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Archive 2013

Annihilate, really? – show me the evidence - Wayne Linklater Dec 18

1 Comment

The nation missed an important opportunity at Raglan. If cats have been removed from the Raglan community then, had we the time beforehand to prepare, we could have tested whether cats were a beneficial urban predator, as claimed here and here.

Cats on evidence. Evidence on cats... adn their relationship with other wildlife in our neighbourhoods.

Cats on evidence. Evidence on cats… and their relationship with other wildlife in our neighbourhoods.

We could have measured the movements and survival of other native and exotic wildlife, like birds, reptiles, and rodents, in the area before and after cats were removed–called our scientific treatment site.

Importantly, we would also have compared the changes, if any, with a similar community where cats have not been removed–called our scientific control site.

Unfortunately, the scientific study has not been done or the measurements made. Nevertheless, this has not stopped some from using the Raglan experience as if it were evidence for cats as a beneficial urban predator. Forgive me for disagreeing. Last time I looked ecology was a science.

We need better evidence–scientific evidence. Current information that is paraded as evidence, like the Raglan experience and Dr. Flux’s cat, is inadequate for deciding government policy or wildlife management, although it is being used as if it is reliable information.

In the absence of a scientific comparison of wildlife before and after cat removal and comparison with a control site, it is premature to conclude that the removal of cats has been detrimental to native wildlife in the Raglan area.

I too think it possible for domestic cats to be a predator that is beneficial to native wildlife. However, I quickly add two important caveats which impose very large uncertainties around the usefulness of the idea:

feral-cat-g-harper223

The role of cats as predators, good or bad for native wildlife, is context dependent and we do not know what those contexts are or how commonly they occur. The killing of native wildlife that rats do is a reason for killing rats, not keeping cats (photo source: www.doc.govt.nz).

1. It depends… and we do not know when

It is certain that cats will not be beneficial at all times and in all places because what cats kill, native or exotic, is context-dependent.  It depends on the characteristics of the cats, and the cats’ owners, the relative availability of exotic and native prey… and much more besides.

Thus, we should not assume that cats are always and everywhere good. Unfortunately, until the ecological science is done–because it has not yet been done–we do not know under what circumstances cats are beneficial and how common those circumstances are.

2. It is a reason for killing rats, not keeping cats

The benefit of having cats is unlikely to be as great as the benefit of removing all exotic predators of native wildlife–cats and rats.

Thus, the presence of rats killing wildlife is not a reason for having cats, it is a reason for killing rats! We would not need cats to kill rats if we got on top of the rat problem in New Zealand’s towns and cities.

Would the loss of cats in Raglan, assuming the reports are accurate, have been a problem if the community had themselves also been controlling rats?

We should do the experiment

To improve the evidence, and address the uncertainties that surround the idea of cats as beneficial urban predators, we need a community, like that in Raglan, to take part in an experiment, like the one I have outlined above or here and here. They would keep their cats indoors for a year and we would compare the changes in wildlife abundance and movements in their neighbourhoods with those of another community where cats are free to roam.

Until such time as the evidence is improved in this way, we need to implement measures which control ALL exotic predators of our native wildlife, at the same time.

Cats can’t kill it, if it is not there - Wayne Linklater Dec 13

4 Comments

For cats to be a “beneficial urban predator” they must largely kill the exotic predators and competitors of native animals.

Dr. John Flux believes his 17-year record of the prey one cat brought to him [1] proves that cats are good for native wildlife in cities. His belief featured prominently in the media to have a major influence on the public debate about cats and native wildlife.

But John’s assertion depends on the observations of a cat that lived where most potential prey were introduced, exotic animals. What do cats kill when exotic prey is less common or native prey more common?

This leads to the fifth reason why John’s logic and conclusion are flawed:

5. Cats can only kill what is available …

Silvereyes were the most common native bird killed by Dr. John Flux's cat. They were also the most common native bird in John's garden. What would John's cat have killed if native animals were more common, and exotic species less common, in John's garden? If we aspire to have more native species in our cities, and fewer exotic species, then what John's cat brought to him is not informative.

Silvereyes, like the one pictured after its encounter with a cat, were the most common native bird killed by Dr. John Flux’s cat. They were also the most common native bird in John’s garden, although exotic bird species were more common still and more commonly killed. What would John’s cat have killed if exotic species were less common and native animals more common in his garden? If we aspire to have more native species in our cities, and fewer exotic species, then what John’s cat brought to him is not informative (image by Dr. Phil Garnock-Jones).

The science of ecology established very long ago that the availability of prey to a predator has a large influence on what it kills. Domestic cats are primarily opportunistic hunters first and choosey only secondarily [2].

John and his cat lived in a highly modified, impacted semi-rural landscape [1]. Their small half-hectare property was surrounded by paddocks of grass for domestic livestock with scattered patches of scrub that was mostly gorse, and a pine tree plantation. The pine plantation’s understory, and about half John’s garden, was regenerating native bush but the rest of his garden was a grassed orchard.

