A world-renowned Kiwi archaeological scientist has hit out at his old university over job cuts he says will have a "profound" impact on research around the globe.
Late last week, staff at Waikato University's School of Science learned 12 jobs - including senior academic roles totalling 180 years of experience - are to be cut as part of a cost-saving restructure.
Among those most affected are staff at the university's Waikato Stable Isotope Unit - to be shut down by the end of the month, with two positions disestablished - and its globally-recognised Waikato Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory (WRDL).
The Liquid Scintillation (LSC) measurement dating technique used within the lab will be wound up by the end of 2022, with one technician role to be disestablished, and another academic position first reduced to part-time, then also cut completely.
Work on another important form of dating used in the lab - called accelerator mass spectrometry - would have a three-year grace period to return to a "profitable position", school dean Professor Margaret Barbour said in a decision document outlining the changes.
Further, the current director role of the lab would be declared vacant and then "redefined" and covered mostly by external research and commercial funding.
This week, one of the university's most famous alumni - Oxford University archaeologist Professor Tom Higham - told the Herald he'd unsuccessfully lobbied Barbour to reconsider the plans.
Before going on to become a world leader in radiocarbon dating - notably around the extinction of Neanderthals, and the arrival of modern humans in Europe - Higham spent a decade at Waikato, and served as the WRDL's deputy director.
He said the WRDL - established by chemist Professor Alex Wilson in 1974, and led by respected radiocarbon tree-ring dating expert Professor Alan Hogg since 1979 - remained one of the few labs in the world that could measure radiocarbon at the very highest levels of precision.
"This is key if we are to look at the very small differences that are apparent between radiocarbon concentrations back in time, and importantly between the hemispheres," Higham said.
"These differences are extremely significant because they inform us about how the world's climate system works and what are the drivers for the sudden climate shifts we see through time."
This high precision was also crucial to building the so-called "calibration curve" - or the record of past radiocarbon fluctuation.
"This is the method by which scientists all around the world convert radiocarbon dates into real time," he explained.
"A vast range of scientists from a large number of disciplines use these curves, but the early part of the record is still a work in progress.
"To improve it, we need dendrochronologically-dated wood and high-precision radiocarbon dates."
As it happened, fossil kauri trees unearthed in Northland had provided just such a resource - and Waikato's LSC method the way to date it.
Only this year, a team of scientists including Hogg used LSC and ancient kauri rings to reveal a temporary breakdown of Earth's magnetic field 42,000 years ago, which prompted global environmental change and mass extinctions.
It was the first time ever scientists had been able to precisely date the timing and environmental impacts of the planet's last magnetic pole switch.
"The closure of this part of the radiocarbon facility is a very sad and great loss for scientists around the world."
Higham said that, by the time he left the Waikato in 2001, he felt the science direction had moved away from basic research and toward commercial work, with a focus on profit-making.
"I was told that research would be undertaken in my own time, and this was part of the reason that I left eventually," he said.
"But the scientific skills I learnt at Waikato were invaluable to me as a researcher and I will always remember a vibrant learning environment that provided opportunities to expand one's horizons."
He was critical of the wider cuts across the School of Science, where the university aimed to slash a near $2m deficit to a $640,000 deficit by 2022.
Among those affected were two professors, an associate professor, two senior lecturers and three part-time senior tutors.
"I feel very sad at the loss for science and on a personal level for the scientists involved," Higham said.
"The loss of knowledge and expertise will be profound and experienced beyond New Zealand's shores. I will feel it and so will hundreds of my colleagues."
He said the job losses in Waikato predominantly affected established researchers, with junior researchers taking their place, and argued more thought should have been given to alternatives like salary, budget or administration cuts.
"These people are the lifeblood of the university, the thinkers, researchers and academics," he said.
"The decisions made are based on economics, income, FTEs and student numbers. This is the hallmark of the marketisation of the university system and the neoliberal takeover of education that has become the sad norm in New Zealand."
A university spokesperson stressed the WRDL was not being closed.
"Some capacity has been reduced but some has also been retained. None of these changes are performance related."
According to the decision document, feedback on the proposed changes to the lab were "split" between support and dissatisfaction, and included suggestions that the financial model of the school and WRDL be adjusted so more revenue generated by the lab was retained.
An argument was also made for the "scientific value" of the LSC technique that warranted its continuation, the document said, but this view "was not shared by others who provided feedback".
It concluded that going ahead with proposed changes provided the "strongest opportunity" for the WRDL to keep operating for many years to come, and for changes "to be made to improve the efficiency, profitability and overall benefit" of the lab.
The university maintained the wider restructure was "entirely about making the future of the school more sustainable", and part of a five-year strategy developed with staff input last year.
A spokesperson said the overall net changes amounted to a reduction of 5.2 full-time academic staff and 1.2 full-time general staff, given new positions were also being created.
The university was "actively supporting" staff to be redeployed into the new roles.
"We have minimised the roles impacted in the change as much as possible through staff opting to take voluntary redundancy and early retirement," the spokesperson said.
"The change will not mean a loss of subjects or papers offered at early undergraduate levels."
Scientists' groups have also aired their dismay over the cuts, which also affect staff across biomedical, molecular and cellular biology, ecology, biodiversity, chemistry and applied physics subjects, along with the Thermophile Research Unit.
The NZ Association of Scientists called them "damaging and poorly thought through", and worried they'd make it difficult for Waikato Science to be sustainable.
New Zealand Ecological Society president Dr Tim Curran said the loss of staff at the WRDL was "especially troubling", given importance to international science.
Around eight roles across the Earth Sciences and Environmental Sciences teams - to be merged into one - would also be either disestablished, discontinued, or not extended, although three new ones would be created.
"Ecologists are at the forefront of addressing the global and national biodiversity crises, and essential to NZ to help document biodiversity and guide key schemes like Predator Free 2050 and the One Billion Trees programme," Curran said.
"Therefore, the retention of ecology staff is vital."
Curran called for action from the Government, which he pointed out had shown respect for scientists when it came to responding to the pandemic.
"When early career and other scientists described the threat of career loss of the next generation of New Zealand scientists due to the travel restrictions associated with Covid-19, the Government listened and responded with the laudable Science Whitinga Fellowship scheme and funding for 30 fellowships," he said.
"Now New Zealand scientists are warning of the lost research capability due to job cuts and increased workloads on remaining staff.
"We ask the Government; please listen to us, and help fix this issue.
"We realise that New Zealand universities have significant autonomy to govern themselves, but these proposed cuts to science at the University of Waikato are happening at the same time as extensive cuts proposed to science at Massey University, and voluntary redundancies at other universities.
"We call on the Education Minister, the Science and Innovation Minister and their associate ministers to talk to the universities and find innovative ways to solve budget deficits which do not involve reducing science capacity."