remove all Sulfoxaflor neonicotinoids from use and cancel their registration”.

The Environmental Protection Act which set up the NZ EPA from the earlier Environmental Risk Management Authority requires it to consider “international obligations” which over ride its environmental responsibilities.

Submissions have closed on an amendment to the EPA Act that requires the authority to maintain, protect and enhance the environment.


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