Kia ora koutou

It has been a high profile week for equity, diversity and inclusion issues in science and academia, so it seemed timely to update on some of our intern projects. We have three projects in this space, with interns David Pomeroy, Tara McAllister and Ankita Gangotra. Read about our interns here

Tara has recently published a paper ‘Why isn’t my professor Māori?’, along with its sister paper on Pasifika academics by Sereana Naepi. These got some great press coverage this week, for example on RNZ. Congratulations to Tara and Sereana for raising the profile of this important conversation. Great Mahi.

Read the paper ‘Why isn’t my professor Māori?’

Listen to the interview with Tara on RNZ

Dr Tara McAllister

Meanwhile, Ankita has been supporting work within MBIE, led by Sarah Townsend, to look at how equity, diversion and inclusion programmes implemented overseas might inform what we do here in Aotearoa. She is only partway through her internship but sent through some interesting reflections on the transition from research to policy below.

Have a good weekend everyone.

Ngā mihi

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Ankita writes:

“Through eight years of higher education, from an engineering degree to a PhD, my aspirations to make an impact in my community, and society in general, had been put on the back burner. I have always loved doing experimental science, from growing alum crystals as a nine-year old to building an ion conductance microscope in my lab as a PhD student. But by the end of my PhD, I found myself idealistically restless and wanting to use my research skills to make a real difference in the world around me. The timing was great, because my institute, the MacDiarmid for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, was offering 3-month internship grants for finishing PhD students to work at the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor (OPMCSA) on science policy projects. I jumped at the opportunity; I knew exactly what I wanted to work on.

I proposed to look at equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) policy options for Aotearoa New Zealand’s science workforce. While nearly half of the research workforce are women, there are fewer women with STEM careers and in senior leadership positions. As of 2017, only 26% of professors and deans at New Zealand universities were women. Papers released just this week show that these numbers are even more sobering with regards to Māori and Pasifika. Over my years in academia, I have seen first-hand the positive difference a more equitable, diverse and inclusive environment in STEM can make. It’s no surprise that evidence strongly suggests that a more diverse and inclusive environment leads to better research outcomes and student experiences. A fair number of research organisations around Aotearoa New Zealand recognise the need for good practice, for example through equity policy statements, and have their own initiatives to address this. It is however surprising that in a country that was one of the pioneers of women’s suffrage there isn’t yet a nationwide EDI initiative or accreditation system for the scientific community, unlike in some other countries (e.g. UK, Ireland, Australia, USA, and now Canada).

This internship has been designed as a joint project between OPMCSA and Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). I first started with researching and reviewing international EDI initiatives around the world. An obvious realisation has been that we can’t adopt a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach here. The Aotearoa New Zealand research community deserves an EDI programme that is not only focused on women but one that is tailored around honouring the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and distinctly acknowledging the status of Māori as tangata whenua. There must also be a commitment to improving the representation of Pasifika, LGBTQI+, gender diverse people and people with disabilities, among others. But just cosmetic improvement in numbers isn’t enough, as Dr. McAllister et al. and Dr. Naepi point out in their papers. Institutional culture changes need to be driven.

Being part of a cross-agency working group, and having had the opportunity to interview programme directors in Canada and Australia, this project has already given me tremendous exposure to how science policy is informed. That being said, I am only half-way through. In the next few months, I will be reviewing the examples of EDI practices that have been adopted by research organisations across Aotearoa New Zealand in order to recognise good practice and understand future challenges and opportunities.

I won’t claim that my transition from academia to government policy has been seamless, and neither is it complete. OPMCSA and MBIE have been very flexible in allowing me to work on this internship part-time over 6 months, enabling me to tie off some loose ends related to my PhD (read: wean myself off my lab).  This means I have been juggling scientific research and science policy on a weekly basis. The process has been enlightening. While scientific research can be intensely rigorous and understandably jargon-heavy in order to solve complex problems, the whole point of a science policy role is to demystify the scientific environment and translate complex ideas to inform good decisions with far-reaching impact. It has become pertinent, now more than ever, for scientists to stand shoulder to shoulder with the policy advisors and lawmakers that shape our society. For a young scientist like myself, this is as legitimate a career choice as work in industry or remaining in academia. So far it has been a challenging and rewarding opportunity in equal parts. And at least for the time being, I’m not restless anymore.”