Outspoken AgResearch CEO Andy West has this week raised the volume level over the ongoing debate on the issue of funding uncertainty for Crown Research Institutes (CRIs).
University based research organisations receive public funding based on periodic review of their output performance and through the Marsden Fund. The current arrangements mean that a university PhD project on “Bogan Westies” can theoretically get funding whilst a three year CRI study on bee mites or biofuel feedstock crops might not. The CRIs argue that this is unjust.
The sometimes humourous and occasionally “ACRI-monious” shouting match between Universities and CRIs spills into the public domain periodically. But the debate has a more serious side. It’s bad enough that universities are competing with each other for funding and students but it beggars belief that our national innovation system pits talented researchers against each other in Darwinian fashion. Inevitably some worthy research projects will miss out on resources.
For several reasons I’m entirely in favour of blue skies research that explores social issues or esoteric science which may have no immediate obvious commercial return. Firstly we need to cultivate a pool of intellectual talent across the entire research spectrum and not just in the physical and biological sciences. Secondly, non-commercial research sometimes has unexpected commercial applications and frequently involves building international linkages with agencies and researchers abroad, which can lead to profitable collaborations downstream. Finally supporting a diversity of research is the responsibility of any open and inclusive society.
But as AgResearch point out in their 2020 blueprint for agricultural sciences research in New Zealand, over half of our national income is derived from exporting agricultural produce. Is it fair then that agricultural research organisations feel so hard pressed obtaining secure and long term funding for research that underpins the growth and especially the sustainability of this enterprise?