A debate over the role of Western science in colonisation has spiralled into a disciplinary process within an academic organisation, leading to claims of a chilling effect on academic freedoms

Two authors of a controversial letter on the scientific status of Māori knowledge may be expelled from a prestigious academic society, following several complaints.

News of the disciplinary process within Royal Society Te Apārangi has led some of the winners of its most significant award to threaten their own resignations over what they see as an impingement on academic freedoms.

A July letter in The Listener, signed by seven professors from the University of Auckland, raised concerns about an NCEA working group’s proposal to give mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) parity with other forms of Western knowledge.

The open letter said the working group’s description of one potential course, as promoting “discussion and analysis of the ways in which science has been used to support the dominance of Eurocentric views (among which, its use as a rationale for colonisation of Māori and the suppression of Māori knowledge); and the notion that science is a Western European invention and itself evidence of European dominance over Māori and other indigenous peoples”, perpetuated “disturbing misunderstandings of science emerging at all levels of education and in science funding”.

“Science itself does not colonise. It has been used to aid colonisation, as have literature and art. However, science also provides immense good, as well as greatly enhanced understanding of the world.”

While indigenous knowledge was “critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy … in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself”.

The letter sparked significant controversy in the wake of its publication.

The New Zealand Association of Scientists said it was “dismayed” by the letter, stating “science has an ongoing history of colonising when it speaks over Indigenous voices, ignores Indigenous knowledge, and privileges a limited, Western-dominated view of science”, while University of Auckland vice chancellor Dawn Freshwater told staff in an email the letter had “caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students and alumni”.

An open response signed by over 2000 academics said they “categorically disagree” with their colleagues’ views, which they said “ignores the fact that colonisation, racism, misogyny, and eugenics have each been championed by scientists wielding a self-declared monopoly on universal knowledge”.

“I don’t think science is a coloniser at all: all people are colonisers, and we’ve done plenty of colonising, and we may have used our science to help do that. But science itself, I can’t see how that is colonising – Newton’s laws of motion, colonising of the brain or the mind or whatever, it’s nonsense.”
– Prof Robert Nola

The Royal Society also issued a statement rejecting the authors’ views, which said it “strongly upholds the value of mātauranga Māori and rejects the narrow and outmoded definition of science”.

Now, the society is carrying out an investigation into whether two of the letter’s co-authors – biological scientist Garth Cooper and philosophy professor Robert Nola – should be expelled from its membership as a result of the remarks.

A third co-author and society fellow, University of Auckland psychology professor Michael Corballis, passed away last week.

Nola told Newsroom the society had informed him of five anonymous complaints made against him and Cooper, and it had established a three-person panel to investigate the matter.

However, the pair had successfully challenged the position of two of the panellists, who were among the signatories to the open response critiquing the Listener letter, while three of the five complainants had dropped out after the society required they be identified for the disciplinary process to move ahead.

Nola said the letter’s critics had mistakenly claimed that science was itself colonising, which could deter young New Zealanders from studying the subject.

“I don’t think science is a coloniser at all: all people are colonisers, and we’ve done plenty of colonising, and we may have used our science to help do that. But science itself, I can’t see how that is colonising – Newton’s laws of motion, colonising of the brain or the mind or whatever, it’s nonsense.”

While some sections of the letter could have been worded differently to avoid controversy, he said he stood by its contents.

Biological scientist Garth Cooper says teaching children that Western science is a colonising force could “disenfranchise” young Māori from pursuing a career in science. Photo: Supplied

Cooper, who is of Ngāti Māhanga descent, told Newsroom one of his concerns was that the proposed NCEA changes would “disenfranchise” young Māori from pursuing STEM subjects.

“By telling them that science is a colonising force, basically they’re going to take away from that a) it’s evil and b) they’re not going to be interested in it.”

Cooper said he had spent more than 30 years working in kaupapa Māori research, had helped develop the Health Research Council’s guidelines on research involving Māori, and believed the letters’ critics had “deliberately twisted what we said”.

“If the society doesn’t mend its ways, then I’m sure that I would not wish to remain a fellow because it is no longer behaving in a way that an organisation such as the Royal Society of New Zealand, as it was when I joined it, basically used to behave,” he said.

While a large number of academics have been critical of the Listener letter, several Royal Society fellows have expressed their support for the co-authors and threatened to resign if they are disciplined.

University of Auckland literature professor Brian Boyd, who received the society’s Rutherford Medal in 2020 for his “exceptional contributions to literary studies”, told Newsroom he was concerned with the “knee jerk reaction” of the society and others in initially condemning the letter’s authors and accusing them of racism.

“They should be open to debate and discussion, and it shows me that they are not – they are just buying into a certain ideology, which to my opinion really means that the Royal Society is failing badly a lot of members.”
– Peter Schwerdtfeger

Boyd said some proponents of mātauranga Māori seemed to hold the view that it should be both protected and transmitted only by Māori, which he believed was “contrary to the principles of universities’ open inquiry or the Royal Society’s”.

“There’s no question that mātauranga Māori, especially in terms of ecological knowledge and guardianship of the environment and so on, can have a lot to contribute to science, but it’s also seen, as other indigenous knowledges are, as being holistic – everything hangs together.

“And that means things like the Māori creation myth and … whakapapa are regarded as an intrinsic part of mātauranga Māori and their equivalent of science, and those things seem to me as problematic as introducing Christian creationism as an equivalent of science.”

Boyd said he and other society fellows were contemplating whether to resign in protest if Nola and Cooper were expelled.

Peter Schwerdtfeger, the director of Massey University’s Theoretical Chemistry and Physics Centre and the 2014 Rutherford medallist for “his world-leading contribution to fundamental aspects of chemical and physical phenomena in atoms, molecules and condensed matter”, told Newsroom the society’s investigation into Nola and Cooper was “shameful” and it had misinterpreted the point of the Listener letter.

“They should be open to debate and discussion, and it shows me that they are not – they are just buying into a certain ideology, which to my opinion really means that the Royal Society is failing badly a lot of members.”

Schwerdtfeger said he did not know of any scientists who did not deeply respect mātauranga Māori, but he did not believe it could be considered as parallel with science.

Free Speech Union: ‘Defend science at your peril’

Newsroom understands academic and lawyer David Williams, who wrote a report on mātauranga Māori and taonga commissioned by the Wai 262 claimants for the Waitangi Tribunal in 1997, has also expressed concerns with the Royal Society’s handling of the matter.

Williams declined to comment when approached by Newsroom, saying he wanted “to achieve some progress from working within the Society’s structures”.

A Royal Society spokeswoman told Newsroom the organisation was unable to comment until the disciplinary process had been completed, with no final date yet set down.

A spokeswoman for Science, Research and Innovation Minister Megan Woods also declined to comment, saying the disciplinary process was “an independent, operational matter and not for ministers to comment on, particularly when an investigation is underway”.

Several academics who had initially criticised the letter declined to comment on the Royal Society investigation when contacted by Newsroom, citing a desire to let the process play out.

The Free Speech Union said the investigation sent “a chilling message to other academics: defend science at your peril”.

“The process of the human pursuit of science depends on free speech, including of those who may hold views contrary to the mainstream. The Royal Society are [sic] abandoning its own heritage and tradition of academic freedom,” union spokesman Jonathan Ayling said.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

Leave a comment