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New Zealand agronomist has insight on research challenges

Posted on February 29, 2024 by admin

By Heather Cameron
Westwind Weekly News

During Farming Smarter’s recent Global Crop Production Conference, John Foley, Senior Seed Production Agronomist at PGG Wrightson Seeds in New Zealand, spoke.

“Science is a challenge,” said Foley. “And I thought the challenge down here was that in New Zealand, we had good people doing good things competing against each other. Essentially, we brought competition to our science sector. The government research institute was broken up into competing entities. The model was changed where they started competing against each other. And with the new Crown government research institutes and the farming sectors themselves, they set up sector organizations to do their own research, and everybody was chasing a pot of government funding. That developed a very competitive science sector.”

The context, Foley said, was that in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the reforms were introduced to bring market forces in and the key part was that the government said that it would continue to supply the science and innovation, while the applied research would have to be done by the private sector.

“This model created this competitive framework, but it couldn’t fund itself,” said Foley. “And then so we ended up pricing the science beyond the reach of our farmers. Everything became efficiency and production-focused. And I mentioned the competition, but probably the biggest thing that came out of it was as the world globalized through that era, in New Zealand domesticated science and innovation, we stopped doing the offshore stuff because that was also not mandated, and no one took the leadership to carry on doing those things. So, we broke a lot, the linkages we had with international partners. So, it was more meat per hectare, more milk per hectare, more yield completely focused on, on what we could control in our own market. It was a very, very complicated situation.”

In terms of the government, Foley said, he was trying to understand ‘how did this happen?’ So he met with the country’s former science ministers over various eras, and ended up doing approximately 85 interviews with scientists regarding the issue.

“The thing that people would keep coming back to is this issue: ‘It’s not working, but it’s too big, too complex to fix.’ And this is this idea of a complexity paradox, where no matter what we do, we make things worse for ourselves. And it’s certainly the case for science in New Zealand. So the thought was that where we did try to make changes, the government probably didn’t have the expert capability to execute the change. And this is because we’ve reduced our capabilities; the slimmed-down government resonates with the voters.”

A really good example of this, Foley said, can be found in Malcolm Turnbull, an Australian Prime Minister that ran a leadership campaign in 2016. 

“The transformation of the science sector and bringing the Australian economy into the 21st century, it was really aspirational stuff and people liked it, but they actually didn’t vote for it,” said Foley. “And he won the (leadership) election. But the message from the electorate was, ‘Okay, that’s really interesting, but there are other things that we’re probably going to vote for.’ So, getting big change or re-imagining or reforming these things becomes very, very difficult for governments.”

Foley explained that there are more than 50 science funds in New Zealand, and the idea was it was meant to drive efficient use of research money.

“The actual fact is, we have the scientists living in a world where they need to get funding to get published, so they’re on this sort of wheel and they can’t get off it,” said Foley. “And it becomes quite destructive in a sense. And in New Zealand, we produce and we publish more scientific papers per million dollars of science investment than any other country in the world. You can see how the model is driving unintended consequences because a lot of that science is behind paywalls and it’s actually published in offshore journals.”

The scientists themselves are graded on the impact on the industry. Foley says the York Institute they work for also gets a ranking and then that ranking helps them access government funding. 

“The model favours a publishing record versus an applied research record, so very few scientists in New Zealand will take the risk of doing genuine applied research and taking that knowledge from the publications into sectors and certainly into agriculture,” said Foley. “And the other thing that’s interesting about the whole publishing industry is that impact is measured on publish-ability. So high impact is in the highly read journals, and agricultural journals globally rank quite low. We have the situation where agricultural scientists in New Zealand working for agricultural institutes, such as the government run ones, we have two who still do plant food research and ag research they publish in paediatrics and other things because that gets your value up, which then helps you get your funding. There’s a real disconnect of what we want from our science versus what we get because of this funding model.”

Consequences, Foley says, are really in some ways very obvious, but there is a management-intensive science environment in New Zealand. 

“You start off with your bid process for the funds you write, you write your bid process around the funds criteria, and essentially you are aiming for what you think that they will fund,” said Foley. “And then you have a project and the budget. Budgets have to attract people, then create a report on it. And you know, if the project is successful, then the people, jobs will probably be secure for a longer period of time. If it’s not successful, then that team breaks down and then everyone has to chase a new project and new funding.”

The other concept Foley says he came up against is grantsmanship.

“That’s really what’s channeling a lot of the thinking, is actually becoming very good at writing, but it’s because of attracting the funding rather than the science,” said Foley. “And the next layer is that the science sector is having to play it safe because securing funding is a critical outcome because this funding pays bills and then having it safe means the project will be successful. And then the successful project equals career success. When you start off with something that was probably quite aspirational in terms of trying to make the use of science dollars more efficient, it sort of created all these unintended issues inside the sector.”

Truly creative thinkers do not thrive in that environment, Foley says, and he heard that from a senior scientist. Management intensive science, Foley says, is almost squeezing creativity out because it’s all around reporting, budgets, funds, bid processes and less about being truly creative from a science point of view. 

“The system we have doesn’t encourage collaboration,” said Foley. “So we have many institutions, many scientists solving the same problems in isolation. And it’s because the funding is competitive and works against the whole notion of collaboration. Farmers themselves, they’re great collaborators, they’re very applied people and so it’s a problem that they’re not getting access to good ideas, and good research coming into the sector. It’s going to take quite a change in the thinking to actually figure out how this can be remodelled.”

Foley then showed two tables displaying the new science, the invention side, and the New Zealand model that’s going into publications and essentially not going any further. 

“It’s almost like we’re living in a loop of scientists publishing in places where scientists read, and so there’s very little output from that world into the wider economy and sectors,” said Foley. “What we’re relying on mostly is old science, old innovation to create the new ideas. It’s quite a challenge and that’s essentially what we have in New Zealand.”

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