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Fiordland endeavours result in significant funding

Monday, 13 September 2021

Endeavour Fund image
Otago's MBIE Endeavour Fund 2021 winners Associate Professor Christopher Moy, Associate Professor Harald Schwefel, Dr Augustine Chen, Dr Robert Day, Dr Simon Jackson, Professor Claudine Stirling, Professor Greg Anderson, Professor Neil Gemmell, Professor Peter Dearden and Professor Warwick Duncan.

One of the University of Otago’s MBIE Endeavour Fund 2021 winners says he is over the moon to receive funding to understand Fiordland’s future as a carbon sink.

Associate Professor Christopher Moy from the Department of Geology secured Otago’s sole Research Programme grant. His five-year, $8.6 million project is looking to find a pathway towards carbon neutrality by analysing the future of Fiordland, one of the country’s largest carbon sinks.

His project was one of nine Endeavour Fund grants awarded to the University of Otago totalling more than $16 million. The Otago allocation is part of a wider $244 million investment in 69 scientific research projects through the Endeavour Fund, the country’s largest contestable research pot.

While carbon sinks act like sponges to soak up carbon compounds, not much is known about how factors such as human activity or climate change could trigger a tipping point and reduce the effectiveness of fjords to absorb carbon in the future.

Associate Professor Moy says the grant will allow he and GM Strategy for GNS Science and Otago Honorary Professor Gary Wilson to establish a longer-term monitoring programme, connect with the international community, and provide unparalleled teaching and research opportunities for students.

“Fiordland plays a key role in this regard. We know just enough to recognise that a lot of carbon is currently being stored there, but our work will be crucial to pin down how large the sink is in carbon-accounting terms, and how stable it’s likely to be in the face of climate change and other environmental management practices.”

“We’ve been working in Fiordland for the past decade to build the scientific foundation, but basic research can only take us so far,” he says.

“This fund is really special because it gives us a springboard to make the next leap, and really drill down on why mud on the bottom of New Zealand’s fjords is meaningful for New Zealand’s ambitions of carbon neutrality.”

The award is also recognition of the work done by the Climate Change Commission, who said more work needed to be done to understand the size, mechanics and stability of carbon sinks across the world.

“Fiordland plays a key role in this regard. We know just enough to recognise that a lot of carbon is currently being stored there, but our work will be crucial to pin down how large the sink is in carbon-accounting terms, and how stable it’s likely to be in the face of climate change and other environmental management practices.”

Associate Professor Moy says the answers lie in an extensive multi-disciplinary programme, a collaboration between Ngāi Tahu, Fiordland Marine Guardians, and a team of New Zealand and international scientists.

Eight Otago researchers were also successful in the Endeavour Fund’s Smart Ideas grants, which are each valued at $1 million over three years.

These eight were selected from a pool of 29 Otago concepts, with a success rate of 27.26 per cent. This is more than double the national average rate of 12.5 per cent (52 projects funded from a pool of 415).

Professor Peter Dearden from the Department of Biochemistry has been awarded a grant to investigate how biocontrol can help control damaging invasive pests, while Professor Warwick Duncan from the School of Dentistry has secured funding to investigate how mānuka oil can help regenerate bones in oral wounds such as periodontitis. Professor Greg Anderson from the Department of Anatomy is looking to use cell-targeting to sterilise pests as a form of humane control, while Dr Augustine Chen and Dr Robert Day from the Department of Biochemistry is looking to create a new method to detect early-stage cancer through a new DNA diagnostic test.

Associate Professor Harald Schewefel from the Department of Physics is looking to use light to detect thermal radiation as part of a wider pathway to creating space-ready hardware, while Dr Simon Jackson from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology is creating a natural probiotic seed coating to make seed inoculation more effective. Professor Claudine Stirling from the Department of Chemistry has received funding to trace heavy metal pollutants with metal isotope ‘fingerprinting’ technology. Professor Neil Gemmell receives $1 million to explore pest management using environmental DNA (eDNA).

Overall, the Endeavour Fund has invested over $1.39 billion to support research and science in New Zealand since it was introduced in 2016.