Professors warn of constitutional change by stealth and of the dangers of protecting Maori knowledge against refutation

A radical makeover of the research and science sector is outlined in Te Ara Paerangi Future Pathways Green Paper, which was launched on October 28 by Dr Megan Woods as Minister of Research, Science and Innovation.  Submissions on the discussion paper closed on March 16.

At the launch of the discussion paper, the government did not disguise its intention to embed the Treaty of Waitangi in the design and delivery of science and research in this country and to provide more opportunities for “mātauranga Māori”.

What does this portend?  Graham Adams warns that the inevitable conclusion of the changes proposed in the discussion paper – especially if it is read alongside Te Pūtahitanga: A Tiriti–led Science-Policy Approach for Aotearoa New Zealand (HERE) – is co-governance with iwi of universities and Crown Research Institutes.

In other words, constitutional change by stealth.

Submissions are not publicly available.  Perhaps they never will be.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment – which is administering the overhaul of the science and research sector – said it is analysing the feedback to the discussion paper and expects to publish a summary of submissions in mid-2022 on the MBIE website.

This is much the same as the process for considering submissions on the controversial new history curriculum. The ministry had “expert advisers” sifting the submissions, then providing a “summary”.

Two eminent academics who have expressed concerns about the proposals for restructuring the science and research sector are Professor Elizabeth Rata, from Auckland University’s School of Critical Studies in Education, and Distinguished Professor Brian Boyd, Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi and winner of its Rutherford Medal in 2020.

Professor Rata was one of the seven signatories to the controversial Listener letter headed “In defence of science”,  which criticised plans to include mātauranga Māori in the school science curriculum and to give it equal standing with “Western/Pakeha epistemologies” (which means subjects such as physics, biology and chemistry).

Professor Boyd has strongly defended science through his own letters to the Listener.

In their submission on the Green Paper, the professors wrote:

“Either New Zealand strengthens its commitment to science’s universalism or it continues down the destructive path of cultural ideology. The Green Paper’s reference to creating a ‘modern research system that is Tiriti led’ is nonsensical. Research which includes the controls that characterise traditional knowledge cannot be modern.”

Here is their submission:



The broad term ‘science’  refers to the knowledge created by scientific methods and procedures . Nations which allow ideologies to shape scientific research soon lose standing in the international science community. This will happen to New Zealand if the Green Paper’s “tiriti-led system” is implemented.

Scientific research may well inform policies in ways which do accommodate cultural values and practices. This is evidence-based policy. But policy follows research; it does not precede it. Science can inform policy but policy informing science leads to misinformation and the loss of scientific integrity. This would be equivalent to making science ‘Christian-led’ (or, if we were in another country, ‘Taliban-led’ or ‘Hindutva-led’ or ‘Xi Ping thought-led’). It will not further science in New Zealand but will reduce this country’s attractiveness to international students and research collaborations.


Enabling mātauranga Māori

The Green Paper assumes that mātauranga Māori should be ‘enabled’ in research institutions. It fails to recognise that science and traditional knowledge are fundamentally different in terms of their constitution, methods, procedures, value to society, and policy requirements.

Science provides naturalistic explanations for physical and social phenomena. It proceeds by conjecture and refutation. It requires doubt, challenge and critique, forever truth-seeking but with truth never fully settled.

Traditional knowledge, including mātauranga Māori, employs supernatural explanations such as ‘mauri’ and other vitalist concepts, for natural and social phenomena. It also includes practical knowledge (proto-science or pre-scientific), acquired from observation, experience, and trial and error. Such traditional knowledge provides ways for humans to live in the environment . Examples are ocean navigation by the stars and currents, efficacious medicines from plants, and social structures organised according to kinship relations and birth status.


The Green Paper’s reference to protect(ing) mātauranga Māori” (p. 5) is alarming. A fundamental principle of science is that no knowledge is protected. It develops from the systematic criticism and refutation of its own ideas .  Knowledge that requires protection is belief, not science.

Science produces knowledge which may support or reject cultural knowledge. This means that the relationship between the two is necessarily one of tension. Mātauranga Māori’s inclusion in science is a  rejection of this necessary relationship; indeed it goes further by placing research under cultural authority and interests. Knowledge authorised by culture is ideology, not science.


New Zealand universities  already undermine the conditions required for scientific research by requiring adherence to treaty principles, a practice which goes much further than intended by the term ‘acknowledgement’ used in the 1990 Education Act . The Green Paper’s “tiriti-led system” proposes to take that adherence much further in ways that will give ideology authority over science, imposing direction and constraints so that New Zealand research cannot meet international standards.

The intellectual freedom required for science is incompatible with a “tiriti-led system”.  Such a system will need to remove New Zealand’s current legislative requirements that academic staff and students have the freedom “within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas, and to state controversial or unpopular opinions” and that the university’s “principal aim is to develop intellectual independence”. These aims are to be achieved by “people who are active in advancing knowledge, who meet international standards of research and teaching, who are a repository of knowledge and expertise and who accept a role as critic and conscience of society”.

Either New Zealand strengthens its commitment to science’s universalism or it continues down the destructive path of cultural ideology. The Green Paper’s reference to creating a “modern research system that is Tiriti led” is nonsensical. Research which includes the controls that characterise traditional knowledge cannot be modern.

Tinkering with the Green Paper will not improve matters given that its numerous faults arise from the very assumption upon which the Paper is built. This is the incorrect belief that a treaty-justified co-governance system is already in New Zealand’s constitution. A new constitution of Iwi-New Zealand Government co-governance has not been placed before  the public and has not been agreed to.

The Green Paper must be soundly criticised for being complicit in ideological interests which use policy to make constitutional reform by stealth rather than by Parliament.

4 thoughts on “Professors warn of constitutional change by stealth and of the dangers of protecting Maori knowledge against refutation

  1. I’m not a scientist but it is absolutely obvious to me that for this country to remain as part of the world scientific community there can be no controls to restrict thought or process to some idealogical mumbo-jumbo. We will become a laughing stock.
    In my opinion any person in academia who seriously proposes such nonsense should be removed from the scientific establishment . Perhaps they could take up witchcraft, or circus acts, or be road works stop/go workers.


  2. Nobody has given any actual examples of these valuable contributions from Mātauranga Māori to the sum of human knowledge. The closest (and the one I hear most often) is celestial navigation, which is hardly new knowledge or unique to Maori. If there really is Maori knowledge that is unique and valuable and can withstand scientific examination then let’s put it in a text book and teach it. If not then this is all just make-believe.


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