16 March 2020: In this issue >Take our one-minute survey |COVID-19 | March 15 | Massey Albany | 'Expertise' | Pay Gap
Kia ora koutou katoa
IIn the run-up to Christmas I provided a first President’s update, and promised more. Although delayed beyond my original plans, this update is well-timed to address two big issues.
First, I’d like to acknowledge the role science and scientists are playing in responses to the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. I’ll point specifically to Siouxsie Wiles, who has been working tirelessly and more visibly than ever. I also must thank many others, including some working without visibility, who have made both the government’s and media response something that I believe we will be able to look back and be deeply proud of. Responding to the volatile situation, I’m particularly impressed that our Prime Minister is communicating simply and compassionately using information that feels as well grounded in the facts and maths of infectious disease spread as we could ever hope from politicians.
As a result of the coronavirus situation, we are now left to commemorate the anniversary of the March 15 attacks in Christchurch in our own ways. From the perspective of NZAS, I would like to draw attention again to our open letter, authored by Kate Hannah and Craig Steven on behalf of our Council, expressing support for our Muslim colleagues affected by the attacks.
Via the letter, we committed to embracing those, specifically including our Muslim colleagues, who have travelled across distance and cultures, to pursue their aspirations and careers in Aotearoa New Zealand. And we further resolved to act on the relevant parts of our statement of purpose, including speaking truth and exposing lies, such as those promoted by the ‘Alt-Right.’ This and other actions are a critical component of ensuring ethnic equality as part of our commitment to improving working conditions for scientists.
A year on, we may struggle to identify individual actions of support led by NZAS, rather than by our members and supporters through their institutions. Nevertheless, I believe that our Muslim colleagues have felt meaningfully supported by our nation's science community. This anniversary provides us the reminder to remain steadfast in our efforts, ensuring that we will not allow the commitments in the open letter to wane.
I will now summarise a list of additional issues which have caused one past president to comment that it suddenly feels like science is on a bonfire. The most incendiary of these has been the proposed removal of well-established areas of science, and other disciplines, from Massey University’s Albany campus. This is a shock on a campus that was built on bringing a nationally prominent level of science excellence to the fast-growing location.
The proposal to gut the stability of top-flight research teams on the basis of what appear to be poorly considered teaching proposals is already undermining Massey’s national and international standing. We helped raise awareness, describing initial alarm about the lack of consultative understanding of the interplay of research and teaching, and failure to use conventional means such academic boards for assessment. Auckland University Physics Professors, Shaun Hendy and Richard Easther deserve kudos for their outspoken criticism of the proposals and efforts to point to the value of their Massey colleagues. While perceiving that university leaders have turned a tight budget into a risky crisis, my main message has been to support the voice of the scientists at Massey, and their colleagues in other disciplines.
With consultation ending in less than a week, I’m disappointed that senior leaders at Massey have remained silent in response to vocal and heartfelt concerns. Submissions directly to Massey therefore appear justified, particularly those representing stakeholder views. Providing some hope, NZAS contributed with many other submitters to moderating a proposal for deep and damaging cuts to the University of Otago’s Marine Science programme. Suggestions for NZAS actions specific to the Massey Albany situation are welcome.
Dancing across the bonfire, another matter of considerable concern is the University of Auckland’s policy proposal to prevent academics from communicating publicly outside their area of ‘expertise’, reopening a wound that had healed following careful discussion and removal of similar proposed wording from what is now the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Code of Conduct. Such wording can be weaponised, potentially behind closed doors, to criticise and silence the limited pool of researchers who are knowledgeable and without conflicts of interest on a topic. Policies worded in this way can also frustrate the efforts of scientists working across disciplines, reaching into new territory, or describing the application of their research in policy or business.
I also think it is worth drawing attention back to the big science news story in January: University of Canterbury research quantifying and drawing attention to the gender pay gap in academia. Now we know these figures confirm a mountain of more circumstantial evidence, and represent a liability on the books of our institutions. The results also suggest a likely need to understand pay and stability gaps related to wider measures of diversity, along with concrete actions toward fixing the problems.
In more positive news, I’d like to provide a reminder to check out our popular special issue of the New Zealand Science Review on Mātauranga and Science, before you are faced with a second fabulous issue on the same topic. I’m also pleased to report that we’re engaging on a number of fronts outlined previously, and I’ll report more soon. To help us prioritise our limited resources, mostly the time of our Council, please have a go at a one-minute survey. There’s also a long-form comment box at the end, or you can reach me by email.
