Crown Research Institute review – Expert Reaction

Last week, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment released a commissioned review of the New Zealand’s Crown Research Institutes.

The Te Pae Kahurangi Report was commissioned to present an independent view of the role that Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) can and should play in meeting the country’s current and future needs.

The report details a range of findings and recommendations that will inform MBIE’s post-election advice for the incoming government.

The SMC asked experts to comment on these findings and recommendations. 

Professor Shaun Hendy, Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, University of Auckland, comments:

“Crown Research Institutes (or CRIs) play an important role in our science system. Relative to many other countries we rely very heavily on government research organisations, so the way CRIs are run and organised has a big impact on our research sector overall. The latest CRI review highlights some of the strengths but also some of the many problems in the sector, including a lack of coordination and collaboration across the independently managed CRIs, under-delivery at the science-policy interface, and a lack of real partnership with Māori. The panel’s suggestions to address some of these failings are very sensible, including the call to stop CRIs acting under the Companies Act.

“However, the report barely touches on many other key issues. This is partly because of the narrow terms of reference (‘not a review of the CRI model’), but also due to the surprisingly narrow range of stakeholders consulted. To the panel’s credit, they have consulted with a number of Māori interests, but otherwise most of those consulted were existing customers or competitors. This means that the panel has not heard the views of civil society or sectors that could be, but are currently not, serviced by CRIs.

“For instance, the panel does not seem to have talked to groups that might have been served by the long-defunct Institute for Social Research and Development. How well are the needs of the social sector NGOs being met by our crown research system? This question is never asked. In the end, this lack of consultation with community groups, NGOs, or social enterprises results in a very narrow view of the benefits to New Zealand of CRI research and highlights the need for a much broader look at our research system.

“Another important issue that remains unexplored is the very poor reputation that CRIs enjoy with the media. Scientific commentary from CRIs is often filtered through corporate-style public relations or not made available at all. This has some very real implications for the public interest, with issues such as water quality, fisheries, and climate change often not benefiting from frank public commentary by CRI scientists. This reduces the quality of public discourse in New Zealand on key issues and undermines trust in science. It is disappointing that the panel did not explore this issue.

“Overall, this report should be a wake-up call that our science system is due for a thorough independent review. Many of the problems it faces, some of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis (e.g. job insecurity for early career researchers), can’t be examined in isolation and need a comprehensive re-examination. Thirty years on from the most significant science reforms in New Zealand since World War II, I believe this is well overdue.”

Conflict of interest statement: Shaun Hendy is a former CRI scientist, who is now Director of Te Punaha Matatini, a Centre of Research Excellence hosted by the University of Auckland, a Board member at Callaghan Innovation, and co-founder of start-ups Nebula and Toha.

Professor Troy Baisden, President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, and Waikato University, comments:

“The review of Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) echoes a more comprehensive review undertaken 10 years ago, and offers timely recommendations given the demands the current crisis puts on research institutions.

“New Zealand is unusual in having so much of its science activity concentrated in quasi-corporate CRIs, rather than universities and government departments. Since their formation in 1992, the CRIs have been and will remain deeply important to New Zealand’s economic and environmental well-being. In total, the CRIs employ over 4000 staff and each dominates its own area of activity, nationally.

“Despite strong individual performance in many areas, the seven CRIs could contribute better to public good by having more cohesive strategies, and being more collaborative. For institutions that collectively receive 69% of their revenue from public funds, the operating model seems unbalanced toward both corporate thinking and unstable finances. Change seems necessary to better manage the capability and diversity of the future science workforce, particularly in ways that are more inclusive of Māori researchers and perspectives.

“I support the review’s recommendations rebalancing the CRIs to serve New Zealand better by: removing the CRIs from the Companies Act, providing more stable rather than contestable funding, and encouraging better strategy and collaboration. Shifting focus to collaboration rather than competition reflects the requirements of major issues such as climate change that have emerged since CRIs were formed nearly 30 years ago. The recommendations plot a path likely to deepen New Zealand’s trust in scientists and researchers, and aid the type of performance we saw in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

No conflict of interest declared.