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John Raine, David Lillis, Peter Schwerdtfeger: Respecting Rutherford and Cook

Why Cancel One of New Zealand’s Greatest Scientists?


Why was it necessary to cancel the names of two people so important to our history? Two figurative statues have just been knocked down.

 

Shortly before this year’s election, MBIE announced [1] the replacement from 2024 of the research excellence-focused Rutherford and James Cook Fellowships with the Aotearoa New Zealand Tāwhia te Mana Research Fellowships, as follows:


·         New Zealand Mana Tapaha Future Leader Fellowship – for early-career researchers looking to build their reputation within their field.

·         New Zealand Mana Tūānuku Research Leader Fellowship – for mid-career researchers making the transition to research leaders.

·         New Zealand Mana Tūārangi Distinguished Researcher Fellowship – for senior researchers to extend beyond their own careers and make contributions that benefit the wider research, science and innovation system.


The Rutherford Foundation awards (from 2008) provided Postdoctoral Fellowships, and PhD Scholarships to the University of Cambridge. The Rutherford Discovery awards (from 2010) were Fellowships for early-to-mid career researchers. The James Cook Fellowships (from 1996) were awarded by the Royal Society Te Apārangi to three recipients annually for sustained research excellence (a notable recipient was Peter Schwerdtfeger, one of the authors of this opinion piece).


The changes highlight an increasing focus on ethnicity, equity, and inclusion agendas in national research funding. Very simply, funding on the basis of ethnic or cultural affiliation will devalue research merit in New Zealand.


MBIE General Manager Science System Investment and Performance, Danette Olsen, stated:


“We’ve upgraded the fellowships and introduced an applied doctorate scheme to address issues raised by the sector, including meeting skills shortages, career stability, collaboration, mobility, and better representation………. Key to achieving the goals of Te Ara Paerangi – Future Pathways, the multi-year reforms of the research, science and innovation system, these initiatives will also boost representation of Māori, Pacific peoples and women as future leaders in our research, science and innovation system.”


Maintaining excellence and relevance within our research funding system is critical, but most of this announcement sounds like a pitch for a softer and less focused system.  MBIE makes no mention of research excellence anywhere in the announcement. Will excellence have any place at the table alongside social objectives? Women are already very prominent in academic and research leadership in New Zealand, and educational achievement by Māori and their participation in the national research eco-system are vital to New Zealand’s future.  But, our research funding system must focus first on excellence in research. It should also recognise that other ethnic and cultural groups experience poor outcomes in education, health and wellbeing, and socio-economically. For example, Lillis [2] has noted that the socioeconomics of Pacific People and the health and wellbeing of Pacific People are in fact worse than those of Māori across most indices.

 

 

Restore the Names of Rutherford and Cook


We call for the names of Rutherford and Cook to be restored within the new Fellowships. The National/Act/NZ First Government may wish to note that these Fellowships have primary Māori names that precede bland English translations. This looks simply like virtue signalling from MBIE under the critical social justice thinking that is washing through the system. Many scientists in New Zealand are angered at the disrespect shown for Lord Ernest Rutherford’s memory by the removal of his name. Was this just a simple name change, or are we to infer that Māori and other minorities have not benefitted in any way from advances in nuclear science, such as in cancer radiation treatments?


One perverse consequence of the changes is that young researchers who have worked hard for a Rutherford Fellowship will struggle to obtain research roles overseas, as the new names will not be recognized by the international community.


What could be more appropriate than continuing to associate the names of these awards with a New Zealander who is recognised today as one of the world’s most outstanding scientists of the 20th century? This should not be about “Western Science as a tool of colonisation”, a notion which we strongly reject. Moreover, we should be proud to continue linking a Research Fellowship with Captain James Cook’s voyages of discovery.


Earlier this year we wrote on the politicisation of our universities and the research funding system [3, 4]. The changes of name in the Rutherford and Cook Fellowships follow a marked reconfiguration towards equity, diversity, and ethnic minorities at the expense of research excellence as the key criterion for funding in the Performance Based Research Fund. This change was recommended in the 2018 PBRF Review report (January 2020) by Waikato University’s Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith.


Elsewhere, the Kantar Public-MBIE report on stakeholder perceptions of the National Science Challenges (late 2022) indicated that the research sector was well advanced in achieving parity between traditional lore (specifically matauranga Māori) and modern science. Science and matauranga Māori are different and should not be seen as competing for ascendancy or even for equality.  


Further, this year some MBIE Endeavour Grant reviewers have treated the inclusion of Vision Matauranga as mandatory in evaluation and scoring of grant applications, even in areas such as mathematics, physical sciences and engineering. One of New Zealand’s most esteemed physics professors was informed that his 2023 Endeavour application was unsuccessful because his project, involving theoretical and experimental physics, did not include a Māori Co-Principal Investigator.  Such politicisation of our research funding system is completely unacceptable.


Final Observations


Jerry Coyne’s 9th December 2023 blog [5] added to his earlier assessments of where we are heading in New Zealand in a scathing rebuttal of the notion that Māori spirituality and higher education can be merged in academia, although we agree that matauranga Māori has a place in higher education but should sit somewhere other than in a Science Faculty.  Further, in relation to political neutrality, we note that the US Supreme Court has now declared Harvard University’s affirmative action on enrolments to be unconstitutional [6].


Our universities and the research funding system have been captured significantly by political ideology. They must regain the neutrality emphasised in the Kalven Report [7] and the Bologna Accord [8], and encourage open and secular discourse on all research matters, without any one culture sitting in an ascendant, unquestionable and protected position.


Finally, we urge the new Government to reset the guiding policy around New Zealand research funding to an unambiguous focus on excellence in science and research.


Disclaimer

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers, and not of the universities with which they are or were formerly affiliated.

………………………………………………………………….

John Raine is an Emeritus Professor of Engineering and held Deputy and Pro Vice Chancellor roles across three New Zealand Universities. His responsibilities have included research, research commercialisation and internationalisation. He was Moderator for the 2012 PBRF Research Quality Evaluation.


David Lillis is a retired researcher who holds degrees in physics and mathematics, worked as a statistician in education, in research evaluation for the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, and for several years as an academic manager.


Peter Schwerdtfeger is a distinguished professor in theoretical chemistry and physics and Head of the New Zealand Institute for Advanced Study at Massey University. His research is concerned with fundamental aspects of science.

 

References

 

2.         David Lillis Our Prioritised Health System and Pacific People

3.         David Lillis, John Raine, Peter Schwerdtfeger. “Funding of Research in New Zealand” Breaking Views, 18th August, 2023.  https://breakingviewsnz.blogspot.com/2023/08/david-lillis-john-raine-and-peter.html  

4.         John Raine, David Lillis, and Peter Schwerdtfeger, “Universities or Indoctrination Centres?” Breaking Views, 7th October 2023. https://breakingviewsnz.blogspot.com/2023/10/john-raine-david-lillis-and-peter.html

5.         Jerry Coyne “A powerful University dean in New Zealand touts merging higher education with indigenous spirituality” why evolution is true, 9th December 2023

6.         The Harvard Crimson “After Affirmative Action Falls, Students, Counselors, and Schools Seek New Roadmap for Admissions”

7.         Kalven Committee Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action, University of Chicago, 11th November 1967

8.         Magna Charta Universitatum, Bologna, 18th September 1988.https://www.cesaer.org/content/7-administration/legal-affairs/values/magna-charta-universitatum.pdf


This piece was was first published at Breaking Views

 

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