11 Apr 2024

Department of Conservation set to lose scientific expertise in job cuts

5:01 pm on 11 April 2024
A tara iti, or fairy tern, returns to shore with its catch.

The fairy tern is among New Zealand's the country's most endangered birds. Photo: Supplied / Darren Markin

Science advisors and technical experts are among those set to lose their jobs as the Department of Conservation makes cuts to reach the government's savings target.

Among the disestablished roles are the chief science advisor and the five-person aquatic delivery team, while the department's predator-free function would be substantially reduced.

The Resource Management Act (RMA) regulatory delivery team is being cut from 20 people to four, and almost the entire strategic partnership team is being cut, with 21 out of 22 jobs disestablished and the one remaining advisor to sit under a different team.

Are you affected by the public sector cost-cutting measures? Contact kate.green@rnz.co.nz

The department has been asked to make cuts for savings of 6.5 percent, on top of its separate 2024/2025 cost pressures of $7.2 million.

An internal proposal document, seen by RNZ, showed any changes would be in place from July, following staff consultation.

The plan would see a total of 270 positions disestablished, and the creation of 140 new roles, for a net reduction of 130 positions - although 101 of these were currently vacant.

Amid public concern that management positions across the public service seem less affected, despite having the potential to make greater savings, DOC's restructure proposal showed management roles were substantially affected.

Other changes included a reduction of the geospatial services team - put simply, the mapping used for environmental and urban planning - which is being cut by four. According to the change document: "This would likely impact service levels, and GIS work may take longer to deliver".

Predator free staff will be split into two teams, one focused on eradication, the other on strategy and governance. Both teams would lose staff.

The country has a goal of eradicating three of the most damaging predators - rats, stoats, and possums - by 2050.

The change document showed plans to reduce expenditure, as well as the number of managers. Fixed term roles would be disestablished at the end of workers' contracts; two manager roles with a low number of direct reports will go. One new manager role would replace them.

On the flip side, the document also revealed the intention to establish 20 new frontline ranger roles by July, which were not included in the above numbers. These positions would be funded from Budget 22, meaning the money could not be used to cover current roles.

The freshwater species team will gain two more roles, and there would be no change to the biodiversity and climate system team.

Blues skies, snow clad mountains in the background and a DOC sign

File pic Photo: RNZ Insight / Belinda McCammon

'We will likely lose species out of this,' ecology expert says

A lecturer in ecology at the University of Otago and former DOC staffer Jo Monks told Morning Report it was not necessarily strategic to lose those positions, as they were made up of roles which people had left, and then because of the hiring freeze had never been replaced.

"I think DOC has been forced to reduce capability for a long time," Monks said.

She said capacity in research and environmental monitoring was critical "in the midst of a biodiversity and climate crisis".

Evidence-based decisions would be affected by the reduced capacity to provide technical advice, and many initiatives would suffer.

"It's an organisation with a ginormous portfolio and responsibility, within a fairly limited budget.

"It's a sector that desperately needs investment, reducing that is problematic.

"What is being lost ... is science capacity, it's policy capacity, it's resource management space that's losing heaps of people and it's in line with the government's directive that we're going to prioritise short-term economic goals over environment and sustainability."

There was an equivalent operating budget loss, too, meaning the department would have to pare back its work.

"What we've been talking about mostly is the job losses, but there's equivalent operating budget loss, and that just means the DOC won't have the capacity to deliver on species conservation programmes," she said.

"So we will likely lose species out of this.

"I personally would rather not have a tax cut on my salary. I personally would rather that we invest properly across the government and that includes conservation."

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