Political science

Written by      

There’s a dead end we run into again and again while documenting natural science in New Zealand—a wall of “We don’t know.” “Nobody’s working on that, sorry.” It floors me, the scale of what we simply do not know.

I have always hoped that politicians are driven to base their decisions on evidence, and where it is lacking, to look closer.

This month the government announced it would not renew the contract for the longitudinal study Growing Up in New Zealand, which was 16 years into a planned 21-year-plus run. (A second longitudinal study of our children, Living in Aotearoa, run by Stats NZ, has just been halted at the six-year mark.)

Growing Up documented more than 6000 children and their families, beginning when the mothers were pregnant. The list of topics includes: family structure, ethnicity, income, childcare, te reo, hunger, mental health, immunisations, breastfeeding, screen time, first words, smoke alarms, disabilities, tantrums, allergies, accidents, sleep, bullying, dental care, domestic violence, class size, puberty, truancy, COVID-19, sexuality, gender identity, relationships. Life.

The researchers watched how these factors tangled and clustered and influenced one another. They saw poverty playing out over time, for example, in areas such as school achievement and mental health. They were stunned to discover how often children moved house, especially between private rentals.

The team also briefed media and politicians as to how we could most efficiently make our children’s lives better—introducing a rental tenure system, for example. Expanding the free school lunch programme. The most effective way to get more kids in school more often, the researchers said last year, was to make school a better place to be, and meaningfully help young people improve their mental health.

It’s not yet clear what the future holds for Growing Up. The University of Auckland, which runs the study, told RNZ it is “exploring options” to plug the sudden $30 million shortfall. But universities, too, are doing it tough.

Sometimes, good science takes just one person seeing a need and getting stuck in.

See: Jim Mills. For more than half a century he has been studying red-billed gulls at Kaikōura; clocking nests and chicks, life and death—much of it unfunded. Each season he’s come out with a new brick of data and slotted it on top of the last, up and up into a project that makes sense of the gulls’ world and their sharp decline. Now 83, he can’t find a way to keep the work going.

But other projects are just getting started. In Otago, palaeontologists Daphne Lee and Uwe Kaulfuss are fossicking for amber—and the fossils suspended inside it. The task is immense but it has great momentum: in just 15 years we’ve gone from thinking New Zealand amber was empty, to amassing a library of 200-plus exquisitely preserved insects.

New Zealand Geographic is cracking into a new project, too—we’re working with the Cawthron Institute and dozens of sailors to sample seawater across huge swathes of the South Pacific. Cutting-edge eDNA technology will show us how the myriad organisms in that water ebb and flow across the ocean, the roles they play in the ecosystem, and how they react under pressure. In the great machinery of the seas these are the tiniest of cogs.

So are we, of course. But humans have the responsibility of trying, at least, to see the big picture.