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.