Māori and Pasifika scientists under-represented in NZ research sector – Expert Reaction

Māori and Pasifika scientists have been “severely under-represented” in Aotearoa New Zealand’s universities and Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) in recent years, according to new research.

The study authors say the data shows universities and CRIs are “failing to build a sustainable Māori and Pasifika scientific workforce” and these institutions need to begin recruiting, retaining, and promoting Māori and Pasifika scientists.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the research.

Dr Tara McAllister, study lead author, Te Aitanga a Māhaki/Postdoctoral fellow at Te Pūnaha Matatini, comments:

“This study provides quantitative evidence that universities and CRIs in New Zealand are failing to build a sustainable Māori and Pacific scientific workforce, which will come as no surprise to the small number of Māori and Pacific scientists working within these institutions.

“Importantly without purposeful and urgent actions by these institutions to recruit, retain and promote more Māori and Pacific scientists, these numbers will remain dismally low for generations to come. Research shows that diversity results in not only better research outcomes but also more novel research. Thus, without centering Māori and Pacific voices New Zealand’s science system will never reach its full potential. Additionally, without increasing the number of Māori scientists they employ these institutions will continue to not meet their obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

“The solutions importantly do not simply lie with getting more Māori and Pacific scientists into a science system, that was never made for us, but also addressing and removing the systematic barriers, which continue to marginalise us and make working in universities and CRIs as Indigenous scientists extremely difficult.”

Conflict of interest: I am the lead author of this study.

Professor Troy Baisden, President, New Zealand Association of Scientists, comments:

“Over a decade after the last serious look, are Māori and Pasifika represented appropriately within New Zealand’s major science institutions? Dr McAllister and her co-authors have corralled data showing the answer is a resounding, ‘no.’ Worse, our institutions generally are not collecting the data that would ensure awareness of and management of this key diversity measure.

“Data and analysis from around the world are showing that diversity measures provide valuable and worrying indicators of the wider health of applied research systems during the pandemic. Here, we were already worried Māori inclusion in research would be hard hit by budget cuts.

“As an indicator, this is a ‘canary in the coal mine’ and the authors have found that only a few institutions are checking whether the canary is still alive. That’s deeply disappointing.

“Māori representation in science is critical to develop the economic potential of Māori land and marine resources, and also to ensure Māori worldviews have a place in environmental management and practices in the health system. These sorts of needs drive strong demands for better Māori inclusion in a recent review of Crown Research Institutes, and are strongly voiced in a review of Vision Mātauranga within the National Science Challenges.

“Demands for Māori inclusion in science and research will become empty promises if Māori are not better represented. In fact, the numbers make it clear that recent recommendations put far too much demand on a limited pool of Māori scientists.

“The poor representation of Pasifika in science amplifies the concern, and follows on other work showing problems with gender equity and diversity in New Zealand academia. The New Zealand Association of Scientists has grave concerns that these diversity issues will only get worse at institutional budget crunches worsen due to the pandemic. Previous work by Drs McAllister and Naepi points clearly to career tracks as broken pipelines that need fixing.

“Looking more broadly, last year’s draft Research, Science and Innovation Strategy highlighted ‘connections’ as a new pillar of activity to be measured and supported in the science system. There is indeed a strong case for connections involving Māori within our science institutions, but a big part of our wider diversity problem may simply be that the system funds activity to produce science – with too little focus on people and their careers, or foundations for teams within institutions. For most Māori researchers, current funding mechanisms usually mean scattered short-term or part-time jobs and no funding big or coherent enough for a doctoral thesis, or a post-doctoral project that sets a career in motion. Only one institution was found to have the needed starting point in place: career tracks and a team approach that helps connect and support Māori researchers.

“To live up to stated commitments to diversity – and to better deliver for New Zealand – MBIE, the science system as a whole, and our institutions need to better match support for Māori research teams, and other forms of diversity, to objectives already stated in key strategies and reviews.”

Conflict of interest statement: I am also a principal investigator in Te Pūnaha Matatini CoRE, but was not involved in this research.

Emeritus Professor of Pacific Studies Peggy Fairbairn-Dunlop, Auckland University of Technology, comments:

“Unfortunately and despite our best efforts in recent years especially, the pool of Pacific researchers remains low generally and glaringly low in senior research posts. There are many reasons for this, largely financial – for example many AUT post-graduate students were the ‘first in the family at uni’. So some with huge potential as researchers and scholars often left to take up employment so their younger brothers and sisters could have a chance at getting a university education. The availability of more senior-level tertiary study scholarships and grants for Pacific students would be a major step in establishing a critical mass of Pacific researchers and supply chain.

“Another factor is that the most significant research grants advertised are won by established teams with what I would call a ‘stable’ reputation. I take my hat off to the Health Research Council (HRC) which introduced a category of major grants a few years ago which required that the team must include a Pacific researcher. I had hoped that other government departments might adopt that practice, which effectively provided auala (pathways) for Pacific and other minority groups in this way. Those HRC projects offered a fine training opportunity for Pacific researchers.”

No conflicts declared.

Associate Professor Nicola Gaston, University of Auckland, Co-director, MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, comments:

“This paper provides yet another example of structural racism in New Zealand science. We are very used to the excuses: that not enough Māori and Pasifika succeed academically and that it is a pipeline issue; that we just need to concentrate on outreach in schools and that will fix the problem in due course.

“Let me be clear: this is not a pipeline issue, it is a racism issue. Even the extent to which I, as a pākehā scientist, feel able to comment on this while some of my Māori and Pasifika colleagues do not, is structural racism.

“As a former President of the NZ Association of Scientists, I am aware of the extent to which our scientific institutions resist transparency in assessing their own demographics; this article confirms what we suspected but did not have complete data for. This issue is made very clear by the problems these authors had in obtaining any relevant data — at all — from two NZ universities.

“I am grateful for the work that the authors have done in shining light on this issue. I think it is however outrageous that our Māori and Pasifika scientists must first bring their skills to bear on this issue, before having the opportunity to follow their own scientific interests.

“We are all the poorer for the exclusion of talented Māori and Pasifika researchers from science. In particular, given that in Aotearoa we have additional expectations of our research community, associated with the Vision Mātauranga framework and need to deliver research outcomes that address the aims and aspirations of Māori communities, we should be clear that this is not merely an issue of representation (as it is for example for women in science) but of both representation, and of capacity and capability. This realisation — which speaks to the extent to which the few Māori scientists we have are seriously overworked — only doubles the absolute shame which we should all feel, faced with these numbers.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Jacinta Ruru, Inaugural University of Otago Sesquicentennial Distinguished Chair, and Co-Director of Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence, comments:

“This is incredibly important research for our Universities and the nation. This research provides compelling evidence for what Māori researchers across the country have been strongly articulating for many years now. The year on year static low employment of Māori in our tertiary and research institutes is alarming and represents a huge missed opportunity not only for all of our tertiary students who miss out on being inspired and taught by the Indigenous peoples of this country, but also for us as a whole country. We all miss out on the sophisticated intergenerational researched solutions that we know Māori can lead; solutions that make sense for Aotearoa New Zealand. It is well past time that our country seriously commits to decolonising the tertiary workforce, curriculum and research agenda. This article evidences long practiced institutional racism. We at Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence look forward to this issue gaining urgency for our country. We welcome transformational change that is compliant with te Tiriti o Waitangi.

No conflicts declared.