Callaghan Innovation in its infancy

September 2013

 

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JUDE BARBACK considers whether the broad support hailing from institutions and business leaders on the back of Callaghan Innovation’s Statement of Intent has allayed or deafened earlier concerns that the new agency would see an end to hands-on science and basic research.

To call it Callaghan Innovation is appropriate. The Crown agency, established on 1 February this year, takes its name from one of

New Zealand’s finest and well-known scientists, Sir Paul Callaghan, who passed away last year. Certainly, ‘Callaghan’ and ‘Innovation’ run smoothly together, perhaps because Sir Paul believed that science was not only about great ideas, but about getting value from those ideas through innovation and commercialisation. He was passionate about understanding and communicating how science and innovation can drive growth in advanced economies. His vision for

New Zealand was one of smart innovative export-focused entrepreneurialism, where a quality lifestyle could be combined with excellent educational and R&D capability.

Rise of bureaucracy, demise of science?

However, some prominent people in the sector expressed their dismay at the inception of Callaghan Innovation, their concerns primarily around the fact that the new agency ─ which would replace Industrial Research Ltd, the Crown Research Institute that was essentially New Zealand’s ‘national lab’ ─ would fail to focus on basic research and hands-on science.

In his Herald editorial in November last year, Dr Jeff Tallon said he thought it highly likely that Sir Paul would not have lent his name to any institution that lost its focus on science and research, especially in the physical sciences.

Tallon expressed his concerns that Callaghan Innovation would be “required to wind back on scientific research in order to become a mere broker of technical knowledge – a middle player between industry and university.”

Professor Michael Kelly, of Technology at Cambridge University’s Centre for Advanced Photonics, echoed these concerns on Radio New Zealand in January, saying that the replacement of Industry Research Ltd with Callaghan Innovation would likely result in the demise of “hands-on science”.

Kelly felt there was a need for a national research lab, pointing to the “hard decade grind” that is typically not supported by the universities – which instead tend to be driven by PBRF (performance based research fund) and privileges – nor by the commercial sector, which typically become interested at the completion stages of research.

However, in response to Kelly’s challenge, Callaghan Innovation board chair Sue Suckling confirmed that science engineering and technology research would remain a fundamental part of what is achieved at the organisation, although some researchers may be aligned with other institutions in order to better deliver “critical capability”.

However, its recent decision to “pull the plug” on one of the world’s leading suppliers of optical equipment for astronomy, Kiwistar Optics, has been met with scathing criticism from the

New Zealand Association of Scientists, and suggests those earlier debates still lie close to the surface. The association maintains that the KiwiStar decision is at odds with Sir Paul’s vision of diversifying New Zealand’s economy by using science and innovation to generate new high-value manufacturing companies, like KiwiStar Optics. Earlier in the year, the association president, Prof Shaun Hendy noted that they will be able to tell if Callaghan Innovation is on track in a year or two by whether it has been able to significantly grow the numbers of scientists and decrease the number of bureaucrats. The association has taken the KiwiStar decision as an indication that the bureaucrats appear to be winning.

Collaboration the key

While it has certainly entered New Zealand’s innovation scene with much song and dance, Callaghan Innovation is joining a large sector, already comprising 500 science, engineering, and technology companies, laboratories, campuses, workshops, studios, and factories and 50 major institutions including universities, Crown Research Institutes, polytechnics, and private sector companies. Suckling, along with other board members and ministers, envisages its role as working not in isolation or competition but in collaboration with these other sector players.

Certainly, one of the main criticisms of New Zealand’s innovation sector is that it is fragmented, with expertise and knowledge buried away in various corners of the country and collaboration not happening nearly as much as it should.

This is where Callaghan Innovation sees itself adding value, by providing a single point of access to this expertise, enabling greater collaboration, and accelerating opportunities for development and export.

The emphasis in these early days has been on engaging the business and science, engineering, and technology sectors. Its initial focus has been on delivering products and services that motivate, connect and deliver, doing so by investing in ventures that have the ability to be globally competitive through R&D, and sourcing the right equipment, facilities, and expertise. Callaghan Innovation has a $249 million annual budget, $141.5 million of which is for direct grants.

The organisation has now more clearly articulated its strategic direction and priorities, tabling its first full three year Statement of Intent in July. Among its objectives ─ which pivot primarily around the areas of providing access and support and fostering a culture of innovation and collaboration ─ is to establish National Technology Networks to coordinate innovation initiatives across important technology areas.

Callaghan Innovation’s board reportedly deliberated long and hard over what kind of firms to support, eventually deciding that a firm’s “willingness to grow” was more important than the size of that firm.

The statement of corporate intent document notes that small businesses in New Zealand tend to invest more in high value research and development than large firms because medium-to-large firms are concentrated in lower-value industries. This is thought to be a factor in the country’s lower growth and incomes than in comparable developed economies.

However, larger businesses are not neglected; the statement says it will seek out “entrepreneurs, business owners, and leaders who are receptive to creating or growing big HVMS (high-value manufacturing and services) businesses”. Big projects, driven by the needs of very large customers, including government procurers, will also be pursued.

Fledgling support but much to prove

It would appear the synergy between institutions and businesses Callaghan Innovation is striving for is already building. Following the Statement of Intent, a flurry of press releases ensued, each institution eager to declare its support and keenness to work with the organisation. Victoria University said it was “committed to supporting initiatives that will help to achieve Sir Paul Callaghan’s vision of greater commercialisation of innovation in New Zealand”. The University of Canterbury applauded the organisation’s decision to not take part in contestable funding bids as it allows university researchers to work with Callaghan Innovation collaboratively without any conflicts of interest. AUT University, which is currently working with Callaghan Innovation in development of its industry engagement strategy, said it was “looking forward to engaging with the organisation in market-facing innovation and technology research”. Science New Zealand chief executive Anthony Scott said “the organisation’s “commitment to partnering with Crown Research Institutes, tertiary institutions and private firms acknowledges the wealth of capability and connections in the relationships between researchers and end users”. KiwiNet chairperson Hon Ruth Richardson agreed; “New Zealand will be the winner if we can work in tandem”.

While there are still some mourning the approach to research taken by its predecessor, Industry Research Ltd, and some nervous about the potential rise of bureaucracy and demise of science, Callaghan Innovation is committed to collectively raising the bar for New Zealand research.

So the road may be long, but the legacy is great, the expectations are huge, and the potential knows no bounds.


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