The government’s announcement of a $700 million “Fast Forward” fund for the food and pastoral industries is a long awaited boost to the research sector, but does it signal a strategic withdrawal from other technological arenas?
Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) are naturally ecstatic at news of the investment because it provides much greater certainty for their businesses going forward. The CRIs have been struggling with recruitment, retention and planning issues in the face of historically low levels of investment in a demoralised agricultural research sector.
But the Prime Minister Helen Clark, speaking on National Radio, emphasised that without recharging the investment in food and pastoral research, New Zealand was at great risk of falling ever further behind on the global stage. With agriculture still comprising almost half our national export income, it was imperative to invest in areas where we had a sustainable competitive advantage.
Clark then poured cold water on Opposition Leader John Key’s comments that the Fast Forward Fund was a grandiose overstatement of the government’s committment. Industry heavy hitters like Fonterra have reportedly already signed up to contribute matching funding and the plan is to draw down on both the interest and capital over a 10 to 15 year period. This would release up to $30 million in the first year, eventually climbing to over $100 million, said agriculture minister Jim Anderton.
Perhaps the only real downside from the deal is that it confirms a mood swing away from stimulating other technology sectors. Prof. Jeff Tallon, who only last week headed up a group of concerned scientists that wrote to the government pleading for more research funding, said that even after this investment, New Zealand still only has about half the RS&T spend of its high tech competitors. Tallon says that although food and pastoral research is important, we need to continue to diversify away from our heavy reliance on agriculture.
I have to admit, Fast Forward does seem more like “Back to the Future” to a time before the government was championing ICT, biotechnology and creative sector as the three planks for high tech based economic growth. However, on the up side it does show that government is listening; and by using a public-private partnership model it also focuses industry to engage fully in the project. One hopes that this will not be the only research funding announcement come Budget time.