The Listener letter: 70 fellows express concerns at Royal Society’s handling of complaints

Seventy academics have sent a motion of no-confidence to the Royal Society of New Zealand over its handling of the letter signed by seven University of Auckland professors and published in the Listener last July.

In the letter – headed “In defence of science” – the professors said they regarded indigenous knowledge as valuable, both “for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices” and in “key roles in management and policy”.  But they contended that mātauranga Māori is “not science” and therefore should not be included in the NCEA science syllabus.   

Three of the professors, Robert Nola, Garth Cooper and Michael Corballis (who has since died), were Fellows of the Royal Society of New Zealand.  After complaints were laid about the letter, disciplinary action was instigated against them but last month the Initial Investigation Panel concluded that the complaints should not proceed to a Complaints Determination Committee. 

Professors Nola and Cooper have subsequently resigned both as members and fellows of the society, and the letter published here has been sent to the society’s chief executive…   

To Paul Atkins (CEO RSNZ)

The Fellows, listed below as co-signatories, wish to express their deep concern about what has been happening within the Royal Society of New Zealand over the last year, by moving and seconding the motions below for discussion at the at the 56th hui ā-tau o Ngā Ahurei Annual Fellowship on 28th April. Continue reading

Richard Dawkins is among eminent scientists who have written to NZ’s Royal Society in defence of two professors

British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is among the eminent scientists who have been writing to the Royal Society of New Zealand in defence of two society members whose expression of opinion about what is science and what is not may result in their expulsion.

Professor Dawkins, supporting colleagues who contend that myths do not belong in science classes, has posted on Twitter the letter he emailed to the chief executive of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

The society will have received another letter from Jerry Coyne, Professor Emeritus in  the Department of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago.

Professor Coyne expressed his concerns about goings-on within the New Zealand science establishment in an article headed “Ways of knowing”: New Zealand pushes to have “indigenous knowledge” (mythology) taught on parity with modern science in science class.

The same issue was critically aired in The Spectator in a column by associate editor Toby Young headed “Why punish a scientist for defending science?” Continue reading

Lord Rutherford is remembered and our royal society launches a competition (but not necessarily for scientists)

The 150th birth anniversary of Ernest Rutherford, New Zealand’s most celebrated scientist and the country’s first Nobel laureate, was noted by RNZ, and by some newspapers and universities.

On RNZ’s Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, the programme host talked about Lord Rutherford with  Professor David Hutchison, the director of the Dodd Walls Centre for Photonic and Quantum Technologies.

Stuff featured an article by Nelson reporter Tim Newman under the headline Ernest Rutherford: From humble beginnings to New Zealand’s greatest scientist

This referenced an obituary in the New York Times on October 20, 1937, which described Lord Rutherford as one of the few men to reach “immortality and Olympian rank” during his own lifetime. Continue reading

Now that non-scientists can win a Rutherford Medal, there’s a good case for changing the name of the award

The Royal Society Te Apārangi has announced that its highest award, the Rutherford Medal for recognition of eminent research, scholarship, or innovation, will now include humanities scholarship in the fields of recognition.  The nomination deadline for this medal (and $100,000 prize money) has been extended to 30 April 2020 to allow time for humanities nominations to be submitted.

Details of the Society’s medals and awards being offered this year can be found HERE.

Whether the Rutherford Medal should now be renamed is an issue raised by AgScience editor Bob Edlin in this article, originally posted on the Point of Order blog.


  Until this year, the Rutherford Medal has been the most prestigious science award the Royal Society of New Zealand can bestow on worthy scientists.

But big changes are being made to the meaning of “science” and the society has proudly announced:

Rutherford Medal now includes humanities

The announcement explains that Royal Society Te Apārangi’s highest award, the Rutherford Medal for recognition of eminent research, scholarship, or innovation, will now include humanities scholarship in the fields of recognition. Continue reading

Royal Society expert panel calls for overhaul of gene-technology regulations

It’s time for an overhaul of the regulations around gene editing, according to an expert panel set up by Royal Society Te Apārangi.

The panel’s findings follow earlier reports on gene editing in healthcare, primary industries and pest control.

The panel was set up to consider the implications of new technologies that allow much more controlled and precise ‘editing’ of genes, has concluded it’s time for an overhaul of the regulations and that there’s an urgent need for wide discussion and debate about gene editing within and across all New Zealand communities.

