Science Accountabilty.

Science is not handled well by politicians. It is threatened by ignoramuses. Here are some comments from my brother (Dr R L Bieleski) who became a Director of the Horticulture Division of NZ’s DSIR.

“The problem with the project approach is that it assumes and asks for success, damping down the search for new ideas. For about my last 4 years I was in the project-oriented world and found it stifling. Sure I could put down a successful project where I could deliver what I promised, but where was the place for insights? The project proposal asks for description of the process, not the target. Put down “I want to understand better how watercore in apples occurs” and you don’t get funded. Describe in detail the experiments you plan, when you don’t know really what ones you need until you have stepped down the path, you might have a show. Perhaps the biggest indictment of the New Zealand system lies in our neighbour. From their birth through to 1990, DSIR and CSIRO travelled a closely parallel path. They were born out of the same reviewers at the same time, and there was steady exchange of information and joint projects. Australia, however, on looking at what had happened thought it could do better by keeping and developing CSIRO.

What has got up my nose has been the appalling self-satisfaction of (Minister of Science) Williamson’s justification in stating that DSIR lacked any accountability. That was what is politely known as a “data-free observation”: I would call it a lie, because he presented no evidence whatever, and hadn’t bothered to look at what was in front of him. Different Divisions did their accounting in different ways, but there was always a clear statement as to what each scientist was supposed to be directing efforts at and what had been achieved, whether it was breeding a new kiwifruit or finding out why orange roughy upset people’s stomachs. If you didn’t do what you were expected to do, you got no promotion up the salary scale with its 8 or 10 steps. In my Division, each year each scientist was expected to give a project-based synopsis, in readable form, of what he/she had done and achieved, and what was planned for the coming year. This “annual research report” of maybe 200 pages, 500 projects was printed up (no fancy pictures, just Xeroxed typescript) and made available to whoever wanted it – all other Divisions, industry groups etc.

For example I believe a copy was sent to the Minister of Science. Similarly the organisation itself placed clear guidelines as to who should be doing what. My Division was Horticulture and Processing – and that’s what we worked on, not ecology of Rangitoto or geology of Waiheke. There were 25 Divisions in all, clearly sectoring up our national scientific endeavour. In that respect we were not like the University. A question: are we better managing science in having a generalised Plant and Food Institute as we do now, or having clearly defined Entomology, Plant Diseases, Horticulture, Arable Crops, Food Processing, Plant Physiology, Wheat Research, and Plant Chemistry Divisions – which is what the march of progress has given us, the amalgamation of those clearly defined objective-based groups of DSIR into an amorphous body where the project rules – but is hidden deeply from outside sight.

A feature of the old DSIR was the very lean management structure. There was one Director General for the lot, helped by 3 Assistant Directors General who were responsible for about 8 of the Divisions. Each Division had a Director who was expected to be the sole science administrator; though in general practice there was an informal substructure of a couple of assistant directors (no capitals, the positions were informal and solely at the whim of the Director) who spent about 50% of their time on administrative stuff, and say 5 section heads (again informal) who spent about 20% of the time administering their subgroup of about 7-8 scientists. What it boils down to is that about 7.5% of the science horsepower was devoted to science management, 92.5% to active research. I do not know the management structure of Plant and Food Research Institute, the one I am closest to, but I do know it is a hell of a lot top-heavier, partly because of the management horsepower required for all those projects where EACH has to be answered for to MoRST. I gather it is about 20%. Leave that aside: the project making process takes each scientist away from the bench for a significant part of their time. On the basis of what I saw before I retired, it would be minimum of 15% per scientist. Adding them, my best guess is that we have a situation where about 65% of the scientist horsepower is on active research (and I leave out the time spent on outlining failed projects which is likely to reduce output by another 10%, as your [this blogger] article author notes!). Even if having scientists forced to answer to a defined project makes them more efficient (which I doubt, if you are looking for creative science), they have to be made close to 50% more efficient to break even compared with the old system.

There’s one more thing that makes the formula even ore scary. In the old DSIR, some technicians (usually without any degree) carried out some independent research. The system allowed this: it was all about productivity. In my Division I can think of about 5 out of 65 technicians who effectively were largely doing independent research (in association with a lead scientist) justifying their names on research papers and even lead naming. There would have been several who spent part of their time on independent projects. At a guess I’d put this at 7 scientist-equivalents in my Division, meaning my part of the bad old DSIR could be said to be working at 109%. Other Divisions were pretty much the same: for example the medical airstream humidifier that F&P Medical have as their mainstream product was dreamed up and brought to a working model by AIDD technicians. So much for non-accountability. This is something that doesn’t fit into the project system at all. Research proposals from someone without any degree? Dream on.

One of the things never admitted by the Institutists is that many of their successes had their roots firmly in the “bad, unfocussed DSIR”. The biggest money spinners for Plant and Food have been royalties from the kiwifruit and apple breeding. Those programs were started in my Division under my management. We sourced breeding material of apples from the Kurdistan area before it became impractical (through the rise of Al Qaeda) and kiwifruit breeding material from China before they realised that their genetic resources were precious. The big thing is that when we started our kiwifruit breeding, it was opposed by most of the industry because what they had was “just fine” We had to bully and wheedle to get any industry funding at all. Also we had to carry out the process so we were able to keep PVR rights (which meant basically keeping everything in our own hands, not offering it out for evaluation). So much for research always needing to be determined by the end user. We could see it would be needed 15-25 years down the track, and what sort of product. Growers concerned with next year just didn’t have the minds or leisure to think about what would be required that far ahead. DSIR’s history is replete with other examples. That was our job – and we did it. In the article you sent me, there is one paragraph that I think totally sums up the organisation I knew:

“As well as providing returns of around 30% on specified long-term tasks such as the solution of agricultural problems, new ideas could be explored and often were encouraged and helped to fruition. There was no reason other than an extreme ideology to break up the DSIR and organise science into competing business units (beholden to a centralised monolithic funding system), which are unsuitable for the scientific endeavour. Science and business are two very different arenas with different criteria and requirements. In each the best result comes from leaving decisions to the practitioners who know their subject. “

The new system is highly competitive, both between scientists and Institutes, as one’s future depends on getting funded. This damps down a lot on research efforts crossing boundaries, which is very often where genuinely new advances come from particularly those that come out of a chance “meeting of different cultures”.

What I can tell you is that scientists of my generation, up to say 20 years younger, all say “I had the best of it: I was able to do real science then. I had a career; I knew where I was going”. Today’s poor buggers don’t know from one year to the next whether they will still have a job, or will be made redundant, and a thing I find sad is how many of the fine young scientists I had 25 years ago have been spat out by the system to find jobs elsewhere. It’s a terrible loss of intellectual capital that is down to a fact-free decision made by politicians with limited intelligence, zero understanding, and no wish to look before they leap.” RLB.

Your Blogger notes that more management and managers has not increased the effectiveness of scientific endeavor. The trouble is that politicians who want to control science do not understand science so think interfering will help. In the USA politicians find they cannot understand science so assume it is wrong.