By - Wayne Linklater 11/03/2017

My latest critique of conservation in New Zealand received a largely positive response, especially from others who think empathy with wildlife an important ethic. It was a busy week and so, unfortunately, I haven’t yet responded to all who telephoned and wrote. But the article also received some negative comments, especially from people who identify themselves as conservationist or conservation scientists.

Australian brushtail possum. Source: Victoria University of Wellington

This has also been true for some of my other recent weblog posts and newspaper articles. Particularly disliked were my articles debating the introduction of kaka to Wellington City, or Predator-free 2050.

Conservationists appear particularly unsettled when policy and practice is critiqued by a fellow conservationist.

Amongst the thoughtful and interesting comments, thank you, were also many in which accused me of writing “nonsense (but then declined my invitation to a public debate) or betraying the conservation cause. Some wrote that I did not deserve my position as a conservation scientist or being an out-of-touchivory toweracademic (other responses from conservationists were even less charitable and degenerated into personal attacks – it serves no useful purpose to consider those).

Source: The Hampton Institute

These comments betray an intolerance of different opinions. They also imply the expectation that someone cannot be critical while also contributing to progress.

But, of course, the opposite is true. Progress cannot occur without critique. We need conservationists to be critical of what they think and do (as well as being critical of their, so-called, adversaries).

The importance of public discourse, including critique

The view by some conservationists, conscious or otherwise, that critique of conservation is bad, is not good for conservation.

I am concerned also that there not be a significant number of scientists who ride the gravy-train of government research and conservation policy (e.g., Predator-free 2050) without some introspection and extrospective discourse about it. The public depends on our diverse professional opinions being aired and that those not be restrained or corruptable.

There is, particularly, a role for university scientists in this since their academic freedoms are protected by law. Critique and debate are fundamental to my academic role. It is constructive to provoke debate of alternative perspectives, to shine some light on widely unknown or unpopular ideas.

Advancing conservation

Wild rat. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Since many responses to my articles were directed personally, here are three examples of why my critiques are consistent with advances in conservation practice.

Invasive species management

Our ability to eradicate rats to protect vulnerable biodiversity is poor because we are still using foods to lure rats to poisonous baits, traps and detection devices. In February this year my research team lodged a provisional patent application for a suite of long-life chemical lures for rats. Our new lures are much better at catching rats than anything else currently used and, because they are not perishable, they could substantially reduce the costs of pest-control operations.

Our new lures were developed using funds from the Dept. of Conservation (DOC) and the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). They promise to make rat control and eradication possible at a greater scale. I am a critic of the Predator-free 2050 policy and prepared to debate it but also contributing significantly to the tools that improve our ability to protect biodiversity.

Reconciling domestic cats with biodiversity

Reducing the impact of domestic cats on wildlife requires that we understand and reach agreement with cat owners – the majority of New Zealand households. Understanding what cat owners will, and will not, support is critical to making progress.

Last year the Wellington City Council, with a large number of organisations, instituted a cat policy for the city, which included requiring that cats be identity microchipped. The council’s confidence in this policy originated from information shared by my research team in a report to the New Zealand Veterinary Association and the New Zealand Companion Animals Trust (who funded the study).

We had surveyed cat owners at veterinary clinics and had discovered that 85% of cat-owners thought micro-chipping their cats would be acceptable. The submissions to WCC’s new by-law turned out to be similarly supportive. Our research informed policy development, making change possible.

I have been critical of conservationists’ being adversarial with other people (e.g., cat owners) and my so work finds consensus pathways through the controversy towards solutions.

Living with kaka better

Conservationists are currently very concerned that artificial foods are causing disease amongst Wellington City’s kaka. They want, therefore, to discourage residents from feeding kaka.

This summer I supported a group of five post-graduate students to survey Wellington City residents about kaka. They found resident’s reports of property damage by kaka to be associated with resident’s also feeding them. The more kaka are fed the greater damage they do.

