AgResearch's Invermay blunder

AgResearch, in its determination to concentrate research and administration in hubs in Palmerston North and Lincoln, is making a mistake.

From a purely parochial Otago point of view, the gutting of Invermay is bad enough. But, as is made clear in leaked documents obtained by this newspaper, AgResearch's own change management team says it would be much wiser in a scientific sense to concentrate animal programmes at Invermay.

After receiving and analysing hundreds of submissions from staff, the change team came up with several recommendations which differed from AgResearch's original proposal.

Yet, despite being charged with the task of considering in detail the plans, the group's recommendations have largely been ignored by its own executive. AgResearch announced to staff this week that the original twin hub proposal stands, almost in its entirety.

That means AgResearch will, it seems, push animal genetic, reproduction and productivity programmes alongside a university, Lincoln, which, while strong in soil and environmental study, is relatively weak in animal areas.

Meanwhile, the already existing collaborative ''hub'' built on Invermay - including the University of Otago and private businesses, including Abacus Bio - will be dealt a savage blow. Instead of Invermay scientists working with leading geneticists in Dunedin, they will either leave or transfer to Lincoln.

The University of Otago, as one example, is New Zealand's leading university in specialist genetics, and has related expertise including across medical disciplines, zoology and biochemistry. It is a stark irony that AgResearch, in its wish to create new hubs - a move fraught with potential failure or limited success - seems intent on destroying one of long-standing that is thriving.

That might have been excusable through lack of knowledge.

But the submission from the Stand Up Otago group brought together much information about this work around Dunedin.

Even more significantly, AgResearch's own change team lays out the compelling case for Invermay. Just how significant this is for our nation's prosperity is illustrated by the realisation of the role Invermay and related Dunedin work played in improving sheep productivity. Despite a halving in sheep numbers during the past 30 years, productivity has stayed the same.

It is Invermay, not Lincoln, which has ready access to sheep and deer for research and research feedback. Invermay also has near-new facilities.

The members of the AgResearch board are moving towards one of the most important strategic decisions about the future of this nation's prosperity that they will ever make. They are doing so on behalf of the people of New Zealand and are accountable to them through the relevant minister. He, like us, had better be totally assured AgResearch is not making a huge and wasteful blunder which will undermine the best prospects for New Zealand agriculture. He, like the rest of us, should take a lot of convincing, especially when AgResearch has flown, at least so far, in the face of its own expert advice on areas fundamental to New Zealand's future - animal productivity, reproduction and genetics.

AgResearch chief executive Tom Richardson this week said - despite the feelings of staff that the deal was done - that he would continue to meet stakeholders, including Dunedin's mayor Dave Cull, over plans and was open to ''evolving them''. Let's hope that is true.

We hope, too, that board members have officially been to Lincoln and Dunedin and visited Invermay, AbacusBio and the University of Otago. Given the fact the AgResearch executive team has disregarded its own expertise, perhaps the minister, ultimately responsible, should create an independent expert panel to look at where the key programmes should be located. The matter is simply too important to be left as it is now.

After all, as the change management team said about animal productivity, for example, ''location at Lincoln is likely to put capability at risk without yielding significantly greater benefit''.

Perhaps even more telling was the comment ''locations should be determined by science benefits rather than location head counts''. Surely no-one can disagree with that.

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