AUSTRALIAN Wool Innovation chairman Wal Merriman has admitted observing a focus group of performance-recording Merino breeders from behind a one-way mirror in Sydney in June this year without their knowledge.
Before Mr Merriman’s attendance, the participating Merino breeders had been assured anonymity and confidentiality by AWI and the research company running the AWI-funded Merino genetics focus group.
However, the AWI chair, and co-principal of the Merryville Merino Stud, has defended his observation of the focus group to Sheep Central, after being denied his request to participate with the invited breeders face-to-face.
The research firm that hosted the focus group, Axiom Research, has confirmed to participating breeders, in email exchanges seen by Sheep Central, that Mr Merriman and AWI’s program manager for genetics and reproduction Neil Judd, watched and listened to the session behind a one-way mirror in the City Group Rooms.
The participating breeders have told Sheep Central they were asked to give honest and frank feedback on AWI’s genetic programs and direction in the focus group session, after being assured of anonymity and confidentiality when invited to participate.
The MERINOSELECT users and studs attending the focus group session included Andrew Bouffler, Trigger Vale Poll Merinos, Lockhart, NSW; Andrew Michael, Leahcim Merinos, Snowtown, SA; Mark Murphy, Karbullah Poll Merinos, Goondiwindi, Queensland; Craig Dewar, Woodyarrup Merino and Poll Merinos, Broomehill, Western Australia; Phil Toland, Toland Merinos, Violet Town, Victoria, Jim Litchfield, Hazeldean Merinos, Cooma, New South Wales; Mark Mortimer, CentrePlus Merinos, Tullamore, New South Wales, and; Lynley Anderson, Anderson Rams Poll Merinos, Kojonup, Western Australia.
No disclosure of AWI leader’s presence
Some of the Merino breeders told Sheep Central they saw Mr Merriman in the building where the focus group meeting was being held.
However, all said that neither Mr Merriman, the AWI staff overseeing the focus group, nor the researchers, disclosed the AWI chairman’s presence to them before or during the meeting.
Trigger Vale Poll Merino Stud principal Andrew Bouffler told Sheep Central that the performance-recording breeders were invited by Qualitative Recruitment Australia project manager Murray Gale on behalf of AWI and Axiom Research to the York Street City Group Rooms on June 15, to “participate in a very special research project designed to review the future direction of AWI genetic support programs.”
The meeting was moderated by Axiom Research’s Bill Morgan in CGR’s Red Room with Axiom Research research manager John Logan observing.
Focus group conducted to industry guidelines
Axiom Research has since assured some of the breeders that the June 15 focus group session was conducted within Australian Market & Social Research Society guidelines.
However, the AMSRS Code of Professional Behaviour states that participants’ identifiable research information must not, without their consent, be revealed to anyone not directly involved in the research project and that permission to observe an interview/group discussion by a third party must be gained from the participant in accordance with the code.
Sheep Central has not been able to determine if Mr Merriman was regarded as someone “directly involved in the research project” by AWI or Axiom Research.
The participating Merino breeders are now questioning the transparency of being asked to give honest and frank feedback potentially critical of AWI’s programs and assured of anonymity, while being observed by the AWI chair.
“I can go to any bloody meeting that is on at AWI”: Merriman
Mr Merriman was seen by two of the MERINOSELECT breeders in the City Group Rooms building before the focus group started.
He has told Sheep Central he wanted to sit in on the focus group, but was told by the researchers he would have to observe behind a one-way mirror in an adjoining viewing room.
The AWI chairman told Sheep Central he attended many AWI meetings and believed it was appropriate that he participate in the June 15 meeting conducted by Axiom Research on AWI’s behalf.
Mr Merriman admitted to Sheep Central that he wasn’t invited to attend the meeting.
“No, I made it my own business to go,” he said.
“I can go to any bloody meeting that is on at AWI, that’s the role and the prerogative of the chair, and that’s it.
“I attend a lot of meetings, be they marketing, on farm or whatever, I want to know what’s going on.”
The AWI chairman said he wanted to attend the meeting and sit in the room, and it was not his decision to observe the focus group behind a one-way mirror.
Mr Merriman said he informed Mr Judd that he wanted to go to the meeting, but was told he couldn’t.
“I said bullshit, I can attend any bloody meeting that goes on in this place.
“They said no we have this system, and I get there and they’ve got me behind a bloody glass wall,” Mr Merriman said.
“I can tell you what, that bloody system won’t ever happen again at AWI … no, it’s bloody disgraceful.
“If I’d have known it was like that, I would have said ‘don’t have the session’,” he said.
“You get in a room with people and if people want to give you an opinion, they certainly do, and that’s what I do.”
He was “embarrassed for the company (AWI)” that the focus group was conducted in the way it was and said it was “a mistake” by the researchers not to declare his presence.
“I would rather have been in the room with them, that wasn’t my decision,” Mr Merriman told Sheep Central.