Our data, therefore, might convince neighbourhoods not to feed kaka. I have been critical of introduction of kaka to Wellington City, but the research I do is part of the solution too.

These are just three of several conservation research and learning projects that I lead in Wellington. I have conservation research projects in southern Africa, southeast Asia and North America too. This is what ‘ivory tower’ academics in universities do.

Avoiding mistakes, new ideas, faster progress

These scientific contributions to conservation policy and practice happened even as I also wrote critically about them.

Am I a traitor to the conservation cause? Out-of-touch? Do I write nonsense? You decide. But, importantly, it is clear that my critique is consistent with also helping to advance conservation.

You can be a part of the solution as well as debate progress. Indeed, it is better that way. Major mistakes and unfruitful directions will be avoided, and new and useful ideas will surface. Without  critique, mistakes are more likely and progress is slower.

I have heard it said that art critics cannot be artists. Whether this is true is a debate for another time, but it is certainly not true of science. Scientists need to be science critics. Conservation scientists need to be critics of conservation and conservation science.

0 Responses to “A better conservation science sector is critical… … of itself”

  • I too am a critic of the predator free goal. I saw wee piggies fly passed when that was announced. (pink ones) I think most of your comments are quite valid and nice to see someone challenge the opinion that DOC Bio staff (or those who are left after the re-structure of the re-structure of the re-structure ) are not always correct in what they say. (though they always insist they are right) Most have simply lost the passion. Most volunteer trapper groups actually do have quite a good idea of what works and most agree that those who think that a predator free by 2050 is a reality, need to get out of heir air conditioned office and stand on the top of a few valleys, densely treed with beech or snow grass or impossibly steep valleys and ask them selves “is this a reality?” and ” How do we get all the pests off that without bom bing it with tonnes of toxins?” With a Government who have a Conservation Minister rated at around #13 on its list of heavy hitters, who is listed below in rank than ministers in Horse racing, Ethnic and foreign affairs and immigration, we cannot believe that they take Conservation at all seriously. So we now have DOC so underfunded and struggling to do any meaningful biodiversity work. Lets ask the question: “Should they actually be doing it anyway?” They love doing the paperwork but don’t really carry out the role that we expect of them and hence the growth of pasionate volunteer groups .
    Great news about spray on toxins for pest control, good luck with that.

  • You know perfectly well as a practising scientist that your ideas, methods of data collection and interpretation of results are not sacred revelations that transcend scrutiny. It is your duty as a scientist to critique your own work and recognise its inherent assumptions and limitations. It is your duty as a scientist to receive and consider well-founded criticism of your work.
    That, to me is, SCIENCE 101.

    But somewhere along the line some sacred cows have strolled into the science paddock. Some things must never be criticised…alternative viewpoints must be shut down…

    Yonks ago, I raised some unpleasant points about Zealandia…. The original promise to never ask for Public funds was one; the lack of any public information about the death of birds and translocation failures was another; the cost of running the place (bang for bucks re conservation success) was a third. This was all information that was known by a select few, but difficult to place into the public forum without being labelled a bird-hating nut (or one of my first abusive labels – a one-eyed chlorophyll monster).

    Anyway, all good training for the daily abuse I receive at Kiwiblog, where I have the unfortunate habit of posting links to scientific papers that question or present evidence that counters the belief that man-made emissions of CO2 is the primary cause of recent global warming.
    To that end, I have been told that:
    I am menopausal (I’m well past that stage);
    I am suffering from sexual jealousy because I was rejected in my Ph.D days by a well-known NZ climate scientist (I may have been at the same uni… but at the time I was a newly married mum with babe on the way and no time for sexual hi-jinks)
    I am mad, psychologically disturbed, etc (that’s a pretty common abuse, been going on for a couple of years, now)
    I am an alt-right neo-Nazi (bit strange that I’m married to a untermensch Slav)
    I have saggy, little tits (ok, gravity has been at work, but bra size 38C isn’t little)

    The good thing is that I am no longer earn an income and having been an insignificant cog in the NZ public Service, I have no great scientific reputation to uphold/defend. I’ll suck up the abuse.
    You may need to be careful, but I sense a change in the wind.
    Quite a few science journals are starting to realise that they have been publishing irreproducible dross.

