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Bob Edlin

New charter aims to culturalise scientists – will dissidents be starved of funding?

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Several questions are raised by the development of a “charter” to set out the principles to guide “sound research” practice in New Zealand.

The Royal Society has announced the formation of a working group to develop the charter with support from research funding agencies, bodies representing different types of research organisations and the Royal Society.

Dr John Hay, appointed independent chair of the working group, says the task is to develop the proposed charter within 12-18 months.

One aim of the charter “is to provide clarity to all researchers and research organisations on expectations for sound research practice”.

The charter will foster “a culture of collective responsibility” for maintaining good research practice, set out what sufficient compliance looks like and support cohesive research teams working across many research organisations.

“The charter will also provide clarity for international collaborators on the expectations on them when they are working on New Zealand-based research,” he said.

This raises a bemusing question:

What expectations on foreign researchers – when they are working on New Zealand-based research – would differ from the expectations in their home countries?

Hay’s press statement gives us a strong hint.

First, he acknowledges that other countries have developed a charter, such as Australia and the United Kingdom.

…but rather than simply adopting one of those, it is important that New Zealand develops its own charter to include elements specific to the context of Aotearoa, such as setting out how researchers should meet their responsibilities under the Treaty of Waitangi.

Hay said that without a charter of the sort to be drafted by his team, the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Code of Professional Standards and Ethics has been used informally in New Zealand – but it is meant to apply only to the Society’s members.

“The new charter would, through its adoption, apply to all researchers employed by or contracted to research organisations. Others, such as private research funders and researchers operating without public funding and outside participating research organisations, can be encouraged to adopt it also,” he said.

A clear implication is that non-compliant research will be starved of public funding – and maybe of private funding, too.

The Royal Society is required by law to have a Code of Professional Standards and Ethics in Science, Technology and The Humanities.

revised draft code for consultation in March  recognises (you could say emphasises) a Treaty of Waitangi partnership.

It says :

The Code intends to exemplify the highest ideals of ethical practice by researchers and scholars within a Treaty of Waitangi partnership and multi-cultural community, as well as provide statements of the expectations that all people within Aotearoa New Zealand can have of Members of Royal Society Te Apārangi’s research and scholarly community.

And –

The Code gives effect to the Treaty of Waitangi through a foundation of bi-cultural ethical principles of partnership, protection and participation from which the standards of the Code have been developed.

The idea that the Treaty should have a place in research – or any scientific endeavour – was the subject of a controversial column by science writer Bob Brockie earlier this year.

Brockie further criticised the Otago University requirement that Ngāi Tahu be consulted about “all areas of research” before scholars undertake their work.

“Otago researchers are looking into everything under the sun – zeta functions, quantum physics, logistics, dental technology, Roman Law and compositions by Brahms. What expertise do kaitakawaenga have in evaluating these research proposals?”

The column triggered sharp rejoinders from the Royal Society and other academics.

But Brockie argues that the treaty makes no mention of science and research (a claim which readers can check out for themselves).  We can’t find them mentioned – nor any mention of “partnership”.

The merging of science with a Maori belief system (or world view) is reflected in a paper headed “Implementing Māori indigenous knowledge (mātauranga) in a scientific paradigm: Restoring the mauri to Te Kete Poutama.

Landcare Research’s website includes a section which deals with Maori values and explains:

“Everything in the Māori world has a life force, the mauri, and contamination or degradation of natural resources is seen to damage and diminish the life force (te mauri), and affect the well-being of people. Traditional Māori values contain the common Māori belief that all biophysical things and sites, plants, trees, animals and human beings have a certain amount of tapu, mana, and mauri.”

Questions of a more general nature have been raised at AgScience about the development of a charter to set out the principles underpinning “sound research practice” in New Zealand.  It says:

Whether this is a solution looking for a problem is one question.

Another is to ask who decided this is necessary and for what reasons – and why can’t research funders be relied on to set their own standards for the appropriate use of their money?

Then there’s the prospect of another layer of bureaucracy being added to the science domain – potentially one that will gear funding to the satisfying of “political” considerations.

More information on the National Research Charter development is available at royalsociety.org.nz/nrc

This article was first published on Point of Order HERE.