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The place of the Treaty of Waitangi in health science (and other) research

26 Mar 2018 10:10 PM | William Levack (Administrator)

Today, I responded to an article in Stuff that was critical of the concept of cultural consultation in research.  The article, which you can read here, stated that the Treaty of Waitangi has 'no place in scientific endeavour'.  The article was also critical of the University of Otago's requirement for all researchers to incorporate consultation with Ngāi Tahu when planning and implementing research activities.  (In fact, researchers at the University of Otago will also consult with local iwi in any region where they conduct research, not just Ngāi Tahu). The author, Bob Brockie, stated that: "I am astonished that a Māori iwi has the audacity to impose these heavy-arm rules on scientists, and more astonished that Otago University has acquiesced in these proscriptive, inquisitorial demands. The only researchers to speak out about these issues seem to be retirees. Young researchers dare not question these moves for fear of being labelled racist and putting their careers at stake."

It's not fear, Bob; it's education.  So, in response to this article, I wrote a four-line comment, in Stuff, as follows: "Science is knowledge. Knowledge is power. Power is political. If you think science is not political you are naive. OR you are in power and it suits you to maintain this myth. Retired researchers who complain about positive social change lack education in contemporary perspectives on colonialism. Younger researchers don't want to perpetuate the oppression and arrogance of the older generation."

There were a number of misinformed and misleading responses to this article in general, but in response to my comment, I received the following from Richard Treadgold: "Your comments raise more questions than they answer. What has changed about scientific principles that requires input from Maoris? What scientific heritage justifies an invitation to Maoris to join the discussion? Why are Maoris invited above the Dutch, Korean, Chinese, Irish or any other of our national groups? Why do you call this racist invitation to Maoris based solely on their claimed race as "positive social change" and how can it improve science? Why are younger researchers concerned with the older generation (their elders) more than with the science they study? Why are scientific qualifications insufficient to judge the worthiness of research projects?"

It is impossible to answer all these questions, even superficially, in the 200 word limit of a Stuff.co.nz comments box.  And so, here is my 1000+ word response, which I will send a link to via Stuff:

What has changed about scientific principles that requires input from Māori?

Nothing has changed about the physical laws that govern the universe. Of course!  But science doesn’t occur in a social vacuum.  Nothing is stopping you from building your own fusion engine in your basement, using your own money.  But if you are using society’s money to undertake this research (as Universities do) then it is reasonable for that society to set some processes and policies about how that money is spent.  Our last National government for instance introduced the ‘National Science Challenges’ and tied this to research funding, which is an example of an explicit political effort to change the direction of research in the country from ‘researcher-led’ to ‘mission-led’ research.  Governments have always influenced the direction of research by saying what they choose or do not choose to fund: HRC and MBIE both do this. This is not new.

Here, in New Zealand, we have this founding document called the Treaty of Waitangi, which establishes a partnership between two groups of peoples: the indigenous population and a colonial group.  The Treaty of Waitangi remains an important legal, social and political contract, despite there being extended periods of history when the colonial group (incidentally, my ancestors – albeit very indirectly) did not honour it.  It is outside the scope of this blog to provide an in-depth discussion of the Treaty or its implications.  Suffice to say that when dishing out research funding it is reasonable to have robust process to consider the conduct of that research from the perspective of the Treaty: partnership, participation, and protection.  This consultation is not about how to do your statistical calculations, how to run to your DNA sequencer, or how to analyse your histology slides.  Instead, this consultation is about asking who benefits from the research, how it will be used, by who, and to what end effect.  This is the bit of science that has changed – not the nuts and bolt of ‘doing science’, but the social accountability of the actions and activities of scientists.

What scientific heritage justifies an invitation to Māori to join the discussion?

This question implies that you, Richard Treadgold, believe that you have gained your ‘right’ to engage in science on the basis of what science your ancestors conducted – and perhaps not your direct ancestors even, but people with similar skin colour to you, who were very, very vaguely related to some of your ancestors.  This is sounding a teeeeeny bit racist.  What social heritage justifies an invitation to Māori to join discussion of the use and application of science in New Zealand?  Easy. The Treaty of Waitangi, which established the governance of New Zealand as a partnership between two peoples: see above.

Why are Māori invited above the Dutch, Korean, Chinese, Irish or any other of our national groups?

One: The Treaty of Waitangi.  See above. Two: In my area of research, which is in the health sciences, Māori have MUCH worse health outcome than non-Māori.  Lower life expectancy.  Higher hospitalisation rates.  Higher levels of morbidity for pretty much any major health condition. Healthcare is about so much more than popping pills and doing surgery: it is about health systems, health literacy, community engagement, interpersonal relationships and so on.  It is perfectly reasonable for Māori to expect to be involved in discussions about health science research intended to improve Māori lives. 

Why do you call this racist invitation to Māori based solely on their claimed race as ‘positive social change’?

One: It’s not racist, it’s moral thing to do.  Two: In my area of research at least (health care), it produces better research, with more meaningful, translatable results for a group who is less well served, in terms of health outcomes, by New Zealand society. Three: It’s a positive social change because it is about confronting and addressing 170+ years of injustice.  I look at race issues in the US and see a dominant colonial group who are too afraid, too arrogant, or perhaps too naïve to openly acknowledge and address the consequences of slavery in their nation.  I strongly suspect this has significantly contributed to the failure in the US to address race-based conflict.  They suffer as a nation as a result.  The situation for the indigenous population in the US is even worse!  I am proud of the Treaty we (non-Māori New Zealanders) have with our indigenous population in New Zealand, and when I look to countries like Australia and the US, I am proud of the efforts (however incomplete) being made to confront and rectify problems with it.  New Zealander benefits enormously from Māori people and Māori culture.  Let's not shit on them.

How can it improve science?

In my area of science – health science – consultation with Māori can and has helped people live longer, healthier lives.  It helps by ensuring that interventions designed by non-Māori people can be implemented in the real world of Māori communities.  It helps by ensuring that research findings relevant to Māori lives are disseminated to Māori communities.  It helps by empowering Māori to lead their own research.  It helps through the development of new methodologies to conduct better, more impactful research.  How much more ‘improvement’ do you want??

Why are younger researchers concerned with the older generation (their elders) more than with the science they study?

Younger researchers are not concerned with the older generation more than with the science they study.  This question can’t be answered because it contains false assumptions, so doesn’t make any sense to begin with.

Why are scientific qualification insufficient to judge the worthiness of research projects?

The ‘worth’ of a research project can be judged on the basis of: a) the quality of the science, b) its ethical implications, c) the potential cost-benefit of its possible outcomes, d) the meaningfulness of the research question being asked.  Ethics committees and research funders consider all these things when judging the 'worth' of a research proposal.  It is a REALLY bad idea to judge the worth of a research project just on the basis of whether or not the scientist has a qualification.  Do I really need to give example of where this went horrendously wrong in history?

In summary, the practice of science changes over time because society changes.  Science should not be above the laws and mores of a society.  New Zealand society is structured, in part, around the Treaty of Waitangi.  This Treaty established a formal agreement between two groups of people to work in partnership, and to protect the indigenous population, and agreements ought to be honoured.  Besides, even if we did not have a Treaty, New Zealand (and New Zealand research) is enriched, not diminished, by engagement with our indigenous communities.

William Levack is an Associate Professor of Rehabilitation at the Rehabilitation Teaching & Research Unit, University of Otago, Wellington, New Zealand. Twitter: @DrLevack

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