The most common animals in John’s garden, therefore, were introduced exotics [1], especially mice, rats, hares and rabbits, two species of sparrows and blackbirds, starlings, song thrushes, and three finch species, and yellowhammer. The only native bird that was similarly common was the silvereye and so it is no surprise that they were also the native bird mosts killed by John’s cat.

What do cats kill where exotic prey is less common?

Not all places are good habitat for exotic animals. The density of exotic prey for cats will vary across the urban landscape because of variation in the availability of resources like food and water, and variation in the risks of death, like busy roads.

Moreover, on our farms, and in our towns and cities, people control many introduced animals already because they are threats to health, property, and income. Mice and rats are common targets for control. Thus, the availability of exotic prey for cats can be depressed in some places. Where exotic animals are less common, cats will turn their attention to killing something else.

I expect that where exotic prey is less common cats will kill more native prey.

… and we are restoring native animals.

The communities of New Zealand’s cities are making extraordinary progress at bringing our native species back to the places we live, work, and play–largely because we are controlling their predators, especially rats and possums [3].

It is also very common for people to plant their backyards, or put out food and water, to attract native wildlife. Ms. Kerry Charles, who this year completed her Master of Science degree on the topic from the Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology at Victoria University, found that in Wellington City people are extraordinarily active at encouraging native wildlife:

-          56% of suburban residents planted their properties to encourage birdlife,

-          34% put food or water out for birds and a third of those targeted native species,

-          25% of residents did both.

(source: kenan.ethics.duke.edu)

Where exotic prey are less common, cats will kill something else. In cities, towns, and on farms where our communities are successfully restoring native wildlife, that ‘something else’ is more likely to be native species (image source: kenan.ethics.duke.edu)

What do cats kill where native prey are more common?

Native wildlife is becoming increasingly common in our neighbourhoods.

In the future our farms, towns and cities are going to be more populated with native species–we want them there. As native animals become more common, cats will kill more of them. Do we want our good work undone?

5 reasons Dr. Flux’s cat is not evidence

In my original post I listed five reasons why what Dr. Flux’s cat dragged in is not reliable evidence for cats being good for urban wildlife. I addressed the first four in consecutive posts: cats bring only a small and biased sample of what they actually kill, the persistence of native species in John’s backyard might be because killed wildlife are replaced by animals recolonizing from elsewhere, and there is more than one cat in each neighbourhood and they each kill differently. I have now added the final reason:

-          cats will kill more natives if and when they are available.

Cats that live where native prey is more common will kill more native animals. Cats that live where exotic prey is uncommon will kill more native animals. In the future, when our cities are home to more native species, cats will kill more native prey.

Improving the environment for our children, grandchildren, and beyond depends on thinking into the future, not the pest-infested past. What one cat killed from a landscape infested with exotic animals is not necessarily what cats kill in other healthier landscapes–the city landscapes of the future.

Let us think ahead, not backwards.

Bibliography

1. Flux JEC. 2007. Seventeen years of predation by one suburban cat in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Zoology, 34:289-296.

2. Barratt DG. 1997. Predation by house cats, Felis catus (L), in Canberra, Australia .1. Prey composition and preference. Wildlife Research, 24:263-277.

3. Miskelly C, Empson R, Wright K. 2005. Forest birds recolonising Wellington. Notornis, 52:21-26.

4. Charles K. 2013. Urban human-wildlife conflict: North Island kākā (Nestor meridionalis septentrionalis) in Wellington City. Victoria University of Wellington, School of Biological Sciences, M.Sc. Thesis.

5. Brockie R, Duncan C. 2012. Long term trends in Wellington City bird counts: 1969-2006. Notornis, 59:1-6.

There is always more than one cat - Wayne Linklater Dec 07

2 Comments

Cats might be a “beneficial urban predator” according to Dr. John Flux and his conclusion featured prominently in the media to have a major influence on the public debate about cats and native wildlife. But Dr. Flux’s conclusion has relied heavily for evidence from just one cat [1].

Dr. John Flux on TV3 II

Dr. John Flux, and the 17-year record of what his cat dragged in, featured prominently in the media during the debate about cats and native wildlife. But the evidence from one cat is not good enough to conclude that cats are “a beneficial urban predator” (Source: www.3news.co.nz)

There are five reasons why what John’s cat dragged in is not reliable evidence for cats being good for urban wildlife. I addressed the first three in my previous posts: cats bring only a small and biased sample of what they actually kill, and the persistence of native species in John’s backyard might be because killed wildlife are replaced by animals recolonizing from elsewhere.

One cat

John’s conclusion also depended on his observation of one cat, where he thought there were no others – before his cat “only a few stray cats were seen” [1]. Actually, John doesn’t know the density of feral, stray and other domestic cats in his neighbourhood and their kill-rate – he didn’t measure it.

