Category Archives: Agriculture

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).


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.

Kiwi science fiction with a message

Book Review: The Aviator (The Burning World)  by Gareth Renowden

Price US$4.99 (Kindle); NZ$6.00 (Epub).*
File Size: 641 KB
Print Length: 341 pages
Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited
Publisher: Limestone Hills Ltd (August 14, 2012)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Language: English
Text-to-Speech: Enabled.

This science fiction novel is set in a post-catastrophe world – in the not too distant future. Hardly an unusual scenario but I found its approach to the question of post-catastrophe social organisation intriguing. How would society reorganise after social collapse brought on by a world-engulfing crisis? In this case one of the possible outcomes of climate change? The usual scenario  is some sort of tribalism, and usually a warring tribalism. But would it be that simple? After all, humanity would still have reservoirs of knowledge. Surely that would make  simple tribalism unlikely?

Gareth Renowden’s solution is simple. Consciously or not he has simply extrapolated the ideological or issue-advocacy obvious in today’s internet blogs and forums into the post-catastrophe society. Today’s digital “silos” become tomorrows tribal groups. And, yes, they are just a inward-looking, suspicious and hostile to others as today’s silo communities are. Except they have real weapons. These tribal groups, or ideological ghettos, give scope for some nice irony and humour in the book.

Renowden’s post-catastrophe societies include the inevitable fundamentalist religious communities. But also communities based on artificial intelligence, technophobia, libertarianism, cynical “green” politics and so on. And, yes, there is even a climate change denial community – actively denying the world-wide catastrophe had anything to do with human-caused climate change. In fact still warning about an imminent ice-age (naturally caused of course)!

So you can imagine the scope for irony and humour there. Especially as Gareth Renowden is an author the climate change denial community love to hate. And they don’t hold back on expressing that hate.

Author’s credentials

This is Renowden’s first venture into fiction. His earlier books include Video -The Inside Story (1982), The Olive Book (1999), The Truffle Book (2005) and
Hot Topic – Global Warming and the Future of New Zealand (2007). The last book was short-listed for the Royal Society of NZ’s inaugural science book prize. He also writes regularly about climate change issues for the influential Hot Topic blog.

I must at this stage declare a common interest in the defence of science against science deniers, and to being a fellow SciBlogger of Gareth’s. But I know a good read when I see one and believe Gareth has adjusted to a fictional style very well. (I can already see a number of jibes about this coming from the local climate change denial ghetto – if their denigration of truffle farmers is anything to go by).

An entertaining story

The story involves the hero (Lemmy) and his romantic partner (Kate) travelling the world in a high-technology blimp (hence The Aviator). Home for them is New Zealand – specifically D’Urville Island at the top end of the South Island. They encounter the ideological ghettos during their travels, mainly in the USA – or what remains of it. Many of these encounters end in conflict, and a few shoot-outs – but they form a working relationship to one rich high technology group. A group based on concepts of interaction between human and artificial intelligence and belief in the ‘singularity‘ –” a point where the exponential acceleration of technological progress, especially computing power, would bring a merging of human and machine intelligence.”

Room for some interesting concepts and adventures there. Jenny, the blimp’s autopilot –  herself an artificial intelligence which may even have some scope for emotions or something similar – contributes. There are some interesting interactions between Jenny and Kate when Kate receives artificial intelligence implants during treatment after an accident. This is enhanced by Jenny’s ability to interact with Kate’s thoughts and feelings – that puts a real damper on Kate’s love life!

So there is plenty of scope there for an entertaining story. With adventure, romance and humour. All this appealed to me as I prefer hard science fiction which is reality-based. With technology and machines not too unexpected or “magic.” Not set so impossibly far into the future that its hard to relate. I really don’t like the common fantasy genre of much of today’s science fiction.

So here comes my only complaint. Part of the story-line involves a certain amount of genetic engineering (hence the goat on the cover). Not too far-fetched as New Zealand has plenty of current research in these fields. Just that I found the effects on humans  by the product produced by the genetically engineered goats are bit “magic.” OK I guess if you enjoy a little fantasy, but not quite realistic science. I’ll leave that to readers and I am nit-picking as it didn’t really destroy the credibility of the story for me.

Catastrophic but not alarmist

As you might expect, Renowden has a serious message behind the adventure, humour and entertainment of his story. After all, he writes often on the issue of climate change and he starts the book with a quote from Ray Bradbury about writing Fahrenheit 451:

“I WASN’T TRYING to predict the future. I was trying to prevent it.”

He makes his message clear in a brief appendix:

“The Burning World is our planet, but not as we know it. It is one future, a place that might be born of the things we do today. As long as we carry on increasing the carbon content of the atmosphere by using it as a cheap sewer for the waste from the burning of coal and oil, and continue felling forests, then the earth will continue to warm, and some of the things that Lemmy experiences in his short life will come to pass. Not as I have written them, perhaps, but in some form and to some extent these impacts — the rising seas, the extreme weather, the melting ice, the changes in rainfall patterns — will shape the lives of everyone on this planet over the next hundred years and for millennia beyond.

The Burning World is not a prediction. It is intended as a warning, an illustration of the potential consequences of our actions. In its imagining I have tried to stay within the bounds of realistic possibility — stretched a little in the interests of the story in one or two places (or throughout, some might argue) — but most of the main climate change impacts to be found in The Aviator are grounded in things we can see today, brought forward in time. When Lemmy and Thunderbird fly over the Greenland ice sheet and note that even the highest levels are melting, at the time of writing (in 2011) I thought that might be a reasonable projection of the state of the ice twenty to thirty years hence. And then, shortly before publication I learned that it’s already happening. We can only hope the same is not true for some of the other impacts I have dreamed up.”

An important clarification – but it won’t stop Renowden’s harshest critics from calling him “alarmist.” They will do so even without reading the book.

The fact that home base for the blimp was New Zealand, and realistically so,  appealed to me. I have watched New Zealand develop a respectable batch of fictional writers during my lifetime, but we are still short of science fiction writers. Hopefully this book will contribute to a growth in this genre too. The cover describes it as “The Burning World Book One” – so that looks promising.

I highly recommend this first book to science fiction fans and am certainly looking forward to the next book in the series.

*Paperback format available mid-September.

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Sustainability and ethics

ssfnz-cover-198Review: Strong sustainability for New Zealand : principles and scenarios, by Sustainable Aotearoa New Zealand Inc. (SANZ).

NZ Publisher: Nakedize Limited

NZ RRP: NZ$19.99

Binding: paperback

Pages: 52

PDF available for download here. Briefing (with audio) here.


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I think almost all of us will admit, in our more honest moments, that we can’t go on as we are. “Business as usual” is just not a long-term alternative – ethically as well as economically.

Most attention these days focuses on climate change. But, this is just part of a wider problem resulting from our influence on the environment. Climate change, the undermining of biological diversity, the problems of waste production and resource depletion.

Sustainable economics seems the obvious way of confronting these problems. But what this is, and how to do it, can be controversial.

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