AgResearch restructure challenged

ROB TIPA
Last updated 06:00 04/06/2014

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Five former AgResearch scientists have lodged a complaint with the Office of the Auditor General and want a review of AgResearch's Future Footprint Plan (FFP) to relocate about 280 scientific positions.

The group includes former Invermay director and AgResearch board member Dr Jock Allison, former Invermay deer and sheep industry researchers Drs Ken Drew and George Davis, a former Wallaceville scientist, Professor Ken McNatty, now at Victoria University and retired AgResearch scientist Dr Allan Crawford.

In a detailed 16-page submission, the scientists argue that AgResearch's attempts to implement its restructuring plan will result in a "crippling loss of scientific staff", a major reduction in scientific output and unnecessary expenditure of many millions of dollars in a rebuilding programme to recreate state-of-the-art laboratory facilities that already exist.

The group says AgResearch has about 760 full-time positions spread over four main campuses. Initially its plan was to relocate about 280 scientific positions in 2016, mainly from Invermay near Mosgiel and Ruakura near Hamilton, to two central research hubs at Grasslands Research Centre, Palmerston North, and Lincoln Research Centre, near Christchurch, but with increasing delays these transfers were now expected in 2017.

The scientists say there is no precedent for relocating such a large number of scientific staff and their families in New Zealand, which had "hugely disruptive implications for a highly educated and skilled workforce".

They say a similar attempt to relocate a smaller number of staff from AgResearch's Wallaceville campus in Upper Hutt to Palmerston North or Invermay six years ago was unsuccessful.

At the time about 27 science staff from the reproduction research team were asked to relocate to Invermay. The leader of that group (Dr McNatty) resigned and moved to Victoria University, taking both staff and some research funding with him. Only eight staff relocated to Invermay, six of whom were made redundant in September last year, leaving only two.

"AgResearch appears to have learnt nothing from this debacle," the group says. "They have consistently stated that there will be no loss in scientific capability and that in some areas there will be strengthening."

"This claim is in our view incorrect," they say. Already a number of skilled AgResearch scientists have resigned, staff surveys have indicated that few are prepared to relocate, and staff morale at AgResearch campuses is very low.

At Invermay, nine staff were made redundant in September last year, seven resigned before Christmas, citing AgResearch's plans to relocate staff, and another highly respected senior research scientist left the campus just over a week ago.

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In response to media questions, AgResearch chief executive Dr Tom Richardson was reported as saying staff resignations were part of normal turnover for various reasons, including attrition.

Former scientists say Invermay has the most modern facilities of any AgResearch campus, with $20 million spent on the site five or six years ago, and the capacity to house up to 200 staff.

If AgResearch implements its plan, the scientists say it is likely to result in the loss of at least 20 per cent and probably 25 per cent of its scientific staff, almost certainly including some of New Zealand's highest calibre scientists.

The group has asked the Office of the Auditor General for a comprehensive analysis of AgResearch's plan and its effects on the performance of the Crown Research Institute.

They say their complaint qualifies for investigation by the office because AgResearch is a public entity with responsibilities over its use of resources and, under the State-owned Enterprises Act, is required to be a good employer and show a sense of social responsibility.

The group has asked the Auditor General to stop to development in its present form, retain Invermay and re-evaluate its restructuring plan with independent and unbiased scientists and end users with a track record of delivering technology to industry.

Their complaint follows similar concerns raised by Waikato University academic Professor Jacqueline Rowarth, who was recently reported as saying AgResearch was "haemorrhaging" scientists over the plan.

Rowarth called for an independent review of the organisation's $100 million Future Footprint Plan over conflicts of interest of board members, who had links to organisations that stood to benefit from restructuring.

She said several members of the AgResearch board had strong ties to Lincoln University, which stood to benefit from the organisation's plans to create a science hub at Lincoln with the transfer of staff from other regions.

Sheep breeders and deer farmers have expressed major concerns about the CRI's restructuring plans and its lack of consultation with the industry. A survey showed 363 of 394 ram breeders (92.1 per cent), who supply over 85 per cent of all rams used commercially nationwide, supported the retention of sheep genetic research at Invermay.

AgResearch communications manager Sarah Fraser said the organisation was not aware of any complaint to the Office of the Auditor General and would not comment on it without seeing it.

- NZ Farmer

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