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Taskforce rips open CRIs' agenda

The weird world occupied by the Crown Research Institutes may finally be set right with a report by businessman Neville Jordan.

His Crown-funded taskforce into the performance of Crown  Research Institutes has quickly got to the core of what ails these eight government-owned research companies: they have two masters. On the one hand, the CRIs are charged with building their balance sheets with IP and export-orientated commercial activity; on the other, they are supposed to 'enable' Kiwi industry, contributing IP and science at low cost for local advantage.

Also plaguing CRIs are multiple levels of reporting to multiple agencies; varing and conflicting measures of performance; and a funding process that is almost entirely contestable, leading to an overblown crew of form-fillers and research auditors.

Enough! says the report.

Jordan et al recommend shifting the focus from building the CRI's balance sheets to the "positive impact it has on New Zealand – be that economic, social or environmental – not the commercial return a CRI has been able to achieve."

Among the highlights are:

  • create a Statement of Core Purpose for each CRI
  • fund a five-year research programme along each CRI's Statement's lines
  • create a funding regime that secures a set fund, then create a second tier of smaller, contestable funding
  • reward pan-CRI collaborations with contestable funds

The report has already drawn strong endorsement from the CRIs, through Science NZ. and there's a good summary at Sciblogs by Peter Griffin.

Not everyone will be happy: this will reduce the total amount of funds available to the contestable pool (meaning private sector, universities and other CRIs) may lose out. Some people regard the CRIs as sheltered workshops—so this will strengthen their claims that CRIs are not feeling the heat of real commerce. Others may question exactly what is meant by the nebulous “positive impact it has on New Zealand”.

Keep watching this debate because this is the biggest change for CRIs since former science minister and CRI visionary Margaret Austin had a eureka moment in the bath.

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