Cawthron Centenary Series – Interview with Dr Roger Young


Position at Cawthron – Freshwater Ecosystems Manager
Duration of Service – 23 Years
Hometown – Dunedin


What was your path to Cawthron?

I applied for a job at Cawthron just as I was finishing my PhD at the University of Otago.  I had met a couple of Cawthron scientists at conferences, but didn’t know much about Cawthron previously.  I’d only been to Nelson once before coming up to be interviewed.  After living in Dunedin previously I was blown away with the consistency of the weather in Nelson.  It’s always 22 degrees!!

Cawthron was a pretty small place when I started and not well known nationally or internationally.

Having said that it had grown a bit in the previous years and many of the systems were set up for a smaller organisation.

Everyone knew everyone else and had a reasonable understanding of what others were doing, but financial systems and resources were pretty limited.  When I started our vehicle fleet consisted of a broken down Ford Laser station wagon and a rusty old Mitsubishi van – both of which had done more than their allotted share of kilometers. What a contrast to now!!

Nelson felt like a small town when we arrived, but we were blown away with all the amazing places to visit and things to do.  It was great to host friends and family for the first few years and show off our new home region – which seemed like (and still is) paradise.

Tell us about your career at Cawthron.

I started on a fixed term research position working on two research projects led by John Hayes that had recently been funded. One project related to trout bioenergetics, relating fish growth and population numbers with river productivity and flows. The other project related to the effects of overseas tourist anglers on the sustainability of New Zealand’s renowned back country trout fisheries.

My position became permanent and I started to develop a niche of my own and contribute to a wider range of projects – water quality, river ecosystem processes, river health and catchment management. A turning point in my career was the opportunity to lead the assessment of ecological effects of the Cobb Power Scheme, exposing me to the challenges and opportunities of project management and resource management decision-making.

The 10-year integrated catchment management project focused on the Motueka Catchment enabled me to interact with a wide variety of people with an interest in better land and water management. It was a privilege working with social scientists, geomorphologists, economists, marine scientists, local iwi and various stake holders in a ridge-tops to the sea initiative. A fantastic learning experience and great to have Cawthron at the heart of such an innovative and nationally important programme.

As my confidence and experience grew I took on more leadership roles and contributed to further building Cawthron’s freshwater team and the wider Coastal & Freshwater Group. It’s been amazing seeing our influence grow over the years with a massive increase in scientific outputs, significant influence on national and regional environmental policy and consistent strong financial performance.

Cawthron culture is special – there’s freedom to develop your own path, and also a strong ethos for making a difference. Things don’t come easily so you have to build relationships and demonstrate how your science and knowledge can make a better world. Cawthron’s independence puts us in a special position in many of the contested situations relating to development and use of land and water resources. People yearn for independent and trusted information, and we can sometimes help broker relationships between groups that have more in common than they often believe.

Every day is different. No job is ever the same. This makes it exciting, challenging and you’re always learning something new. There’s always uncertainty with what work is in the pipeline in 6 months or a year’s time. This can be difficult to manage, but there’s always been more than enough to do.

What do you hope lies in Cawthron’s future? Where would you like to see the organisation in 2121?

I hope that Cawthron will continue to be a special place, making a real impact for a better world. I’m convinced that science-based decision making will help achieve a better world and Cawthron will have a key role in creating new knowledge and in communicating that knowledge in ways that can be understood and acted on by people that can make a difference.

It is important that Cawthron retains independence so we can continue to be trusted by everyone. I would like us to become even more bold in communicating our science so the benefits and lessons from it can be realised.

We need to continue to be at the forefront of science internationally working on key issues of the day and anticipating and addressing issues of the future.  Our technologies and knowledge will continue to be in demand nationally and internationally, but we will continue to be grounded in Nelson and Te Tau Ihu.

What is your greatest professional achievement and how did you contribute to making it happen?

