Global rankings top spot for sustainability research

Opinion: Our students and researchers have been ranked No.1 in the world once again in the Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings, writes Simon Thrush.

A photo shows crayfish underwater at he Leigh marine reserve:  "almost functionally extinct," says Professor Simon Thrush.
Crayfish at the Leigh marine reserve: "almost functionally extinct," says Professor Simon Thrush.

For this, they can be proud. It gives global recognition to our contribution to sustainability, and in particular to our efforts to help save our unique forests and restore our magnificent oceans.

This is the second year the university has topped these rankings, which measure the performance of 850 universities in 89 countries against the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Work in marine sustainability and land protection have long been a particular focus for our research teams, independent of United Nations SDGs, and we gained particularly highly in goals relating to these areas: Life Below Water (2nd) and Life on Land (joint 3rd).

It is greatly encouraging to get this international endorsement for our research, in particular because, although we often have community support for our research, the options for government funding for ecological research are limited.

Unfortunately, the need has never been greater.

Analysis of the ecological footprint of us humans shows we are currently using the Earth’s natural resources at twice the rate our planet can sustain. Clearly we are in a sustainability crisis.

This might seem to be a slow burning problem as we address the Covid-19 firestorm but we cannot afford to ignore it. In New Zealand and around the world there is a growing call for action and change. On Auckland’s doorstep we see major threats to our Kauri forests and consistently depressing trends in the ecological health of the Hauraki Gulf.

Kauri are being eaten alive by phytophthora agathidicida, dead trees are in places becoming a visible component of the forest canopy. It has been estimated that there is about 20 percent mortality in the Waitākere Ranges. As a result walking tracks are being closed and access to the forests restricted to try and stop the spread of the disease.

The university has a critical contribution to make in navigating the way to sustainable futures. 

In the Hauraki Gulf, many important fish and shellfish species have markedly declines, crayfish have been described a functionally extinct. We have lost whole seafloor habitats such as the green shell mussel reefs of the inner gulf. Sediment entering the Gulf continues to make the harbours muddier and the water browner. Tracking down with these changes is the overall biodiversity of the urbanised harbours of Auckland’s east coast.

These have been documented for the last decade or more by the Hauraki Gulf Forum’s State of the Environment Reports which assimilate all the publicly available monitoring and assessment data for the Gulf. These concerns for the Gulf reflect the broader tends for our marine environments as identified late last year in the Ministry for the Environments national assessment of our marine environment.

At the global scale we see the development of the UN’s Strategic Development Goals and initiatives such as the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development and the Decade of Ecological Restoration. Both will run from 2021 to 2030.

The university has a critical contribution to make in navigating the way to sustainable futures. It is in our job description to build capacity and train the next generation of scientists, policy makers and environmental entrepreneurs to share knowledge and use research to generate the innovations needed to break the current bottlenecks to making real progress on a range of sustainability measures.

Ecological research on land and sea is at the forefront of our capacity to make informed decisions about priority actions. So it is encouraging to see these activities in particular recognised in the latest THE ranking.

In marine science specifically, this has meant being involved in restoring shellfish beds and kelp forests, demonstrating the spillover benefits of marine conservation, seeing how marine ecosystems respond to change and demonstrating how the multiple stressors we impose on our coasts effect the many benefits of the ocean we take for granted from our ocean.

All of this work is about providing good science and adequate data so that we make the best environmental decisions we can. We do not do this alone and progress is only possible because we work with a diverse array of students and colleagues across the university, New Zealand and the world in generating the tools and joined-up knowledge to create the opportunities that will enable sustainability.

As New Zealanders we have critical environmental responsibilities from the tropical Pacific to the Antarctic and to step up our stewardship we need to help identify transformative actions for individuals, corporations and governments. Credible science that is independent and trusted is important in improving the effective engagement between science and policy, and accelerate much needed remedial actions. This recognition builds on multiple efforts and should encourage all of us at the university to show leadership in creating sustainable futures.

Professor Simon Thrush is Head of the Institute of Marine Science at the University of Auckland.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

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