Is this the way to reorganise science?

Well, this brings back memories – and they aren’t very nice. AgResearch revealed today they are planning a huge reorganisation involving the relocation of almost 300 jobs (see AgResearch Jobs Move in Planned Restructure).

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I used to work at the Ruakura Research Centre’s AgResearch campus in Hamilton . In my time there were about 600 jobs based at, or related to, that campus. Under these new plans about 180 “roles” will transfer from the Ruakura campus – leaving it with only about 90 “roles” remaining!

I really feel for AgResearch, and particularly Ruakura, staff at the moment. I have memories of the stress and emotions landed on staff in previous reorganisations – and those reorganisations were smaller than this.

Unfortunately, this sort of upheaval – together with diversion of energy away from research into stress, emotions and cynicism – has been a regular feature of scientific research since the reorganisation of New Zealand science about 20 years ago.

At the beginning, after the initial staff losses there was the intense ideological pressure to think in terms of “profit” instead of science. I remember being jumped on when I tried to point out that no commercially sensible corporation would want to buy our research capability of our science was not good. “Science” became a dirty word.

Then, at regular intervals with each change of CEO, board composition and reallocation of research funding we faced another round of uncertainty, staff losses and staff relocations. These sorts of reorganisations always cause a loss of staff morale, and I was particularly struck, and concerned, by colleagues who actively discouraged their children from following a science career. That seemed to say a lot to me about the negative effects of bureaucratic decisions.

I do not nave enough contact now with my former employers and colleagues to evaluate the current plans. There could well be a lot of sense in concentrating research staff closer to the universities (although why continue to ignore the potential of AgResearch-Waikato University links?)

But why do we always have to be so brutal about such restructuring? I thought science funding was being used to redirect research effort. That itself can be unpleasant enough but surely a milder pressure over a longer period is a more humane way of bringing about restructuring. To me, such a radical restructuring looks more like the result the deliberations of a committee of bureaucrats and not a natural evolution of research priorities and locations.

Bureaucrats often seem to be completely unaware of the value of staff feelings and attitudes towards an organisation. This value is particularly important in science where researchers have less interest in monetary returns and working condition than in the pursuit of knowledge. But make inroads into those working conditions and remuneration, start treating staff like  “full-time equivalents” that can be moved around on a spreadsheet, and suddenly the working environment becomes the major issue. Reorganisation can end up creating a stressed workforce who are resentful towards their managers and resistant to imposed changes and bureaucratic demands. Not good for the organisation.

It also does not correspond to the ideals which attract people into research. Considering the messages these alienated staff will give their children – not good for the future of science in this country.

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3 responses to “Is this the way to reorganise science?

  1. Pingback: Arkarbor

  2. Pingback: The Daily Blog Watch Wednesday 31 July « The Daily Blog

  3. Pingback: AgResearch plans prompt blogger to ask: is this the way to reorganise science? | AgScience

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