22 April 2021: Read the NZCA's advice to the Acting Minister, Hon Dr Ayesha Verrall, on the state of environmental research, data systems, and environmental reporting in Aotearoa.

To: Hon Dr Ayesha Verrall, Acting Minsiter of Conservation
Date: 22 April 2021

The Authority wish to express our concern about the state of environmental research, data systems and environmental reporting in New Zealand, issues that have been raised in recent reports from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (November 2019: 'Focusing Aotearoa New Zealand’s environmental reporting system', and December 2020: 'A review of the funding and prioritisation of environmental research in New Zealand'), as well as Te Pae Kahurangi examining the CRIs, and the recent report from the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Kaitohutohu Mātanga Pūtaiao Matua ki te Pirimia, 'The Future of Commercial Fishing in Aotearoa New Zealand'.

These reports include findings that are very concerning to the Authority. In a time of unprecedented pressure on the natural environment, with global climate change, local human-induced environmental pressures, including tourism and visitor impacts, impacts of land-based activities such as sedimentation, as well as predators and non-native species, pollution, and unsustainable production practices on land and sea, New Zealand needs the best possible evidence to inform decision-making at all levels.  This research also needs to address the cumulative effects of activities on our natural environment. There are serious deficiencies in the way in which environmental data are gathered, stored, analysed, made accessible, as well as how environmental research is funded, and very poor connection between key government strategies, roadmaps and policy documents and publicly funded environmental research.

The demand for a sound basis for environmental management arises from community level, iwi, whanau and hapu, and is essential for good practice at all levels of government, as well as for industries and the productive sectors that rely on healthy ecosystems and the multiple services they provide.

The issues raised in these reports are critical for DOC. Evidence informed environmental policies and decision-making requires access to all relevant streams of data, as well as the capacity to identify where there are data and information gaps, and where monitoring is required to identify if policies and management tools are achieving the desired outcomes. Ultimately these should then feed into better policy making for long term protection.

In 2019 the PCE stated that he was not confident that there is a “coherent basis for our national investment in environmental science” and further, “… [he was] particularly concerned that there is no mechanism that links the ongoing demand environmental reporting makes for an understanding of complex ecological processes that evolve over decades, and a science funding system that is constantly searching for innovation, impact and linkages to the ever-changing demands of business and society.”  

In the 2020 report the PCE noted that while there have been many high-level strategic statements supposed to inform research, the way in which environmental research is funded is “fragmented, and no single agency is responsible for ensuring that our investment in environmental research spans the range of knowledge gaps that need to be filled.” The PCE singled out the inadequacy of funding for environmental collections and databases. The taxonomic collections and databases were also highlighted in a 2015 review by the Royal Society Te Apārangi as a critical sector underpinning our understanding of our environmental, with implications for the economy, human health and cultural well-being.

The disconnect between public good funded research and the environmental challenges facing marine sectors and fishing industry information needs was noted in the March 2021 report on Commercial Fishing. This report also calls for better coordination of data from diverse streams as well as their compilation and analysis, and the need to align research using an ecosystem approach to fisheries management with both Te Mana o Te Taiao – Aotearoa New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy 2020, and the PCE 2020 report.

Te Pae Kahurangi also considers that the “current arrangements for prioritising and funding environmental and related (e.g. primary sector) research for the government are not working well”, and suggested the need for a number of changes including

  • participation by government agencies and their chief science advisors
  • increased research capability that is well connected to decision makers within government departments
  • purposeful co-design with Māori and iwi organisations to support Te Tiriti partnership
  • increased pan-CRI capability to influence departments at an early stage in the design of policy and programmes.

The Authority considers these are important changes that would improve aspects our current system. The Authority also supports the PCE’s view that environmental research should “integrate mātauranga Māori in a way that allows both mātauranga and science to prosper”, and further than this, the integration of mātauranga will require more Māori led or kaupapa Māori research to build capacity and growth of the cohort of Māori researchers.

The Authority considers that it is critical that there is a strong link between the priorities the Government articulates and where funding is allocated.  We agree that there needs to be a regularly updated environmental research strategy and public resources for environmental research need to be specifically linked to this strategy. One of the proposals presented in the PCE 2020 report was the establishment of an Environmental Research Council. We consider there is an urgent need to address the now well documented deficiencies of our current systems., and such an Environmental Research Council may be able to provide the coordination and coherence that is so clearly absent at present.

Nō reira
E noho ora mai

Edward Ellison ONZM
Chairperson NZCA

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