Research centre funded but research misses out

July 15, 2008

The mullit-million dollar animal reproduction facility at Invermay isn’t even open yet and already there are questions over it’s long-term future because its application for $18m of public science funding failed.

AgResearch chief executive Dr Andy West said the Government was sending mixed messages. On the one hand, it had approved $17 million for the new animal reproduction and genetics building at the North Taieri Invermay campus, but the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FRST) yesterday declined to fund the science.

The centre would open in December and its future was secure for the next three years.

But unless AgResearch was able to find more than $3.5 million a year after that, Dr West said he would have to look overseas for animal reproduction contracts”Overall, it’s not particularly good news for Invermay,” he said.

It does seem more than a little wasteful to build a research centre then not fund the research.

The FRST manager of investment strategy, Richard Templer, said in a statement AgResearch’s position was affected by “wider issues in the meat and wool sector”.

Of the 96 contested contracts awarded, AgResearch secured 14, worth a total of $67 million, including $7.5 million over three years for animal reproduction.

“While this might not have been all the funding AgResearch sought for it, it is the nature of a contestable process that not all proposals will get all the funding sought.”

When funds are limited there has to be an application process and not all applicactions will succeed. But Scientists often complain they spend more time and energy applying for funding than actually doing research.

Invermay’s new $17 million complex will house 49 people in a joint AgResearch-University of Otago genetics and animal reproduction team.

Nine of those relocated south from the Wallaceville campus, near Wellington.

Dr West said AgResearch had 45% of its contracts up for renewal in FRST’s latest round, but had funding cut by $18 million, a decision he accepted as “part of life”.

But, he said, there were mixed messages from the Government, which strengthened his view science funding was flawed.

“There is something seriously wrong with science funding when you can get sign-off from the Government for $17 million in funding to construct a new building, then the Government questions whether reproduction research is a priority.”

AgResearch has also had a cut to its textiles research, affecting a $21 million investment in a Lincoln textiles company, Canesis.

The loss of $1 million a year meant AgResearch would now look overseas for wool research contracts in a bid to retain staff, effectively helping competing wool producers.

“There is only one future for textiles and that is we have to look for work from overseas industry or overseas governments. Either that or we make everyone redundant and close it down.”

Canesis was about to launch eight new woollen fabrics at New Zealand Fashion Week, including a lightweight, stab-resistant material, another that was heat resistant, and an environmentally friendly outdoor jacket fabric.

They sound like exactly the sort of thing we should be getting in to.

Dr West said the loss of funding raised serious concerns for the sheep industry, which relied on viable lamb and wool industries to compete with dairying.

“Without wool, we can’t make the numbers work for sheep to compete with dairying on our flat land.”

Farmers have been blaming low returns on the price they’re paid for meat, but prices for wool and pelts have also been depressed which makes dairying more attractive by comparison.

Dr West hoped to secure transitional funding so scientists could switch research projects. But he warned it could be hard to retain scientists, especially with AgResearch’s Irish equivalent actively recruiting 60 pastoral scientists.

Science, Research and Technology Minister Pete Hodgson said FRST was independent of the Government and he had no influence on its funding decisions.

FRST had 17% more money to allocate this year, including a large increase in the primary sector, and it was still to announce contested and transitional funding.

Has everyone forgotten the knowledge economy or isn’t agriculture part of it?


CPI up 1.6% dairy farm costs up 10% a hectare

July 15, 2008

Consumers and producers are counting the costs associated with rising inflation.

The Consumer Price Index  went up 1.6% in the June quarter and pushed inflation up to 4% while dairy farm working costs  rose 10% a hectare in the past year.

Specialist dairy farm and business management company, Farmright, surveyed 50 farms which the company manages and found that between 2006-07 and 2007-08, feed rose 25%, fertiliser 24% and freight and cartage 37% per hectare.

Farmright manager Jim Lee said fertiliser costs had gone up further since the survey was done, and wage costs were also creeping up on dairy farmers.

Wage costs only rose 3% last year, but newly negotiated contracts indicated that figure would increase sharply this year because of greater demand and a shortage of workers.

