Academic journal article Innovation : Management, Policy & Practice

Contestability and Contested Stability: Life and Times of CSIRO's New Zealand Cousins, the Crown Research Institutes

Academic journal article Innovation : Management, Policy & Practice

Contestability and Contested Stability: Life and Times of CSIRO's New Zealand Cousins, the Crown Research Institutes

Article excerpt


The progress of the Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) since their formation in 1992 from the dismantling of the centralised Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) is charted. Particular attention is paid to the funding environment, characterised by the concept of contestability, in which the CRIs have operated. In recent years, the CRIs have lobbied for more funding stability arguing that contestability has resulted in fickle funding decisions, eroding their ability to plan for the long-term and build human capital. Certainly recent changes in policy reflect a greater concern with CRI capability. When the Government moved to increase the amount of core funding for CRIs, however, the universities, concerned that this would reduce their access to funding, argued that this 'stability' would result in ossification and less than excellent science. The paper concludes with some reflections on the contrast between the CSIRO and CRI cousins, and on the future for CRIs.


contestable research funding; Crown Research Institutes; university research funding New Zealand; new public management; science excellence; public choice theory

For the first time in 60 years the Government is realigning its departmental science effort to focus on the greatly changed needs of New Zealand ... Establishing Crown Research Institutes around a productive sector, or oriented to people or resources, ensures that they will be focused on needs and end uses of science and technology.

While DSIR, MAF Technology, Forest Research Institute and New Zealand Meteorological Service have served New Zealand well, increasingly their ability to do so has been constrained by their departmental format. By establishing research institutes with full commercial powers, the ability to transfer technology to users will be greatly enhanced, to New Zealand's benefit.

(Ministerial Science Task Group 1991: v)

So said Simon Upton, Minister of Research, Science and Technology, in his forward to the landmark document that paved the way for the dismantling of New Zealand's public sector research, including the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), and the formation of the ten Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) that would 'provide the building blocks for the research community well into the next century'. Formed out of the research arms of four government departments, the CRIs came into being on July 1 1992. They are now several years into the 'next century' so it is timely to reflect on their fourteen years of existence.


The science policy and structural changes that accompanied the formation of the Crown Research Institutes in 1992 were one small part of a period of major change that occurred throughout the public sector at that time, 'merely another item on a reforming agenda applied to all and sundry' (Scott 2003: 82). Commencing in 1984, following a fiscal crisis and change of Government, New Zealand progressed through a period of macro-economic stabilization and structural reform, particularly in the public sector, that has been called one of the 'most notable episodes of liberalization that history has to offer' (Evans et al. 1996: 1856). Influenced by public choice theory, 'new public management' (NPM) discourses and practices have been popular in recent decades with governments around the world (Aucoin 1990), including Australia (Keating & Holmes 1990) and New Zealand (Scott et al. 1991; Boston et al. 1996), and science was not immune to the trend (Boden et al. 2006; Cartner & Bollinger 1997; Leitch & Davenport 2005). The New Zealand version of NPM, however, is widely acknowledged for the 'coherence and rigour of its intellectual base and the rapidity with which it was given effect' (Poletti 2004: 19).

While it is not the intention here to review NPM (see Hood & Guy 2004 and Boston et al. 1996), it was essentially based upon the marriage of new institutional economic ideas, such as contestability, user choice, transparency and incentive structures, with 'managerialism', (professional management expertise, requiring high discretionary power), now viewed as central to organizational performance (Hood 1991). …

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