Breeders are not “shrinking violets”: Merriman
Mr Merriman said he hoped the breeders had been able to give full and frank opinions of AWI programs, despite some suspecting his presence.
“I would certainly hope they would have, I’ve been to many meetings when they do, they’re not shrinking violets these people.
“I didn’t know the attendees until I got there and some of those people are my friends.”
When asked if he had told AWI chief executive officer Stuart McCullough he was going to attend the focus group session, Mr Merriman said Mr McCullough was overseas and the current general manager – research Dr Jane Littlejohn wasn’t working at AWI at that time.
Researchers informed of AWI chief’s presence before meeting
Email exchanges between the market researchers and Mr Bouffler have confirmed Mr Merriman’s attendance of at least the MERINOSELECT breeders’ focus group. This focus group was followed by other meetings involving MERINOSELECT breeder clients, traditional Merino stud breeders and their ram clients.
Axiom Research’s John Logan told Mr Bouffler and Leahcim Merino Stud principal Andrew Michael in emails that the researchers were unaware Mr Merriman would be attending as an observer until only half an hour or so prior to the group commencing.
“I did attempt to dissuade him from participating, which was his original request, instead he agreed to be an observer, still rather unusual,” Mr Logan wrote.
“Nominating to participants who client observers are is not normal research practice.
“In hindsight, I do concede this has been an unusual case.”
Mr Logan wrote in the email that recording of group discussions and client observation is part of the process.
“In responding to concerns expressed regarding disclosure, I have discussed this circumstance with Bill Morgan (my moderator) who has reviewed the tape and agrees that we did indeed fail to reaffirm the fact that the group would be recorded and was also being observed by myself and representatives from AWI, my client.
“As discussed we sincerely apologise for this oversight, Bill is mortified that he failed to cover this off prior to the commencement of the group you were in.”
Breeder questions AWI’s commitment to transparency
Mr Michael told Sheep Central he saw Mr Merriman enter an adjacent room before the focus group session started.
He said it was the first time that he had ever experienced the use of a one-way mirror while attending a meeting and the incident has highlighted his concern about the degree of transparency at AWI.
“When we were asked to go to this as a group of progressive breeders, it just makes the whole process lose credibility.
“If AWI was genuine, we would have known Mr Merriman was there and it would have been done under different circumstances,” he said.
“My view is that I am just totally disillusioned.”
He said the breeders were only told an hour into the meeting that there were observers in an adjacent room observing and listening behind a one-way mirror, but not who they were.
AWI chairman’s attendance “not an unusual occurrence”
An AWI spokesman said Mr Merriman, as a member of the Australian Wool Innovation Board’s Science and Welfare sub-committee, often attended company-arranged meetings as an observer.
“This is not an unusual occurrence.”
The spokesman said the Science and Welfare sub-committee was established to provide guidance and recommendations to the board of AWI and the chief executive officer regarding the scientific and research policies and on the conduct of programs relating to activities undertaken by AWI that utilise science or impact animal welfare activities.
The AWI spokesman told Sheep Central the corporate governance policies of all AWI committees can be seen at www.wool.com/about-awi/who- we-are/corporate- governance/, the spokesman said.
“AWI was aware of Mr Merriman’s presence at this meeting, as were the facilitators.
“That it was conducted with some people in the room and some behind glass observing is not a normal occurrence and a practice AWI will not be undertaking again,” the spokesman said.
Anonymity was guaranteed
Mr Bouffler said before the June 15 meeting, the breeders were told in an email from Qualitative Recruitment Australia project manager Murray Gale that the meeting would be audio and video recorded for research purposes only.
“Your name and the names of the places where you work will not be reported.
“Anonymity is guaranteed,” Mr Bouffler quoted from Mr Gale’s email.
Mr Bouffler said at the start of the meeting participants were asked by the facilitators “to be honest and frank because anonymity was guaranteed and we would be referred to as ‘workshop A or participant B’ or whatever.”
The breeders were subsequently told in an email from AWI’s new general manager of research Dr Jane Littlejohn, and cc’ed to Neil Judd and AWI chief executive officer Stuart McCullough, that “all information gathered from discussions during the focus groups is being treated by AWI as confidential and each individual’s participation in the focus group is being kept anonymous.
Two participating breeders, Mark Mortimer and Jim Litchfield, have claimed they knew there were “client” or AWI observers behind the one-way mirror before the meeting. However, Mr Bouffler and Mr Michael and the other breeders said they were not told or advised before or during the meeting that anyone would be observing the meeting, until one of the participants asked for some water, about an hour into the meeting, and it was brought into the room without any contact with anyone outside the room.
“AWI was never mentioned (at that time),” Mr Michael said.
Concern about competing breeding philosophy
Some breeders also voiced concern that Mr Merriman, as a competing Merino breeder with a different breeding philosophy, was able to listen to and observe their discussions.