This leads to the fourth reason why John’s logic and conclusion is flawed:

4. There is never only one cat … 

In an urban or suburban landscape cats share habitat. Free-ranging domestic cats are our most common companion animal [2]. They live in our towns and cities in extraordinary numbers.

New Zealanders own 1.4 million cats – the highest ownershp rate in the world. Almost half our households have at least one cat. Our 25 largest cities have about 1.6 cats per hectare (photo source: www.unitec.ac.nz)

New Zealand is home to about 1.4 million domestic cats. Almost half (48%) of our households own an average of almost 2 cats each (1.8 per household with cats). One in every five households own two or more cats – the highest rate of cat ownership in the world. Only 23% of Australian, 19% of UK, and 33% of USA households own a cat [2].

1.6 domestic cats per hectare

In New Zealand’s 25 main cities there are from 36 to 829 households per square kilometre or 188 households per km2 overall. With our high levels of cat ownership, that translates into up to 7 cats per hectare (a hectare is about one rugby football field or soccer pitch) and at least 1 cat per 3 hectares.

Overall, New Zealand’s cities average 1.6 domestic cats per hectare – an extraordinary density for an urban predator that typically ranges over about 1 to 10 hectares or up to 1.2 km from their home [3].

… and they each kill differently -

Importantly, cats have idiosyncratic hunting preferences – some favour birds, others mice [4]. Some cats are lethal, others less so.  Animals, like cats, are adaptable, learning creatures whose hunting preferences develop and change with experience and circumstances.  Lethal cats can become harmless, and harmless cats lethal, during their lifetimes. Some will target native animals more than others.

Stray cat colonies, variously cared for and neglected, occur in their hundreds in NZ cities in addtion to the extrordinary densities of domestic cats (Source: www.stuff.co.nz).

Cats are super-dense in New Zealand’s cities. And that is without also considering the hundreds – yes hundreds – of stray cat colonies [5]  in our cities, or feral cats in and around the city that are continually replenished with neglected domestic cats. The enormous scale of the cat population and variation in their killing is missed by John in reaching his conclusion.

Science measures variation in cat populations, not one cat

John recorded just one cat that he reports was the only hunter in the vicinity of his home. In the wider world, however, the landscape of our cities, towns, farms and wild places are filled with more than one cat and they are each killing differently. Given the extraordinary density of cats in NZ cities, it is possible that many neighbourhoods will have at least one catastrophic killer of native wildlife.

John was careful to write that his cat’s killing was “not necessarily representative of cats in general”  but he would have more accurately said that the information from his one cat cannot possibly represent the killing by all the cats in our towns and cities. The record from one cat is not population or ecological science.

 

Bibliography

1. Flux JEC. 2007. Seventeen years of predation by one suburban cat in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Zoology, 34:289-296.

2. MacKay J. 2011. Companion Animals in New Zealand. pp. 62: New Zealand Companion Animal Council Inc.

3. Metsers EM, Seddon PJ, van Heezik YM. 2010. Cat-exclusion zones in rural and urban-fringe landscapes: how large would they have to be? Wildlife Research, 37:47-56.

4. van Heezik Y, Smyth A, Adams A, Gordon J. 2010. Do domestic cats impose an unsustainable harvest on urban bird populations? Biological Conservation 2010, 143:121-130.

5. Aguilar GD, Farnworth MJ: Distribution characteristics of unmanaged cat colonies over a 20 year period in Auckland, New Zealand. Applied Geography 2013, 37:160-167.

Presence of native species, not evidence all is hunky-dory - Wayne Linklater Nov 26

5 Comments

Just because native species persist in our backyards despite being hunted by predators, like cats, it does not mean their populations are healthy. Our backyard can be a sink-hole for native species. Each killed is replaced by recolonisers who are themsleves be killed (photo source: inhabitat.com)

Cats might be a “beneficial urban predator” according to Dr. John Flux. His conclusion and its representation in media, however, has relied heavily on the 17-year record of prey John’s cat, Peng You, brought to him.

But there are five reasons why John’s record cannot be used to conclude that cats are a beneficial urban predator. I addressed the first two in my previous post: cats bring only a small and biased sample of what they actually kill.

John’s conclusion also depends on his observation that native species, like fantails and skinks, persisted in his backyard even though his cat killed them. This, John asserts, is evidence that his cat had no impact but also leads to the third reason why John’s logic and conclusion are flawed:

3. Native animals re-colonise the homes of their killed neighbours

Native animals killed by cats in our backyards are often replaced by animals from other backyards and natural habitats. Young animals, for example, disperse from their parent’s habitat to establish their own breeding territories or home ranges as adults. They will colonise where there is unoccupied habitat and space for them. If a cat, and other backyard predators, are making space available by killing, other native animals may re-colonise that space only to themselves be killed and eventually also replaced.

