By SIMON COLLINS
It is 16 years since Dr Vivienne Cassie Cooper retired from her job as the country's leading expert on diatoms, a kind of microscopic algae found in many lakes and rivers. The old Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) held a two-day symposium on freshwater algae in her honour at its Lincoln campus, near Christchurch.
"Seventy-five researchers came, a lot of them hoping to get my job," she says. "At the end of it, the director said, 'I'm sorry but Vivienne's job is not going to be replaced.' My area got axed."
Cooper refused to die. Every weekday morning since 1986, she has continued to work on micro algae at home and, more recently, she has been given a room in a laboratory at one of the DSIR's nine successor agencies, Landcare Research, in Hamilton.
"It's all painstaking, long-term research, and requires dedication, in a way that short-term contracts don't allow," she says. "I just keep the flag flying, hoping the situation will change."
In her book, Micro Algae - Microscopic Marvels, she tried "to write in a semi-popular vein so novices could understand. Because micro algae are the bottom of the food chain in the oceans and lakes and ponds and rivers, they are vital to any ecosystem," she says. "In fact they produce oxygen. They were the first oxygen producers on this planet, and without the algae we wouldn't have our world today." Despite this, neither Landcare nor anyone else would publish her book. "In the end I had to publish it myself. It was the result of 40 years' work."
Landcare research manager David Penman says that even at 75, Vivienne Cassie Cooper and an even older volunteer-scientist, 92-year-old Betty Flint of Christchurch, are "New Zealand's experts on freshwater algae".
Amazingly, they are not unusual. Penman says when Landcare's national expert on parasitic worms, Wim Wouts, retired from the Mt Albert research centre this year, "we lost New Zealand's funded expertise on the systematics of these parasitic worms, which are an important biosecurity risk".
"We are not replacing him because there is insufficient funding," Penman says. "If we get another outbreak of potato cyst nematodes, there is no one who could identify them. "
Massey University biologist Dr Peter Lockhart says the country now depends on retired experts who often cannot even afford the postage to send samples in to the national collections. Our core biological expertise is, quite literally, dying out.
This year, Penman surveyed the country's museums, universities and crown research institutes (CRIs) to see how many staff they have looking after and researching their collections. He found 96, down from 132 in 1996.
In the same period, the numbers working specifically on "taxonomy" - identifying and describing species - dropped from 51 fulltime-equivalents to 27. This is just part of a wider problem. Anthony Scott of the Association of CRIs says 40 per cent of CRI scientists are over 45. Many younger scientists have left the country.
A survey by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology found that 73 per cent of doctoral and post-doctoral scholars funded last year under the 1999 "Bright Futures" package planned to go overseas.
From one perspective, of course, this is good. Dr Paul Reynolds, chief policy adviser to the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, says: " One of the great strengths of our science system is that you go away and do whizzy work overseas and build international networks. The issue is, are enough coming back? No."
Dr John Hay, who chairs the Association of CRIs and heads the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), says one of the root causes is the instability of the funding system.
The system, in which the foundation calls for bids from CRIs and other researchers for financing every year or two, is 10 years old. The old DSIR was broken up into 10 (now nine) CRIs. The foundation allocates research finance and the ministry sets the rules. The rationale was separating "funder" from "providers" so the providers (in this case the DSIR) could not "capture" the funding for their own pet projects.
The foundation now gives CRIs only 10 per cent of their total financing in "non-specific-output funding", which they can use to keep research going in areas that miss out in the annual bidding rounds. They have to compete for the other 90 per cent against research proposals from universities, museums and private companies.
"It was a really bold move when we went to that in 1992. There was a lot of interest around the world," says Hay. "Nobody adopted it."
In other countries, scientists in public research institutes have secure, university-style tenure. Bids for project funding affect how many technicians they can employ and how much equipment they can buy. "In New Zealand, if you miss out, it's your salary and your mortgage. Everything goes down the gurgler."
Most science does not work in short bursts. Many research programmes take years. Even if short-term funding is kept for some kinds of research, where projects are completed in a year or two, there are other "infrastructural" kinds of science where the country actually needs to keep some permanent capability. Monitoring for earthquakes and volcanoes is one example, and biological expertise is another.
New Zealand has no coherent policy on how it finances the various collections of its biological heritage. For example:
* Te Papa, which has the biggest single collection dating back to Captain Cook in 1769, does have permanent funding through the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage.
* The other big three museums - Auckland, Canterbury and Otago - together hold twice as many specimens as Te Papa, yet get no national financing..
