Science and Innovation in New Zealand Agriculture

Executive summary

The era of trade liberalisation and reform in the 1980’s and 1990’s left New Zealand (NZ) focusing on what it was good at – being efficient commodity producers, and NZ exploited its comparative advantages. This drive for efficiencies created the domestic agenda for science and innovation. For agriculture, to drive productivity gains, the focus was inside the farm gate. It is something of a paradox that, as the world was globalising and NZ was opening up its economy to competition, we became more localised in the things that created immense value for NZ. The world is changing, and to keep up, NZ needs to be world-class at research and value creation – Innovation is the common denominator. We need to re-imagine our science and innovation models to give agriculture the best opportunity to contribute to a more prosperous NZ.

This report makes a case for change in the way research and development is conducted in this country. What we have today was the result of a massive reform agenda in the 1980’s and 1990’s, when market forces were introduced into areas of the economy that had traditionally been protected. In the 30 years since, there has been a series of policies attempting to ‘fix’ our science system; to roll back the unintended consequences of the reforms. These efforts have largely been ‘small’ and often on the edges of the big problems. It is almost as if the courage of government for reform has evaporated; the upheavals of the earlier era has left little appetite for fundamental change. So, we have a science system that is fragmented, siloed, and characterised by competing agendas and organisations. The structures and funding models drive perverse incentives such as, doing science to get published, to be able to get funding, and to get funding, in order to get published….

The government’s role in science is complex. As a major funder it has an obligation to ensure the output is both world class, and benefits NZ. It must balance funding of the science sector with all the other demands on the treasury. The political reality of science is that there is little be gained from solving the sector’s problems. The issues are complex, difficult to define, and changes hard to implement. Over the decades there has been a decline in expert capability inside government (Cook, 2004) – people who have depth and breadth of experience in their roles. Cost efficiencies and productivity became guiding principles (Cook, 2004) and a ‘slimmed’ down state sector still resonates with the electorate. This in turn, has lowered the ambition of governments and reduced the experience held internally (Mazzucato, 2021).

Policy change at any level becomes difficult, making substantial reorganisation or visionary change to the status quo, very complex. When we try and ‘fix’ the issues we enter into what is known as the complexity paradox (Mazzucato, 2021), where layers of policies drive the creation of silos that begin competing with each other. Thus, rather than ‘fixing’ the problems they are further entrenched. We need to do much better. Whilst it’s broadly true that innovation happens close to consumers, in value chains, in science institutions, private enterprises and on farms – all across the economy, governments do have an important role in creating the framework and policies, that encourage innovation.

The crux of the problem for NZ’s science sector is that everything is viewed in the short term. Everything, almost everywhere, has been reduced to time periods, – governments can’t wait, the Performance Based Research Fund can’t wait, the science can’t wait, the funds are annually contestable, and businesses want quick wins for reporting purposes. The system doesn’t allow science enough time to figure things out. Election cycles influence funding horizons that determine project lengths, and scientists’ time horizons are limited to the length of the project they are working on, and their careers are limited to the project duration.

Everyone needs quick wins to survive. Incentives are misaligned and fragmented, all players are responding to ‘their’ incentives and few groups share the same ones. Long term strategies underpinned by investment in R&D have created some of our most successful businesses. The long-time horizons associated with Māori business is a compelling reason to build relationships with Māori and may be the catalyst for our science sector to recapture its long term view.

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