Bridge at Karangahake Gorge Image: Stefan Marks

Enviro research funding “fragmented” – Expert Reaction

There’s a disconnect between the environmental research the Government says is important – like freshwater and biodiversity – and the actual investments being made, according to a new report

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton proposes ringfencing long-term funding for environmental research, and recommends it be distributed through a new Environmental Research Council – similar to how health research funding is managed. He also recommends funding decisions more strongly integrate mātauranga Māori.

The SMC asked experts to comment. 

Associate Professor Cate Macinnis-Ng, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland; and Immediate Past President for the New Zealand Ecological Society, comments:

“I warmly welcome this review of environmental research funding in Aotearoa by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. Because the current funding model lacks central coordination, we have a large number of knowledge gaps in ecology and broader environmental sciences. In particular, we do not have long-term monitoring such the Long Term Ecological Research Networks in Australia and the USA, and our environmental databases and collections are chronically under-funded.

“We are therefore well behind other countries in detecting and understanding long-term environmental change processes such as climate change and biodiversity loss. While we have many conservation successes, particularly around pest eradication and enhancement of rare bird populations, these successes are very patchy with uneven distribution of research funds.

“As the report points out, identifying current environmental research expenditure is almost impossible. Much of the funding directed towards the environment is opportunistic. For instance, my Rutherford Discovery Fellowship is exploring the impacts of drought on native forests but without coordinated oversight, fitting my research into understanding the bigger picture of climate change impacts is very challenging. We need to make sure limited research funds are directed towards the most pressing problems in a fair and equitable way.

“I fully support the PCE’s recommendation for the establishment of an independent funding agency for Environmental Research. Such an agency must incorporate mātauranga Māori and environmental science on an equal footing with inclusion of Māori scientists and communities in the establishment and ongoing management and governance of the agency. While we may be behind on long-term monitoring compared to overseas research, it is never too late to start, and working in an inclusive way that embraces te ao Māori would be a wonderful investment in a sustainable future. I would love to see Aotearoa becoming a world leader in empowering Indigenous Knowledge holders to improve environmental outcomes across all fields of environmental research. The PCE’s suggestion of $255 million in funding is relatively modest but it would be a good start in addressing knowledge gaps about environmental change.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Richard McDowell, Chief Scientist, Our Land and Water, comments:

“I agree that a national environmental research strategy should guide funding ­– but with a note of caution. To effect change, such as improving water quality, environmental research must not work in isolation, but also consider the economic, social and cultural barriers and factors influencing change. Research that doesn’t consider and involve the wider system will result in improved documentation of decline, without providing practical solutions.

“We need applied research to solve environmental issues now, but that research must also take a long-term view. The environment may take decades to respond. Constantly changing the focus of research to match the many and varied strategies leads to erratic results. This is not helped by a funding system that is fragmented. Or by strategies that have little resourcing to fulfil their aims. When funding is available, often in other agencies to those that developed the strategy, the decisions seem to place a low bar on impact. As a result, the science is often more ‘blue skies’ than applied.

Our research in the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge has shown that out of the $255M the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment recorded as environmental research, about $77M of this is related to our mission to improve land and water quality. This investment has declined by 13% over two years from large competitive Government funds with broad remits, with more relevant research now supplied by mission-led funding negotiated with the Crown Research Institutes.”

Conflict of interest statement: I was interviewed as part of the PCE’s data collection phase.

Professor Troy Baisden, President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists; and Researcher, Environmental Research Institute, University of Waikato, comments:

“The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s (PCE’s) report correctly suggests that there is little overarching logic or strategy supporting New Zealand’s roughly half-a-billion dollar per year investment in environmental research. This leads to a logical recommendation – those knowledgeable about environmental research should play a greater role in directing, coordinating or managing the research funding. And a consolidated fund such as an Environmental Research Council, possibly with multiple mechanisms, could resemble the Health Research Council in its success.

“Yet the report doesn’t fully address the need for stable institutions to house environmental research. It does however highlight how our funding mechanisms have generally failed to invest sufficiently in infrastructure, collections, or monitoring of our changing environment, reinforcing the PCE’s previous conclusions.

“Indeed, there are a wide range of funding sources for environmental research, and imperfect information on what is being invested in, signalling clear room for improvement. The PCE’s office compilation of an almost complete map of environmental research funding is a major achievement, and takes us well beyond the Government’s Conservation and Environment Roadmap.

“Two of the four largest investors in environmental research deserve special comment. It is disappointing that the large expenditure of roughly $71m per year by universities can’t be better verified or broken down. And, a first compilation of Regional Council funding clarifies that ratepayers contribute nearly as much as universities.

“With such large investments just becoming characterised, it can be difficult to understand how funding works, so we could focus on a more philosophical approach that drives research funding in many countries. In such a model, there are good reasons to pursue relevant understanding of the earth system as the main mission of science over decades. Yet there are also good reasons invest in the capability to provide faster and better answers to policy questions. Ultimately, the economy and policy system is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Earth system, so it would appear preferable to have a mixture of scientists and policy agencies in control of appropriate parts of the funding system.

