Roll up, roll up – the ATI’s set to be bigger than Ben Hur

Well, isn’t the Advanced Technology Institute going to be an all singing, all dancing affair.

Peter KerrAt least, that’s what the Cabinet paper proposes.

For a strategic move that has major implications for New Zealand’s thin innovation ecosystem, there’s been remarkably little (public, industry or media) comment on the proposal – with the ATI’s desired start date being December 1.

In fact, compared to the range of consultation that took place before the introduction of the Crown Research Institute platform 20 years ago, the ATI as announced has arrived like a stealth bomber.

There are some disturbing points in, inferred from or missing from the background information provided by MSI – a cabinet paper, a stock take of IRL and an industry demand analysis (check out a swag of the justification and Cabinet papers here):

* There are concerns raised about the limited number of technical people available in New Zealand suitable for staffing the ATI. Most of these are in the IRL already and there is a risk that a major change could lead to loss of key people.

* IRL has had a rough ride over 20 years. Its performance over that period has been less than stellar. However, the stocktake fails to give adequate acknowledgment to the five-year turnaround plan of the board and management and the 75 percent increase in private sector revenue achieved over the last year, albeit off a low base. This last increase is outstanding under any circumstances, especially in difficult economic times. One would have thought that it would be worth waiting at least one more year to see if it would be repeated, which could indicate that a revamped IRL was both a reality and a success model.

* The Danish Research Institute is referred to as a model on more than one occasion. Ironically, the Institute is now moving in the opposite direction from that proposed for the ATI, allocating more resources to research vis-à-vis consulting/advisory activities.

* The demand analysis tells us at least as much about the structural weaknesses of New Zealand’s manufacturing industry as it does about IRL and other public sector research providers. One only has to study recent IRL annual reports to appreciate that there is little in the demand analysis that IRL would not already know. Given IRL’s much stronger recent commitment to industry engagement, it is questionable whether a new organisation will be able to deal more effectively with the reticent New Zealand business environment.

While the ATI was originally proposed as a more engineering and service oriented Industrial Research Ltd, the fact it is also pulling in food (through the Food Innovation Network and the FoodBowl) and wood products means it is going to have a hell of a wide brief.

If the question becomes “what does the ATI do?” and the answer is “well everything” then there’s a power of potential for banana skin slips.

As with all these things, the devil’s going to be in the details – and there’s a swag of these to sort through.

Not the least, and in no particular order, crucial components and questions will include:

* The ATI establishment board and chairman. So many decisions to be made, networks to be tapped, egos to be mollified ... a potential poisoned chalice

* The ATI chief executive. Superman or superwoman needed here.

* What’s the role of the CRIs' own commercialisation units (especially IRL) under the new structure? Indeed, how does the ATI differentiate itself from CRIs, who themselves have been strongly encouraged to be more market oriented

* If, as appears likely, the HQ of the ATI is Auckland (and the quite far from everything actually Wynyard Quarter), how does the university, Icehouse and the rest of the country integrate with its location?

* How will the ATI be prevented from crowding out other service and consultancy providers?

* How “business facing” (the in-expression) will the organisation really be as a Crown agency? At least IRL has a private sector board. This is a very serious concern and that is to be hoped that the Minister will give serious consideration to a more commercial model – even if it is necessary to create a new type of entity somewhere between a Crown Research Institute and a state-owned enterprise in terms of commercial modus operandi and governance, but possibly without the requirement of earning a profit. The profit requirement does nothing to encourage businesses to engage with a public funded research organisation which they often regarded as too expensive anyway.

Because while Steven Joyce may want the ATI to be bigger than Ben Hur, there’s a heck of a large potential for an epic failure.

Unfortunately, it is going to take more than 10 years to determine success – even more so when its financial performance is only one key metric.

Its measure of performance will also be its wider contribution to the economy.

The ATI Establishment Board is to report back by September 30 on an accountability and performance framework. If, like the former Ministry of Science & Innovation, there’s about 50 such measures – such performance is actually impossible to ascertain.

Let’s hope this isn’t a lay down misere by Joyce.

The all or nothing approach, rather than modifying what already exists may be a brilliant move – but the history of backing a single horse is shaky.

There’s much more than the $160 million or so allocated to setting up ATI at stake here.

The distraction, and breath-holding of starting a whole new structure and organisation at a time when tweaking and retweaking the current model would suit the environment much more is something the country doesn’t need.

However, as a representative democracy, this is politics – it’s a done deal.

Anyone putting their hands up to be on the Establishment Board?

Peter Kerr blogs at and Sciblogs