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Greater investment into R&D needed

By Anna Campbell

I have decided that it should be compulsory for anyone going into a government job to have spent three years minimum, in a small or medium-sized business.

Apparently, government departments used to be full of people who had done exactly that and because of that, there was a broad understanding of the drivers of small business – the lifeblood of our economy.

Now though, many people are graduating straight from university into government departments, which is not helpful to user-friendly policy development.

I write this partly out of self-interest as I battle my way through a science funding application.

Surely if the people putting these forms and policies together, had spent time at the receiving end (be it a small science business or even a large CRI/university), then they would not make the forms so inanely repetitive and torturous.

I’m sure the same could be said of managing compliance in the building and farming sectors, but I’m too scared to open that can of worms!

Right now, I would describe myself as ‘close to baldness’ from tearing my hair out. Others have described scientists as ‘gasping for oxygen’ not just because of the form-filling process, but because of the heart-breaking low success rates.

The president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, Dr Craig Stevens, who was recently interviewed on Radio New Zealand, believes that this year's contestable funding round may have the lowest success rates yet – with some funds having success rates as low as 5%.

So low, that the cost of writing up all the unsuccessful proposals could eclipse the total amount of funding on offer!

Unfortunately, New Zealand ranks poorly among OECD countries for investment into research and development.

The World Bank lists our investment as 1.27% of GDP in 2011, whereas Ireland was 1.66%, UK 1.78%, Netherlands 2.03%, Denmark 2.98%, and Finland 3.80%. We rank particularly poorly for private/business investment.

Does this mean we should look to big businesses in New Zealand to up their game?

Yes, and that’s part of the government’s strategy, but the challenge here is that many New Zealand big businesses run on frighteningly low margins.

Take our meat industry, their level of profitability year on year is based largely on efficiency of processing, the New Zealand dollar, and international commodity prices.

The financial capacity of companies operating in this environment means they have a limited capacity for long-term R&D spend.

In an ideal world, I see New Zealand agriculture fitting the ‘Tatua business model’ where a minimum of 40% of products are sold as value-added products to high-end consumers (Tatua is a co-operatively owned dairy product exporting company, based in the Waikato).

To make this happen, the government needs to make a greater play in the R&D sector and spend more throughout the R&D pipeline.

Otago is positioned incredibly well for leading a ‘Tatua New Zealand’ proposition. We have Otago and Southland agriculture on our doorstep and a university with a leading medical school, and a growing appreciation of the importance of food and agriculture.

We also have the fabulous Food Design Institute at the Otago Polytechnic.

Combine that with research associated with nutrition, IT, molecular biology, and the environment, and we have a great chance to support the production of innovative foods and nutraceutical products proven to make a difference to people’s health.

But oh, how the excitement starts to wane at 5% success rates.

By the end of the week, I may have no hair left and in all probability, my research grant will be unsuccessful.

There is a simple answer for all this. Put more money into R&D. Not new structures, not new policies, not new bureaucrats, just more money … oh and please simplify the form-filling.