The shortage of staff is critical and it’s not helped by immigration policy which requries herd managers to have a bachelor’s degree or five years relevant work experience if they are applying for residency.

“We know from contracts being negotiated for new and existing staff being rolled over that there have been some increases.”

The cost of production, which included feed, run-off costs and cost of management, but excluded depreciation on the Farmright-managed farms, rose from $2.91 per kg of milk solids (kg m/s) in 2006-07 to $3.61 per kg m/s in 2007-08.

Mr Lee said drought and cost increases had an impact. But he said some businesses were now operating at higher cost structures than they would be aware of.

He believed some farmers would be faced with costs of $6 per kg, made up of $4 per kg farm input costs and interest costs of $2 per kg.

“Cost control and financial discipline are more important now than ever before,” he said.

It is easy to let costs get away when the payout is high but not so easy to rein them in when the price falls.

However, one of the speaker’s at last year’s South Island Dairy event (SIDE) conference told how he’d gone into dairying when the milk payout was $5.30 and the next year it went down to $3.60 – but they made more that season than the previous one because they were much more disciplined about containing costs.


Promise less, prepare for worst

July 15, 2008

 SOMETIMES the best way to make voters forget their ills – real and imagined – is to promise them less and prepare them for the worst case.

If politicians followed the rule of the possible when talking to the public, they would be better able to sell reforms. Perhaps they could even keep the electorate on side in the event of recession.

This advice come from George Megalogenis, senior writer for The Australian and is applicable this side of the Tasman too.

Remember the shock of Paul Keating’s “recession we had to have” press conference in November 1990 came not from the news itself, but from the denial of reality that preceded it. The then treasurer had repeatedly said that there would be no recession.

Imagine, for a moment, that Australia’s luck finally runs out, and a recession that may be engulfing the US and Britain reaches our shores by the end of the year, or early in2009…

Obviously, Kevin Rudd won’t want to talk the local economy down when the chances of recession seem low. But how would he go about changing the national conversation if things suddenly went pear-shaped? The Prime Minister would, of course, blame the previous Coalition government, and the rest of the world, in that political order.

Yet the lesson of recessions past is that governments lose credibility long beforehand, by overselling their ability to run the economy. They claim credit for the positive numbers, then look for scapegoats when the national accounts throw up a couple of quarters of negative growth.

It is a little difficult to remain credible when you claim the credit for economic growth which largely happens in spite of your government then deny responsibility for a downturn which is happening, at least in part, because of your policies.

The truth, if any leader were prepared to admit it, is the role of government is limited when the economy is humming. Stay out of the way of the market, take the opportunity to secure reform because change is easier to implement in good times, and keep a lid on expectations. The last bit is always the hardest, because in good times leaders err on the side of the bribe.

That brings to mind interest free student loans and a variety of other baubles we tax payers are funding.

It is only in recession that governments are really called on to manage the economy. They provide the safety net for those who lose their jobs and the public investments to prop up demand.

Sadly, we are cursed with politicians who spruik their expertise when it is not required, and who dodge their responsibilities when systems and markets fail.

Who does that remind me of?

 

p.s. I had to look up Spruik so in case you don’t know what it means either here’s a couple of definitions:

From Encarta  – to promote goods services or a cause by addressing people in a public place;

And from Wordsmith – to make an elaborate speech, especially to attract customers.


Higher Salaries Commission model for health workers

July 15, 2008

Health professionals’ salaries could be set by a body like the Higher Salaries Commission  Professor Donald Evans, the director of Otago Bioethics Centre, says.

He was commenting on recent coverage of two complaints investigated by the health and disability commissioner Ron Paterson relating to treatment of two Dunedin hospital patients during the medical radiologists strikes in 2006.

Mr Paterson said one of the cases highlighted the incontrovertible fact patient safety was jeopardised during strikes by health professionals and he called for the Health Minister to consider what could be done to ensure better patient protection during strikes.

Prof Evans said while health professionals ensured strikes were organised so few people suffered ill effects and said patients were not harmed, that was not always the perspective of the patients.

“If I’m diagnosed with cancer and I need imaging to be treated, I regard even a day’s delay as a disaster.”

