Top marine ecologist named science communicator of the year

20 November 2015

Chris Battershill

Professor Chris Battershill

Professor Chris Battershill, Chair of Coastal Science and Head of the Coastal Marine Group at the University of Waikato, has been awarded Science Communicator of the Year by the New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS).

The award was jointly presented at the Royal Society today to both Professor Battershill and Canterbury University marine scientist, Professor David Schiel, for their collaborative efforts communicating the complexities of science surrounding the grounding and oil spill of the MV Rena off Tauranga in 2011.

The Rena incident was one of New Zealand’s greatest marine environmental disasters, affecting habitats, kai moana, tourism, fishing, recreation and the well-being of the Bay of Plenty region, says Professor Battershill.

Right from the outset, both he and Professor Schiel became the public faces of the Rena oil spill, reporting on the clean-up effectiveness from an environmental perspective and the longer term consequences. Over a period of 30 months, they gave over 100 talks at numerous marae, public meetings and conferences and also dozens of media interviews.

Recognised as one of New Zealand’s top marine ecologists, Professor Battershill says he is honoured to receive the award.

“The grounding of the Rena on Otaiti (Astrolabe Reef) led to a remarkable chain of events that continues to have an impact on the national psyche. The outrage expressed locally and nationally was considerable. It quickly became apparent the public wanted to know what was being done to minimise environmental impacts and what the likely consequences of the oil spill and the debris contamination would be.

“In the early days, many of the meetings were quite heated as people vented their outrage about the oil spill. Over time the public became increasingly well informed and grew interested in following the science behind the impact and the environmental recovery phases of the incident. It was also important to the citizens involved in the clean-up operation that they knew their efforts were worthwhile and would lead to quick recovery of the marine environment,” he says.

Professors Battershill and Schiel devoted the years following the Rena incident to communication and follow-up about the science related to environmental recovery from the oil spill. In doing so, they greatly served iwi and the general public in the Bay of Plenty, as well as satisfying a national craving for impartial and high quality information about the oil spill effects.

Both Professors agree the public and media have benefited from having top quality scientists front recent disasters in New Zealand. “This has helped to thoroughly explain events in understandable terms to every audience and help allay fears about potential consequences from that disaster.”

The University of Waikato’s Coastal Marine Field Station in Tauranga, which Professor Battershill heads up, has experienced unprecedented growth in research demand since opening in 2011. This has created significant opportunities for students to be involved in crucial research which influences science at a global level. Over the last few years, Professor Battershill has had over 20 Masters and PhD students under his tutelage.

As part of the University’s Environmental Research Institute, the coastal science team are involved in teaching, coastal and marine research and discovery, and environmental monitoring. Researchers work in collaboration with industry, government agencies and Crown Research Institutes across a number of areas including biosecurity, coastal sustainability, ecology and agri-science.

Previous winners of the NZAS Science Communicator of the Year award include ‘Nano girl’, Dr Michelle Dickinson, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering at the University of Auckland (2014) and Associate Professor Simon Lamb from the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at Victoria University (2013).

The NZAS is an independent body that stands for and advocates for science and scientists in New Zealand and endeavours to increase public awareness of science.