Massey University marine scientists say they feel "betrayed" as years of funded research – and their academic careers – hang in the balance of a radical shake-up.

A proposed restructure floated to staff this week would see science degrees no longer offered at Massey's Albany campus from the end of this year, amid a raft of other sweeping changes affecting dozens of scientists and hundreds of students.

Majors in physics, plant science and marine biology would be abandoned completely – and Massey's small but high-performing Auckland team of marine scientists say that they are unsure if they will have the opportunity to remain in the New Zealand science community.

Launched just seven years ago, Massey's marine programme has turned out 36 completed theses – including 13 PhDs – many of which had been supported by prestigious grants and scholarships.

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Massey University marine scientist Associate Professor Karen Stockin assesses a dolphin with PhD student Odette Howarth. Photo / Supplied
Massey University marine scientist Associate Professor Karen Stockin assesses a dolphin with PhD student Odette Howarth. Photo / Supplied

Headed by three of the country's leading marine scientists – Dr Libby Liggins and associate professors David Aguirre and Karen Stockin – the team now boasts two post-doctoral fellows, two research assistants, one technical officer, 11 PhD students and 12 masters students.

Shared between the three academics were two Rutherford Discovery fellowships, a global award for data stewardship and four Massey research medals.

Last week, two of the researchers submitted applications to the Marsden Fund – supported by the university – and another two projects they were taking part in were this week being submitted to the Government's Endeavour Fund.

"One of us is involved in a Centre of Research Excellence bid that is currently under consideration, and between us there are already various plans for projects, collaborations, and future funding proposals," Liggins said.

Yet none of the scientists had any idea their jobs could go until a discussion document landed at 1pm on Monday.

They told the Herald there was a clear demand for their expertise and research across Auckland and Northland, with collaboration between groups ranging from the Department of Conservation, MPI, ESR, Auckland Museum and iwi, to Project Jonah and Blake NZ.

Their science had helped inform the SeaChange plan for the Hauraki Gulf, the Government's threat management plan for Hector's and Maui's dolphins, the International Whaling Commissions protocols on whale stranding response and policy documents for the Convention on Biological Diversity's summit in Rome this week.

"Just two weeks ago, we were invited by Patukeha hapu to participate in a hui attended by iwi from throughout the Northland region," Liggins said.

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"We shared the successful research our group have completed, and have on-going, in the region, and discussed future co-lead research with the attending hapu and iwi."

Incidentally, she said, the hui was co-funded by Massey's senior leadership team.

"Hence, the decision to remove the presence of science, and marine biology, from the university closest to these communities seems contradictory."

It took time to build relationships with mana whenua, and Aguirre said he and his colleagues felt "horrified" they might now not be able to honour their commitments.

'We feel betrayed'

Stockin added that, with two of the three staff funded by the Royal Society Te Apārangi on five-year fellowships at least two thirds of their salaries were covered by this external funding, the proposal to cut marine biology without considering research income seemed financially unjustified.

"We are concerned about how the contractual obligations of the fellowships - and other grants and contracts held by the team - will be fulfilled by the university if the expertise and the infrastructure to support marine research will now disappear.

"If the changes play out as currently proposed, on January 1 next year, we will be forced to abandon the communities, organisations, collaborators, and students we work with."

Given there was no replication of their expertise at Manawatu or anywhere else in New Zealand, she said, it was hard to understand "the true rationale of what is driving these decisions".

"We hear resourcing is driving this proposal, marine biology has grown dramatically in a very short time on minimal resources. For that reason alone, it is hard to feel the argument to abandon marine biology is well supported.

Associate Professor David Aguirre, pictured working with children, said he felt
Associate Professor David Aguirre, pictured working with children, said he felt "betrayed" over the proposed cuts. Photo / Supplied

"It's also hard to reconcile how such a productive, and issue-focused research group is not being favoured in these proposed changes."

Liggins said she was saddened about the impact the changes might have on the programme's post-graduate students, some of whom only learned about them through the media.

