Not long after I went to work for MAF Ruakura in 1989, one of the old-timers suggested that I went up to the library and looked at the 'stud book'. To my utter surprise, this was a book of public servants, not animals. Everyone was in it, name, position, rank, salary, date of birth, years of service and qualifications.
Interestingly, I discovered that, as a scientist I was only earning about 20 per cent less than my director and, in turn, he was within cooee of the salary of the Director General of Agriculture. Clearly, the days of gigantic corporate salaries were yet to arrive!
More interestingly, most of the staff had spent their whole careers in the organisation and, broadly speaking, the longer you were there, the higher you rose. Again, the days of restructuring, downsizing, rightsizing, redundancies etc. were yet to arrive.
Of course, there were inefficiencies. A few staff sat in their offices all day reading newspapers, somebody was making violins in the workshop and the glassblower in the basement below me refined gold as a sideline - seriously! And there were things like a bicycle allowance and meat parcels on Fridays!
Yet, when one looked at the achievements of the Department of Agriculture (as it was) over the years they were impressive. The most obvious, and most cited was the discovery back in the 1930s that the addition of cobalt to the central plateau soils eliminated bush sickness, rendering highly productive vast areas of farmland and generating hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars of farm income every year.
But there were many other scientific advances over the years, improved grazing regimes, artificial insemination, control of facial eczema, electric fencing, enhanced budding of kiwifruit, genetic selection etc that collectively are worth billions of dollars of extra income to New Zealand every year.
So, despite this being a pretty slack, laid back bunch of scientists that worked to public service guidelines, they had added monumental amounts of dosh to the economy.
However, by the early 1990s, the winds of change were blowing hard, and the government was no longer prepared to tolerate this laissez faire, public servant, and public good approach to funding science.
The Crown Research Institutes were created and AgResearch born. On paper, it all looked good but the cracks in the model soon appeared. Instead of a scientific hierarchy running the organisation, we now had a Board and a Corporate Office, running a business that was to tout for funds from the agriculture sector and return a profit to government every year.
We were told that we, the scientists, were now the "variable cost" in the organisation while corporate office was the "fixed cost". And the personnel officer, who had done a great job helping staff with any problems that they might have, was replaced by a human resources manager whose job was to "implement corporate policy," which, when translated, amounted to facilitating redundancies.
On paper, AgResearch should have been a financial winner. After all, the Department of Agriculture had an impressive record, with scientific achievements adding several billion dollars to the economy every year. All AgResearch had to do was go out to the various agriculture sectors (dairying, meat, wool) etc and convince them to put their own funds into AgResearch, form joint ventures, sign IP agreements etc and, in the long term, reap many more billions of dollars in benefits.
Unfortunately, nobody was convinced by this approach. Having AgResearch as, in effect, a commercial competitor in the agricultural area did not fit well. The agricultural industry would have been much happier and more comfortable with the old model, which had AgResearch as a provider of public good science. And just to sidetrack the whole agricultural endeavour, AgResearch decided to get into biotech, producing cloned cattle that the dairy industry did not want a bar of, and trying to make a dubious pharmaceutical protein in genetically modified cows.
So, inevitably, AgResearch has become more and more squeezed for funds, putting priority on one area where it thinks it can raise money, and then moving to another a few years later when it senses a new pot of gold. The casualties in all of this are the staff; subjected to retraining, relocation, redundancy - or all three.
Of course, the bright able staff only take so much of this before moving to more attractive jobs elsewhere. In my group, all of the top scientists had left within eight years of AgResearch being formed, and all have successful careers elsewhere. These are the scientists most able to attract research funds.
Overall, I am told that some 50 staff of this calibre have been lost from AgResearch. Even if each of these were to even raise a modest extra $100,000pa it would cover the shortfall that has lead to the current crisis and the shedding of 20 per cent of the science staff.
Put another way, AgResearch has lost its studs and its studesses. Added to this, they have an unbelievably high overall turnover of staff, which is going to be further accentuated if they fire 20 per cent and take on a new 10 per cent to cater to the needs of new "customers". This is all fairyland stuff and the organisation can no longer even pretend to be science led.
To be blunt, we are fast approaching the stage where, if AgResearch were to disappear from the face of the earth, there would hardly be a ripple in New Zealand agriculture.
This is a tragedy, and the only solution is to disband AgResearch as we know it, and reinvent it as a science led organisation.
Emeritus Professor Dick Wilkins worked at Ruakura from 1989 to 1995 before moving to the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Waikato.