MBIE’s take on Māori participation in science

On: 8 May 2018

A lot of ink has been spilt recently in the opinion pages of newspapers about the role of Māori and the Treaty of Waitangi in science, and the integrity of science as an institution in New Zealand. MBIE’s Chief Scientist Professor Margaret Hyland, and Departmental Science Advisors Dr Rob Murdoch and Professor Hamish Spencer set out their view that science ultimately benefits from active Māori participation.

The commentary began from a misunderstanding about the role of Māori consultation in influencing science proposals at the University of Otago. This in turn led to more criticism of the role of Māori knowledge and the humanities in scientific endeavours. As active scientists and science advisors to government, we have a different view.

In the New Zealand research system, scientists and institutions are encouraged to consider Māori perspectives in research. The Vision Mātauranga policy, which applies to all government funded research, is designed to enable a distinctive Māori contribution to New Zealand through research. It is really positive to see the increasing number of research institutions that are deepening their partnerships with Māori. As more Māori pursue and participate in research, the principle of partnership within the Treaty of Waitangi is increasingly influencing New Zealand’s research landscape. In this regard, the Royal Society Te Apārangi is proactively shaping its future by highlighting the Treaty in its code of professional standards and conduct. In our view all these steps are entirely appropriate and positive.

In a similar vein, the University of Otago’s consultation with Māori is not something that is meant to restrict – rather, it adds to the end result of the work. Meaningful consultation can provide context for the research, as well as an opportunity for research-design tweaks and modifications that would make the research more useful. It is being used to inform research in, for example, environmental management, sustainable fishing, resilience to natural hazards and, of course, health, in order to deliver better outcomes for us all. Such consultation is little different from any other form of consultation about research design – say with other scientists. In short, consultation adds, not subtracts.

The fact that Māori consultation at the University of Otago is used to provide advice about the impact of research for Māori, did not prevent one columnist from wrongly assuming that Māori approval was required for every science project at that institution. The fact that Māori worldviews are based in centuries of observation and anticipation of their physical and social environment, did not stop that same columnist from denigrating Māori knowledge as based on “the supernatural and vitalism”.

A common thread in the recent commentary is that science is inherently objective and factual, and thus is superior to other disciplines such as the humanities and the arts, and mātauranga Māori. The commentators all viewed these disciplines as subjective or superstitious, philosophically opposed or in debt to “real” science, and incapable of inspiring or informing reason.

It seems to us, however, that there are many ways of acquiring and organising knowledge, which are useful and important in different ways and at different times. It is increasingly important these disciplines speak to each other sensibly if New Zealanders are to tackle the complex challenges facing our nation today.

Research, science and innovation should be relevant to all New Zealanders. The context and challenges of all our citizens should be able to inform science, just as they inform other government business. Delivering benefits from science will require collaboration among multiple disciplines, and scientists to work with other perspectives, people and institutions to create change. To aggressively reject genuine societal views will not make science more “real” – it will make science irrelevant.


Professor Margaret Hyland, Chief Scientist, MBIE & Professor of Engineering, University of Auckland

Dr Rob Murdoch, Departmental Science Advisor, MBIE & General Manager Research, NIWA

Professor Hamish Spencer, Departmental Science Advisor, MBIE & Professor of Zoology, University of Otago

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