July 2021 there was a review of the senior school curriculum. Seven University professors known as the ‘Listener Seven’ published a letter in the Listener Magazine titled ‘In Defence of Science’, this caused quite a lot of negative criticism as it claimed that ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ (Matauranga Maori) falls far short of what is defined as Science. February 2020 the NZ Cabinet proposed changes to NS Senior School curriculum, this being describe as ‘Maori Pathways’. Seven University Professors including Elizabeth Rata penned a letter that was published in the 31st July issue of the NZ Listener publication that expressed disagreement with two reports assertions. That science has been used to support the domination of Euro-centric views including colonialism and the suppression of Maori knowledge, and that the notion science is a Western European invention and that in itself evidence of domination over Maori and Indigenous People.

The response to this was argued “that science was universal to humanity with origins in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece and India. Saying that science is not a tool of colonialism. They alleged that placing indigenous knowledge on the same level of science would patronise and fail indigenous populations. Instead, they proposed ensuring that everyone had the opportunity to participate in the world’s scientific enterprises. However the University was not happy with this saying that the view Matauranga Maori must be protected and only be transmitted by Maori as to the principles of Universities and the Royal Society. A Massey University Chemistry Professor criticized the Royal Society as being shameful in its investigations referring to the Listener Magazine articles, and urged there be open debate and discussion  on the subject of Matauranga Maori and Science.

NZ Free Speech Union spokesman Jonathan Ayling argued that the pursuit of science depends on free speech and accused the Royal Society of “abandoning its own heritage and tradition of academic freedom”. On 11 March 2022, the Royal Society published the decision of its Initial Investigation Panel, which concluded that the “complaints should not proceed to a Complaints Determination Committee” on the basis of clause 6.4(i) of the Complaints Procedures: “the complaint is not amenable to resolution by a Complaint Determination Committee, including by reason of its demanding the open-ended evaluation of contentious expert opinion or of contested scientific evidence amongst researchers and scholars”. The Auckland University Vice Chancellor Dawn Freshwater when referring to calling Matauranga Maori not akin to science said ” this caused considerable hurt and dismay among staff, students and alumni” and that the institution has respect for Matauranga Maori as a valuable knowledge system, that it is not at odds with western empirical science and does not need to compete”. The Tertiary Education Union (TEU) that represents academics eg professors, released a statement saying they ‘neglected to engage with or mention the many highly accomplished scholars and scientists in Aotearoa who have sought to reconcile notions of science, mātauranga Māori, and Māori in science.’

The Royal Society Te Apārangi released a statement saying “The Society strongly upholds the value of mātauranga Māori and rejects the narrow and outmoded definition of science outlined. The NZ Association of Scientists eleased a statement saying “we were dismayed to see a number of prominent academics publicly questioning the value of mātauranga to science”. Tara McAllister said “Māori were the first scientists in Aotearoa.’ Tina Ngata said “this is a true testament as to how racism is harbored and fostered within NZ Academia”. In July 2021 the Auckland University Professors Shaun Hendy and Associate Prof., Siouxsie Wiles penned an open letter expressing disagreement as to the views expressed by the ‘Listener Seven’ which included Elizabeth Rata and six other professional experts. They argued that indigenous knowledge is compatibly with western understandings of the scientific method, that Matauranga Maori is unique, complements western knowledge systems. They also added that ” the diminishing role of indigenous knowledge in science was “simply another tool for exclusion and exploitation”. and its an ongoing role in perpetuating scientific racism that justify s colonization, that this is feeling mistrust of science”

National Party MP Paul Goldsmith stated “We should learn about Maori understandings of the world, but not at the expense of our expertise in what the rest of the world call science.” Auckland University of Technology of Environmental Science professor Lindsay White and University of Auckland Professor Brian Boyd published a joint letter on the website ‘Newsroom’ defending the co-authors of the Listener letter from accusations of racism and urging universities and the Royal Society to uphold academic freedom and scientific inquiry. In December 2021 University of Auckland Vice Chancellor Dawn Freshwater announced there woulkd  be a symposium held early in 2022 to discuss, debate the relationship between Matauranga Maoori and Science, where viewpoints could be heard and discussed as a commitment to academic freedom of speech, however in March 2022 a spokesperson for the University confirmed that the symposium had been delayed.

At the end of March 2022 73 Royal Society fellows signed a motion of ‘no confidence’ in the Society over its treatment of the Listener Seven which included Elizabeth Rata.

Finally, the issue of addition of Mātauranga Māori to the science curriculum in New Zealand, and a more general exploration of the issue of intrusion of ideology into scientific institutions, was discussed in a paper by Abbot et al. entitled “In Defense of Merit in Science”, published in April 2023 in the Journal of Controversial Ideas

RESEARCHER: Cassie (Carol Sakey)

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