I am greatly honoured to receive the Shorland Medal from the cross-disciplinary New Zealand Association of Scientists. “The Shorland Medal is awarded in recognition of major and continued contribution to basic or applied research that has added significantly to scientific understanding or resulted in significant benefits to society.”
In reflecting on how this came about, it seems a good time to thank my parents for supporting my education, and my mother (who attend the award via Zoom), and her parents, sisters and my family for encouraging my interest in natural history from a young age. I have been very lucky to have made a career and living from what has always filled me with a sense of wonder, and my fascination with the patterns of nature continues to inspire me.
I secondly thank my wife Katherine Kelly for her support over 30 years without whom I would not have been able to devote my energies so fully to my research and services to science.
I also thank my students, undergraduate and postgraduate, and colleagues and collaborators for their collaboration, help and discussions over the years. Trying to answer their questions sharpened my thoughts as to the gaps and inconsistencies in scientific thinking about what we think we know.
This medal was not so much for producing publications but for leading the establishment of world databases that are useful to the wider scientific community. Doing useful science seems likely to be more enduring and helpful to society than searching for theoretical advances, many of which are likely to be transitory.
I ended up creating these databases because they seemed necessary and nobody else was doing so. It was a pleasant surprise that once established, based on the belief that they would be useful, that they led to several surprising findings that showed several common beliefs in marine and biodiversity science were wrong. Three things we did not expect to discover were that:
- There were now several times more people naming new species than ever before, and when this increase in effort was considered, that we have already named most species on Earth, not the fraction that some stated (and some still do);
- The deep-sea is not the most species-rich place on Earth or in the ocean, and that there are far fewer species in the deep-sea because of its environmental conditions;
- That the global richness of species has not peaked at the equator since the last ice age, and that it has been dropping there due to global warming since the 1950s while increasing in the subtropics and northern latitudes, so global warming has already been causing global scale change in marine biodiversity. Climate change is well underway and projected to accelerate its pace in the future.
This leaves me wondering what other surprises await us, how deep is our ignorance of the natural world. By making data freely available in standardised databases we provide a low-cost opportunity for researchers everywhere to make serendipitous discoveries about life on Earth which may confirm or contradict our current understanding.
Links to media
The New Zealand Association of Scientists Shorland Medal 2020
University of Auckland: Scientists awarded medals for research
Scoop: University of Auckland scientists awarded top medals from the New Zealand Association of Scientists
Saltstraumen Marine Protected Area community Facebook page