Address At Opening Of The Crop & Food Research, Food Industry Science Centre

  • Simon Upton
Crown Research Institutes

The Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley, announced the formation of a new "cluster" in her latest Cabinet reshuffle. The Enterprise and Commerce, Science, CRIs and Tertiary Education portfolios have been explicitly gathered together.

It is a significant move.

It is a clear statement that the Government wishes to see the partnership between tertiary institutions, Crown Research Institutes, industry and the R&D arm of the Government considerably strengthened.

The Crown Research Institutes and universities represent a very high fraction of the intellectual capital generated by New Zealanders that remains in New Zealand ownership. It is critically important that this resource is retained, nurtured and taken full advantage of.

We know that if New Zealand wants to enjoy the living standards of the First World, it will have to lift its skills and knowledge base. As well as that, New Zealanders will have to find ways to leverage that knowledge to generate industrial success.

I think there are two important roles for the Government here:

First, The government has to fund high quality basic research. The government doesn't have to muddy the waters by involving itself in business enterprises and skewing the market-place, but it can help ensure the base skills and knowledge continue to exist in the local setting.

The Marsden fund performs a critical role here in retaining New Zealand scientists - in CRIs and Universities. Let me stress that there is no conflict between wanting to see science and technology contribute more to economic growth and calling for greater investment in basic research. The two are closely linked. The Government's emphasis is emphatically not about short termism and quick results. It's about a research culture that is at the same time profound, but accessible to those who can set new knowledge to work in creating new industries.

Secondly, The Government needs to make sure that research is done in institutions that are user-friendly. Those wanting to make use of leading edge technologies developed

by the CRIs are no longer dealing with bureaucrats, but with business-literate management and scientists. That was the rational for setting up CRIs in the first place: not to distract scientists, but to let them work in an environment that is accessible to the outside world.

The CRIs have evolved, as I see it, with a scientific engine room (financed partly through public money) at their core. Around it has been gathered the necessary commercial skills to allow business and investors to extract value from the science.

A couple of examples from Crop & Food show this in operation:

New Zealand has a fine reputation in the rapidly growing International market for novel cut-flowers. Crop & Food Research has worked with nurserymen specialising in native plants to develop an export cut-flower version of the manuka shrubs we're all familiar with.

The PGSF has funded embryo rescue techniques and hybridisation work with Leptospermum scoparium (Manuka), the industry has funded breeding and selection. Spring 1999 will see the release of three new garden leptospermum cultivars that feature increased vase-life, new shapes and forms and good resistance to sooty mould.

Crop & Food Research, with its genetic and postharvest technologies, has been working with Kumara growers to improve growing, handling and storage of Kumara. This has led to the introduction of kumara with more regular shapes, skin colour and fewer pest and disease problems, making the industry more competitive and more profitable.

It remains to be seen whether New Zealand businesses will take the lion's share of the opportunities that all the CRIs are generating.

It is a fact that New Zealand's businesses spend less on R&D than those of any other developed country. It seems to me that this reflects an alarming degree of technical illiteracy within many New Zealand firms.

In some cases, local industry is lagging behind overseas enterprises in seeing the potential on offer through our CRIs. Off-shore businesses and investors are impressed with what they see and are grasping opportunities.

At the end of the day, the opportunities for economic growth that are nascent within CRIs must be picked up and used. Successful scientists often want to carry on their research in partnership with industry. We shouldn't let a narrow and xenophobic view about who takes up the technology obscure that reality. If New Zealand businesses aren't prepared to invest in the potential that CRIs offer, I am happy for them to look for offshore buyers - if that is what it takes to retain the skills base in New Zealand.

We cannot trap our skilled scientists. Ultimately they will walk if the uptake of their technology in New Zealand has not been sufficient to keep research programmes alive.

The argument last year over Crop & Food negotiating access to our truffle technology with an Australian company is a case in point. It was offered to New

Zealand industry and investors and wasn't fully exploited. We could have tried, vainly, to hold the technology for New Zealand use - and simply watch the scientists leave from a lack of further opportunities. Australians might end up growing the truffles, but at least we have retained the scientists, the intellectual property and royalties in perpetuity.

The key question is, why has New Zealand's private sector been so sluggish in its R&D? Obviously it would be better for our economy if local investors and industries were seizing the bulk of the technological advances make by our scientists.

To some extent we can improve the interface between the scientists, industry and investors. The linkages strengthened by the clustering of portfolios will help focus minds and may open up new ways for universities, polytechs, CRIs and private research institutions to co-operate. This is where Ministers will be focusing their attention in the short term.

But fundamentally, the answer lies buried deep in our cultural attitudes. New Zealand's schools and universities generate vast numbers of lawyers, accountants and commerce graduates. Technical and scientific graduates are regarded as poor cousins (aside from the medical profession). That training emphasis and mindset flows on to business and investor decisions and the value of long term research is not recognised.

Drawing tertiary education more firmly into the Enterprise and Innovation loop is perhaps our best chance of engineering a much needed cultural sea-change.