John’s backyard could have been an all-you-can-eat buffet for his cat – depleting the wider landscape of native animals. Our backyards with cats can be like a sink-hole for native animals. John makes the mistake of assuming that just because he can see the same native species in his backyard for 17 years of killing by his cat that the wider population of natives is not impacted. On the contrary native populations could still be in a cat-induced decline or not increasing as fast as they could without cats.

Our backyards can be breeding-grounds for native animals that grow to recolonise the backyards of our neighbours and the landscapes natural places if, as well as planting native species, we control the predators of native animals in our back yards too. That includes keeping our cats indoors or choosing not to have one in your home (Photo source: www.doc.govt.nz).

Reversing the sink-hole

We can also turn this process around to consider generating a positive outcome. Without exotic predators, like his cat and rats, John ‘s backyard could have been a place producing more native animals that dispersed to colonise his neighbours’ backyards and the wider landscape.

All John needed to do was control his cat and trap for other predators like rats. How wonderful would that be!

John’s backyard could have contributed to the restoration of native animals in his area, but instead he had a cat, and let the rats be.

When concluding that his cat was a beneficial urban predator, John forgot to think outside his own property to his neighbours’ properties and farther afield. What happens in our backyards has consequences beyond the boundaries of our own properties – for better and worse, depending on whether we support and tolerate exotic predators where we live.

Is your backyard predator-free?

It could be.

Dr. Flux’s cat misleads us - Wayne Linklater Nov 18

4 Comments

Our cats bring us only a fraction, less than half, of their prey and we are less likely to see the small, more palatable prey, like small reptiles and nestlings (Source: www.kittycat.co.za).

Cats are a “beneficial urban predator” according to Dr. John Flux and his conclusion featured prominently in the media to have a major influence on the public debate about cats and native wildlife.

What John describes is possible but the evidence is scant. John’s conclusion and its representation in media has relied heavily on the 17-year record of prey John’s cat, Peng You, brought to him.

There are five reasons why this record cannot be used to conclude that cats are a beneficial urban predator. Here are the first two:

1. Cats kill more prey than they show us

Cats only bring a fraction of prey to their owner. As few as only 1 in every 5 prey killed by a domestic cat is brought to the owner [1]. Other studies report about 30% of prey [2], and the smallest estimate of undetected prey that I could find is 50% [3]. Most prey is undetected because it is eaten or left where it is not discovered. John assumes that his cat brought him most of her prey but he has no evidence that this is true. The evidence from other studies is that this assumption is flawed .

2. Cats present us with a biased selection of their kills

Some species of prey are more likely to be seen because their parts are unpalatable or they are large. Smaller prey is more likely to be completely consumed [1]. Thus, studies like John’s are likely to under-estimate the number of, for example, reptiles and nestlings killed. John concludes the “effect of our cat on reptiles was insignificant” [4] but he has no evidence that this is true.

Knowing the real and total hunting tally of cats requires that we put tracking devices on them, like radio transmitters or cameras, that enable us to monitor them continuously. Fortunately, such studies are being done [1]. We should rely on their results when making decisions about the impacts of cats on our farms and in our towns and cities, not studies of what one cat brings its owner. Cats kill more than we know about.

Bibliography

1. Loyd KAT, Hernandez SM, Carroll JP, Abernathy KJ, Marshall GJ. 2013. Quantifying free-roaming domestic cat predation using animal-borne video cameras. Biological Conservation, 160: 183-189.

2. Kays RW, DeWan AA. 2004. Ecological impact of inside/outside house cats around a suburban nature preserve. Animal Conservation 2004, 7: 273-283.

3. George WG. 1974. Domestic cats as predators and factors in winter shortages of raptor prey. Wilson Bulletin 1974, 86: 384-396.

4.  Flux JEC: Seventeen years of predation by one suburban cat in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Zoology 2007, 34:289-296.

Dr. Flux’s cat and science communication - Wayne Linklater Nov 12

5 Comments

In the heat of public debate about cats and their impact on native wildlife, what scientific evidence did the media most use to inform?

Mostly they used Dr. John Flux’s article [1] about one cat published in the New Zealand Journal of Zoology in 2007.

Dr. John Flux's cat, Peng You, who brought home some of the many prey she killed over 17 years, 1988-2005 (Source: ).

Dr. John Flux’s cat, Peng You, who brought home some of the many prey she killed over 17 years, 1988-2005 (Source: Peng You – a fascinating predator – Hans Anderson: www.halifaxvet.co.nz).

Dr. John Flux’s 17-year record of what his cat, Peng You, brought to him made it onto TV3’s Campbell Live, into the print media – like the Listenerseveral newspaper articleseditorials, and commentary, and, of course, specialist weblogs.

John was invited to give a public talk to describe his work at New Zealand’s National Museum.

John concluded publicly that cats are a “beneficial urban predator” and that “…they are probably okay in NZ bush since, on balance, their positive effect in suppressing rodents far outweighs their negative effects on bird predation.”