    Keep challenging your critics to demonstrate where you have erred… the bullies will soon depart.

  • @Maggy Wassilieff

    You might consider taking a slightly less confrontational tone and concentrating more on the issue, rather than detailing all the insults that have ever been thrown at you. I am sympathetic to some of the actual points that you have made, but the points are quite difficult to see in amongst all the “other stuff” which only serves to turn the reader away.

  • @Stephen Thorpe

    fair enough criticism.
    but 20- 30 years too late, as far as I am concerned.

  • @Maggy Wassilieff

    You refer to “duty as a scientist”, but that may be an entirely fictional concept. Like you, I would much prefer scientists to have a sense of “duty” to the greater good, but primarily being a scientist is just a job, and (basically) the only “duties” are as specified in the employment contract. My experience of late suggests that although institutions claim to have “duties” to ensure proper standards of integrity, etc., these “duties” easily get cherry picked and trumped by economic factors.

  • Ok, you are not expecting me to be a compliant old lady and refrain from taking a confrontational tone.
    So I will address a couple of Wayne Linklater’s and your issues.
    (Forgive me if I personalise them and don’t frame them in terms of deep science philosophy).

    Whether it is “duty” or a “role” for scientists to critique science policy and inform the public of their concerns, Linklater recognises that as a University staff member he is in a position to raise and debate concerns.
    I reckon we are all the better informed and better off for him so doing.

    But there seems to be a downside when scientists go public with an unpopular view. They are subjected to personal abuse. Little attention is given to dissecting/debating their views. Linklater deliberately decided in the above post not to further consider the personal abuse he has been subjected to from conservationists.

    I went the other way and listed some of the personal abuse I have received from anonymous commenters.
    For this is the reality some scientists experience when they step beyond the consensus circle.

    A wee confession… I first commented on Kiwiblog about the NZ temperature record/Niwa debacle because I was too scared to comment on Gareth Renowden’s Hot Topic Blog. The abuse that was levelled at dissenting scientists on that blog was sickening.

    Perhaps scientific duty is a fiction…. but science isn’t.

    If practitioners of any science discipline are unwilling to have their work or policies scrutinised, then they are not acting as scientists. They are behaving as a bunch of gate-keepers indulging in group-think.

  • The catch 22 of Wellington city kaka is they cannot survive without being supplementary fed. There is very little proper habitat for them, which is why the heritage trees in the Botanic gardens are getting hammered. Kaka need big areas of forest to roam in, not cities.
    Also there seems to be no plan as to managing /controlling numbers or for managing population health (something predators normally do) Kaka in proper forest habitat only breed successfully in rimu fruiting years which occur at irregular intervals.( kaka chicks hatched in non-fruiting years often die of starvation). Wellington kaka breed every year thanks to supplementary feeding. While working as a volunteer at wellington zoo, I cleaned out the cage of a kaka that died of a highly contagious domedtic parrot disease. What if such a disease transferred from these semi-domestic kaka into wild populations? Lots of issues around trying to make a city into a wildlife reserve remain unaddressed.
    For an example of what extreme trapping and poisoning actually does look to Mt.Bruce.Answers to OIA requests show of 120 kiwi released somewhere around a dozen may survive(just 4 with transmitters).. Kokako aren’t much better. 27 released from 2003, just 29 counted in 2014. Killing for conservation doesn’t work. One million dollars to Vic Uni. to come up with better rat lures, to whom then do the patents belong? Science in NZ has been hijacked by an industry of death.. Happy to debate the issue anytime.