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New Zealand research agenda

Submission date: 18 January 2008
Submitted to: Ministry of Research, Science and Technology

General comment from the NZCA

The NZCA is concerned that there is almost no mention of the environment in the New Zealand Research Agenda.  Although sustainability and climate change are mentioned they seem to be disconnected from any real understanding of the research that is required to enable New Zealand to manage its environments effectively and to support sound decision making.


Question 1

Are the four outcomes government has identified as critical for creating value from New Zealand RS&T the most important outcomes? Are there other critical outcomes which you consider should be added?

NZCA is concerned that so little regard is being paid to the environment within this Research Agenda. The lack of focus on the centrality of the environment to our future is alarming. Failure to appreciate non-market values such as ecosystem services carries a risk of deterioration of natural capital in New Zealand, with a wide range of consequences including damage to our clean, green image as well as negative impacts of a range of economic outcomes.

Ecosystem services, include a broad range of things, from regulating services such as flood risk mitigation, water quality, erosion control and sediment reduction, and an ability to meet New Zealand’s international climate change commitments through enhanced carbon storage, as well as supporting services such as soil formation, nutrient recycling, extraction of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, replenishment of oxygen and decomposition of wastes, provisioning services such as fresh water for drinking, hydro and irrigation, as well as cultural services such as ecosystems and habitats that provide attractive places to visit for recreation (e.g. tramping, mountain-biking, camping, sightseeing, photography, snorkelling and diving), in which people may pursue improved health and wellbeing, and/or for spiritual and/or cultural purposes, as well as the scenery that provides the backdrop to New Zealand’s clean, green image, and draw overseas tourists and film-makers to New Zealand.

A very high percentage of the indigenous species found in New Zealand are found nowhere else e.g. it is estimated that within the New Zealand EEZ we have 10% of the world’s global biodiversity. Our most diverse groups of indigenous species on land (fungi, insects and worms) are the least known and appreciated. For example, there are an estimated 20,000 species of fungi that play a vital role in ecosystems in breaking down and recycling nutrients – yet our current knowledge of these organisms remains critically low.

“Collectively invasive pests pose the single greatest threat to our remaining natural ecosystems, habitats and native species. New Zealand has the highest number of introduced mammals of any country and the second highest number of introduced birds. New Zealand has more introduced vascular plants in the wild than native ones, and, at least 240 invasive weed species are considered harmful to native species.” (quote from: Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry 2007/08. Enhancing New Zealand’s natural advantage: Reporting MAF’S Outcomes Performance 2007). Yet New Zealand still does not have a comprehensive list of plant species that occur in cultivation. We have very limited knowledge of which species have a potential to escape into the wild and become harmful.

At present in New Zealand there is limited capacity to respond to Biosecurity threats appropriately and in a timely way across a number of groups of taxa, in terrestrial, freshwater and marine environments, and in natural and productive (aquaculture, farming forestry) contexts. A functioning Biosecurity system is predicated on the capacity to distinguish native from non-native.

We need to know which species we have in the country – a basic requirement of good decision making and resource management. We have a global responsibility to document and describe indigenous species unique to our country and also to understand the introduced flora and fauna in order to manage risks, protect ecosystem services and conserve and protect unique biota, as well as securing a sustainable economic future for New Zealanders.

Despite the perspective given in the foreword by Dr Anderson about the increasing funds available for science, over the past decade the funding in the Ecosystem Portfolio has declined to critically low levels. The introduction of the OBIs appear to have been yet another experiment by New Zealand’s research managers – and meanwhile the capacity to carry out critical underpinning environmental research is declining, experienced scientists are leaving New Zealand for better opportunities overseas and New Zealand institutions are unable to replace staff because of the impact of the falling FTE funding within the declining Ecosystem pool.

Loss of species is irreversible. The need for sustainable practices in order to protect and enhance our environment and to treasure and protect the species and ecosystems services they provide has been recognized by the government. It is critical that the need for underpinning research to enable sound decision making is supported.

Question 2

Are there aspects of the current RS&T system, as described in the sections “What will endure” which need further strengthening to support the achievement of the outcomes?

  1. Engagement & Society: NZCA supports the need for strong dialogue and engagement between the public and the science community, and the importance of education at all levels of society.
  2. Business: New Zealand will not be globally competitive if it doesn’t tackle environmental goals in tandem with economic goals and it is of concern that the Agenda is silent on key linkages. New Zealand runs the risk of being disadvantaged in terms of export markets and in relation to, for example, the tourism industry if it does not address environmental issues as a fully integrated component of the business strategies.
  3. It does not appear to the NZCA that there is sufficient support for basic research. There is no recognition that innovation and advanced platforms also relate to environmental and ecosystem research.
  4. RS&T Focus: There is a need to do more than “maintain our bioscience capability…” e.g. in the 2004 MoRST review of the Ecosystem Portfolio it was recognised that “Capability (for example, the number of scientists) in many environmental research areas is declining....CRIs advise MoRST that they are finding it increasingly difficult to support both the maintenance of the databases and the human capability associated with these.” ….MoRST 2004. Evaluation of the Environmental Output Class. 61 + vi pp.
  5. Research Organisation: NZCA is concerned that the market model and funding approach used in New Zealand makes it difficult for community groups including iwi, individuals and small businesses to access public good research. In situations where the beneficiaries of the research are diffuse (and sometimes the research has intergenerational timeframes/applications), the cost-recovery approaches that were established with the creation of the CRIs has resulted in limited access to information for many groups. If we are seeking engagement by society we need to make sure that the transfer of knowledge is not constrained by costs, particularly where this relates to public good.

