Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Royal Society tackling diversity issues

Women remain under-represented in many areas of science, including high positions and award recipients. Photo / File
Women remain under-represented in many areas of science, including high positions and award recipients. Photo / File

New Zealand's leading body for the sciences and humanities is addressing a lack of diversity among its fellows, with women accounting for just over half of its newest inductees.

The 19 new fellows announced today also reflect an improved mix of ethnicities and research fields.

But commentators say it will take a long time before the overall diversity of the Royal Society of New Zealand's ranks - long dominated by older white men - will be as balanced.

In 2014, only 10.5 per cent of society fellows were female. The rate now stands at only around 12.5 per cent.

The society's academy chairperson and vice-president, Distinguished Professor Gaven Martin, acknowledged that to date, university academics, men and people of European descent had been over-represented in the fellowship, now numbering around 400.

Martin said the society had sought to address the problem by encouraging a more diverse pool of candidates for nomination.

"We updated selection criteria and ran workshops on bias to ensure no one was disadvantaged," Martin said.

"We are especially pleased that this approach has resulted in a more diverse group of new fellows - selected entirely on merit - which is more representative of our community of researchers and scholars."

The 19 new fellows include 10 women, two from Crown research institutes, one from the private sector, two with Maori ethnicity and one with Asian ethnicity.

The group also includes the first female mathematician to be made a fellow, Professor Hinke Osinga from the University of Auckland.

"The society will build on this and continue to seek best practice to ensure diversity within all of its activities," Martin said.

"We certainly do not see this positive result as a case of 'problem solved' but rather it provides evidence that positive change can be achieved by diligence."

The society was also contributing to a national working group for diversity and equity issues for the New Zealand research community.

Associate Professor Nicola Gaston, a former president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists who has been vocal about sexism in science, said it was clear and "hugely important" that reconsideration of systematic biases in the system had led to positive outcomes.

"It is also clear - from the overall representation of women and other under-represented groups - that this is only a first step," she said.

Dr Nicola Gaston, a former president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, said more diversity among the Royal Society of New Zealand's newest fellows was a "first step". Photo / File
Dr Nicola Gaston, a former president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, said more diversity among the Royal Society of New Zealand's newest fellows was a "first step". Photo / File

"But of course, some time will be required to achieve overall balance in the long term."

While Gaston said it was hard to make much judgment on the basis of a single year, she noted that the physical sciences appeared strongly under-represented.

"Hopefully this is merely a consequence of a holistic approach taken by the RSNZ and may be explained by a rebalancing of historical biases in the RSNZ; it would however be of concern if this was evidence of a lack of buy-in to the new process from one section of the RSNZ."

The association's current president, Associate Professor Craig Stevens, said while it was great to see the society making an effort, it would take time to achieve the diversity it was striving toward.

"With regard to diversity, these fellows stay part of the academy for a long time, so this step-change must be maintained," Stevens said.

"It will be many years before the overall diversity of fellows is anything like that of this new batch."

Figures show that women are still highly under-represented in senior positions at the country's Crown research institutes and among science heads of departments across universities.

The majority of recipients of the country's highest science and technology honour, the Rutherford Medal, have also been men.

The new fellows

Professor Jacinta Ruru, University of Otago, whose work is at the forefront of defining the area of law on how the legal system of former colonies ought to recognise indigenous peoples' interests in land and water.

Dr Judi Hewitt, Principal scientist at Niwa, whose interdisciplinary contributions have advanced fundamental knowledge of marine biology and advanced environmental science.

Professor Tony Merriman, University of Otago, who has made major contributions to the pre-clinical and clinical science of autoimmune diseases and gout in New Zealand, particularly among Māori and Pacific people.

Professor Donna-Rose Addis, University of Auckland, who has pioneered the use of functional brain imaging to study how the brain stores and retrieves memories in healthy subjects and those suffering from disorders, such as amnesia, clinical depression, and dementia.

Professor Rod Dunbar, University of Auckland, whose studies of human cellular immunology, especially T cell responses to tumours arise and how these T cell responses can be stimulated in cancer therapy, have accelerated the advent of successful cancer immunotherapy.

Professor Hinke Osinga, University of Auckland, who is a specialist in dynamical systems theory, the mathematical analysis and prediction of behaviour that changes with time.

Professor Hong Di, Lincoln University, who has led pioneering research into nitrate leaching and nitrous oxide emissions from intensive dairying systems, leading to mitigation technologies.

Professor David Craw, University of Otago, a geologist who has advanced knowledge of the relationship between plate tectonics and mineral deposits and latterly New Zealand fauna such as freshwater fish.

Professor Rosalind Hursthouse, University of Auckland, who has had a profound impact on the field of ethics in philosophy. She has been a leading figure in the development of the approach known as virtue ethics.

Professor Lynnette Ferguson, University of Auckland, who is a world leader in nutritional genomics with an international reputation in mutagenesis and in the causes and control of chronic disease.

Professor Stephen May, University of Auckland, who is regarded as a world authority on language rights and an international expert in the related fields of indigenous language and bilingual/immersion education and multilingualism.

Professor Peter Shepherd, University of Auckland, who has made important contributions to understanding how defects in a cell signalling pathway contribute to cancer and diabetes.

Professor Cris Shore, University of Auckland, who has developed new theoretical approaches and methodologies for analysing policy, power and organisations.

Dr Skelte Anema, Fonterra Research and Development Centre, who is an expert in the interactions between milk proteins under different physical and chemical conditions.

Dr Jenny Juengel, an AgResearch scientist whose research effort has focussed primarily on understanding how genetic mutations in sheep have influenced their reproductive outcomes.

Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith, University of Waikato, who is an outstanding Māori scholar in the social sciences whose research on 'decolonising' research methodologies has reshaped inquiry across many domains in the sciences and humanities.

Professor Parry Guilford, University of Otago, who has made international contributions to the fields of cancer biology and cancer genetics, identifying the first known gene for inherited gastric cancer and developing a biomedical device to test for bladder cancer in urine.

Professor Annie Goldson, University of Auckland, who is an acclaimed documentary film maker who has made a sustained contribution to humanities scholarship and film culture, forging a dialogue between these two domains.

Professor Kathleen Campbell, University of Auckland, who is at the forefront of unearthing evidence for past life in 'extreme' environments, thereby contributing to the search for life's origins and bio-signatures on other planets.

Professor Grant Montgomery, of the University of Queensland, and Professor Chris Simon, of the University of Connecticut, have also been made honorary fellows.

- NZ Herald

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