Rift exposes why NZ science body needs serious reform

Dr Michael Johnston
Dr James Kierstead
The Australian
25 August, 2022

The Royal Society of New Zealand exists, so its website proclaims, to further and promote “the pursuit of knowledge”. But is knowledge now taking a back seat to politics?

In July 2021, seven University of Auckland professors published an open letter in The Listener, one of New Zealand’s oldest magazines.

The letter was written in response to a report from a government working group that sought to ensure ‘parity for mātauranga Māori’ – Māori traditional lore – with ‘Western/Pākehā epistemologies’ in the school curriculum. ‘Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices and plays key roles in management and policy,’ the professors wrote. ‘However, in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.’

The reaction was swift.

The Tertiary Education Union told the professors that ‘members found your letter “offensive”, “racist”, and reflective of a patronising, neo-colonial mindset.’ The Royal Society of New Zealand – an organisation with a brief to support science and scholarship – stated that it ‘deeply regretted the harm’ that the professors’ ‘misguided views’ could cause. Siouxsie Wiles, one of New Zealand’s most prominent scientists, tweeted that the letter “caused untold harm & hurt and points to major problems with some of our colleagues.”

And Dawn Freshwater, the professors’ own Vice-Chancellor at the University of Auckland, said the letter had ‘caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students and alumni.’

The fallout from the letter didn’t end there.

One of the authors of the letter was removed from teaching on two undergraduate courses in Auckland’s School of Biological Sciences the week after the Listener letter. This followed email complaints from other teaching staff requesting his removal because of it. A colleague and former student of the same professor later received a phone call from a superior pointing out her association with him and advising her to be careful not to ‘cause more harm to people.’

Two of the professors were investigated by the Royal Society, a process which could have led to their being struck off as fellows.

Siouxsie Wiles and the Auckland physicist Shaun Hendy posted a counter-letter, eventually signed by over 2000 fellow academics and others, declaring (among other things) that the original letter ignored “the fact that colonisation, racism, misogyny, and eugenics have each been championed by scientists.” Wiles also published a piece in New Zealand’s most-viewed news website, Stuff, which accused the professors of “intimidating junior colleagues with lawyer’s letters.”

Slowly, though, the tide began to turn.

Wiles was forced to withdraw her allegation after the national Media Council found it to be “completely inaccurate.”

Prominent members of the international scientific community like Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins helped raise awareness of the episode, with Dawkins writing an open letter to the Royal Society complaining about its “frankly appalling failure … to stand up for science.”

After a flood of complaints, the Royal Society dropped its investigation into those of its fellows who had co-signed the letter. Meanwhile on Wikipedia, User:stuartyeates, a long-time Wellington-based editor, was handed a ban after he was found to have created almost entirely negative entries for a number of the Auckland professors.

And the saga was not over yet.

In March of this year, two of the original signatories to the letter, philosopher Robert Nola and medical scientist Garth Cooper, resigned from the Royal Society in protest at their treatment by the organisation. (Cooper, perhaps New Zealand’s most distinguished Māori scientist, later explained that he had resigned because of ‘prolonged, conflicted, and defamatory’ actions on the part of the management of the Royal Society.)

In April, 70 of the Royal Society’s own fellows published an open letter describing the organisation’s response to the Listener letter as ‘ill-conceived, hasty and inaccurate in large part’. They demanded an apology and a thorough review of the Royal Society and its procedures. In May, the Royal Society issued a statement in which it expressed regret that ‘a combination of multiple factors and actions led to an environment that was unhelpful to considered and respectful discussion,’ but stopped short of an apology or a commitment to an internal review.

Where does the Royal Society go from here?

Privately, many fellows chafe at their lack of influence in the organisation, especially compared to powerful executives, and despair at the direction it has taken.

In May, fellows forced a vote of no-confidence against Shaun Hendy in his capacity as Convener of the society’s physical, earth and mathematical sciences (PEMS) domain. Although 29 scholars supported the motion and only 24 voted against it (with 50 fellows not replying or abstaining), Hendy is still in post. It remains to be seen how long this once-respected institution, which earns millions of dollars a year in government contracts and hands out tens of million more in contestable funding, can continue on its current course without serious reforms.

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