Research funding being channelled into Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) is reducing the competitive edge of our top universities.
CRIs grab most of the Government's contract research - in 2018 that was something like $750 million. This research, while having a commercial and community outcomes, does not add to our international competitiveness in the same way that university research does. It does also not link to the preparation of students and future workers.
Research is a key output of our universities. It is published and shared with the world and is used by major international indices as a key component in ranking each university.
For example, research outputs makes up to 60 per cent of the recently published QS ranking system (perhaps the most commonly reported) and also the of Times Higher Education rankings.
These ranking are used by international students when deciding where to go to be educated and also by overseas research groups when choosing where to place research contracts.
Given that the international education sector is among the top four earners in terms of international revenue, this potentially has considerable flow-on financial implications.
Quite simply, we have not had the type of vision in this country to recognise research and advanced learning as tightly linked.
Within New Zealand CRIs, their operation, and research performance also skew the local rankings of universities. Most of our CRI research is in the primary industry; AgResearch ($150m), Plant and Food ($156m), Landcare ($70m) and Scion ($50m).
This research funding directly competes with Massey University ($76m) and Lincoln University ($30m). On the other hand Auckland ($200m) and Otago ($190m) capture medical and other research and hence have significantly higher international rankings.
In the final analysis though, it is NZ Inc that loses out from many perspectives. If this primary industry research and other research in Niwa, GNS and ERS were conducted within the university system we would increase our international competitiveness both for international students and also attract more of the significant overseas research investment in this space.
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It should further be noted New Zealand universities gain only about half the income from international students Australia universities do – sadly a similar figure in the discrepancy in government support. In the end, we the public through the Government who own both universities and CRIs, are the losers.
Research institutes are very much part of our university framework. Massey operates the very successful Riddet Institute in Food Research (a Centre of Research Excellence), Lincoln operates Lincoln Agritech in the area of agricultural technologies.
The staff in these institutes are not directly linked to teaching, though they have some postgraduate activity, and have roles very similar to researchers in CRIs.
They do, however, contribute to the research output of the university and its local and international rankings and provision for the supervision of international students.
There are obvious synergies between research institutes and universities, many staff at CRIs wish to further their academic careers and undertake postgraduate research and postgraduate supervision. It is common therefore that many institutes collocate on university grounds as AgResearch has done at Massey and Landcare is doing at Lincoln.
Universities also have a considerable and very successful track record in commercialising their research with many successful spin-out companies with commercial partners. CRIs have tended to try to create their own businesses with many variable results. They are known by venture capital groups as being hard to work with.
In fact, CRIs are very much a New Zealand invention. They arose in 1992 when the then Bolger Government wanted to separate policy making and delivery in Government departments.
New Zealand had the DSIR, as well as substantial primary industry research groups in the Ministry of Agriculture. At that time also, our universities had a weak presence in these research areas, being seen mainly as a teaching resource.
This led to CRIs being structured as individual entities that could remain financially independent. This model has been repeated internationally - the Netherlands' Wageningen Univerity, University of California at Davis and Cornell University are exemplars in this space.
Quite simply, we have not had the type of vision in this country to recognise research and advanced learning as tightly linked. The prime example is the MIT in the US, which is not only one of the leading research institutes in the world but also the leading university (according to the latest QS ranking). Their research spend is a mere $3500m - more than New Zealand's total spend on research and development.
One has to wonder at the advice and stewardship of groups such as Treasury who allow this inefficiency to continue.
* Colin Harvey is researcher with a history of commercialisation in agriculture