Publication details [#8913]

Poletti, Elena J. 2000. “The gold in the heads of scientists”: The metaphor of business and the establishment of the Crown Research Institutes. Otago, New Zealand. 87 pp. URL


Business and the business world were important sources of metaphors for reform of public sectors during the 1980s. This study examines the way one such metaphor - The Crown Research Institutes are businesses - was deployed during reform of the statefunded science sector in New Zealand and considers the broader consequences for thinking and behaviour inside the organisations. The study focuses on discourses from two key ritual processes, Parliamentary debates and annual reports during the establishment phase of the Crown Research Institutes (CRTs). Using a framework for analysis developed from a wide range of studies on the nature and roles of metaphor, close readings of the selected discourses (debates on the Crown Research Institutes Bill in 1992, and Chairman's reports for the CRIB from 1992 to 1995) were undertaken under the general research question: Did the business metaphor provide a constructive framework for the new research organisations? Contrary to initial expectations, the base metaphor was not a significant element in the discourses around the CRTs in Parliament. A surrogate metaphor - the science dividend - emerged as a means of saving the base metaphor in a context where ideas of profit and competition appeared to be unacceptable, but there was bi-partisan support for the general approach to reform. There is some evidence that MPs were not always able to recognise the presence of metaphor. The CRI reports presented a more diffuse picture, but as before, little overt use was made of the base metaphor. Only one CRI developed its own alternate metaphor - This CRI is a professional practice. The remaining eight appeared to undergo a continuing search for appropriate metaphors as a basis for persuading others and providing scenarios for organisational behaviour. It is suggested that the base metaphor has become so ingrained as to be taken literally. The consequences for thinking about the CRIB would seem to be on the one hand that while there is deep unease about the base metaphor, there is generally no other metaphor available as a framework for exploring the problems they pose. Where on the other hand the metaphor is taken literally, misperceptions of appropriate behaviour are possible, with unexpected and undesirable consequences for behaviour, and particularly for the use of accounting information. (Elena Poletti)