March 2020 President's Update

16 Mar 2020 06:00 | Anonymous member (Administrator)

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

Troy Baisden

NZAS President

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