So many…what to focus on…

The biggest thing is probably the development of a new approach to river health assessment that has been increasingly adopted in New Zealand and has generated considerable interest internationally. I started small with a MfE funded project with strong support from many regional councils. The work showed considerable promise and focused on practical application of new monitoring methods, while acknowledging that Councils struggle with financing their current monitoring obligations without adding further tasks. A Cawthron report summarising the new approach was well received nationally and I also circulated it among international colleagues that were interested in this topic. I also ran a national workshop summarising where we’d got to and what the benefits were. I was subsequently invited to speak at several international conferences on this topic, which was a great honour. I eventually turned the Cawthron report into a journal paper which has been highly cited and led to further national and international collaborations. The strong relationship built with Council staff and other resource managers helped with implementing this new approach in New Zealand, something that’s been more difficult overseas.

I’m really proud to have this work reflected in the latest National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management and recognition that a healthy river requires much more than just good water quality.

What do you see as some of Cawthron’s major strengths?

  • A continual focus on making a difference, not just science for science sake.
  • Strong relationships with stakeholders and a good understanding of their needs and challenges.
  • An ability to deliver a high quality product on time and on budget.
  • All housed in one place, so pretty good opportunity to meet others and share expertise
  • People are encouraged to follow their interests, as long as it’s within Cawthron’s strategic areas of influence.
  • Having to really work for funding/projects……nothing is handed to you on a plate.

What is a favourite Cawthron memory of yours?

Field trips always provided an opportunity to visit some special places – one in particular I recall drift diving down the remote Ugly River in the heart of Kahurangi national park and it was definitely a highlight. Some things have been lost as we’ve grown. We used to have Cawthron indoor netball and volleyball teams playing in the local competition which I really enjoyed. Mostly it’s just the memories of working with great people, like Rowan Strickland who was a great mentor and friend and Anna Crowe whose relentless positivity and bubbly personality is missed.

Is there a piece of work your Cawthron colleagues have done that you admire, and if so why?

John Hayes‘ work on the in-stream flow needs of rivers is amazing. Over many years he’s mixed cutting edge international science with grounded resource management implementation. He managed to keep getting funding for this work over many years despite MANY changes and challenges to the funding system. His foresight of what was needed and how to get there is hugely impressive to me – and his work will have a major influence on how much water is left in rivers all around New Zealand and internationally. An amazing mentor, colleague and friend.

Are there opportunities you have had at Cawthron that you might not have had if you’d worked elsewhere?

An opportuntity to shape my own destiny and follow particular areas of interest.  An opportunity to take on leadership roles.  A necessity to conduct applied science that makes a difference in the real world.

What were some of the things you learned in your career that you’d like to pass on to people who are in the early phases of their working lives?

  • Value yourself
  • Look, listen, learn – you’ll never stop learning
  • Science is only part of the answer – politics, economics etc. are equally or more important
  • Don’t worry too much about the future, a plan is good but you need to be flexible

How have you found the social side of working at Cawthron?

Working here has provided a great opportunity to meet with some amazing people. It’s a pretty big place now so it’s harder to meet everyone, but I’d encourage our staff to try and make the most of the opportunities to interact with others across the organisation. We’ve always had a good social culture. Cross Cawthron things like the lunch time running group are a great way to get to know people from other parts of the organisation.

What hobbies or interests do you have outside of work?

Fishing, gardening, running, volleyball, family, camping.

What are the biggest changes you want to see in the world?

Return to truth-based governance, not post-truth celebrity politics. Some clear movement on how humanity is going to address climate change.

What ethos do you live your life by, and how do you see it aligning with your approach to work?

Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.

What do you make of Thomas Cawthron’s legacy, and what do you think he would make of Cawthron today?

Wow, what foresight to make such a gift to Nelson, New Zealand and the world. I wish there were more people with similar thinking. Maybe there are? I hope he would be incredibly proud of what we have achieved.

What other organisations or people have you worked with who you’ve really appreciated?

All of them really, but especially iwi, farmers, and community people that are passionate about their rivers.