A "fearless" ecologist who has been in the thick of debate around the state and causes of New Zealand's freshwater woes has been honoured with an award from a group representing the country's universities.

Universities New Zealand has presented Massey University academic Dr Mike Joy the inaugural Critic and Conscience of Society Award for drawing attention to water quality in our rivers, lakes and drinking water - and the impact of intensive agriculture.

Joy's blunt, up-front commentary on the issue has drawn controversy and criticism - former prime minister Sir John Key dismissed his views on BBC's Hardtalk show and soil scientist and agribusiness commentator Dr Doug Edmeades implied he was biased, prompting a response from the New Zealand Association of Scientists.

The independent judging panel noted how Joy, a senior lecturer in ecology and environmental science at Massey, had made a substantial contribution over the past two years to raise public awareness of an important issue facing the country.

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"Mike's work has successfully placed a complex and difficult environmental issue on the public agenda," said panel member Professor Steve Weaver, of the University of Canterbury.

"He's single-handedly raised awareness of an issue that's at the heart of our country's primary economy and environment.

"While some of his messages are unpalatable to some, Mike has been a fearless crusader to ensure this issue remains a top of the agenda for central and local government, as well as for the agricultural industry."

On receiving the award Joy said he was "extremely honoured".

"I'm grateful for the support I have received from Massey University and especially hope that the existence of this award will motivate other academics to take up the unique but threatened privilege of being the critic and conscience of our society."

Joy has previously received Forest & Bird's Old Blue award, the Ecology in Action award from the New Zealand Ecological Society, and the Royal Society of New Zealand's Charles Fleming Award for Environmental Achievement.