The society convened the panel, along with a Māori reference group, to explore the implications of gene editing as well as capture Māori views and approaches to assessing this technology.  The panel was not asked to come to a view about the merits or otherwise of any particular application of gene editing.

Continue reading

136 new proposals get Marsden Fund money for critical research

New Zealand’s top researchers will be able to investigate critical issues and build knowledge across the board supported by $85.64 million over the next three years through the 2018 Marsden Fund round, announced today by Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods.

The Marsden Fund supports New Zealand’s top researchers to conduct excellent research across science, mathematics, engineering, social science and the humanities.

This year 136 new proposals have received funding across a range of disciplines and topics, from climate change to kauri dieback to youth mental health.

Woods said the government has set some ambitious targets – reducing child poverty, transitioning to 100% renewable electricity by 2035 in a normal hydrological year and increasing the supply of warm, dry homes.

“Building up the knowledge base is absolutely vital for us to address these issues, particularly with global challenges like climate change,” she said. 

“These recipients will undertake research of the highest quality in their fields of expertise and raise the standard of research in New Zealand. The Marsden Fund is key to growing New Zealand’s innovation-led economy and society, and boosting our R&D investment.

“The diversity and strength of the research funded will have many flow-on effects for New Zealand’s science and innovation system, as well as long-term benefits for our environment, society and the economy. I congratulate all of the recipients announced today.”

The Marsden Fund is administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand. Proposals are evaluated by independent assessment panels and the final recommendations for funding are made by the Marsden Fund Council, which is chaired by Professor David Bilkey.

The Minister said the full results and researcher contact details for media comment are on the Royal Society Te Apārangi’s website.

She steered people to the site in English

And in Māori:

Source:  Minister of Research, Science and Innovation 

Gene editing upsets the GM applecart, says Dr Rolleston

“New Zealand will slip behind its competitors and forfeit opportunities to address climate change, water quality, pests and other environmental concerns if we reject the use of gene editing in our primary industries,” the chairman of the Life Sciences Network, Dr William Rolleston, said today.

A report released by the Royal Society of New Zealand explores the potential uses of gene editing in the primary sector such as removing allergens from milk, making mānuka disease-resistant, preventing wilding pines and accelerating apple breeding.

Gene editing enables more precise and targeted breeding than is available through traditional breeding methods but because it is considered genetic modification in New Zealand its use will be significantly limited.

The use of genetic modification has been difficult in New Zealand due to the current regulation and strong pressure from activist groups however the advent of gene editing has changed the stakes in the debate on genetic modification.

Dr Rolleston said only time would tell if gene editing would upset the anti-GM applecart,

‘” … but we are seeing encouraging signs that science, not fear, is coming to the fore in the debate on genetic modification as it already has in the debates on immunisation and fluoride.”

Genetic modification no longer was a hypothetical argument for New Zealand, he said.

The examples presented in the Royal Society paper showed there were tangible benefits to using gene editing technology which would  be obvious to farmers and the public.  He hoped they became involved in the discussion.

Source:  Life Science Network

Potential uses of gene editing for New Zealand’s primary industries

Removing allergens from milk, making mānuka disease-resistant and preventing wilding pines are some potential future uses of gene editing in New Zealand if we choose to utilise this new technology.

These are among the potential uses explored in the Royal Society Te Apārangi’s new discussion paper ‘The use of gene editing in the primary industries’, released today. The paper outlines the relevant considerations, risks and potential benefits for five scenarios of how gene editing could be used for primary production sectors including agriculture, forestry and horticulture.

It’s part of the society’s larger Gene Editing in Aotearoa project, for which a multidisciplinary expert panel and reference group have been brought together to explore the wider social, cultural, legal and economic implications of gene editing in New Zealand, incorporating Māori perspectives and broader cultural contexts.

Gene editing techniques will allow more targeted and precise genetic changes than has been possible before in crop and livestock breeding, says Professor Barry Scott, Professor of Molecular Genetics at Massey University and co-chair of the expert panel.

“It’s a good time for New Zealanders to consider what gene editing could offer our primary industries and how they’d feel about its use.”

One potential application of gene editing is to speed up the time it takes to produce new apple varieties. New Zealand is known internationally for its apples and there is strong commercial pressure to develop new and improved varieties, Professor Scott said.