5 flaws in John’s data

I wouldn’t usually single out a colleague’s work for critique in this forum, especially when it is the record from just one cat, but the use of John’s article in the media and John’s public conclusions during the debate make such critique inevitable and necessary.

There are five reasons why what John’s cat dragged in cannot be used as evidence for low cat impact or that cats are a benefit to native animals:

The New Zealand Journal of Zoology - publishing zoological science from New Zealand, and particularly conservation biology,  and pest control.

The New Zealand Journal of Zoology – publishing zoological science from New Zealand, particularly conservation biology and pest control topics.

1. prey that cats bring to their owners is a fraction of all the prey killed,

2. cats bring a biased sample of prey species to their owners,

3. the native animals killed will be replaced (recolonisation),

4. where there is more than one cat there will be more killing, and

5. John’s cat hunted from a largely exotic, non-native fauna.

I will explain each of these reasons in turn and in detail in my next four posts to reveal that John’s data cannot be used to reach the conclusions he has. For the moment, however, I address the problem of science communication that the use of John’s article illustrates.

Science communication bias

A recurrent complaint about the media in public debates that can be informed by science is that the wrong type, or the poorer quality science, often gets attention. This occurs, in part, because the media seeks to generate an adversarial discourse. Scientific adversaries and contradictions in scientific information are sought, even where none exist.

Such is the case over the #catstogo debate. Although John’s data and conclusion about the benefits of cats for native wildlife has five serious flaws, his was the single most reported science in the debate about cats and native wildlife.

What John’s cat brought to him received as much media attention as all the other NZ science and scientists on the topic combined. Better quality science from research groups at UniTec Institute of Technology [2], Otago University [3], and Auckland University [4], to name just a few amongst many others [5], received much less attention.

Peng You huting from a tree (Source: Flux, J 2010, New Zealand Journal of Zoology)

Peng You huting from a tree (Source: Flux, J 2010, New Zealand Journal of Zoology)

The media failed to consider the better data and conclusions of colleagues because John and what his cat dragged in is a cute story and his scientific article was ‘low hanging fruit’.

John’s article became the New Zealand Journal of Zoology’s most downloaded article. I suspect that if John’s article had not been published better science would have been represented by the media during the debate and NZ’s public would have been better informed.

The media is not expert in interpreting science and we should not expect it to be. Thus, the onus is also on us, scientists, to improve the standards of what is published in New Zealand’s scientific journals.

Science publication standards

The importance of the relationship between science and the media, and the potential for the media to get it wrong, raises the issue of whether or not John’s article should have been published by a scientific journal at all.

The article is just a detailed anecdote about one cat and, in my opinion, should not have found its way into one of New Zealand’s peer-reviewed scientific journals. It would have been better as a story in a local magazine for a special interest group. The New Zealand Journal of Zoology should have been more discerning.

When cutesy science like John’s is published in scientific journals it is made to appear credible to the media and can be used to manufacture adversarial discourse rather than to generate solutions-focused debate. Apparent disagreements amongst scientists and scientific data frequently result in policy inertia where none should, and progress is stymied.

Bibliography

1. Flux JEC: Seventeen years of predation by one suburban cat in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Zoology 2007, 34:289-296.

2. Aguilar GD, Farnworth MJ: Stray cats in Auckland, New Zealand: Discovering geographic information for exploratory spatial analysis. Applied Geography 2012, 34:230-238.

3. van Heezik Y, Smyth A, Adams A, Gordon J: Do domestic cats impose an unsustainable harvest on urban bird populations? Biological Conservation 2010, 143:121-130.

4. Gillies C, Clout M: The prey of domestic cats (Felis catus) in two suburbs of Auckland City, New Zealand. Journal of Zoology (Lond) 2003, 259:309-315.

5. Langham NPE: Feral Cats (Felis-Catus L) On New-Zealand Farmland. 2. Seasonal Activity. Wildlife Research 1992, 19:707-720.

 

Academic profiling – unwise, unfair, unethical, but common? - Wayne Linklater Oct 29

5 Comments

University rankings can be useful. They can also be used inappropriately to discriminate inaccurately and unjustly.

Dr. Mark Hauser at Harvard University – consistently amongst the world’s highest ranked universities – was found guilty of scientific miscounduct, fraudulent science in 2012 – an example of why the university a person is employed at is a poor metric of their credibility or future performance (source: www.nytimes.com)

To students making enrolment decisions, or governments deciding how to invest in institutions, a university’s rank represents the relative and average quality of its measured parts – staff or student achievement, research output and influence, teaching quality, or resources. It is a population- or institution-level metric only, not a measure of any of its individuals – duh, right?!

But I have observed a rise in academic profiling – university ranks sometimes also being used to discriminate amongst individuals.

The differences between the ranks of universities are small compared to the range in the quality of their parts. Some departments, staff, and students perform poorly while others outperform at all institutions. A university’s rank, therefore, is a poor measure or predictor of the quality of any individual that works or studies there.