* Three CRIs - Landcare, NIWA and Forest Research - hold major national collections but have to fund them by bidding for short-term research contracts from the foundation.
* Only two universities, Massey and Victoria, still hold significant biological collections but get no extra budget for them. Auckland University cut its losses and gave its plant collection to the Auckland Museum about five years ago.
Even Te Papa's $20 million grant from the arts budget has not protected its scientific collections. In the past 10 years, specialist curators for marine mammals, land snails, fossil birds and marine invertebrates have left and not been replaced.
New Zealand's plant and animal species are regarded as a key part of the world's gene bank, with 80 per cent of local species not being found anywhere else.
Yet Dr Dennis Gordon, principal scientist with NIWA in Wellington, says he cannot keep up with new fish species being sent in from fishing vessels and others, and desperately needs a collection curator. "We are 100 years behind, say, the UK, in understanding what marine life we have," he says.
Otago Museum collections and research manager Brian Patrick holds at least 30 undescribed species of butterflies. "That is amazing for a temperate, rich country," he says. "That highlights the dilemma for taxonomy nationwide to have something as popular as butterflies - one of the flagships of biodiversity - still undescribed.
""Until you get the taxonomy done, you are really not in a position to do all the other work that needs doing. It's our contribution to global biodiversity, and we are not even off first base."
Victoria University botanist Professor Phil Garnock-Jones says several universities have lost their taxonomists and not replaced them. Victoria stopped teaching taxonomy at undergraduate level two years ago because of declining student numbers.
But there are some signs of progress. The most concrete change so far is the $60.6 million which the Government is putting into five new "centres of research excellence". One is the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution, based at Massey University and including researchers at Auckland, Victoria, Canterbury and Otago.
"Within our core programme we will have projects in molecular biology. It's also going to involve studies on plant taxonomy and plant physiology and similar developments in animal biology," says Peter Lockhart, one of the centre's principal researchers.
"I hope it will turn it around. The Government has put this $60 million into fundamental research. It's got to have an impact on systematics research and undergraduate teaching."
As president of the taxonomists' Systematics Association, Lockhart is promoting the idea of using some of this money to give perhaps $5000 each for 40 postgraduate students to do taxonomy and biodiversity research. He wants to bring in people like Vivienne Cassie Cooper as "mentors", allowing them to pass on their expertise to a new generation.
Biology students are already factoring the new centres of excellence into their decisions on whether to stay in New Zealand. "I do feel that being overseas gives me more opportunities in pharmaceuticals because there are more companies overseas," says Jodie Johnston, an Auckland University Bright Futures scholar who is doing doctoral research on tuberculosis.
"But there are things like Genesis, Neuronz, Protemix - a lot of those companies have started up in the last few years. Also in New Zealand we do have good scientists, and a lot of the centres of research excellence and things like that have made me feel a lot more positive about being here."
Kaa-Sandra Chee, another Auckland University biologist who won an award for best research by a Bright Futures scholar last year, is encouraged that foreign scientists are taking jobs here. She expects to do post-doctoral work overseas to widen her experience, but says she will definitely come back.
In the crown research institutes, David Penman and Dennis Gordon are working with Paula Warren from the Conservation Department on a "prospectus for investment", asking the ministry and the foundation for permanent funding of taxonomic collections and research.
Penman points to the potential economic benefits of knowing more about our biological resources. "For example, if the yew tree is used as a cancer drug, have we got similar trees in New Zealand?
"You can ask what are the similarities between different species. That is what biodiversity informatics is. Gene people use it for gene mining. The real power is if we can combine genes and species and ecosystem data on one database."
A basic knowledge of local species is also important to keep out pests. "You wouldn't know that the painted apple moth was not a native species if someone hadn't studied native moths," says Phil Garnock-Jones.
Penman says the country spends $7.8 million a year on biological collections and related research. He estimates that another $2 million to $3 million is needed to bring that up to 1996 levels. The foundation has accepted the principle of longer-term funding for research up to terms of three to five years.
Contracts for longer than five years may be ruled out by the Public Finance Act. But John Hay of the Association of CRIs hopes this may be reviewed after the election. He accepts that even biological collections will not get "permanent" financing - "because there is no such thing. We are not averse to reviews. I think reviews are essential, and there has to be an element of contestability.
"The foundation are very keen to move from grantsmanship in proposal-writing to performance assessment of track records and excellence in delivery. We are getting there. We are actually partners in this."