Is science in New Zealand too white and too male?

by Jenny Nicholls / 28 May, 2018
scientist illustration
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A cartoonist takes on big bananas.

Bob Brockie is unrepentant.

“In my March 26 column [on the Stuff website], I claimed there is no place for the Treaty of Waitangi in scientific endeavour. Since then, several big bananas have given me a telling off,” he wrote in a subsequent Stuff column.

“Well, I am unrepentant. The treaty is a political document and politics has no place in science...”

Most of us know Bob Brockie as a cartoonist, not as a retired DSIR scientist in his late 80s with a PhD in hedgehog ecology. The word “distinguished” is hardly over-egging the standing of a man who in 2013 became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to science and cartooning. 

Brockie is also a Companion of the Royal Society of New Zealand, a 150-year-old institution he has accused of being “white-anted” by “heavy-duty reps from the arts and humanities”.

The Royal Society is of compelling interest to every New Zealand researcher because it oversees the Marsden Fund, the main sponsor for “investigator-led” (riskier, so-called “blue skies”) research. The fund pays for humanities and social science research as well as STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). A broadside from a distinguished Companion of the Royal Society into the society’s 150-year-old nether regions has got to hurt.

The Marsden Fund is contestable in the way a raw steak is, when lowered into a river full of piranhas.

One senior university researcher told North & South that a Marsden grant application can take a lead investigator “a few weeks” of full-time work, even with other team members helping. The chances of winning a grant are notoriously low: 5-10%, depending on the discipline, even for senior scientists.

Some researchers say 90% of the time they put towards applying for a Marsden grant goes to waste – although University of Auckland research star Professor Quentin Atkinson says preparing a grant application can build ideas and networks that pay off later, even if the grant isn’t funded. “But even if ‘only’ 50% of the time is wasted, that’s still a massive loss,” he says.

This is a cost to a science system Atkinson says is chronically underfunded. He is one of many who argue for the Marsden Fund to grow big enough to fund the top 20% of grant proposals, instead of the top 10% – which would put our science funding more in line with comparable countries in the OECD.

A clue to the Marsden’s brutal toll on researchers can be seen on Twitter feeds each November, after the Marsden grants are announced. Happy party emojis from a few are interspersed with congratulations in which the grinding of teeth is almost audible. There are also heart-rending posts from unsuccessful scientists whose proposals look to the average punter as if they’d be a shoo-in.

One of the best-known scientists in New Zealand is a University of Auckland microbiologist, associate professor Siouxsie Wiles. This year, she was a finalist in Kiwibank’s New Zealander of the Year Awards; in 2013, she won the Royal Society of New Zealand Callaghan Medal and the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science Media Communication.

The gongs cut little ice with Marsden panels. Wiles was reduced to crowdfunding her research into antimicrobial resistance after years of fruitless Marsden applications. (Nothing if not resourceful, Wiles and Cure Kids launched a campaign to raise the $250,000 her lab needed – for a single year – to look for new antibiotics, which are desperately needed as anti-microbial resistance soars.) The cliche that Marsden grants are “hotly contested” is an understatement that seems almost obscene.

Wiles told The Spinoff in 2017 that over the previous five years, medical researchers had submitted more than 500 applications to the Marsden Fund’s biomedical panel. Only 46 of these were successful – and only seven related to infectious disease, her research topic.

Into this bloody arena trotted a bristling octogenarian with his accusations of Faculty of Arts carpet-bagging: was the Royal Society, a venerable storefront for New Zealand science, being taken over by humanities types banging on about privilege, access and the Treaty? In short: must the status quo be defended?

“In the humanities,” Brockie wrote, “ambiguity is okay. There are few rules or laws – everybody can make up their own rules and laws. In science, ambiguity and the supernatural are anathema... As I see it, science and the humanities are parallel universes, each with different assumptions, motives, values, methods, standards and expectations. Very little traffic passes between these ideologies. What does travel is almost exclusively from science to the arts.”

Scientists seemed strangely ungrateful for Brockie’s work on their behalf, and were slow to leap to his defence against the “big bananas... telling [him] off”. Some of the biggest bananas, it turned out, came from the very discipline Brockie sought to defend.

One was Nicola Gaston, former president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists and an associate professor of physics at the University of Auckland. She sent a powerfully worded letter to The Dominion Post about Brockie’s “Treaty of Waitangi” column.

“We all agree that the identity of the researcher should not matter in scientific research,” wrote Gaston,  “but there is now ample evidence that the overwhelmingly white and male culture of science has biased its activities and its outcomes.”

From the humanities loomed the shadow of the truly enormous banana that is Dame Anne Salmond, who responded coolly on the Royal Society website: “[Brockie] flouted a fundamental principle of the scientific project – that scientists should never claim authority over matters about which they are ignorant.”

And University of Otago associate professor in the department of English and linguistics, Simone Marshall tweeted: “This is so frustrating. Bob Brockie clearly doesn’t actually know what we do in the humanities, but he has no qualms about passing judgment on us. If he actually looked, he’d see the same evidence-based research that you find in the sciences.”        

In his March “Treaty” column, Brockie also accused local iwi of nobbling scientific researchers at the University of Otago.

“Otago University recently proclaimed that Ngāi Tahu must be consulted about ‘all areas of research’ before scholars undertake their work,” he proclaimed. “It must also be acknowledged that Ngāi Tahu run a number of commercial companies (running a surplus of many millions annually) and could go thumbs down on research that questions or challenges its business motives or operations.”

We’ve heard of Big Pharma. Could this be... “Big Maori”?

A university spokesman defended the policy in the Otago Daily Times. He pointed out that the consultation policy isn’t “recent” – it dates from 2003 – and doesn’t, in fact, give Ngāi Tahu power to block research. “The [Ngāi Tahu Research Consultation Committee] might make note of some concerns on a particular area, and potentially offer recommendations. However, the panel does not have the power to decline any proposal.”

A former University of Otago researcher contacted by North & South found the process “easy”. Another University of Otago researcher now at Victoria University, microbiologist Dr Monica Gerth, said Brockie’s piece was “inaccurate”. “The process certainly never caused me any hassle, or slowed down a grant proposal. Researchers are well-meaning, but sometimes we don’t realise all of the cultural or ethical issues involved. Personally, I’m always happy to take all the help I can get!”

In defending Royal Society traditionalism, Brockie has shaken a mighty tree – and been showered with bananas.  

If you’d like to help Dr Siouxsie Wiles in her search for new antibiotics, visit her University of Auckland fundraising site: giving.auckland.ac.nz/fungi. She also raises money through artist collaborations, selling merchandise with glowing bacterial art here.

This was published in the June 2018 issue of North & South.

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