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Taskforce report says CRIs need shelter from bureaucrats

Thursday 4th March 2010

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Crown Research Institutes, New Zealand's government-funded science agencies, need less bureaucratic supervision, properly functioning boards, and shouldn’t start their own businesses when private partners would do a better job, says the CRI Taskforce report, released today.  

Echoing OECD findings in 2007, the report says the $675 million a year spent on CRIs depends too heavily on contestable funding. The taskforce proposes cutting contestable funds from around a quarter of current funding to just under 10%, while substantially increasing "core purpose funding" to allow longer-term certainty that is essential to much scientific work.

Chaired by venture capitalist Neville Jordan, the taskforce report proposes the most comprehensive shake-up of the science sector since the CRIs were established in 1992, but cautions that any restructuring of the organisations themselves should be driven by national strategic needs rather than cost-saving.

It also proposes an end to the current emphasis on commercial performance to judging the CRIs' success on longer term measures of their contribution to New Zealand as a whole. Financial viability, rather than profitability, should be the benchmark, the report says.

"Current ownership arrangements seem to place undue emphasis on research and development that produces outputs that individual CRIs can capture in their statements of revenue and balance sheets," the report says. "This emphasis encourages CRIs to deliver $1 million to their bottom lines rather than $100 million to New Zealand as a national benefit."

Likewise, CRIs suffered from "multiple lines of accountability" which left their boards unable to direct strategy and led often to "game-playing, confusion and recrimination".

CRIs are currently accountable variously to both the Foundation and Ministry of Research Science and Technology, and the Treasury. The Foundation's importance as a funder led to CRIs acting "more as a 'science hotel', providing room and board for scientists, but with limited capacity to manage scientific resources in a strategic way".

Scientists were inclined to pay more attention to their relationships with the Foundation than with the end-users of their research.

"This ... is inefficient and ineffective, creates churn and confusion for scientiests and contributes to poor staff morale," says the report, which warns that CRI boards will have much greater responsibilities if its recommendations are adopted.

"Under the previous funding system, the CRI boards had to react to changing priorities set by other organisations. The new approach requires them to plan and implement a strategy based on their own expert assessment of the environment within which they are operating."

The report calls also for more "big picture thinking" about national science infrastructure, which could include joint purchasing, leasing or private sector provision of particular equipment and technological needs to avoid duplication and fragmented effort observable in parts of the national science effort at present.

It also proposes that CRIs invest more heavily and think more laterally about technology transfer, which is currently too often interpreted as commercialisation.

"CRIs need to use other instruments, beyond contracts, to forge partnerships and transfer knowledge and partnerships to the private sector.  CRIs should not typically provide equity in the commercialisation of their own intellectual property, or set up their own companies."

The report notes that many of its views align with those of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser, Peter Gluckman, and was welcomed as an important tool for policy decisions by the Minister of RS&T, Wayne Mapp.


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