New Zealand should have the world's best agricultural science. Our farmers are the most efficient, Fonterra is the leading dairy trader, Federated Farmers sends trade envoys everywhere to testify that agriculture does not have to be a protected industry relying on public subsidies. So when Fed Farmers is concerned at staff cuts in the agricultural science agency, AgResearch, we should be worried.
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. It also amounts to a significant reduction - more than 10 per cent - in the capacity of AgResearch, which employed 523 research staff two years ago.
It may be that the slide in dairy prices since early last year has 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 - 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.