The AgResearch shambles

AgResearch certainly seems to be in a shambles.

The latest news is that the organisation's financial problems are forcing it to make more staff redundant.

Meetings with staff are being held this week, probably today.

Critics say AgResearch is on a downward spiral after being badly mismanaged.

Contributing to the problems are the way science is funded in this country.

Given the Invermay debacle, which rumbles on, the critics make a lot of sense.

Even before AgResearch's grand ''Future Footprint'' is finalised, Invermay has been gutted as top scientists leave.

How ironic all this is when AgResearch has always said its skilled staff are its key resource.

Their loss was seen as the No 1 risk facing the organisation, and that is what is happening.

Because AgResearch is falling well short of meeting its budgets, job cuts do seem inevitable.

Of course, as former Invermay head and former AgResearch board member Jock Allison has pointed out, it is the top scientists who attract the best funding.

As they leave, the situation only get worse.

Naturally, it is often the most valuable scientists who leave of their own accord because they are better able to secure good jobs and contracts elsewhere.

All this is bad enough for AgResearch and its staff. But the loss of so much science talent is also seriously detrimental for this country.

Any agricultural comparative advantage New Zealand has over the rest of the world is not just because of a temperate climate, some good soils and relatively plentiful water.

Scientific advances have always underpinned improved animal health, animal breeding, pasture improvement.

These only come after years of research and hard work, based on bright ideas.

Because this country's primary agricultural research organisation is in such a poor state, the whole country will suffer in the years ahead.

It would seem the AgResearch board has the Solid Energy disease - grand plans and high-sounding goals and a lack of sense and reality.

The $100million Future Footprint was supposed to lead to consolidation of agricultural research and the expensive building of new facilities at a Lincoln hub.

In so doing, the strong sheep genetics cluster at Invermay and Dunedin is largely being destroyed and the fine near-new centre at Invermay left largely idle.

The Future Footprint restructuring was announced in 2012 but had made little progress, and serious objections were raised.

After Labour MPs requested an inquiry, the Auditor-general released her findings into the plan and said it needed to be updated.

She did say, however, that while it deviated from standard practice in some areas, it was up to standard and made ''a clear case for change''.

There is, though a vast difference between a plan making a clear case for change and what is the best course.

A clear case could also have been made for another tack altogether.

The updated plan was due out in June but is not now expected to be with the Government until next month.

Clouding the situation has been the role of Andrew West, who was the AgResearch head and then the head at beleaguered Lincoln, the big beneficiary of the Future Footprint. He left Lincoln suddenly in June.

There have also been questions about potential conflicts of interest with board members.

The minister in charge, Steven Joyce, disputes the estimated figure of 80 or 90 redundancies and says AgResearch is ''right-sizing''.

It does need to adapt and change because every organisation needs to.

But it has been estimated 40 to 50 staff have resigned or been pushed in the past financial year.

''Right-sizing'' seems to be a euphemism for rapid shrinkage.

It is no surprise that morale at AgResearch is reported to be terrible.

While scientists will battle on with their projects, this crown research institute is crying out for positive direction and leadership.

The one silver lining from the shambles follows from the slow implementation of the Future Footprint.

While it could already be too late because of the departure of leading staff in places such as Invermay, AgResearch needs to recognise it was heading in the wrong direction and discard much of its flawed, wasteful and too expensive programme.

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