Marine science supported

The New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) has weighed in on the marine science debate at the University of Otago, saying the potential loss of three academics is "alarming''.

A statement from the NZAS said Otago's Department of Marine Science was the leading department in New Zealand, and the potential loss of knowledge and capability was concerning at a time when training the next generation of scientists had never been more critical.

"The responsibility of a high-quality university goes far beyond bums on seats,'' the association said.

"There is a responsibility to support unique groups of researcher-teachers who have to be world-class and also highly connected to the local scene and challenges.'

A proposal to review eight academic jobs, and cut three, has already attracted criticism from a local iwi and environmental groups, as well as university students and the Tertiary Education Union.

Only a small proportion of the NZAS members were marine scientists, which made retaining the ones Otago did have more important, Prof Stevens said.

He pointed out New Zealand's exclusive economic zone was much larger than its land mass, and said marine scientists found work at regional councils, with the Government and in consultancy positions.

Pro-vice chancellor for sciences Prof Richard Barker said under the proposal, which also involves changes to two professional positions and the sale of two of a fleet of six boats, the university would still be subsidising the department by more than $2million each year.

"We have to act in a financially responsible way in order to safeguard the capacity of the division and university to continue to carry out world-class research and teaching across a broad range of disciplines,'' he said.

"The university is considering alternate funding streams, but the reality is these are limited.''

The department accumulated more than $12million of deficit between 2013 and 2018 and the university has said the current deficit amounts to nearly $30,000 per student enrolled.

NZAS past president Associate Prof Craig Stevens said he appreciated "the need to be fiscally conservative when faced with uncertainty''. However the ocean was where New Zealand would start to feel the effects of climate change first.

"Issues like sea level rise, marine heat waves, ocean acidification, river-borne pollution, aquaculture, renewable energy, and floating microplastics are growing in importance.''

A paper and online petition set up by students to retain staff members has received nearly 5500 signatures, and a student-organised rally protesting the potential cuts will be held outside the Mellor Laboratories at 12.30pm on Friday, the last day of submissions for the proposal.

A decision on what will happen with the department, expected to be $4.2 million in deficit by the end of the year, is due to be made by the end of November.

elena.mcphee@odt.co.nz

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