The New Zealand Association of Scientists has accused Minister of Science and Innovation Steven Joyce of contradicting the Crown Research Institutes Act.
Mr Joyce told Radio New Zealand that Crown research institutes (CRIs) were about commercial science - and science for the public good was done in universities.
But Association of Scientists president Nicola Gaston said the Crown Research Institutes Act said CRIs should be vehicles for public good science.
"The act describes the first two principles of operation for CRIs as undertaking research 'for the benefit of New Zealand' and 'pursuing excellence'," she said.
"But then, beyond doing commercial science, there's an implication that doing public good science is a really crucial part of the CRIs' role."
The act talks about a requirement for "social responsibility by having regard to the interests of the community in which it operates", she said.
"So that public good role - that retention of expertise in the CRIs - is actually made very explicit in the act.
"The CRIs are much more broadly defined than what the minister seems to think."
However, Mr Joyce rejected any contradiction in his comments.
Mr Joyce said he expected CRIs to produce excellent science of benefit to New Zealand but also expected the industry-related CRIs to produce science that would be of commercial use to their industries.