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Petone will do just fine for IRL, thanks

Petone: decent rugby team, good coffee, great scientists. Let's leave it that way

One of our national obsessions is how to deal with the “tyranny of distance”. But over the past 20 years, as international travel and toll call costs have plummeted and the internet has closed the gap for written communication from days to seconds, the distance doesn’t matter nearly as much as it used to.

Which makes it all the more baffling as to why the Minister of Science, Wayne Mapp— who has conceded to at least one roomful of scientists that he never asked for the job—is trying in the twilight of his tenure to do such damage by seeking to atomise the Wellington campus of Industrial Research Ltd.

Admittedly, Mapp’s pottiest rush of policy blood to the head came earlier this year when he put a proposal up to cabinet to merge all the Crown Research Institutes into just three science organisations.

The cabinet was having none of it, and was a bit baffled at the proposal, coming as it did after a major science policy review had apparently already been completed.

But Mapp wasn’t finished.

With an unknown amount of backing from his newly-formed Ministry of Science and Innovation, he has been proceeding in the last few months to take an unhealthy level of interest in where IRL should be based, and coming to the questionable conclusion that “somewhere else” is the answer.

Principally, he favours activity concentrated near existing hubs of high-value manufacturing and such educational centres of excellence as the engineering schools at Auckland and Canterbury universities, and Auckland’s ambitious new Business School.

The reason for that is clear enough in theory—a belief that this will lead to greater synergies and clusters of manufacturing
Power excellence. He’s probably also not too keen on IRL chief executive Shaun Coffey’s plan to spend $20 million doing up the eclectic jumble of buildings that currently house the organisation in Petone.

As venues for scientific collaboration, neither Auckland nor Canterbury can be faulted. The question, rather, is why that would require the wrenching change of a geographic relocation for IRL’s Wellington-based scientists, and why the costs of such a move would justify the losses it would produce?

True, in the past, IRL was a problem child of the CRI sector. Before Coffey’s appointment five years ago, it was a science establishment in search of solvency and commercial acumen.

However, times have changed. Coffey has restored the IRL balance sheet, got debt back to zero on the basis that its earnings are too volatile to make debt-based growth prudent, and has a mushrooming range of commercial contracts in place. He has not only restored IRL’s mission, but was already looking actively to expand activities outside Wellington, particularly in Auckland and Christchurch.

However, he is smart enough to know that when your greatest assets are human, you don’t force high-performing, collaborative teams to uproot their lives and move to somewhere else in New Zealand. The risk of doing so is enormous. For a start, some won’t move. And for seconds, some will move somewhere else altogether—like overseas.

The point Mapp seems to have missed is that the tyranny of distance has been getting ever less tyrannical, while the value of established teams and clusters keeps being proven. So, yes, Petone might seem a weird place to be developing world-leading superconductor technology, but that isn’t a good enough reason to shift it to somewhere else in New Zealand.

In other words, who in their right mind would propose busting up operative teams in the name of a theory as slender as the proposition that being in Wellington hinders progress in Christchurch and Auckland—cities an hour away by plane—in a country that needs to harness its people better, not uproot them unnecessarily?

Mapp and MSI would be far better to consider the compelling argument from Sean Simpson, founder and chief technology officer at Auckland-based innovation darling Lanzatech, on why the US-headquartered, China-linked company will keep its science effort in New Zealand for the foreseeable future.

“If you think about the next ten years, we need to be fast, and really efficient. If you take a year out of that to shift everything ... that’s my fast goal taking a ten percent hit straight away,” says Simpson. He speaks from experience. The company already tried moving some research to Denver, Colorado, and quickly reversed the decision.

Being based in New Zealand is “not as easy as in the US,” says Lanzatech’s Chicago-based chief executive, Jennifer Holmgren. “But there are advantages to being here, and we would lose people if we tried to move.”

Given the regularity with which Lanzatech is cited in political despatches these days as a beacon for the kind of smart, science-based, high-value manufacturing that IRL would most contribute to, it can only be hoped that politicians and bureaucrats blinded by a distance of a few hundred kilometres aren’t so foolish as to pull apart a valuable taxpayer investment that may just be coming into its own.

Pattrick Smellie is a Wellington journalist and founder of the Businessdesk news service