Why James Renwick should stop worrying about who doesn’t want to be a scientist

Fascinating, isn’t it, what worries people.

A bloke called James Renwick, is worried that two few Maori are becoming scientists.

Alf is less bothered. If only a few Maori want to be scientists – so what?

The issue has been triggered by a survey by the New Zealand Association of Scientists that found Maori comprise only 1.7% of the science workforce

Waatea News reports the number is double the figure of 15 years ago.

Association president James Renwick says it’s worrying that Maori are not attracted to working in the area and further study is needed into why more Maori are not entering the sciences.

But before we bust ourselves trying to recruit more Maori into science, let’s make sure we don’t recruit those who challenge and impede scientific inquiry.

And if some Maori – like any people – are content to stick to their myths rather than challenge them, so be it. Science is not for everybody (more’s the pity).

The previous government, readers might recall, set up “centres of research excellence” in the 2001 Budget. These would “push the frontiers of knowledge in key areas vital for New Zealand’s future.”

One of the centres was set up to promote Maori development. But one of its team, a bloke brandishing a doctorate and all, became decidedly hostile to pushing the frontiers of knowledge when scientists tried to step around the mythology behind the origins of Maori.

The Genographic Project, a venture promoted by the American National Geographic, involves scientists from all over the world in a plan to take DNA samples from 100,000 indigenous volunteers and explain how their ancestors moved out of Africa up to 60,000 years ago and spread around the world.

But Dr Paul Reynolds was reported in the NZ Herald to have objected on the grounds that this was “race-based research” and “can be manipulated and used for political benefit.”

He (and many other Maori apparently) had problems with “scientific imperalism” and feared the DNA project would undermine traditional beliefs about New Zealand’s original settlement by Pacific seafarers.

“Indigenous people aren’t stupid,” says Paul Reynolds, a postdoctoral fellow at the Auckland University-based National Centre of Research Excellence for Maori Development, Nga Pae o te Maramatanga.

He proceeded to make himself an inglorious exception to that rule with what he said next –

“We’ve been here before. We’ve had centuries of exploitation by non-indigenous people. This is highly political. It’s race-based research, and therefore it can be manipulated and used for political benefit.

“This could link straight into what Don Brash wants to hear, that everybody comes from the same place, that we are all common and have common ancestors.”

Reynolds wasn’t alone in opposing the American National Geographic quest for knowledge.

Indigenous people already have their own answers, according to a Tongan educator Dr Linita Manu’atu, a senior lecturer at Auckland University of Technology.

“Stop dominating us. If they flip over to this side of the world, [they will see] we have our own ways of understanding the world. We can do our research in our own ways, and contribute that knowledge to the world,” Manu’atu says.

“For Tongans, we were created in Tonga. We have gods, our own gods, which we created the same as the people of Israel. We have our own stories, but we are being told they’re not good enough.”

Oh, and let’s not forget what happened to Canterbury University head of zoology Frank Sin when he tried to secure government funding (in Helen Clark’s time as PM) for research into paua growth.

A bunch of Maori vetoed it.

Here’s how it was reported at the time –

Demands on scientists to have Maori support or approval for research is strangling science, researchers say.

Canterbury University head of zoology Frank Sin has been knocked back on his bid for Government funding for research into paua growth because it did not have strong enough Maori connections, only months after he was knocked back on genetic research into paua and lobster because Ngai Tahu did not approve it.

“We have to get support from Maori before we can do the most basic research,” he complained. “I know the Government has to be seen to be conscious about the Treaty of Waitangi, which is fair enough, but the way things are done is too extreme.

So to get back to James Renwick’s worries, yes, it would be great to have more scientists. But their race, colour, culture, or whatever should not matter.

What should matter is their readiness to be curious and to take an eager part in – rather than impede – the research that advances science, knowledge and our progress beyond the Dark Ages.

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