A couple of superheroes popped into my life last week.
They were scientists Dr Tara McAllister and Dr Sereana Naepi.
Armed with their research team's newly-published study on the lack of Pasifika and Māori in university science faculties and Crown Research Institutes (CRIs), McAllister and Naepi spoke out about deep-rooted problems within their wider work environments. The goal: to show how the fundamental set-up of New Zealand's higher education and research facilities resulted in academics like themselves being underrepresented.
The study, led by McAllister (Te Aitanga ā Māhaki, Ngāti Porou), delved into the number of Pasifika and Māori scientists in New Zealand's publicly funded scientific workforce. Over an 11-year period (2008 to 20018), it found the overall percentage of Pasifika and Māori scientists working in eight universities and six CRIs did not shift from fewer than 5 per cent. One university even reported it did not hire a single Pasifika or Māori scientist over the entire study period.
Further, both McAllister and Naepi (Nakida, Natasiri, Fiji) pointed out in media interviews that the findings were not unexpected.
"This will come as no surprise to the small number of Māori and Pacific scientists who currently exist in these institutions," McAllister said on TVNZ's Breakfast show.
When asked about the purpose of the study, the pair outlined a range of reasons - from the need to accurately evaluate whether science faculties were meeting Te Tiriti obligations and diversity commitments (they're not), to documenting the significant underutilisation of knowledge Māori and Pasifika scientists, and their communities, possess.
Underpinning that discussion, and arguably the study itself, was the study team's overall decision to research the role of Māori and Pasifika in science faculties. Prominent scientist Associate Professor Nicola Gaston touched on the issue in her reaction to the study findings.
"I am grateful for the work that the authors have done in shining light on this issue," Gaston said. "I think it is, however, outrageous that our Māori and Pasifika scientists must first bring their skills to bear on this issue, before having the opportunity to follow their own scientific interests."
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It should be noted the expertise of the five study authors - including McAllister and Naepi - spanned several disciplines, including freshwater ecology, higher education, cellular and molecular biology, Māori studies and biological sciences.
Gaston's comments, and the study, are important because they link to problems beyond New Zealand's science workforce. They point to wider workplace issues Pasifika and Māori face daily. That is the need to justify why our voices and perspectives should be respected and valued in settings we have been employed in. It is why, as a non-scientist, I perked up and devoured all of McAllister and Naepi's work on this topic last week.
By investigating institutional racism in the science workforce and the ongoing lack of representation, they also managed to document one of the biggest barriers to addressing it - the institutions themselves.
The method section of the study paper is particularly illuminating.
"Responses from institutions ranged from an openness and willingness to contribute data to this project to hostility and racist remarks," it said. Additionally, some institutions only came to the table following intervention from the office of the Prime Minister's chief science adviser. The study also said that the decision to keep all institutions anonymous following "initial conversations with staff from HR departments and university management" likely "contributed significantly" to increased co-operation from institutions.
And, in what seemed to be a spreadsheet version of "avoiding the question", some CRIs just left blank spaces when asked about Pasifika scientists. When researchers followed up, they found the answer was "zero", and were given a variety of interesting explanations. One institution simply stated: "We have a very diverse ethnic demographic of our staff."
McAllister and Naepi's research shows how critical analysis of institutions we operate in is pertinent to addressing structural racism and its symptoms – like the under representation of Pasifika and Māori. The pair, and their co-authors, are all members of the University of Auckland and are part of the workforces they continue to scrutinise. Naepi has also promised further research along equity and representation lines.
"We will be talking about attrition rates, completion rates, [undergraduate to postgraduate] conversion rates, gender and ethnicity inequities, and shining the light on specific fields," she said via Twitter. "We are committed to continuing to uncover data, which supports our lived experiences and challenges universities and other publicly-funded institutions to practise the values they outwardly espouse."
It's a cause and research goal we should all support.