Marine science staff cuts threaten research

An oceanographer from the University of Washington has halted plans for a multimillion-dollar research collaboration with the University of Otago after hearing of proposed cuts to marine science academic staff.

Scientists from both institutions have been discussing a project in the Southland Current off the Otago coast, involving the satellite tracking of sharks.

The current originates in the Southern Ocean, one of the places where the effects of climate change are being felt first - enabling scientists to study that ecosystem without having to travel all the way south to the Antarctic.

University of Washington Applied Physics Laboratory principal oceanographer Dr Peter Gaube said plans were ''on hold'' and he was seeking other New Zealand entities with which to collaborate.

''I admit to losing motivation to collaborate with the University of Otago,'' he said, in a written submission to Otago's Division of Sciences.

''I am concerned that the proposed cuts will greatly reduce the department capacity to conduct high-calibre research.''

Otago is proposing to review eight of the department's 16 permanent academic positions, and cut three full-time jobs as part of a bid to reduce the department's deficit.

Submissions on the proposal are open until 5pm on Friday.

Dr Gaube said the research he had been planning was a ''long-term, sustained multimillion-dollar research programme'' and it was ''truly a shame'' not to proceed.

''I can only ask that you reconsider your decision to cut staff,'' he told the university in his submission.

Getting rid of positions would threaten the university's access to research networks in the international marine science community.

Between 2013 and 2018 more than $12million of deficit accrued in the Department of Marine Sciences in total, and another $4.2 million is due to accrue this year.

The University of Otago proposal includes the sale of two boats, transferring one lab position to another department and leaving another lab position empty until the new head of department can assess whether it is needed.

Pro-vice chancellor for sciences Prof Richard Barker said earlier this week if the university did not act in a ''financially responsible'' way to control the department's deficit, stronger action might need to be taken in the future.

If the planned proposal went ahead, the university would still be subsidising the department by more than $2million a year.

A university spokeswoman said yesterday it was not appropriate to comment on Dr Gaube's submission.

However Tertiary Education Union Dunedin organiser Kris Smith said Dr Gaube's stance was evidence of the problems staff cuts would lead to with collaborators.

The department had drafted its own submission involving a plan in which only one academic staff member would leave, voluntarily, which would match the savings the university wanted.

''If the university rejects this [department] proposal then the real rationale for the [university's] proposal is based on a formulaic, ideological position that takes no account of their social or cultural obligations.''

A rally organised by students to protest against the proposed staff cuts will be held at the university on Friday afternoon.

elena.mcphee@odt.co.nz

Comments

The academics are now realising my taxes which funds them, does not always grow on trees. If research or a subject has 'value', then find outside payers, eg benefactors to bank-roll the project/subject. My beef is that most things we fund in the ivory towers have little real world value, and the politician and academics make up a 'service' to justify their existence at the taxpayers expense.

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