The participating breeders are all users of the national genetic information and benchmarking service MERINOSELECT, which utilises Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs) as an estimate of an animal’s true breeding value, based on pedigree and performance information.
MERINOSELECT is managed by Sheep Genetics, which was a joint venture between AWI and Meat & Livestock Australia until last year when AWI withdrew its funding, and the program is now funded by MLA alone.
Mr Merriman is known to favour traditional Merino breeding techniques, utilising bloodlines, visual assessment and objective measurement rather than ASBV or science-based genetic and genomic-based selection.
In 2012, Mr Merriman told The Australian newspaper: “A good sheep is a good sheep regardless of how you get there, but I don’t believe in the figure world or picking a ram off a computer.
“I’d rather put my trust in looking at the sheep and seeing how it performs, than in some number dreamed up by some scientists on a bit of paper,” he said.
Trigger vale Poll Merino Stud principal Andrew Bouffler said during the meeting the researchers wanted the breeders’ comments to be “open and frank and off the cuff.”
He said the breeders gave details about their seedstock operations, how many rams they sold, their breeding programs’ strengths, weaknesses and threats, and their opinions on industry challenges, he said.
“(We discussed) where we thought the genetic potential was in the industry and what things were we doing that enhanced our genetics through the use of genomics and sheep breeding values.”
AWI governance and genetics investments discussed
Mr Bouffler said right at the end of the focus group session the breeders started talking about governance issues at AWI, AWI’s direction around genetics, and the levy spend split between on-farm research and development, and marketing.
Producers aired the view that AWI favoured marketing over on-farm research and innovation, which they said had been reflected by AWI’s drop of funding of Sheep Genetics, the genomics program and the Bred Well Fed Well workshops.
Sheep Central was told that because Mr Merriman was seen in the building and entering an adjoining room before the session began, some breeders might have tempered their comments believing he could have been watching and listening, which might have compromised the value of the research outcome. Another said it would have been better for the AWI chair to wait for the research report rather than watch from behind a mirror.
Mr Merriman attended to “get my idea of what people want”
After the focus group session, Mr Merriman told Sheep Central he did not subscribe to the use of MERINOSELECT, science and ASBVs to breed sheep.
“That’s correct, people can breed how they like.
“It wasn’t a meeting about what is the best system of breeding – it was a meeting about getting some commonality between all the groups – that’s what the staff told me,” he said.
“So I went there to find out where is the common ground out of these groups.”
Mr Merriman said that 85 percent of Merino breeders don’t use MERINOSELECT.
“I went there (to the June 15 focus group) to watch the process and see what commonality we could find between all the groups.
“For instance, everybody wants reproduction; we already have that as a priority and we will see now what we can do to get a better result, I expect,” he said.
Mr Merriman said what will come from the focus sessions will be a group of breeders that will advise the AWI board on research matters.
“We wanted to get a commonality of thoughts, which everybody agrees on, both sides of the fence, and I wanted to go and sit there and get my idea of what people want.
“That would be one part of the consultation and you’ve got the other part of the scheme where they go to a day with 20 people and some other weird scheme comes out of it,” he said.
“And I would put more weight on that day than what staff get coming through, but when that gets amalgamated, it comes as a recommendation … and what I see is my idea of things of what people want.”
Unanswered questions and Axiom Research
Several questions Sheep Central put to AWI CEO Stuart McCullough and to AWI’s general manager – research Dr Jane Littlejohn through AWI corporate communications manager Marius Cuming have not been answered. Axiom Research research manager John Logan provided the following response to Sheep Central’s questions about the focus group this week:
“Axiom Research was contracted by AWI to facilitate four focus groups and explore the use of genetic improvement tools by breeders.
“The participants in these four focus groups were identified by AWI as sheep producers who represented the spectrum of breeder involvement with genetic improvement across the industry,” he said.
“These breeders were recruited (invited) to participate in the focus groups using normal market research recruiting procedures that involve explaining, in writing, the group format and the recording of the group.
“Participant confidentiality in this process is paramount,” Mr Logan said.
“These focus groups were conducted in one of Sydney’s best equipped facilities, conveniently located in the city, near the AWI offices.
“Client observation of focus groups is a normal occurrence.”
Mr Logan said all focus group facilities include observation rooms.
“This is normal research practice and not in any way designed to deceive group participants. Rather, it allows researchers and clients to observe without interfering in the discussion process.
“The objective of these groups was to engage with sheep producers and explore breeder attitudes to flock improvement using genetic tools – specifically to understand drivers and barriers to the use of these tools, as well as identifying other productivity mechanisms that breeders feel AWI might support,’ he said.
“The contribution made by all participants was frank and provided valuable insight into the various views held across the industry. We thank all of them for their contribution,” Mr Logan said.
“When Axiom Research became aware that a number of participants felt compromised by the client presence, we immediately responded directly to those individuals. Any further queries should be directed to AWI.”
Watch Sheep Central for further stories on the focus group session and comments from the MERINOSELECT breeders.