Monday, April 22, 2024

Cinderella of science left out of funding ball

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The old question asks if a tree falls in the forest and no-one hears it, does it really fall? It could apply just as equally to New Zealand’s biodiversity and the unknown impact many introduced species have on the country’s ecosystems. Richard Rennie spoke to ecologist Margaret Stanley who maintains unless NZ starts listening for those falling trees,  the primary sector will be first to notice their absence.
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A tumultuous climate, greater trade and tourism combined with poor environmental and ecological monitoring are putting the country on the back foot for dealing with incursions and threats to commercial agriculture and forest and wild life systems, Auckland University ecologist Dr Margaret Stanley says.

At the heart of being able to front-foot incursions and outbreaks is a need for more science money to monitoring ecological and environmental indicators that help predict the likelihood of outbreaks and vulnerability to them.

“For me, when I have to stand before an Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) panel and answer their question about whether an introduced insect has caused the decline of a native New Zealand species there is nothing more frustrating. 

“The answer is no only because we have no evidence to use in that discussion.”

She describes long-term monitoring as the Cinderella of the science world, under-loved and underpaid. 

It tends to be pushed aside for the sexier subjects of research increasingly committed to determining commercial results.

“We know there are about 3000 established introduced insects out there but no one knows what they are doing out there.”

Stanley runs a course on biosecurity at Auckland University and is disturbed at the measures used by EPA for determining whether the organisms deliberately introduced with EPA permission are having an impact on biodiversity.

“The EPA reports annually against a target measure of no EPA-approved new organisms having become pests, weeds or diseases. 

“However, success is measured as no one reporting them as having become pests but there is rarely any targeted post-release monitoring of these organisms so we wouldn’t really know if they were having an environmental impact.”

Little is known about how most organisms that have come in are interacting with the environment and each other.

She laments the loss of some long-term, ie more than 20 years, monitoring that was done until the early nineties.

It included the Orongorongo Valley, a 30-year plus dataset that focused on the effect of possums on the environment. 

Long-term monitoring of wasps, pests and birds in the Nelson region was another that had almost 30 years of data in it.

“But these really came to a halt with the creation of Crown research institutes and changes in funding. 

“These projects require ongoing funding that reaches far beyond the shorter term funding cycles and specific focus more outcome-driven research receives today.”

Adding in a climatic shift that has extreme weather events as now part of the new normal with no two years the same, having longer term studies running is more critical than ever.

Events like global warming elevate the risk of incursions by previously low-risk organisms from tropical regions.

“Climatic shifts can make things like insect swarms an issue for NZ but a lack of long-term monitoring means we may not be able to determine when a swarm is likely.”

There have been a couple of close calls where proposed biocontrol species were due to be introduced, one being the Macrolophus insect, ostensibly to control white fly in tomatoes, in 2014.

“But unfortunately in that case they were getting advice from scientists overseas who had little idea about NZ’s native ecosystems. This insect turned out to be something of a generalist that would have likely had a severe impact on other insects, in addition to the target insect.”

Stanley points to several monitoring platforms used overseas, most particularly Hubbard Brook, a 3200ha site in New Hampshire, United States, that has produced major discoveries about human and natural disturbances to forested landscape.

Spanning 60 years this living laboratory has charted the rise and fall of bird populations due to climate change, the origin of acid rain and identified nitrogen pollution in streams and lakes.

“Really, it is a huge laboratory where changes can be added in to observe environmental responses.”

Technology for monitoring is more affordable than ever before but the expense comes in the investment in people to harvest the data and develop algorithms for better interpreting it.

Stanley is heartened by the idea under the national Science Challenge that NZ has a long-term ecological research network, similar to the US, to provide and analyse data to better understand climate change impact and the effects of invasive species.

“However, that has not happened. 

“Citizen science and community monitoring is valuable for specific purposes but does not allow us to respond to the opening salvo,” she said.

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