Students had come from countries as diverse as Guatemala, South Korea and the UK to join the group.

One student, Irene Middleton, left a job in marine biosecurity at Northland Regional Council to start a PhD under the researchers.

"I came to Massey for them, not for the university's reputation but for the reputation and research of the staff," she said.

Liggins said these early career researchers required specialist equipment, and, in most cases, their expertise in supervision.

"The students have done nothing to deserve the treatment they are proposed to receive."

Aguirre said he and his colleagues didn't want to leave New Zealand, which they were committed to not just by research funding, but a passion to preserve the environment.

"When we joined Massey, we knew we would need to work extra hard to help get the marine biology programme off the ground," he said.

"We've helped redesign the BSc and we've helped to design the new Innovation Complex to be opened on campus in 2021 with a state-of-the-art saltwater laboratory and laboratories to support our specific work in aquaculture, molecular genetics and cetacean biology.

"We are proud of our participation and what we have built – we are confident that we could not have done any better given the resources that were provided to us – but the Massey senior leadership team is evidently unaware of our efforts, contributions, and success.

"We feel betrayed to not have their support after what we have invested in Massey."

'Catastrophically bad'

Top scientists at other universities have voiced their dismay at the plans to scrap the programme.

Professor Hamish Spencer, a renowned Otago University evolutionary geneticist, called it a "disaster" – both for Massey and the country.

He described the Albany scientists as "world-class", with important ties to northern iwi, community groups and researchers across the globe.

"In short, the proposal to destroy all of this is bad – catastrophically bad – for New Zealand science."

Massey University marine scientists, pictured front, Associate Professor David Aguirre and Dr Libby Liggins. Photo / Supplied
Massey University marine scientists, pictured front, Associate Professor David Aguirre and Dr Libby Liggins. Photo / Supplied

Associate Professor Maui Hudson, an interdisciplinary researcher at Waikato University, said cutting the programme in New Zealand's biggest city – with the largest Maori and Polynesian population in the world – wouldn't help build Maori skills in STEM subjects.

"The Massey staff I work with are making a real difference in terms of fostering science capability, strengthening Iwi relationships, and recognising Maori rights and interests in taonga species."

Otago University geneticist Professor Neil Gemmell said the proposal was "quite the grenade to chuck" at the start of an academic year, when universities were often at their busiest.

"It is also utterly ludicrous to provide staff with only three weeks to respond to a proposal that has enormous ramifications for Massey staff and students, not to mention the wider communities that they are connected with locally, nationally and globally."

This week, a Massey spokesperson told the Herald that any changes affecting staff would go through a proper proposal for change consultation process, and any job impacts would not be known until that process was complete.

"All students would be supported to complete their qualification and if any changes occur, they would start at beginning of next year at the earliest."

They said Massey had developed the new management strategy - an anchor campus for each subject paired with a "world-class digital online offering" - to future-proof the university in what was a "challenging environment".

"Massey University is committed to working and engaging with staff and students to hear their feedback on the discussion document," they said.

"While this process is underway, and no final decisions about any programmes have yet been made, we cannot make any further comment about potential outcomes."

What's proposed

• Massey has proposed a new restructuring plan, alongside the roll-out of its new centralised and online-focused Digital Plus strategy, where face-to-face teaching would only happen at "anchor" campuses for those subjects.

• A discussion document sent out Monday said the university's costs have risen more than its revenue and it needed to cut spending by $18.1m a year, including $5.1m in the College of Sciences. It proposed slashing staff costs in the College of Sciences by $11.7m, or 15 per cent.

• Science degrees would no longer be offered at Albany, but at Palmerston North majoring in chemistry, earth science, ecology, environmental science, maths, microbiology, molecular genetics and biochemistry, statistics and zoology. Majors in physics, plant science and marine biology would be abandoned completely.

• Similarly, enrolments would cease at Palmerston North from the end of this year in computer and information sciences at all levels, and in postgraduate engineering.