SCIENCE & RESEARCH Formula for Change – Managing brains

They know exactly what to expect. For starters, Tom Richardson and Warren Parker both have stack of science under their belts. So when Richardson took over from Bryce Heard as CEO of Rotorua-based Crown Research Institute, Forest Research, at the start of last month, the issue of managing scientists was second nature to him. After all, he’d been in research management role at the CRI since the early ’90s. Ditto Parker, who in two months’ time will step into the shoes of outgoing Landcare Research CEO Andy Pearce and who brings to his new job seven years of science and research management nous.
They join an elite bunch of CEOs heading up our nation’s scientific research institutions and charged with playing their part as champions and change agents in New Zealand’s economic transformation. Straddling the need to rake in the dollars while also steering collective minds into relevant future space, they explore notions as diverse as how fish find reefs (a joint NIWA/Auckland University project), how packaging can sense when fruit is ripe, and how dehydration among Aussie miners could shed light on local forestry workers’ drinking habits.
Together last year they were responsible for bumping up revenue from $523 million to $534.4 million. In the worldwide yardstick of research, they also contributed 1400 papers to international journals, pumped out over 140 research monographs and books, almost 30 popular books, and more than 2000 scientific and technical reports. That makes them seven times more productive than scientists in the United States, and 10 times more than their sluggardly colleagues in Japan.
It’s all done on an investment of just over one percent of gross domestic product, of which the Government’s contribution is just 0.54 percent. That the money coming in is not enough, as AgResearch CEO Andy West told the Auckland chapter of NZBio at the end of last year, is putting it politely, according to many commentators.
Thirteen years after our CRIs were first established, today’s CEOs have made considerable progress on the path to instilling commercially focused cultures at their respective institutions. It hasn’t been easy. To put the journey in perspective, Pearce recalls stepping through the door as Landcare Research’s first-ever CEO and being handed hostile takeover and simultaneous six-way merger to manage.
“People came into the company from six different parts of the government,” he says. “If you went back little over year they’d been in 10 different parts. And if you went back two or three years they’d been in 15 or 16 different parts of the government. For some of the people this was their fifth restructuring in five successive years.”
Making matters worse, for most people the notion of being corporate body and being required to make profit was “absolutely philosophical anathema”, he says.
In the black hat world of Edward de Bono, it was the worst possible situation. “Of all the CRIs, we had the largest number of people to bring together and at least as large number of locations as any other CRI,” says Pearce. “These people came from parts of previous organisations that, in general, had suffered the most staff losses and had had the most difficulty earning external income over the previous five years when budget cuts had been made. We were facing further 10 percent cut in our core funding. Most of the CRIs have sector that they’re aligned to. Many people thought there wouldn’t be anyone we would be able to work for and we’d have no strong political advocates.
“A lot of people saw any one of those as potentially fatal weakness and all of them combined as being the kiss of death. There wasn’t any prospect in their minds that the organisation could be successful. Plenty of the staff coming thought that was probably true as well and in any case didn’t want to come.”
His response came in typical de Bono yellow hat fashion – recognising that the situation was so bad that it needed completely blank sheet of paper and determination to start from scratch. “All of those things turned out, in strange kind of way, to be advantages,” says Pearce. “There was no prospect that we could just change the nameplate on the door.”
Pearce combined strong engagement with staff with “lots” of internal work deciding on strategy. Most importantly, he smashed down old fences between competing units and, as early as possible, made painful decisions on relocating staff. “I’d like to say it was an absolute doddle but it wouldn’t be true.”
Another burst of rethinking and revamping in the mid to late ’90s and constant management tweaking ever since has now positioned Landcare Research as showing the third largest increase in revenue in proportion to what it started with, out of all the CRIs.
While the Landcare example is extreme it highlights some of the issues inherent in managing not just an organisation undergoing huge transformational change but also some of the idiosyncrasies involved in managing scientists and researchers.
Take the idea of internal consultation, for instance. With nearly 200 PhDs among its staff of 500, HortResearch is not short of ideas, opinion or debate, says chief executive Paul McGilvary. The highly analytical nature of scientists and researchers means his management team “doesn’t do much” without consulting widely. “Scientists think deeply so if you try and implement something and haven’t thought about it they’ll pull you up in five seconds flat. They’ll look at all the angles and think about all the implications. With all our people churning away at ideas all the time, we’d be crazy not to consult them.”
McGilvary admits that wide consultation slows down decision-making processes at the start but ensures buy-in and speedier implementation in the later stages of any change process. The trick lies in creating structures and processes in which that creativity can be legitimised and can flow through into meaningful outputs. “That’s big challenge,” he says, “but it’s critical for an organisation like ours to harness the creativity we’ve got.”
An idea, as he notes, is not the same as an innovation. “Heaps of people have ideas that can flow around, go nowhere and bang around like an empty drum. But to take an idea and make it into something which adds value and improves the lot of mankind is very different.”
Nigel Kirkpatrick, CEO of Industrial Research and president of the Association of Crown Research Institutes, draws comparison between scientists at one end of the spectrum and salespeople at the other. He recalls one of his first meetings with his scientific team when, fresh from the commercial world of Unilever, he presented his thinking for the CRI.
“Salespeople would have probably stood and clapped because they think that’s what they should do – whether they’ve engaged with the message or even listened. Scientific people sit there, challenge and question. That’s kind of hard the first time you come across it but in fact it’s better place because they’re saying that if you can convince them the idea is right, they’ll buy in, and if you can’t, then it’s not real. It’s much better way. People aren’t being nice and polite, they’re being genuinely challenging.”
But while ongoing debate can be invigorating, Kirkpatrick asserts that at some point management must stop the clock and demonstrate through implementation what will work and what won’t. “Do an experiment, if you like, and prove it.”
A lot of New Zealanders even struggle with the idea of scientists heading science institutes, according to NIWA chief executive Rick Pridmore. white lab coat man himself, he perceives “an attitude that scientists are poor managers”, that “other people can do the managing”, and that “scientists are really those little hairy people that do science”. It’s incongruous, he says, when lawyers are seen as perfectly capable of running big law firms and head teachers of managing schools.
Interestingly, he also contends that, alongside the

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