The first portent of doom came last week, when our company got a flash new sign for the front of the building. In the alternative universe of Management this could only mean one thing. We were about to be shut down.
Then our two aging pool cars were suddenly replaced with brand new 2005 models. We even had a tutorial on the operation of their Tiptronic transmissions. As one scientist commented: "Jesus Christ, it's like management have sent along the Grim Reaper to point his finger at us."
The final harbinger of apocalypse arrived when the mechanical and electrical workshop managers were sent to be certified as part of an expensive health and safety course. The mechanical workshop manager turned ashen at the news. "They're going to sack me," he groaned, "why else would they spend that much money to have me trained up?"
The bad news came on Tuesday. More than half of the staff were to be made redundant. The site was to be closed. Some of the remaining staff would be transferred to head office in Wellington, the rest would stay on in Christchurch -- at least, until their research funding had been used up.
It wasn't really much of a shock. We are all scientists and engineers at a Crown Research Institute (CRI) -- a remnant of the old Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). When the DSIR was split up into a gaggle of brave new CRIs with a contestable funding system, the British journal 'New Scientist' ran the headline: "New Zealand Shoots Itself in the Brain!" They were quite right. As with many large dinosaurs, it has just taken a while for news of the bullet to be transmitted to the rest of the organism.
Working at a CRI has sometimes been a bit like those post-apocalypse movies, where rag-clad scavengers pick through the ruins of a once-mighty civilization. Elderly scientists collar you in corridors to reminisce about golden days when the DSIR was at the height of its powers. Beautifully-constructed machinery lies gathering cobwebs; useless because the calibration records end abruptly on 30th June 1992, the day the DSIR was disbanded. However, in spite of this, a great deal of good science is still being done. The world's most widely used HTS (high temperature superconductor) material was invented at our CRI. Tetraplegics are having their lives transformed by our assistive devices. The Los Alamos National Laboratory's new proton radiography camera uses our 'Kiwistar' optics. Best of all, the DSIR tradition of science excellence is not yet forgotten at our CRI. Although I have been with the CRI for only a short time -- having finished my Ph.D. just last year -- this tradition has already made a strong impression on me.
But, alas, for Christchurch -- after 50 years -- it all ended on Tuesday. In the meeting room, the announcement of closure was followed by an unusual noise -- one I must be prepared to hear many times if I continue a science career in New Zealand. It was the sound of a roomful of scientists thoughtfully trying to remember when they last saw a Situations Vacant advertisement for an expert in gravity waves, or Stirling cycle thermodynamics, or the mechanics of vibration of bees' abdomens.
In my opinion, the disintegration of our CRI highlights one of the problems of the current contestable funding system. Though laudable in its attempt to give the taxpayer the biggest possible bang for their research buck, the bureaucracy involved means that it virtually costs more to apply for funding than the funding is worth. A staggering amount of a scientist's time is now spent writing funding proposals rather than doing science. The red tape is almost unimaginable. On some occasions it has been necessary for our CRI to hire a six-tonne truck to deliver its funding applications to FRST (the main New Zealand science funding body). Yes, the paperwork is measured in tonnes rather than pages.
And, of course, the vast quantity of time spent writing proposals is in no way a guarantee of funding. The scientist must employ telepathy to work out what FRST will fund at any given moment. FRST have become renowned for making the sort of capricious and unfathomable decisions which are normally associated with crazed North Korean dictators. One minute they're only supporting pure science. The next they've changed their minds, and won't consider anything but applied technology. No-one would be surprised if FRST suddenly proclaimed that first-born scientists were to be beheaded, or that we all have to go to Guyana and drink Kool-aid laced with cyanide.
But for me, personally, the demise of our Christchurch research laboratories is not a major setback. Funding for my research projects will last another year or so, which gives me a bit of time to plan for the future. Although -- that said -- management moves in mysterious ways. There is no reason why they might not suddenly ask an expert in -- for example -- the design of wheelchairs, to continue my energy engineering work. But, whatever happens, I am entirely confident of finding another job. The unfortunate thing, however, is that it might not be in New Zealand.
The disintegration of our CRI has a wider impact than that felt by the scientists involved. It is widely acknowledged that most first-world countries are dependent on science and technology to maintain their standard of living. If the scientific research laboratories of this country are beginning to collapse, then the eventual outcome can only be bad news for New Zealand.
In a somewhat bizarre footnote to these events, AgResearch Chief Executive Dr Andy West has just called for the recruitment of 1,300 more scientists a year -- for the next ten years -- in order to maintain New Zealand's science capabilities, i.e. a total of 13,000 scientists. Good luck, dude.
PLEASE NOTE: THE VIEWS EXPRESSED HEREIN ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR, AND DO NOT PURPORT TO REPRESENT THE OPINIONS OF HIS EMPLOYER IN ANY WAY.