An emphasis on equity, diversity and inclusion has an impact (and raises questions) on Marsden Fund grants

Questions are raised on the AgScience blog about the allocation of grants from the Marsden Fund this year.

The fund is managed by Royal Society Te Apārangi on behalf of the government and presumably its decisions reflect government policy.

The allocation of $83.671 million (excluding GST) to 125 research projects across New Zealand was announced this week.

The society says the 2019 grants support excellent New Zealand research in the areas of science, engineering, maths, social sciences and the humanities

The AgScience post reports a dearth of grants for science in the agricultural and horticultural sector.

It also questions whether the money is being invested in the best projects or has been allocated on the basis of other considerations.

This question is raised by Royal Society chair Professor David Bilkey noting that Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Wood

“ … is a strong supporter of equity, diversity and inclusion in research and the Marsden Fund Council is right behind her on this.”

Accordingly, Bilkey proudly declares:

“Our figures show that there is equity in funding decisions. For example, success rates for applicants identifying as wāhine female or Māori are the same as those for applicants identifying as male or non-Māori.

“The Marsden Fund Council has also observed increasing engagement with mātauranga Māori across discipline areas.”

Bilkey mentioned  a project investigating kaitiakitanga over the Kāwhia, Manukau and Whangārei harbours, another that uses Māori oral history of seafaring and wayfinding to understand low-altitude clouds and their link to surface meteorological variables, and another revitalising whai Māori string figures, which he described as “the unique, complex mnemonic system that documents and transmits Māori knowledge and practice.”

The increasing engagement of scientists with Maori knowledge – including cultural and spiritual beliefs – was the subject of a heated controversy triggered by biologist and science columnist Bob Brockie last year.

He wrote a column for Stuff headed The Treaty has no place in scientific endeavour

Among his concerns:

  • Representatives of the humanities – under the name Te Whāinga Aronui o Te Apārangi –

” …  brought a lot of cultural and political baggage from the humanities with them. Some from the art world believe there are no such things as facts – just different opinions about facts, ambiguity is OK, everybody’s opinions are of equal value, whether of a quantum physicist or a Stone Age nobody, and that other people’s beliefs and opinions must never be questioned (thereby committing the sin of “decontextualisation” aka political incorrectness).”

Te Whāinga was pressing the Royal Society ” to place the Treaty of Waitangi centrally, and bring alongside that inequity and diversity issues in a holistic manner“.

  • Otago University requires Ngāi Tahu to be consulted about “all areas of research” before scholars undertake their work. All proposals must be submitted to the Office of Māori Development. Staff and students are warned that consultation may take time so are advised, “to start well in advance of preparing your proposal”.

Margreet Vissers, Research Professor, Associate Dean (Research), at the University of Otago, Christchurch, in response wrote a column headed In defence of science and our Treaty: a reply to Bob Brockie

Brockie’s column (she said) showed there is still work to be done to counter ignorance, arrogance and prejudice.

She rejected the notion that “Western Science” has all the answers.

She was not afraid that her academic research would be corrupted by considering the perspective of others and greatly valued the scholarship and deep knowledge base of the Arts and Humanities.

She also welcomed the process of Maori consultation as a supportive discussion between researchers and Maori advisers to consider the cultural implications of any proposed study.

She was proud of the progress made in recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi and happy for Otago University to continue to promote and advance the interests of Maori.

The extent to which modern-day interpretations of the Treaty are influencing policy on science and and Maori beliefs are being incorporated in research projects is reflected in some of the Marsden-funded projects highlighted by the Royal Society.

These highlights also point to who is getting the funding – some of it, at least – which agricultural and horticultural scientists are not getting.

• Understanding the 1918-19 influenza pandemic through children’s eyes

Dr Charlotte Bennett, University of Auckland, will gather children’s written eye-witness accounts of the 1918-19 flu epidemic to understand how they experienced and responded to widespread illness and loss. Encompassing children’s experiences from Aotearoa, Ireland and Canada, the project will enhance understandings of childhood across the former British empire

• Never, never ever feed them after midnight: does sleep loss in children lead to unhealthy eating?

Associate Professor Barbara Galland and Professor Rachael Taylor, from the University of Otago, will lead a team of researchers in a large scale study of sleep loss among children. Their aim is to uncover how this may lead to unhealthy eating.

• Is #MeToo part of a wider cultural shift?

Associate Professor Sue Jackson from Victoria University of Wellington will lead a team to examine how rangatahi young people in Aotearoa make sense of online discussions about sexual harassment and gender inequality.  Could #MeToo trigger a cultural shift around sexual harassment? Rangatahi are high users of social media. These platforms play a significant role in shaping their understandings and negotiation of gender and sexuality and may potentially shape their understandings of sexual harassment.

• Problems of having a sweet heart

Dr Kimberley Mellor of the University of Auckland will investigate the mysterious nature of glycogen in the heart, revealing its impact on hauora health and disease. (Hauora is a Māori philosophy of health which incorporates spiritual considerations).

• The Voices of our Harbours: Kāwhia, Manukau and Whangārei

Dr Marama Muru-Lanning and Dr Keri Mills from the University of Auckland are collaborating with flaxroots Māori to investigate kaitiakitanga over Aotearoa’s harbours. This Marsden Fund project will reveal, for the first time, the complex relationships that Māori have with local harbours and emphasise the work of Māori activists in the use of kaitiakitanga in law and policy

• Investigating the impact of religion on cooperation and inequality in Fiji

Dr John Shaver from the University of Otago will be investigating the effects religion has on power structures in Fiji.  The pervasiveness of religion implies it is useful, but who benefits, and how? The questions of how religion affects people and how it shapes social relationships are fundamental to the study of human societies.

• Whose science is privileged in the protection of our rivers?

Dr Marc Tadaki from the Coastal and Freshwater Group at the Cawthron Institute will investigate what kind of river science is privileged by environmental decision makers. The project will investigate how different types of environmental knowledges, specifically mātauranga Māori and western scientific knowledges, are valued in decision making. Dr Tadaki will examine how river science is valued in the courts, in regional planning, and in freshwater monitoring. By identifying which knowledges are dominant and which are marginal, Dr Tadaki will consider the consequences of these arrangements for ecosystems and communities.

It is worth noting that Tadaki refers not to “knowledge” but to “knowledges”.

One disappointed ag scientist has confided to Point of Order about what he will do when he escapes the world of the mundane – he will apply for Marsden Funding for topics like:

Does poor mothering lead to more crime?’ A study of ewes and lambs that take to the hills at mustering.

Absentee fathers and gender bias.’ Does the absence of rams in flocks lead to gender confusion in lambs?

Cultural barriers to blackface lamb success. Does breed reduce opportunity.

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