Mapping the road ahead for conservation and environmental science

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Overview of a New Zealand native bush canopy

Recently the first Conservation and Environment Science Roadmap was released. This is the culmination of more than a year’s work by many people. The Roadmap originated in discussions with ministers where it became apparent that despite many agencies being involved in research and applying science related to both our conservation estate and to addressing environmental challenges, there was no integrated understanding of what research and science was needed to make better progress in the multiple and complex domains of our marine, terrestrial, freshwater and urban ecosystems.

Diverse ministries – MfE, DOC, MBIE, MPI, TPK, MCH and Statistics, and many other agencies and autonomous entities including the EPA, LINZ, CRIs and Universities, the private research institutes, the national science challenges, regional councils and NGOs – are all engaged in developing and applying science to make many decisions regarding our environment and our natural heritage. Often the needed science has not been done or the data have not been collected.  There is a requirement for some overarching perspective for the needed science to inform policy development and actions.

The ministers of environment, conservation, primary industries and science and innovation and the then Prime Minister agreed that this was a matter that should be remedied – and I was asked to work with officials from the core ministries and their departmental science advisors to develop a policy-relevant science Roadmap for these sectors.

The challenge for New Zealand is obvious. We have a unique biological and environmental heritage that is highly valued by all New Zealanders. Māori have special and treasured relationships with the land, the waters and its biota. Yet until perhaps 800 years ago no humans and no terrestrial mammals had impacted on the ecosystem. Particularly since Europeans arrived however there have been progressive and inevitable challenges to our conservation estate and to our environment – a variety of pests introduced, pastoral agriculture developed, rivers dammed for power generation and water reticulation, and large urban conurbations formed.

On the one hand our economy continues to be heavily dependent on these developments, both for the pastoral economy and renewable energy generation. On the other, New Zealanders want to protect their environment and natural heritage – for its intrinsic values, the provision of ecosystem services, for recreation, and to support the booming tourist industry. This interplay, along with 4.5 million people now living on previously uninhabited isles and the vastness of our realm extending from the Antarctic to the topics and the fourth largest exclusive economic zone, creates enormous policy challenges. Irrespective of the philosophical position of any political party, sound scientific evidence is needed to inform the policy decision process both at central and local government levels. The primary purpose of the Roadmap is to be a living and long-term document to highlight that policy relevant research that is needed.

The Roadmap does not try to address the specifics of individual projects but rather to give a high level view of the priorities. These range from many areas of basic science such as taxonomics, to ensuring that we have the data to understand and monitor the environment, to the science that is needed to address the challenges of mammalian pests, environmental remediation etc. The research needed is fundamental in some areas and very applied in others. It involves both the natural sciences and the social sciences, and it must engage Māori with their enormous bank of traditional knowledge. The opportunities to use new technologies ranging from sensor technologies, to data-mining and artificial intelligence through to some of the new biotechnologies – all of which are rapidly evolving – require ongoing evaluation and discussion. At the same time new concerns (eg microplastics) will continue to emerge.

The Roadmap process has been highly consultative – and given that it is intended to extend over twenty years, that is over many political cycles. Thus it has focused on identifying the needs for policy-relevant research rather than attempting to determine policy per se. That is for the government of the day.

The project was overseen by a steering group comprising myself and senior officials from the lead ministries. A drafting group of Officials worked with the Science Advisors from DOC (Ken Hughey), MfE (David Wratt) and Dr Anne Bardsley of my Office to prepare a consultation document. MBIE, MPI and TPK were well engaged. This involved preliminary consultation with academics, interest groups and iwi. At the same time an advisory panel of environmentalists and academics which I chaired iteratively ‘kicked the tyres’ on the work of the Officials group. In June 2016 a consultation document was released followed by hui, consultation meetings and electronic submissions. Following the consultation phase, a drafting phase again involving iteration between the Officials group and the Advisory Committee occurred, with further inputs via consultation with a broad range of government agencies.  The final draft was approved for release by a Cabinet committee but its content was not amended.

The Roadmap is a complex matrix covering issues of environmental monitoring, climate change, biosecurity and pest control, land, water, marine ecosystems, freshwater issues, coastal and ocean issues, land-use issues, urban environments, taxonomic goals, social and economic factors. Underlying themes include issues of data management, environmental monitoring and Mātauranga Māori. It attempts to identify short-term research priorities and gives examples of the types of basic, applied and translational research that are needed.

One cannot consider the environment estate without considering the influences of farming, horticulture, forestry, aquaculture and fishing. Accordingly this Roadmap has been developed in close collaboration and interaction with a parallel exercise being led by the Ministry of Primary Industries. That Roadmap is, for logistical reasons (many of the same people are involved in the preparation), about three months from release.

While the situation of multiple agency interests in science to better inform policy is particularly complex in the environmental and conservation space, it is a generic challenge across all domains of policy. High-level roadmaps serve as one way to encourage greater joined up strategies and ensure the science needed for policy formation is produced.

They also serve to highlight to ministries and ministers where priorities for evidence lie, and thus to inform the more detailed shorter-term planning and budget priorities for many agencies. They highlight how research can assist the policy and decision-making processes. Hopefully they also indicate to the research community where they too can align their efforts.

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