Outcome one: Engagement and society

Question 3

Are there other changes that government or the RS&T sector could initiate to improve New Zealanders’ sense of ownership of RS&T and innovation?

Current cost recovery and funding models inhibit access to information. Enabling New Zealanders to apply new knowledge and insights gained from research should be a priority of the RA& T system.

Outcome three: RS&T focus

Question 7

Do you have any comment on the six Transformational Research, Science and Technology opportunities identified?

The absence of any recognition of the underpinning resourcing and support for the research required to strengthen environmental management is of great concern. Page 31 states : “As a country with abundant water and land resources…” This reflects a disturbing naivety and a lack of understanding of the huge pressures currently on the water resources of New Zealand. There are severe threats facing the fragmentary remaining wetlands (more than 95% of New Zealand wetlands no longer exist), as well as very significant environmental impacts of increasingly intensive dairying on a number of regions (e.g. Canterbury, North Otago, Southland) which have not yet been adequately addressed, and there are serious biosecurity impacts on natural values and biodiversity as well as on hydro developments, tourism etc (e.g. water weeds, Didymo, pest fishes).

Page 31 also states: “our fisheries are generally in good shape..” yet only 29% of the demersal fish stocks in New Zealand currently fished under the QMS system have assessments that indicate a current biomass that is greater than the biomass at which maximum sustainable yield would be maintained. The QMS system has been in place for more than 20 years. One of the assumptions made by many supporters of the system was that rights holders would act in a way that maintained the long term value of their asset and that they would be interested in the sustainability of their investment. The past 20 years have shown that there are other pressures and incentives, particularly economic ones, that do not have a long term focus, and rights holders have been shown often to resist research or interpretations of research that would result in their catches being reduced or their costs increased.

Pressures to live sustainably in a world in which climate is changing requires we have a much better appreciation of cumulative impacts of diverse activities. The Research Agenda does not recognise the need to integrate across areas of research. The environment is critical for all activities that occur in New Zealand – economically, socially, and culturally.

Question 9

Do you consider there are higher priorities for the creation of additional Roadmaps than those suggested?

The NZCA was not impressed by either the process in reaching the Environment Roadmap – or the final outcome, and has yet to see any value in the exercise or any uptake or implementation. It is unclear if any of the other Roadmaps have been more successful.

Question 10

What actions or changes would you suggest to foster a spirit of innovation, creativity and opportunity in research of relevance to Māori?

Whilst the sentiments expressed on page 32 are worthy ones, it is unclear how these will be implemented or given effect within Māori communities or the wider New Zealand society.

Outcome four: Research organisations

Question 11

What progress do you consider has been made in creating a more stable RS&T funding environment? Do you consider that further changes are required? If so, what further changes would you like to see, and why?

It is not clear to the NZCA that there has been any progress in this area over the past year.  There is a need for stable funding for underpinning environmental research. By “stable” the NZCA does not use the definition previously used in MoRST documents that pays no regard to the impact of inflation and rising costs of science (currently assessed to be rising at a rate higher than the CPI).


Question 13

Given likely funding constraints, what are your thoughts about the proposal to focus the bulk of any additional government RS&T investment on strategic research to create value from our existing capability, with benefits over the medium (5-15 years) term?

In the Ecosystem area research capability and capacity are declining (as documented in MoRST’s own analysis in 2004) – there is a need to prevent loss of skills and knowledge and a need to invest in the people that are already in the system. There needs to be succession planning and long-term resourcing – this will provide evidence for students that there are career opportunities in science.

General questions

Question 15

For the New Zealand Research Agenda as a whole, do you consider that there might be unforeseen implications of the directions proposed? What are they?

New Zealand’s security, both in terms of Biosecurity (protection from aliens coming in) and security of continued supply of essential services, is heavily dependent on sustainably managed ecosystems. Security is affected both by changes in provisioning services, which affect supplies of food and other goods and the likelihood of conflict over declining resources, and by changes in regulating services, which could influence the frequency and magnitude of floods, droughts, landslides, or other catastrophes. Quality of life, and human health are strongly linked to provisioning services - environmental degradation compromises these as well as future economic choices.

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