Kia kaha scientists
In this issue: Take our one-minute survey
Kia ora koutou
As president, I’d like to begin providing timely monthly updates to our members and community. In the past, these updates have come as the President’s column in the New Zealand Science Review (NZSR). In this case, I’ll close by taking the rare opportunity comment on the decade just passed, and the decade ahead.
For the present, our big news is the online release of the first of two Special Issues on Mātauranga and Science, with hard copies going out in the post. We thank Ocean Mercier and Anne-Marie Jackson for leading this effort, and Juliet Gerrard and Tahu Kukutai for promoting it through the PMCSA's channels. Generous sponsorship from Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, Te Kawa a Māui, and National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, and NZAS has made these issues possible. This includes wider distribution, and open access.
Please enjoy the special issue and distribute the link, encouraging others to read NZSR’s contribution to developing the potential of mātauranga and science to work together and in unison. The NZSR issue caps a bumper crop of special issues of New Zealand science journals focussed on mātauranga, kicked off by the New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, and more recently the New Zealand Journal of Ecology. Thus, the decade ends with a rich picture of how the process of using knowledge about the world around us can be enriched with views from Te Ao Māori, diversifying the perspective of western science.
Looking across the wider world of science, we congratulate the University of Otago for engaging with its Marine Science community, and finding an improved restructuring plan for what many submitters, including NZAS, felt were sudden and confusing cuts to a department critical for addressing global change issues.
Many submitters and supporters have been thanked for leaping forward to support this department, and the university deserves credit for being open to feedback, and listening usefully. We thank our former President, Craig Stevens, for leading NZAS’s efforts. It is worth pointing out that in the case of restructuring and redundancies, we know how to positively influence proposals, and can be effective in doing so.
The NZAS also raised concern about another area, bullying, where it is much less clear how to engage usefully. When the scope of concerns raised about a New Zealander who has been the high-profile Director the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide came to light in the media, we issued a press release commending the University of Adelaide for taking action, and outlining why bullying can have such negative consequences, particularly in fields Australasia has only a limited number of laboratories.
The University of Adelaide has recently announced that the case has resulted in dismissal. That might seem to bring the matter to a conclusion, but as Nature’s news item points out, serious questions remain about why this narrative played out in the shadows since 2005, in ways that led to catastrophic rather than constructive outcomes, and what happens now.
I remain concerned bullying and associated negative consequences remain hidden in plain sight. This appears to be reinforced by a separate recent revelation that bullying accusations played some role in the surprise dismissal of AgResearch’s CEO earlier this year. Looking in parallel at the cathartic worldwide flash of painful progress on sexual harassment can serve to remind us how far we have to go making progress on bullying, to make it less painful for all involved, but especially whistleblowers. In most cases, striving to make science a better place to work through the Kindness in Science movement may be the best way forward.
Looking back across the decade, and at the isolated yet familiar issues of highlighted above, it makes sense to ask if science faces a problem of either simple underfunding, or of funding not matching our ideals for what science should achieve. Either way, we have heard long-term hype of increased science funding that seems half-true at best, leaving us with the feeling we are often forced to do too much with too little, frequently lack the stability and resources compared to our international peers, no matter whether we think of museums and collections, global change science, technological innovation, or other endeavours. The challenges we face are especially concerning when they have negative impacts on early career researchers and diversity.
As the decade ends, I’ll skip putting more details to this usual refrain, and highlight the idea of the ‘social contract’ between science and society. Prominent scientist Jane Lubchenco has refreshed a call for the renewal of this contract in which society invests more, and science engages more to deliver on environmental and social issues. Lubchenco’s proposal is even more relevant to New Zealand than the largely American audience she addresses, because our current government clearly has the political will for long-term delivery on social and environmental wellbeing.
Over the holidays, I’ll be thinking more about these challenges and ways forward. It is clear that our council or committees could use more talent and energy to advance our goals, particularly for furthering the goals of early career and Māori researchers. While you take a break over the holidays, please keep these ideas in mind. Get in touch, let me know your thoughts, or perhaps where you can help.
Meri Kirihimete me te kia pai te tau hou tauiwi
Merry Christmas and all the best for the new year
President – NZAS
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