Ministers might know about tax – but what about the importance of taxonomy?

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Want to give Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce something for Christmas?

Here’s an idea: a gift-wrapped copy of a report just published by the Royal Society of New Zealand – just in case he is much too busy to read it (or is disinclined to read it) before he knocks off for the Christmas-New Year holiday.

Biosecurity Minister Nathan Guy could benefit from being given a copy, too.

The society convened a panel of experts to provide recommendations on the  support, development, and management of New Zealand’s taxonomic collections and their future needs, including the taxonomic research, information systems, and expertise vital to make them useful.

The panel’s investigation identified inadequate and overall declining support for this nationally important resource.

The consequences are of huge concern to the nation for many reasons, including biosecurity ones:

Erosion of investment, particularly evident in the CRI sector, has seen loss of national capability in specialised expertise in taxonomy and curation through redundancies, reduced hours, and non-replacement of retiring staff. In addition it has led to collections being closed or having limits put on access, and reduced ability to protect specimens and deliver services.

Continued decline in support for the collections is a real risk for New Zealand, especially if it continues to occur largely out of sight and incrementally until a major event in the future highlights deficiencies.

The significance of this for the primary sector and NZIAHS members is spelled out in the executive summary of the panel’s report:

  • The primary production sector requires accurate and authoritative information to provide proof that products are pest- or disease-free for export markets and ongoing access. The identification of pests, pathogens, and biological contaminants is critical for maintaining market reputation especially in relation to food safety. In addition, taxonomy is essential for the identification of species that may have economic potential or attributes that, for example, would be valuable under changed climate conditions. Also of economic value is the development of innovative products on the basis of biodiscovery from native biota; species identification and distribution information are crucial for such activities.
  • Biosecurity, an important part of risk management for New Zealand’s economy, environment, and human health, depends on accurate, authoritative and rapid identifications of invasive organisms such as weeds, pests, toxin producers, and pathogens. Collections and knowledgeable research taxonomists provide the primary material and vouchers needed. Without such capacity, response to biosecurity threats would be based on little more than guesswork.

Among other issues, the paper says New Zealand has a clear international responsibility to identify, classify and protect its species, and meet international treaty obligations (eg the Convention on Biological Diversity, Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, environmental reporting in the OECD). This includes the obligation to implement the agreed-upon New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy, which calls for the protection of natural ecosystems, flora, and fauna.

Then there are legislated requirements for accurate and timely information about species, their distributions, and their interrelationships (eg the Resource Management Act, Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, Environmental Impact Assessments as part of regulations such as the Extended Economic Zone and Continental Shelf Environmental Effects Act).

Further, New Zealand’s ability to provide certainty about the effects of resource use and management in the primary sector (agriculture, horticulture, forestry, aquaculture, wild fisheries, and mining) is heavily dependent on biological collections and taxonomic expertise.

Joyce needs to think hard about the panel’s concerns about a disconnect between the funding and delivery of services.

There is no apparent strategic alignment between the setting of short-term output priorities of departments and agencies, and the long-term input investment priorities of those providing the main funding to the collections’ infrastructure.

Despite their uniqueness and value, legal protection for collections exists only under the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act 1992, the Auckland War Memorial Museum Act, and Trust Board Acts of some metropolitan museums. In addition, the Protected Objects Act 1975 is now dated and provides protection for natural history specimens mainly in the area of sale and export outside of New Zealand.

The report says New Zealand’s publicly funded taxonomic workforce is only funded to spend a small proportion of their time on taxonomic research, far below the standards of Australia and Canada.

In a survey of 97 publicly funded taxonomists, the panel found 77% are funded to spend less than 25% of their time on taxonomic research and only 16% of the workforce is in the 20–40 age bracket.

This situation poses a real risk for New Zealand, for example in terms of succession planning. This is compounded by concerns over whether graduates in biology are sufficiently equipped with an understanding of basic taxonomic principles. .

By the time Joyce and Guy have digested the report’s observations and recommendations along with their Christmas dinner, they should have plenty of ideas for New Year resolutions.

For example, they might (and should) resolve to urgently address the immediate investment needs of the national taxonomic collections and research staff so that critical taxonomic expertise is restored, and that services and quality are not put at further risk.

 

 

 

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