The government has changed the rules of its main research fund for tertiary institutions to tackle long-standing under-representation of Māori and Pacific researchers.
The $315-million-a-year Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF) will reward work by Māori researchers at 2.5 times the rate of non-Māori academics, while Pasifika academics' work will be funded at two times the non-Pasifika rate.
It will also give research into Māori knowledge a funding weighting of 3 - higher than the current rate of 2.5 which applies to the most expensive sciences.
University of Auckland sociology lecturer specialising in higher education, Dr Sereana Naepi, said the change had huge potential to redress the under-representation of Māori and Pasifika academics.
"What we're hoping for is that these changes will result in universities making the structural changes that are needed to ensure that they can address the inequities that are currently embedded in the system," she said.
"Māori and Pacific academics are under-represented, under-paid, under-promoted and all of those things can be addressed through structural change.
"I think in an ideal world, more money, but in reality that's going to be a long time coming so let's change how we measure excellence internally, let's change how we hire internally, let's change how we promote and all of those things can be considered in the next five years."
Universities New Zealand chief executive Chris Whelan said the fund had been successful because it focused solely on rewarding excellent research.
Using it to increase the number of Māori and Pasifika researchers was an admirable goal but would be better attempted through other means, he said.
"We absolutely agree, more high-quality Māori and Pasifika researchers doing more high-quality relevant matauranga Māori research and Pasifika research is important but it needs its own dedicated funding," he said.
Dr Naepi said the fund was set up to change universities' behaviour, and it was entirely in keeping with the fund's role to use it as means of encouraging institutions to value Māori and Pasifika academics more highly.
"They weight different sciences differently, they weight different career progressions differently so this is not new to the PBRF system to say this is what, as a sector, we value and what we'd like to see more of where we're under-performing," she said.
Naepi said universities were likely to take the changes to the PBRF seriously.
"When you look at our university budgets and how much of their budgets come from PBRF, this is a significant driver for change," she said.
"We know that universities respond to PBRF changes."
Whelan said universities were committed to growing the number of Māori and Pasifika researchers and the quality of research.
"We would probably rather that there was a more dedicated fund devoted to that than trying to dilute the Performance Based Research Fund.
"There's always a risk that you end up with a system that ends up being gamed," he said.
"The moment you start trying to drive particular areas you do start creating distortions in that system."
Whelan said the same criticism applied to the government's decision to encourage universities to seek more foreign funding for research by increasing the weighting for that aspect of the PBRF.
Association of Scientists president Troy Baisden said the measures aimed at supporting diversity were welcome, but it was not clear if they would be successful.
"There's little evidence a similar mechanism to support early-career researchers created benefits in the previous rounds of PBRF."
Baisden said academics were talking about ways of encouraging more Māori and Pasifika people to pursue university careers.
"It is not comfortable in many traditional departments to be a Māori academic or to be a Pasifika academic," he said.
A Cabinet paper included modelling of the changes which showed some universities would gain money from the changes, but most would lose if the weightings were changed without any increases to the amount of money distributed by the fund.
University of Waikato would see its allocation increase by $1.14 million or 13 percent, while University of Otago would lose $1.9 million or 5 percent of its share of the fund. Both Massey and Canterbury universities would each lose more than $500,000.
The modelling indicated the two wananga that participated in the fund would enjoy huge percentage increases, though the sums of money involved were modest.
Te Wananga o Aotearoa's funding would rise from $174,149 to just over $1 million, while Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi would go from $160,473 to $495,928.
Another Cabinet paper said 4.8 percent of academics who participated in the most recent PBRF quality evaluation were Māori and 1.4 percent were Pasifika. Both figures were well below the percentage of the general population that is Māori (16.4 percent) or Pasifika (8 percent).