Greenpeace, academics join debate

Environmental organisation Greenpeace has waded into the debate around cuts to academic staff at the University of Otago's marine science department, saying they could be ''detrimental'' to national efforts to protect the ocean.

Scientists from two other universities have also urged Otago to take a cautious approach over the changes.

Consultation about the future of the department, which is predicted to have a $4.2million deficit by the end of this year, ends next Friday.

Greenpeace oceans campaigner Jessica Desmond said plans to review eight staff positions and get rid of three could leave a gap in knowledge which might be filled by data gathered by the industry, which came with ''obvious biases''.

''The scientists whose positions are at risk research and teach a diverse range of topics.

''Losing them will leave crucial gaps in our knowledge around issues such as dolphins and whales in our waters, including Maui and Hector's, and sustainable fisheries management.''

Any changes introduced are expected to be announced by the end of November, after input from staff, students and stakeholders.

As part of the proposal there would also be some changes made to operational staff, and two boats would be sold.

Pro-vice-chancellor for sciences Prof Richard Barker said the proposal was about safeguarding the department.

'We are not proposing to shut the department down. There are currently 27 [full-time-equivalent] staff and under the proposal it is reduced by 4.3.

''If we do not act now, we might require even stronger action in future.''

University of Canterbury Centre of Excellence in Aquaculture and Marine Ecology (CEAME) head Distinguished Prof David Schiel said he hoped Otago did not lose sight of the fact an EFT-based formula was ''only one criterion for assessing the worth and contributions of departments''.

He did not know ''from the outside'' how Otago was dealing with the restructure, but said there were issues specific to marine sciences.

''Foremost of these is that it is very easy to isolate costs relating to seemingly 'external' facilities such as marine stations and the gear and costs associated with them.''

University of Waikato academic Prof Conrad Pilditch, said the problem with marine science research was it was ''very easy to put a circle around and say it costs this amount but only generates this much revenue''.

However, Prof Barker said marine science was being treated no differently to other parts of the university.

''Our operations need to be carried out within budget,'' he said.

''It would be irresponsible to leave the financial situation as it is, and if we did not address this now it could lead to an even worse outcome for the department.''

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