But the process is slow because it can take five years before any fruit is produced to start the evaluation and testing of potential new apple varieties.

Gene editing could enable the temporary removal of the gene that slows down flowering, so the trees would flower in eight months instead of five years.

Once a new variety of apple with desirable characteristics had been selected, traditional plant breeding would reintroduce the genes that slow down flowering. This means the resulting trees sold to growers would not contain any of the gene editing changes, but would have been introduced to the market much faster than by using existing breeding methods.

Another scenario the paper discusses is using gene editing to make mānuka resistant to disease.

Lawyer and panel member Irene Kereama-Royal, who is also a research partner at Unitec, says myrtle rust and kauri dieback disease have got people thinking about what can or should be done to conserve native species.

“Extracts of leaves and bark from mānuka have been used for centuries by Māori and, with the growth in the mānuka honey industry, mānuka is now an important plant for New Zealand both culturally and economically.  Should we use gene-editing to create new varieties of mānuka that are resistant to disease?”

A third scenario is to use gene editing to make exotic conifer trees, such as Douglas fir, sterile.

Dr Phil Wilcox, Senior Lecturer in statistics at the University of Otago and a member of the expert panel, who has over 30 years experience in forestry research, said wilding trees are a big problem in New Zealand.

“Not only do they outcompete native species, they invade and modify unique natural ecosystems, are costly to remove and can contribute to pollen allergies.

“Gene editing could halt the production of cones and pollen in these species, which would mean that when these trees are planted for forestry, shelter belts, or to help prevent erosion or climate change, they wouldn’t escape into places where they are not wanted.”

How do New Zealanders feel about using gene editing for this?

The society is encouraging them to consider this and the four other scenarios and let the panel know what they think.

Feedback should be sent to

Three workshops are being held around the country to discuss the potential use of gene editing in the primary industries with the panel and reference group members:

  • Hamilton | Wednesday 10 October,  9:45am – 2:30pm, The Verandah, Rotoroa Drive, Hamilton Lake
  • Napier | Monday 15 October  9:45am – 2:30 pm, Napier Conference Centre, Exhibition Room, 48 Marine Parade
  • Dunedin | Tuesday 23 October 10:00am – 2:30 pm, The Dunedin Centre, Fullwood Room, 1 Harrop St

This discussion paper is the third in a series, which includes papers exploring the potential use of gene editing for human health and pest control in New Zealand. All resources are available online at

Source: Royal Society Te Apārangi

Dr Woods pushes diversification further into the science community

The Government’s diversification policies are being pushed further into the science domain, where they are already being applied by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods has announced the launch of new measures “to help increase diversity in New Zealand’s science community”.

“Diversity guarantees we capture the very best ideas and talent to support the highest quality research. This work will maintain the existing high level of scientific excellence in the workforce while enabling fair and equal opportunities for all,” says Dr Woods.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment estimates female doctoral graduates outnumber male doctoral graduates, but women make up just 32% of the scientific workforce, Dr Woods says.

And whilst nearly a quarter of the New Zealand population identifies as Māori or Pasifika it is estimated they make up less than 2% of the scientific workforce.

The ministry’s new Diversity in Science Statement

” … aims to support a vibrant and successful science and research workforce that is as diverse as New Zealand. This will happen through the way policies are developed, encouraging diversity of people and perspectives as part of scientific process, challenging bias, and ensuring fair and inclusive funding processes.”

Specifically, it’s a commitment to:

·       collect and report on the diversity of science funding applicants,

·       review funding policies and process to understand their impact on inclusion and diversity,

·       ensure a diverse range of people and perspectives in science advisory, assessment and decision making bodies, and

·       showcase researchers from a diverse range of backgrounds and raise awareness of unconscious bias.

“This initiative is a big step towards everyone having a fair and equal opportunity to participate in our science system to their fullest potential,” says Dr Woods.

“Diversity of genders, ethnicities and career stages throughout the science community cannot be achieved without strong leadership, mentors and role models who challenge bias and encourage inclusivity at every step of the science process.”

The Point of Order blog reports a challenge to belief in the efficacy of diversification programmes, quoting a critique by Heather MacDonald, the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She earned a BA from Yale University, an MA in English from Cambridge University, and a JD from Stanford Law School.

She writes for several newspapers and periodicals, including The Wall Street JournalThe New York TimesThe New Criterion, and Public Interest, and is the author of four books, including The War on Cops: How The New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe and The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture (forthcoming September 2018).

