The role of the Treaty in science and consultation with Maori: columnist sparks heated debate

The latest shots in a debate triggered by science writer Bob Brockie have been fired today by Dame Anne Salmond, Distinguished Professor of Māori Studies and Social Anthropology at the University of Auckland and Vice-President (Humanities and Social Sciences), Royal Society Te Apārangi,

One of Dr Brockie’s targets was the work of the Royal Society of New Zealand and the establishment of Te Whāinga Aronui o Te Apārangi.

This body is chaired by Dame Anne as Vice-President (Social Sciences and Humanities), who serves on the Royal Society Te Apārangi Council.

The forum provides advice to the society on matters of concern to the humanities and social sciences community and responds, on request, with advice on humanities and social sciences issues.

The Presidents (or their nominees) of the several constituent organisations contribute to the forum. These organisations are listed HERE.

They include the Australian and New Zealand Communications Association; Institute of Registered Music Teachers of New Zealand; Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia; Association of Social Anthropologists of Aotearoa/New Zealand; and Sociological Association of Aotearoa NZ. 

Dr Brockie contends some from “the art world” believe there are no such things as facts; rather, there are

… just different opinions about facts, ambiguity is OK, everybody’s opinions are of equal value, whether of a quantum physicist or a Stone Age nobody, and that other people’s beliefs and opinions must never be questioned (thereby committing the sin of “decontextualisation” aka political incorrectness).

Some humanities grandees badmouth the intellectual gains of the Enlightenment and would knock science off its perch.

Te Whāinga has called for the Royal Society “to place the Treaty of Waitangi centrally, and bring alongside that inequity and diversity issues in a holistic manner“. Dr Brockie argues the Treaty has no place in scientific endeavour.

His second target is the Otago University requirement that Ngāi Tahu must be consulted about “all areas of research” before scholars undertake their work. All proposals must be submitted to the Office of Māori Development.

There may be some justification for these requirements when researching Māori DNA, or Māori archaeology, Dr Brockie argues,

“… but most scientists who pursue these topics make sure they are on side with local Māori and come to appropriate arrangements with them before undertaking their research”.

He questions why Otago researchers should consult Ngai Tahu on quantum physics, logistics, dental technology, Roman Law, compositions by Brahms – and so on.

In her response today, Dame Anne has drawn on her extensive knowledge of early Māori and European interactions with further commentary.

She notes that

  • When the Royal Society of New Zealand (then the New Zealand Institute) was established, many of its founders were dedicated students of mātauranga Māori, collaborating with tribal experts and publishing their findings in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute and elsewhere.
  • As “the Western scientific project” emerged during the Enlightment, the arts and humanities were fundamental to its inquiries. It was only later that the disciplines became fragmented and a gulf emerged between those dealing with the natural sciences and those dealing with the arts and humanities.
  • As scientists try to grapple with issues from climate change and biodiversity losses to the degradation of waterways and oceans, it has become evident that human activity is deeply implicated in the dynamics of these complex systems. A division between “nature” and “culture” is dysfunctional.
  • Scientists who dismiss the inquiries of thinkers from other cultural traditions (such as Pacific knowledge systems in which people are fundamentally interconnected with the environment) and proclaim the superiority of the natural sciences over the arts and humanities are unhelpful.

The President of the Royal Society Te Aparangi, Emeritus Professor Richard Bedford,  said (HERE) Dr Brockie’s column provided an opportunity for the society to reflect on and to confirm its commitment “to an inclusive view of knowledge and changing how we do things.”

The society needed to make changes in how it operates if it was to represent and support all those who generate knowledge in New Zealand “and to be able to share that knowledge with New Zealanders in a way that is useful and relevant to them”, he said.

“We confirm our commitment to value all forms of research and scholarship. Though the methods of humanities research and Māori research may differ from the natural and physical sciences, they are no less rigorous.”

Last year the society changed its branding to emphasise its Māori name, Te Apārangi, which means a group of experts. It also incorporated a koru in its logo to better reflect its place in New Zealand.

It has launched a shared project—Te Takarangi—to celebrate the breadth of knowledge and scholarship in Māori publications by showcasing a new book each week day until Māori Language Week in September.

Last year it began a process to revise its Code of Professional Standards and Ethics, among other things to better recognise all relevant research methodologies and knowledge systems in New Zealand and recognise good practices in Māori research and good practice in working with Māori communities.

The draft revised code, which the society is seeking feedback on, embraces the existence of several knowledge systems and sets out researcher’s responsibilities under the Treaty of Waitangi and to affected communities more generally.

A University of Otago spokesman (HERE) says its consultation policy has been in place since 2003 and does not give Ngai Tahu any power to block research

“The [policy] along with its supporting processes, do not approve or veto research projects,” the spokesman said.

“The committee might make note of some concerns on a particular area, and potentially offer recommendations. However, the panel does not have the power to decline any proposal.”

The committee consists of two representatives from each of the three local runanga, the university’s Maori research manager and the kaiwhakahaere rangahau Maori (Maori research facilitator). The spokesman said the three branches of the iwi represented on the committee were independent of the iwi’s business interests, and considered research projects at a local level.

The committee does not delve into the details of academic research but offers its thoughts on Maori customs and appropriate processes.

The committee worked to the same process as an ethics committee, the spokesman said.

A University of Otago Christchurch academic, Professor Margreet Vissers, challenged Dr Brockie and defended the university’s stance in an opinion piece in the The Press (HERE).

Among her points:

  • As a research scientist, she rejects the notion that “Western Science” has all the answers.
  • Our current knowledge has been amassed by contributions from all peoples. To be blind to the input of others is unhelpful for the advancement of science and to be inclusive does not preclude rigour or the impartial nature of scientific research.
  • Consideration of the Treaty of Waitangi has added depth and breadth to our scientific endeavours. New Zealand research institutes have made considerable progress in adapting their processes to ensure more inclusive representation for Maori as Treaty partners, and to recognise the voices of other minority groups.
  • The process of Maori consultation at Otago University is a supportive discussion between researchers and a Maori Research Advisor to consider the specific cultural implications of any proposed study.

Radio New Zealand this week broadcast an item (HERE) in which both Dr Brockie and the university put their positions.

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