Taking the confrontation out of wage rounds by putting the decision-making in the hands of a salary awarding body would protect professionals’ integrity, he said.

A very good point, health professionals should not be faced with a conflict between their duty of care and industrial action.

He did not expect this would be favoured by the Government, however, because it would mean paying people what they were worth.

Paying people what they’re worth – that would be a scarey thought for a Finance Minister.

Politicians were sheltered from the sort of confrontation health workers faced over wages, Prof Evans said.

He’s right and there’s a strong case for health professionals to have the same protection.

A call last week from Otago District Health Board chief medical officer Richard Bunton to ban strikes by health workers has been described as unnecessary by the Public Service Association, which says systems are in place to protect patients during industrial action.

PSA national secretary Richard Wagstaff drew attention to the extensions in the life preserving service (LPS) arrangements during strikes since 2006 which now covered crisis intervention, therapeutic services and urgent diagnostic procedures in situations that could lead to permanent disability.

Mr Paterson was aware of extensions to the LPS provisions when he made his call for better protection as reference to them is made in footnotes in one of his complaints reports.

Unions Otago convener and New Zealand Nurses Organisation national industrial adviser Glenda Alexander said if people were paid what they were worth and there were balanced processes for getting a mutually satisfactory outcome then there might not be a need to strike, but that was not what happened.

She was in favour of the more positive interests- and issues-based approach used by the nurses union to negotiate its last collective agreement.

A change which protects workers’ rights and patient safety is needed, as is the political will to implement it.


Is Turei taking over from Tanczos?

July 15, 2008

Nandor Tanczos was the Green face for decriminalising marijuana. Does this story  mean Metiria Turei has taken over his mantle?

Three students were arrested yesterday when Dunedin police swooped on a pro-marijuana stall on the University of Otago campus…

Green MP Metiria Turei, who was on campus and arrived at the scene towards the end of the incident, said the police response was over the top…

Ms Turei criticised police priorities.

“This was a phenomenal waste of police time. It is shocking behaviour for police just at a time when confidence in police is at an all-time low.”

While she had only arrived on the scene in “the last few minutes”, she said Gray’s treatment by police was “serious manhandling”.

“It looks very much like they are picking off young men who are running a political campaign.”

Another witness said the officers had not appeared heavy-handed in their treatment of those being arrested.


Why…

July 15, 2008

… is the length a vacuum cleaner cord reaches from a plug always fractionally shorter than required for the area which needs to be cleaned?

And why don’t we throw out a pen the first time we realise it doesn’t work?


Another call to make health workers’ strikes illegal

July 15, 2008

The Orthopaedic Society  has added its voice to calls to ban strikes for essential health workers.

Patients’ lives were at risk during strike action by essential health workers and such action should be made illegal, says the New Zealand Orthopaedic Society president, Dunedin specialist John Matheson.

He said the society, a professional body of 185 orthopaedic surgeons, was calling on the Minister of Health to make strike action illegal and to introduce compulsory arbitration for workers in essential health services.

Working during the 2006 medical radiologists’ strikes was the “most vulnerable” period of his career, Mr Matheson said.

“Working without X-rays for an orthopaedic surgeon is akin to working in a Third World country.

“We just feel that the public, and the people in the union and district health boards, and even the ministry, really have no idea what it is like when health professionals, particularly medical radiation technologists, go on strike, because no-one else can do that job.”

It was “extremely difficult” to diagnose and manage patients’ injuries and sudden illness without X-rays and other radiological investigations and patient care was similarly affected during strikes by junior doctors, Mr Matheson said.

Providing life preserving cover during strike action was not “cut and dried” and the society agreed with comments from Health and Disability Commissioner Ron Paterson it was an “incontrovertible fact” patient safety was jeopardised during strikes.

“We are not taking sides. It is just the whole process we are concerned about; [concerned] that it should get to strike action. There must be some better way of doing this, such as compulsory arbitration.”

Previous calls from the society to make strike action illegal had been rejected by past and present Ministers of Health and union leaders, he said.

“They must believe the rights of the public with serious needs are less important than the rights of health workers to strike.”

Police can’t strike for the sake of public safety, essential health workers should be prevented from striking for the sake of individuals’ safety.


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