Solution welcomed, review needed

Last month’s resolution of the controversial proposal to cut some University of Otago marine scientists’ jobs is welcome.

Many considered it irresponsible and short-sighted for the university to be cutting such jobs, given the current state of the environment and the increasing importance of understanding what is happening in our oceans in the face of climate change. Dunedin businessman and entrepreneur Ian Taylor went as far as describing the proposed cuts as insane.

As New Zealand Association of Scientists past president Associate Prof Craig Stevens said, the ocean was the first place New Zealand would start to feel the effects of climate change.

Issues like sea level rise, marine heat waves, ocean acidification, river-borne pollution, aquaculture, renewable energy, and floating microplastics are growing in importance. Students and academics rallied in support of the department of marine science, 6500 signatures were gathered on a petition against the university’s proposed cuts, and 232 submissions were received on the proposals. These plans would have included the loss of three academic staff, the sale of two boats, the transfer of two laboratory positions and the loss of another.

There were also fears that a multimillion-dollar research collaboration with the University of Washington — involving a project which would track sharks by satellite in the Southland Current off the Otago coast — would be lost. One of the Washington academics said they were losing motivation for the collaboration because they considered the cuts would greatly reduce the department’s capacity to conduct high-calibre research.

The changes were being proposed to address the department’s expected $4.2million deficit. Even with the proposed cuts, the university said it would still be subsidising the department by more than $2million a year.

The university said the department had too few students relative to the number of staff and was incurring heavy losses through operating its research vessels and its marine studies centre at Portobello. It estimated the current deficit translated to nearly $30,000 for each enrolled student.

A group of international scientists accused the university of exhibiting signs of an organisation whose vision is skewed towards what managers deem to yield immediate payoff.

Questions were asked about whether the university had got the perspective wrong starting with finance, rather than taking an overall look at the best direction for the sciences.

In the end, the immediate crisis was averted by department head Prof Steve Dawson, who has been with the university for 30 years, opting to take early retirement, and money from the sale of two small boats along with stricter use of the larger vessels. This solution was drawn up by Prof Dawson and his department and was accepted by the university.

Prof Dawson said he felt his early departure was the ethical thing to do, particularly if it would add security to the positions of some of his excellent younger staff.

His pragmatic stance, and that of his department, was commendable, but outsiders might wonder whether this could have been handled much better by the university in the first place. If the department had been fully involved much earlier in a search for possible solutions, could the same result have been reached without all of the bad publicity and uncertainty for those concerned? It has not been a good look for the university to have some in the international science community suggesting the proposed staff cuts would have been squandering New Zealand’s international leadership in the climate change field.

The university ran the risk of seeming out of touch with the significance of work being done by its own staff in this important area.

For all its faults, however, this event gives the university an opportunity to review the way it approaches such cost-saving proposals, learn from it and to ensure it does better next time.

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