“The best possible research might develop win-win solutions to what is often seen as a tradeoff between the economy and the environment, yet doing so could also defy the categories used in the report. The proposed use of the Ministry for the Environment might coordinate such work well, although its current investment is dwarfed by other government entities including the Ministry for Primary Industries, Department of Conservation (DOC) and regional councils.

“One opportunity not taken in this report is to examine the diverse range of models used for environmental research funding over the past couple decades.

“Some aspects of the recommendation resemble what some consider one of the worst funding mechanisms: investments from 2005 to 2015 in ecological research supported the policy needs of operational agencies at the perceived expense of long-term science investment and excellence. Despite this, the already large investment by agencies such as regional councils raises the question of whether central government should better support work, particularly environmental monitoring, that is of national interest but beyond immediate benefit to local ratepayers, or beyond a particular agency’s interests.

“More broadly, the 2010 report of the CRI Task force is not mentioned and should be: it highlighted that stable science institutions should have the leadership to manage and account for funds, and attract international advisory boards to review their success. A return to such a simplified, stable public good model should be considered along with the recommendation for an Environmental Research Council, which was compared only to the status quo’s array of funding sources and governance mechanisms.”

Conflict of interest statement: Potential conflict – received funding recently from MBIE Endeavour, Te Pūnaha Matatini CoRE, Bay of Plenty Regional Council, and the University of Waikato.

Professor Mark Costello, School of Environment, University of Auckland, comments:

“I welcome this initiative. Until now research funding has prioritised research leading to economic and commercial benefits (MBIE and FRST funding), or purely blue skies research (Marsden Fund). Yet New Zealand has been a leader in biodiversity and related policies internationally but not been able to back these up with national research to support those policies. For example, New Zealand representatives make key contributions to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Global Biodiversity Information Facility, (world) Ocean Biodiversity Information System, International Panel on Climate Change and International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. However, there has been no funding to support research that directly contributes to these same initiatives. Even research where New Zealand can be a significant world player such as in relation to the biosecurity and the global biodiversity and climate crises, has not been prioritised.

“There are probably savings to be made by New Zealand utilising and contributing to global biodiversity databases, and thus availing of global expertise and standards, rather than have numerous small databases that duplicate international systems (especially with regard to invasive species which by nature are foreign in origin). New Zealand should consider hosting one or more world databases as a contribution to the global community where it dovetails with national interest (e.g., invasive species, deep-sea).

“The report would have been stronger to place New Zealand in the context of international data systems. It is surprising that the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (New Zealand Chaired its Board some years ago), IUCN Global Invasive Species Database (begun and run on a myriad of short-term funding sources from Auckland), and the world Ocean Biodiversity Information System (which has had excellent collaboration with NIWA since its earliest days) are not mentioned.

“Simon Upton’s introductory Overview of the report is correct in pointing out the present system is not fit for purpose. The present system does not provide and manage national environmental and biodiversity data in sufficient breadth, depth, and frequency to enable evidence-based management. I thus agree that this should be policy led and avoid circularity where existing funding recipients get to set the agenda and reap the benefits. The involvement of innovative SME should be facilitated.

“The study estimates just 10% of current national research funding goes to environmental research. This is appalling. New Zealand has one of the highest species extinctions rates of any country in the world, polluted rivers and lakes, is overrun by introduced pests, and only fragments of natural habitats exist on some islands, remote fjords, and in Marine Reserves. It is disappointing that no increase in funding is proposed, only its reorganisation. Yet our economy depends on this environment being healthy, both ecotourism and reputation for dairy, wine and food production.

“As is the case in some (but not all) other countries, funding has not targeted the best research, but only the best national research. Making international partners eligible for research funding could prioritise the best research in the first instance (naturally it would be near impossible for overseas applicants to conduct such research without strong national partners). Perhaps this world-best strategy could be based on reciprocal arrangements with other Pacific nations, and funders in Americas, Europe and Australia and Asia. Incorporation of mātauranga Māori thinking will embed respect for nature which may be a world first in national research funding.

“Another innovation that should be considered in this and existing New Zealand government funded research is to split research proposals into two parts. The first part would be anonymous and focus on the science, methods and costs (value for money). Only if a proposal passes this part should the composition of the research team be considered. This has two benefits. First it avoids bias by evaluators based on their knowledge of the applicants and their organisations, including potential gender and ethnicity bias. Second it reduces the time spent evaluating proposals because proposals not passing the first phase of the evaluation can be then declined. An increasing number of science journals already practice anonymisation of authors of submitted papers and the European Commission once did, so it is easily done. While evaluators may guess who the applicants are when evaluating the science, they cannot be sure and, in my experience, they will often be surprised.”

Conflict of interest statement: As a Professor in the School of Environment, University of Auckland, my research and that of my colleagues benefits from environmental research funding.