She argues:

Marie Curie did not need female role models to investigate radioactivity. She was motivated by a passion to understand the world. That should be reason enough for anyone to plunge headlong into the search for knowledge.

As for the belief that diversity encourages excellence and that diverse thought is necessary to solve complex problems, MacDonald says this is ludicrous on multiple fronts.

“Aside from the fact that the one thing never sought in the academic diversity hustle is “diverse thought,” do [the champions of diversity] believe that females and underrepresented minorities solve analytical problems differently from males, whites, and Asians?

“A core plank of left-wing academic thought is that gender and race are ‘socially constructed.’ Why then would females and under-represented minorities think differently if their alleged differences are simply a result of oppressive social categories?”

Columbia’s science departments do not have 50/50 parity between males and females.

But does this prevent them from achieving “excellence”?

MacDonald notes:

“Since 1903, Columbia faculty members have won 78 Nobel Prizes in the sciences and economics. The recipients were overwhelmingly male (and white and Asian); somehow, they managed to do groundbreaking work in science despite the relatively non-diverse composition of their departments. “

The  Royal Society’s diversification policy aims (among other things):

To embrace diversity in all Society activities, with particular emphasis on those involving panel- and committee-based evaluation and assessment processes, and public lectures and other events.

The society shares the Minister’s confidence in the beliefs which are debunked by MacDonald. Its policy says:

The value in different viewpoints and perspectives offered by people of different backgrounds, age, experience, ethnicity and gender is considered to lead to more informed decision making, greater innovation and better outcomes for our stakeholders.

We believe that recognising and embracing diversity provides the opportunity to make our organisation stronger, leads to increased morale, and is an essential element in the long term success of the Society.

Under the society’s policy all employment interview panels should have at least 30% women.

At least 30% of nominations/applications in all nomination rounds should be from people from under-represented group.

The society’s staff including management and Council must have at least 30% from under-represented groups.

Results are to be published annually.

Royal Society members’ opinions are being sought in consultations on revised Code

Members of the Royal Society of New Zealand are being updated on the re-development of the Society’s Code of Professional Standards and Ethics.

Feedback from a variety of people and organisations earlier this year has been considered and chief executive Andrew Cleland says:

“The support and engagement of our members and the wider research community is important to the Royal Society Te Apārangi and we have given each of the submissions careful consideration as part of the revision process.”

Some submitters proposed a shorter Code and guidance material.

The working group looked at this alternative approach but concluded the detail has to be set out somewhere and it is better to be explicit to members of the obligations on them.

Dr Cleland hints that Treaty of Waitangi, partnership and cultural considerations have required greater detail in the Code. His letter says:

“Many of the really important expectations in the eyes of Māori working group members were not visible at the general standard level; the specific standards are important to them. A single document has many advantages in avoiding confusion.”

Dr Cleland notes that, at 11 pages and sufficiently complete to need no guidance material, the Code contrasts with the length of the recently released 140 pages of documentation from NEAC on health and disability research ethics.

The recently released Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research is not much shorter than the Royal Society’s, he says, and the guidance material for it is still to be developed.

Members have been sent a copy of the old Code.

They are advised:

“There is no exact measure of their similarity, but certainly the bulk of the new code is the old code re-packaged.

“Many of the changes on which we consulted were introduced because the Society has chosen to advance its partnership with the Māori research community.

“There is now coverage of Māori research and working with Māori communities.

“After receiving submissions, the working group have made a number of changes to both newly introduced and previous sections.”

Members also have been sent the second consultation draft.

The society is seeking further submissions, hoping to receive them by September 21 and to finalise the Code for the Society Council’s November meeting.

Members are reminded they should be aware, when making submissions, that the Code is principles-based and the the Society remains committed to a broad view of ethics – a social contract between its members and the people they serve.

This includes societal and environmental ethics as well as the narrower research integrity (professional ethics).

The Society says it remains fully committed to the inclusion of the public interest, from which its reputation with the public follows.

The Society also has to cover members operating outside New Zealand and who are not employed by New Zealand research organisations so whilst the Code makes it clear that New Zealand law must be followed the Society has little choice but to set explicit standards to achieve coverage of all members.

Membership of the society is broad – for example, some members are not researchers and the Code needs to cover their professional activities.