Scientists appeal plan to Auditor-general

Dr Jock Allison
Dr Jock Allison
A group of former AgResearch scientists seeking to have the crown research institute's decision on Invermay staff overturned has taken its fight to the Auditor-general.

Former Invermay director Dr Jock Allison, retired scientists from the campus Drs Ken Drew, George Davis and Allan Crawford and former Wallaceville scientist Prof Ken McNatty are calling on the Auditor-general to review AgResearch's Future Footprint Plan (FFP).

The five former scientists argue in a 16-page document lodged with the Office of the Auditor-general that restructuring - which involves shifting 69 staff from Invermay north to Lincoln and about 250 positions in total - would be a ''waste of public money'' and result in a ''crippling loss of scientific staff''.

In calling for a ''comprehensive analysis'' of the project, the report said AgResearch's $100 million restructuring plan involved recreating state-of-the art laboratory facilities which already existed at Invermay.

''We assume the Government does not wish to again be a party to such a flagrant waste of public money.''

The plan was ''developed by an executive staff with a very poor understanding of the needs of the agricultural sector'' and would ''seriously compromise'' New Zealand's economic competitiveness in agriculture.

A previous attempt to relocate staff from the Wallaceville campus had ended with most staff from its reproduction team leaving the organisation rather than move to Invermay.

Dr Allison was uncertain if the Office of the Auditor-general would heed the group's call, but said the request was ''based on solid evidence''.

A spokeswoman for the Auditor-general's Office confirmed it had the document and was considering the request.

Former Invermay researcher Karen Reader was made redundant by AgResearch last week.

Ms Reader was one of the few reproduction staff left at AgResearch who moved from Wallaceville when it shut down in 2008.

Her departure follows a recent decision to make Invermay-based senior scientist Dr Julie Everett-Hincks redundant.

Southern Texel Breeders Association spokesman Hamish Bielski said the latest redundancy and AgResearch's decision to go ahead with plans to move genomics staff to Lincoln showed it was ''neglecting'' beef and sheep farmers in favour of dairy.

''They assure us that everything is going to be fine, but their actions speak otherwise.

''Their words are hollow.''

AgResearch's decision to stick with a plan to shift its genomics team from Invermay to Lincoln was a ''huge blow'' to sheep and beef research, he said.

''All the assurances in the world can not make this right because of the loss of key staff.''

The next step for him in fighting the decision on Invermay was to liaise with Beef and Lamb New Zealand, which had sought more detail on the plan.

Mr Bielski said it was ''embarrassing'' how few staff from Wallaceville remained at AgResearch.

An AgResearch spokesman said it was not ''neglecting'' sheep and beef research.

''The retention of Invermay and Ballantrae hill farms as centres for sheep, beef and deer research underlines our continued commitment.

''Future Footprint is about better positioning ourselves so we can deliver benefits for all New Zealand pastoral farmers and the New Zealand economy more efficiently and sustainably.''

He confirmed AgResearch was ''looking to relocate'' 69 staff from Invermay to Lincoln, down from an initial plan of about 85.

It was yet to receive notification of the complaint to the Office of the Auditor-general ''and would not comment on it without seeing it''.

Attempts to contact Ms Reader were were unsuccessful yesterday.

AgResearch yesterday confirmed the sale of Flock House farm, near Bulls, to Rangitikei-based iwi Nga Wairiki-Ngati Apa for an undisclosed sum.

The 1100ha property has a 332ha dairy unit and a 768ha sheep and beef unit. Proceeds from the sale of farms will be used to fund its restructuring programme.


I am based at Massey and graduated from Lincoln. I see the logic in relocating the Ag Research to Palmy (North, that is). Massey is an ag college and has strengths in the dairy sector.  DairyNZ has a presence here. So the strengthening of AgResearch into this hub makes sense. What I struggle with is why Ag Research wants to  relocate the deer, sheep and genetic operations to Lincoln. Ask Landcorp, the largest farmer in NZ, how many sheep they have in the South Island north of the Waitaki River. The answer is zero. The sheep and deer industry in the South Island is 70% south of the Waitaki. So why create a cluster away from your core business? Crazy! Anyway, while this is happening don't worry Dunedin because AbacusBio is growing stronger. And that is a company with the smarts.

Lincoln move big mistake

I think it is abundantly clear that AgResearch is very misguided at the moment. As a concerned member of the public who is in no other way connected to AgResearch, I fully support the scientific staff in their efforts to have this appalling restructure stopped. It is a huge waste of money, with one of the greatest intangible costs being the irreplaceable loss of expertise. It’s also another deplorable example of the regions being sacrificed to perpetuate a two-city New Zealand. Christchurch and its surrounds (in this case Lincoln) are yet again benefiting at the direct expense of smaller centres.  Also, it seems to me that putting too many eggs in a Canterbury basket is a bad idea, for a number of obvious reasons.

I think the powers that be need to realise that scientists aren't paid enough to put up with shifting to Lincoln and giving up what they have here in Dunedin. The reality of it is that our under-paid scientists can afford a better quality of life here in Dunedin, which is possibly why we have a more talented bunch than you’d expect for a city of our size. They have access to excellent schools and a university for their children, a cultural life beyond a city of its size, minimal commute times (Canterbury is appalling now), cheaper property than in the Canterbury region, and Dunedin would hands down have some of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. It’s also a bonus that we are an easy drive to the mountain regions in Central Otago.

Sorry, but this just isn't on offer in Lincoln. So, unless the salaries are about to quadruple, it’s a big ask to think the staff would willingly shift. We lived through the Christchurch quakes, and that misfortune brought us back to Dunedin, along with 3 years worth of commuting to Christchurch to accommodate our business there. My family has a better quality of life in Dunedin - there is literally no comparison. We only wish we came back here sooner. You couldn’t pay me enough to consider shifting to Lincoln or back to Christchurch; I dare say I’m not alone on that front.  I wish the AgResearch research staff all the best in their efforts to put this travesty right. 

Think strategically

We read reports that our universities are dropping in global rankings, yet we are weakening our universities' research capabilities. What a irony?

I believe Invermay is working very well with the University of Otago and is adding much needed research strengths & capabilities to it.

Our government should be strengthening and increasing the research at Invermay and encouraging even more collaborations with the University of Otago to make it the top agri research university globally on top of its other strengths (in health science, law, tourism, etc).

Asian universities are increasing their funding to consolidate their strengths and focus to climb up the university global ranking. Why are we cannibalising our universities and weakening them? 

As a nation, we are thinking issues in isolation. It's time to start thinking strategically to compete globally.



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