Why, then, have I developed the impression that university rankings are increasingly being used to evaluate the merits of individuals and the value of their supporting referees by committees awarding scholarships to students, or sabbatical leave and promotion to academics?

Sir Paul Callaghan GNZM FRS FRSNZ (1947 – 2012) had his DPhil from Oxford University – ranked 2nd in the world – but chose to work in New Zealand at Victoria University. Victoria University’s world ranking dropped 28 places this year to 265th. Amazing people choose to work in much less ‘amazing’ universities.

At first encounter this practice seemed reasonable. Highly ranked universities generally employ and enrol more talented staff and students, are better funded, and maintain better reputations. It seems useful, therefore, to value individuals at or from those institutions relatively highly.

BUT… using a university’s rank to evaluate an individual’s application or support is like racial or sexual profiling (see text box below).

A person can be at a lower ranked university but be an international leader. Academics at some of the world’s best universities do some very bad work. Many graduates from the world’s top universities perform poorly, despite their greater opportunities. Some very talented people graduate from the world’s lowest ranked universities.

Sir Don McKinnon ONZ GCVO – alumni of one of New Zealand’s lowest ranked universities (Valuation and Farm Management, Lincoln University,1960-61) but also previously Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, and Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand. How unimportant is the rank of one’s university?

Most people choose to work or study at a university largely for reasons other than the institution’s rank. Many choose universities near their families, or in their communities or home countries. People all over the world move from higher to lower ranked universities – actively choosing, for example, to make a contribution to the future of their country or community of birth, or raise their families in places familiar. Many choose or return to lower ranked universities because they aspire to achieve in ways that cannot be measured by the rank of the institution they work or study at.

I understand that committees formed to award student scholarships or academic promotion have a difficult job. They are deciding the winners and losers with far-reaching consequences for individuals. Using a rank of the university that a referee is writing from, or student graduated from, to judge their value simplifies their decision. The contemporary Performance-based Research Fund, amongst other ranking systems, and the competitive culture developing amongst institutions encourages the practice.

But using an institutional address to evaluate an individual is academic profiling. Academic profiling is not a reliable predictor of individual performance, and it is unethical. It is also bizarre, or perhaps just laziness, because applicants provide an extraordinary level of individual detail for committees to evaluate their suitability and merit. The university address they, or their references, come from is rendered redundant.

I hope my impression that academic profiling is on the increase is incorrect or, at least, exceptional. I’d be interested in hearing from colleagues about how often they encounter it. I have encountered two examples in as many months.

Next time someone says to you an applicant’s university isn’t good enough, or a reference less valuable because it comes from someone at a lower-ranked university, suggest politely that they do their job and evaluate people, not their address.

profiling text box

Postscript - written from the university ranked 8th in the world while on sabbatical from the university ranked 265th. I look forward to returning to my home university at the end of my sabbatical for reasons unrelated to its rank.

 

 

Business standards of sustainability - Wayne Linklater Sep 25

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Standard & Poor’s Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) has been released. Three large New Zealand companies, apparently, made the list. Auckland International Airport (AIA) Ltd. made it for a second time.

Australia-New Zealand Banking Group, a routine member of the index, also celebrated its sustainability achievement – global leader in banking. While ANZ is not a Member sign modifiedNew Zealand listed company, it is big and embedded in our neighbourhoods.

Should we care? What does it mean for the people and environments where these companies operate?

Is the DJSI a meaningful metric for customers and investors in NZ?

How do NZ companies compare on the global sustainability stage?

Let us begin by understanding where the DJSI comes from.

Robeco and S&P

The DJSI was launched in 1999 by Standard and Poor’s (S&P). The index is supposed to track the performance of the leading sustainability-driven companies worldwide – those that regard sustainability as a corporate goal. This year it includes just 333 of the world’s largest companies.

The DJSI is based on a corporate sustainability assessment by RobecoSAM, whose parent company is the Dutch €192 billion asset manager Robeco. Robeco is headquartered in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. It advertises itself as a global leader in sustainability investing.

Profiting from sustainability aspirations

Of course, this information gathering, assessment, and distribution comes at a cost and is a vehicle for the indexing companies like Robeco and S&P to make money from investors. The strategy appears to be working for Robeco. It reported a 47% increase in profit last year (2012) and attracted €18.4 billion more assets.

The business model RobecoSAM and S&P have pursued is to act as a source of information for investors wanting to ‘do less harm’ – perhaps even good – but still own a share of global business, while at the same time, theoretically, providing an incentive for more businesses to be socially and environmentally responsible.

Clearly it is a profitable venture for Robeco, but are the indexed companies really better and does the index encourage sustainability amongst the world’s businesses? Some insights into how the DJSI is derived will help us decide.

How does it work?

RobecoSAM invites companies, 3300 for this year, to be assessed for inclusion in the DJSI. Most, however, choose not to participate. Only 818, 25%, submitted the necessary materials this year.

