A valuable legacy that continues to grow

Last updated 12:00 22/02/2014

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OPINION: Almost a century after his death, the institute that Thomas Cawthron bequeathed to Nelson is thriving in ways he could not have imagined.

The official opening of the Cawthron Institute's $5.5 million marine and freshwater centre yesterday is the latest boost to an organisation that continues to enhance both it and the region's scientific credentials.

A canny merchant and a philanthropist, Thomas Cawthron left his £231,000 fortune to establish an industrial and technical institute when he died in 1915.

Since its opening in 1921, Cawthron has become the country's leading independent science organisation.

Initially it supported agricultural industries in the region, later moving into forestry and now has an internationally-recognised expertise in aquaculture, marine and freshwater ecology.

As science has become more sophisticated, the institute's emphasis has also shifted from low-tech solutions for existing problems to hi-tech innovations.

A key strength, and a reason it has developed the financial strength needed to undertake such work, is its focus on practical developments and partnerships that have commercial and environmental benefits. Its successful selective breeding of mussels and other shellfish is one success story.

At present, for example, its oyster hatchery is nurturing 20 to 30 million baby oysters for the industry.

It has not been an easy path as an independent organisation without the funding certainty of Crown agencies, and at times during the 1930s and 1990s there were doubts about its future. But its persistence and ability to adapt to industry needs has been rewarded, and a new Government research policy gave it a longer term funding boost last year.

The new building is the most significant laboratory upgrade at its base in the Wood for 40 years. It was built without Government funding, and houses experts in marine and freshwater biosecurity research and food safety.

They are among about 200 scientists, researchers and specialist staff Cawthron now employs - a 25 per cent growth in the past seven years. Many are young and many come from overseas.

Having such expertise on our doorstep is a huge advantage for the region, economically and for the local environment.

The work being done by Cawthron scientists on toxic algal outbreaks in the Maitai and Waimea Rivers, for example, could have big pay-offs.

Nelson MP Nick Smith, who also sits on the institute's trust board, says Cawthron's importance to the region is underlined by the absence of a university or Crown Research Institute head office.

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Thomas Cawthron's other gifts included funds for the Church Steps and the Rocks Rd chains. Both are still widely appreciated but the institute is shaping as his most dynamic and valuable legacy.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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