4 Aug 2020

Lip-service to diversity blocking Pasifika science pathways

3:34 pm on 4 August 2020

Pasifika and Maori scientists continue to be "severely under-represented" in New Zealand universities and Crown Research Institutes, according to new research.

The study authors say the data shows universities and institutes were "failing to build a sustainable Māori and Pasifika scientific workforce".

Dr Sereana Naepi

Dr Sereana Naepi Photo: Supplied

One of the authors, the University of Auckland's Sereana Naepi, said "sadly nothing's changed" in the 11 years since similar research was conducted.

According to Dr Naepi this showed Pasifika science graduates, even at doctoral level, "are not finding jobs at Crown Research Institutes or universities after completing these qualifications" which went against their public commitment to diversity.

The lack of Pasifika and Māori in these fields, she continued, suggested three mechanisms were at play including diversity being used as window dressing.

"This idea that you get Māori and Pacific scientists to pose for the photo, perhaps get tagged on to a research project but not directly involved or we're on a temporary contract. So we're there when you need to look like you're doing diversity," she said.

"The other is this idea of desirable diversity."

She said this was about who got to determine when diversity was desirable.

"So, it's really nice to have Māori and Pacific scientists when we want to take a photo or when we want to talk about research grants. It's not so nice to have Māori and Pacific scientists when we say 'actually no, we want to be the lead on this research grant, we want permanent positions and the way that we are currently doing science in this lab is problematic for our communities.'"

The third was "non-performative diversity" where institutions said they were 'doing diversity' but they were not.

"They get to say that they're committed to diversity, they've got a diversity policy, they're doing their best. Yet they know they haven't had an increase in Māori and Pacific scientists for the last 11 years," she added.

Other research projects have shown that a more diverse group of researchers produce broader and more novel ideas, Dr Naepi continued.

"And that's simply because we have different ontological stand-points, so we understand the world differently.

"For instance, in Fijian culture, the idea of knowledge is a gift. And how you care for a gift or pass on a gift is really different to how Western society understands how knowledge is something to have or something to obtain," she said.

Dr Naepi noted that many indigenous communities in the Pacific and elsewhere essentially provided longitudinal studies in environmental observation, and pointed out how Pacific people observed changes to the climate quite some time ago.

People who lived on the ocean and lands in the region had been alerting others to change well before the science community.

"But because the research wasn't done in labs, it wasn't picked up," she added.

Scientists then came to indigenous communities and asked them to share their experience of climate change, she asserted. This knowledge was then appropriated, "they take that knowledge, they publish that knowledge and they claim that knowledge" she added.

"As opposed to ensuring that our communities have the capacity and capability to tell our own stories."

Dr Naepi noted that traditional knowledge among indigenous Pacific communities may hold answers to dealing with medical issues like antibiotic resistant bacteria.

"What do we know about plants in the Pacific that we've used traditionally to heal that may be useful in terms of advancing our understanding of antibiotic research?"

These opportunities for the scientific community will be missed according to Dr Naepi if indigenous Pacific communities continue to be excluded from research laboratories. Dr Naepi would like to see science academia take a broader view of what is valuable in science research.

"And start moving to this idea of an ecology of knowledge where we recognise that different and diverse bodies of knowledge have something to offer this world."

Dr Naepi added that the scientific community needs to develop meaningful relationships with indigenous Pacific communities to ensure that science research becomes a viable and desirable career option. She said the government's push to engage Pacific and Māori children in STEM subjects early is a positive start. Education research points to them being turned off the sciences early and she wants this to change.

"The science pipeline is fundamentally broken when we think about it. We haven't got our students being encouraged into STEM in primary, intermediate and secondary and as a result they're not coming in [to university] as under-grads."

Dr Naepi would like science to be seen as a viable career option.

"And encourage our communities to understand why we might want a Pacific astrophysicist, why we might want a Pacific antibiotic researcher."

Research and development of vaccine against coronavirus.