Should we be pleased or disappointed when only 25% of the world’s largest companies want to be evaluated for being good corporate citizens? Nevertheless, RobecoSAM evaluated a further 1,013 companies using publicly available information.

form fillingEach company was rated for environmental, social and governance criteria. The companies self-report answers to 100 questions – 38 are environmental questions and seven of those are about the companies climate strategy. Thirty-five questions are about social criteria like philanthropy and positive labour practices, and 27 are economic questions like corporate governance, anti-crime measures, and the like.

The 100 self-report questions constitute 75% of the final score. The rest of the score is derived from specs submitted by the company and RobecoSAM’s evaluation of publicly available information on the company – like media and investment commentary.

Other than these details the raw data are not publicly available. We cannot know how companies answered the questions or their raw scores – but I will do some digging and see what I can find for my next posts in this series.

Best-in-class only

The questions differ between 24 main industry types from Automobiles & Components to Utilities. For example, questions about biodiversity are asked of electricity generators but not banks, although all industries might be asked about their environmental policies and reporting. Industries of different types are not compared so that the listings are only a ‘best in class’.

Of the 333 companies in the DJSI this year, strangely, 45 made money from selling alcohol, tobacco, gambling, armaments and firearms, or adult entertainment – a consequence of the index’s ‘best-in-class’ approach.

Even if you make and trade arms for war on an international market – selling weapons to despots – you might still be a ‘sustainability’ leader compared to other merchants of death.

Even if you make money pumping crude oil from the ground and burning dirty coal – with a huge carbon footprint – you might still do it more efficiently than your competing polluters.

The DJSI’s ‘best-in-class’ approach is a compromise between profit and aspiration. Does this limit its value?

Does the DSJI achieve its objectives?

To succeed – other than by making money for RobecoSAM and S&P – the DJSI must be able to show that it is increasing the number of companies that aspire to improve their social and environmental performance AND provide a credible metric for customers and investors of sustainable business.

I will evaluate these, especially with respect to New Zealand and New Zealanders in my next post of this series.

 

Disclosure: The author owns shares in AIA and ANZ.

 

Uniquely degraded – the new spin - Wayne Linklater Aug 27

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The Advertising Standards Authority decision is out. Their Complaints Board decided on 8th August that the ’100% Pure New Zealand’ by www.tourismnewzealand.com and www.newzealand.com made no environmental claims but that the environments – scenes and places – featured were only implicated as ‘part of the unique New Zealand visitor experience’.

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100% Pure New Zealand – Where unspoilt islands are never far away. Source: Tourism New Zealand www.newzealand.com

’100% Pure’ has been re-interpreted as inter-changable with the concept of ‘unique’ not a claim about the environment.

Intent or interpretation?

What should have been examined in this case – the advertisers claims about what they intended by an advertisement or how their advertisement is interpreted by the consumer?

The ASA have favoured the former by relying heavily in their decision on Tourism New Zealand’s claim that “100% Pure New Zealand is not an environmental statement or promise and never has been” and Tourism NZ’s more recent claim that they used the word ‘Pure’ as an intensifier not an absolute – such as how it is used in the phrase ‘pure coincidence’.

Even if we accept that this is so and appropriate, the tourism industry and consumer – expert in their own business – interpret the brand differently.

The tourism industry and consumer thought ’100% Pure’ an environmental brand

For example*,

Tourism New Zealand’s promotion of New Zealand as 100% Pure New Zealand has been visionary in an increasingly environmentally-conscious world” – Rob Fyfe, CEO, Air New Zealand.

100% Pure conveys New Zealand is clean, green, uncrowded (in a congested world) and as such adventurous” – Len Murray, Managing Director, Value Tours (Australia).

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’100% Pure New Zealand’. Source: Tourism New Zealand www.newzealand.com

Equally when people want to point at a country which has managed to make the natural environment a very large part of their tourism picture, well New Zealand is usually top of the list” – Tony Wheeler. Co-founder, Lonely Planet Guidebooks.

I believe the campaign to have been highly successful for New Zealand. The timing was excellent – it anticipated, not followed the green consciousness shift” – Anna Pollock, CEO of DestiCorp (Canada).

The 100% Pure New Zealand campaign works! It describes New Zealand and gave us an early opportunity to position ourselves as environmentally and culturally aware” – Stuart Neels, Managing Director, ATS Pacific New Zealand (NZ).

It is clear – the industry and consumer has considered ’100% Pure New Zealand’ an environmental brand.

Feeble advertising code, futile complaints?

Is the ASA’s mandate to examine only an advertiser’s claimed intent or also the consumers interpretation? The standards and code for advertising would be made feeble and more complaints by consumers futile, I think, where only an advertiser’s intent is evaluated.

The ASA’s decision has some quite far-reaching and serious consequences for the value of advertising codes to consumers. An advertiser can claim an intent quite different from its interpretation, but benefit from that interpretation nonetheless.

