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Pesky varmints – not a cartoon, not a dream, but a real-life nightmare in New Zealand.

“Did you know New Zealand has a pest problem?”

New Zealand is waking up from a nightmare to discover it is real. At least 2788 New Zealand species are threatened with extinction. Our iconic native species and their habitats are in trouble because they are being eaten by introduced pests. Cats, rats, possums, stoats and several others are a leading reason why New Zealand has one of the world’s worst records of native species extinction.

We should displace our nightmare with a dream. It is fun to dream and share our dreams. Our Department of Conservation (DoC) is dreaming…

“By 2050, an environment where small mammal pests are no longer a threat to the security of New Zealand’s indigenous biota, or condition of ecosystem services.”

On Monday and Tuesday this week, DoC invited 50 science and technical experts to dream with it in a two-day workshop – Towards 2050: A Pest Summit for New Zealand. They wanted new ideas, crazy ideas.

We began by reminding ourselves on how far we have already come. The group constructed a timeline of progress – discoveries, innovation, and successes in the war on exotic predators – to remind us how past dreamers have overcome apparently intractable problems. We are the product of dreamers and achievers. We can dream and achieve again towards even greater innovation and success.

Calls for advances in surveillance were supported by the forum – the application and effectiveness of pest control technologies advances only as fast as we are able to better detect pests and evaluate their threat. The development of super-lures for vertebrate pests – attracting them to traps in greater numbers and over greater distances – like our pheromone traps for insects, was also supported. We have aspirations to achieve a technological pied-piper. Biological control – a catch-all for a diverse grab-bag of new bio-technologies also, inevitably, received support for its deep, albeit complex, promise.

Using advances in social science to mobilise massive public action and support surged in discussions but failed to be supported at the finish line. We should not be surprised, however, that a room largely of technical and science experts trained at least a generation ago, did not ‘get’ social science. Ironically, all attendees had to do to understand why new tools in socio-psychological science are so important was to reflect on the workshop itself. It applied a soft technology to generating consensus and harnessing creativity amongst us – an example of how far social science has come in understanding how to get the best from people. Nevertheless, scientists did ‘get’ the need for social science to assist in the implementation of other new tools. With time I expect social science will be viewed more strongly as a solution itself to our pest problems.

Aspirations also inspired a pushback by those concerned not to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. A consensus on this point too was achieved – we are not exploiting or coordinating current tools as effectively as we might. Some went so far as to prescribe new or remodelled institutions for better application of existing tools – as if NZ science organisations and scientists haven’t already had enough of institutional restructuring. It is also strange that the room full of scientists thought a top-down approach more effective than mobilising the wider populace – I suspect we are institutionalised.

New search and destroy technologies in security and military with pest animal control applications?

Early enthusiasms about automated pest search-and-destroy robotics, nanotechnology or drones – aerial or terrestrial – faded. Perhaps a bridge too far? Maybe these technologies might be soon adapted from other industries – military and security – anyway. The importance of new baits and toxins received acknowledgement but limited conceptual development.

Universities were under-represented in the room, although they are the nation’s most inter-disciplinary research organisations with aspirational and ‘blue-sky’ research agendas. They contributed just seven of the attendees and half of NZ’s eight universities were not represented at all. Radical innovation is less likely to be achieved by asking scientists already involved in pest management to be creative. The workshop should have brought both the naïve and experienced together into the same room.

The supported outcomes of the workshop lack detail. We are promised that DoC Science will now form workshops for each of these ideas to embellish them towards real research, although how research would be funded remains ambiguous. We made a strong start. But it is a long, expensive road to 2050. A strong finish is required.