A renowned infectious disease modeller tracking the widening coronavirus crisis is now worried about losing his job in a controversial restructure.
Professor Mick Roberts, who was reviewing the latest 2019-nCoV data out of China when the Herald contacted him this morning, feared his position at Massey University in Auckland could soon be scrapped amid a radical shake-up.
"I'm passionate about my research, and I want to concentrate on this very important issue for New Zealand – and now this has just been thrown at me."
On Monday - the first day of semester – Massey academics were told the university proposed to stop offering a science degree from its Albany campus, in a restructure that could see 50 science jobs lost and hundreds of students forced to relocate.
"Under the proposal, mathematics is only going to be taught at the Manawatu complex," Roberts said.
"There are only nine of us in my team here, but our research output is huge; we have four Marsden Fund grants, three winners of the New Zealand Mathematical Society research awards and two fellows of the Royal Society."
"So that's pretty outstanding, as far as research goes. But if teaching goes from here, then all of these jobs go ... and that's going to be a huge concern."
Roberts himself has received three Marsden grants and a Health Research Council grant, and has been a visiting fellow at Oxford, Cambridge and Utrecht universities.
Having worked for the World Health Organisation on Sars; the European Union on mad cow disease; and the Ministry of Health on measles, pertussis and influenza, Roberts expected to play an increasingly large part in New Zealand's science response to the global outbreak – especially in the likely scenario it spread here.
"People are beginning to worry if they'll have a job next year – and people are already thinking where they might be able to get another job," he said.
"I had a student who's halfway through his PhD ask me about what's going on, and I tried to reassure him that I'd do all I could to stick around and look after him."
Massey's proposed restructuring plan for science – which aimed to cut spending by $18.1m a year – came alongside an online-focused strategy where face-to-face teaching would only happen at campuses designated for each subject.
In an impassioned talk to students yesterday, zoologist Professor James Dale argued why sciences should be kept at Albany.
"We are part of this community and we are providing knowledge to future generations … to the future leaders of this country," he said.
National's science spokeswoman Parmjeet Parmar has now urged the Government to step in.
"We should do everything possible not to lose these scientists to other economies," she said.
"In my view, the Government should intervene, and that the matter has reached this stage is absolutely shameful. These high-value degrees are needed for New Zealand's future."
Acting Education Minister Tracey Martin said there was a long-standing convention of university institutional autonomy.
"Government officials continue to be in close contact with Massey University, but the university stresses that these are proposals only at this stage."
A Massey spokesperson said 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.
"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."
Meanwhile, another round of proposals were sent out this morning – this time for Massey's College of Health.
Some of the biggest changes affected health science, health promotion, mental health and environmental health – all of which were proposed to only be offered online to undergraduate and postgraduate students.
Social work, currently split across the Auckland and Manawatu campuses, would be based from Palmerston North, while occupational health and safety would shift from Manawatu to Albany.