What does this mean for New Zealand?

I said in my last post I would consider the implications of Peter’s loss.

New Zealand’s environment provides a service to advertisers that they currently do not pay for. So long as advertisers and industry get our nation’s environmental brand for free, or below cost, they will be:

(1) unmotivated to invest in the environmental asset,

(2) reluctant to self-police their industries environmental claims, and

(3) unlikely to bring pressure on industries that degrade the environment to clean up their act.

Without these New Zealand’s environment will continue to degrade. The ’100% Pure New Zealand’ brand will have a shorter life.

We missed an opportunity here. Peter’s loss is a loss for New Zealand’s future and the future of New Zealanders.

Tourism New Zealand could do better

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’100% Pure New Zealand – Where guardians of the land…’. Source: Tourism New Zealand www.new zealand.com

Tourism NZ has achieved a legal and technical victory but not a victory for its brand or the brand’s asset – the environment. Decisions can be technically correct but be the worst outcome for all concerned. This is one such case.

It is disappointing that Tourism New Zealand did not engage proactively with Peter’s complaint and the debate about its ’100% Pure New Zealand’ brand.

‘Guardians of the land’ – Yeah Right

An acknowledgement from Tourism New Zealand that the environmental qualities of its brand need to be strengthened and supported, rather than pretending they do not exist, would have been the response of a business with a sense of responsibility to its consumer and society.

But the last word should go to the victor – Tourism New Zealand – because it frames how they have viewed Peter Nuttall’s complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority:

It is disappointing that so much time must be spent on justifying the use of one of the most highly regarded and successful tourism campaigns in the world, while it continues to deliver significant economic benefits to all New Zealanders” – Tourism New Zealand.

Notes:

* These quotes come from the text of Peter Nuttall’s complaint to the ASA.

Peter’s win-win for New Zealand’s economy and environment - Wayne Linklater Aug 14

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There is more to Peter’s complaint about ‘100% Pure New Zealand’ advertising than meets the eye. His action has long-term economic, environmental and social ramifications for our nation.

His is not just a petty squabble over the semantics of wording in advertising. Peter’s action is a tool for adding value to New Zealand‘s economy and society as well as its environment.

Consider this…

If Peter wins his case before the Advertising Standards Authority he is, in essence, restricting the supply of New Zealand’s environmental brand amongst our businesses and industry to manipulate its value. Making it harder for business to use environmental branding is likely to increase the value of brandNZ with positive outcomes for our economy and environment.

Supply & Demand economy for brandNZ

In the market place of good and valuable marketing ideas, the harder it is to claim environmental credentials, the more valuable the credential is to business and our economy. The higher the standard, the harder businesses must try to achieve environmental credentials and the more valuable they are, and so businesses are more likely to:

(1) invest in the asset that supports the brand – New Zealand’s environment  – so that they can

(2) be honest in their branding, and

(3) test the environmental branding of competitors to reduce dishonesty and cheating.

If Peter wins, therefore, it will be a win-win for the New Zealand economy and environment and ultimately our society.

Ecology of brandNZ

Our economy is a subset of New Zealand’s ecosystem. A nation’s economy cannot be sustained without natural resources. Businesses motivated by higher advertising standards to invest in and achieve higher environmental credentials – thus sustaining their environmental branding – are ultimately investing in the ecosystem that supports them, and us.

Businesses that care about their longer-term future and the future of the communities they are part of, consider themselves a part of our nation’s ecology. Those businesses will meet environmental standards at home and reap the international pay-off abroad.

Towards better environmental branding

Some will claim that a win for Peter will tarnish the ‘100& Pure NZ’ brand, utlimately reducing demand for it and its value. Or that, as a nation, we might lose that collective aspiration and identity with far-reaching negative consequences for how NZ’ers view and support the environment. This is short-term and wishy-washy thinking.

It is unlikely that NZ businesses will drop their implicit association with the NZ environment if Peter wins his case – the value of the brand may be tarnished but it is fundamentally enduring. Tourism NZ is adamant of its importance.

‘100% Pure NZ’ may eventually disappear as a brand, but it will be replaced by other, more robust environmental brands because New Zealand, especially if it addresses its declining environment, has a lot to offer the world. A win for Peter is for higher standards of environmental branding and advertising, not their absence.

Invest in brandNZ

Higher standards of environmental advertising and branding will motivate businesses to invest in the brandNZ asset – our environment. Businesses meeting higher environmental codes will be those that invest in the Reservation and Restoration of New Zealand’s environment, or Reconcile their resource needs and impacts with environmental values better. Reserve, Restore, Reconcile – a mantra for NZ businesses aiming for higher environmental and advertising standards in the same what that Reduce, Reuse and Recycle has been.

New Zealand will be a better place to live because people like Peter demanded that advertisers be honest and invest in brandNZ.

But what if Peter loses…

… my next post.

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