Invermay petition response 'weak'

The ''weak'' response of a Parliament select committee to a 12,450-person petition about retaining a world-class Invermay is disappointing, Dunedin North Labour MP David Clark says.

The education and science committee recommended ''the House take note'' of the petition.

The petition urged the Government to retain the Dunedin AgResearch facility, which ''continues to deliver proven benefits to New Zealand's pastoral economy''.

''That's a fairly weak response designed to not embarrass the Government,'' Dr Clark said yesterday.

''It's disappointing that politics has got in the way of the long-term economic interests of New Zealand.

''The Government should be embarrassed by what has gone on at AgResearch when independent analysis has indicated that the business case is not clear.

''The Auditor-general has said the business case is not strong enough to make decisions, and when AgResearch has failed to manage the risks its board has identified, it should be a signal that intervention is needed and a common sense decision instead should be made in the interests of the country.''

AgResearch, a New Zealand Crown research institute with more than 850 staff, announced its Future Footprint Plan in 2013, which aimed to cluster expertise around the country and build business hubs.

Dr Clark's petition focused on the planned movement of staff, mainly from the genetics team, from Invermay to the Lincoln campus near Christchurch.

A minority report from the Labour Party, which accompanied the petition, showed AgResearch's original business case would result in $100million of taxpayer money being spent for marginal gains, and millions of dollars being spent duplicating existing facilities on another site.

A Business and Economic Research Ltd report concluded the best case scenario for the plan was only marginally better, and far riskier, than leaving things the way they are.

The report also queried why Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce did not require AgResearch to build its business case in accordance with Treasury's better business case guidelines.

Scientific and economic concerns have been raised about the project by sector representatives, the science community, local and national politicians, and others.

AgResearch's change management team, which reviewed the original proposal, recommended Invermay be enhanced, not downsized, the report said.

Sheep breeders across the country also opposed the changes.

The report said there was evidence scientists who worked at Invermay would not shift to Lincoln. A survey showed only 1% of staff were happy to shift.

Some scientists had chosen to retire early and others had already chosen to leave the country rather than face relocation.

Remaining scientists are looking for opportunities abroad or elsewhere in Dunedin.

Talent was being scattered and the considerable funding that followed the best scientists was being lost, the report said.

AgResearch accepted the Auditor-general's finding that the business case prepared by AgResearch was insufficient for future decision-making, and agreed to produce an updated business case.

Until a suitable business case was prepared (originally promised by June 30 this year), no decisions about the future of the project could reasonably be made, the report said.

In September, Mr Joyce said the Government supported AgResearch's plan, because it provided the best quality agricultural research for the primary sector it served and the customers who paid for its research.

He was advised the proposal was on track, and any changes would be included in the draft of the final business case, which he was still waiting for.

Dr Clark said he intended to keep the issue in the spotlight.

''The organisation itself is in a bad state, having let go nearly 20% of its workforce a few weeks ago.

''There's no business case other than cost-cutting.

''It suggests the organisation is in a downward spiral and the Opposition has the job of speaking up ... because the Government refuses to do it.''

john.lewis@odt.co.nz

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