Nicola Gaston, author of Why Science is Sexist, and Associate Professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Auckland, looks at the government’s announcement that it will be taking steps to improve diversity in New Zealand’s science system.
It has been a long time coming, but we finally have a statement from the Ministry responsible for the lion’s share of research funding in New Zealand – MBIE – on the importance of diversity in the scientific workforce . The Minister for Research, Science, and Innovation has announced the move, saying that “diversity guarantees we capture the very best ideas and talent to support the highest quality research” .
The announcement captures current concerns well, by specifically highlighting the severe underrepresentation of Māori in the scientific workforce, as well as gender inequity: women make up 32% of the scientific workforce, and Māori less than 2%, compared to overall representation as a quarter of our population. It also acknowledges that the statement is just a starting point: “to raise awareness of bias, and build understanding of the inequities in science and research infrastructure”, according to the Minister. As such, and as evidenced by the data presented on the MBIE website in a bid for transparency, it is laudable.
However, the purpose of transparency is to enable honest critique and improvement, and in that spirit I think it is useful to unpack the limitations of the current statement, and the future steps that will be needed to enable increased diversity in the scientific workforce.
- System-wide Cooperation
It is notable that the examples given on the MBIE website are a strange subset of research workforce data, being limited at this stage to the composition of assessment panels and outcomes of funding processes that MBIE have direct responsibility for. A proper picture of diversity in the research workforce will require significant cooperation with the Ministry of Education, and in particular the Tertiary Education Commission, who capture significant data about the research workforce in the form of the PBRF. Their direct role in supporting and developing the research workforce needs to be thought through explicitly in understanding what tools exist to support and drive increased diversity.
A second reason to form system-wide connections (beyond MBIE) is to acknowledge that actually, while the scientific workforce has starker issues with the representation of women and Māori than academia as a whole, making progress towards real equity requires consideration of seniority and, dare I say it, pay rates. This is something for our whole research sector to get its head around, and a ‘science-first’ approach to diversity would be a missed opportunity.
Finally – there is significant expertise within the research sector, for example within Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, the Māori Centre of Research Excellence. I’d like to see their expertise and experience brought in to inform the Ministry regarding barriers that affect Māori in particular: not everything can be extrapolated from conversations around gender equity.
- Incentives for change
Connecting diversity outcomes directly to the funding of research – not at an individual level, but at an aggregated, institutional level – is one of the only incentives that have been shown to drive real change, for example in the form of the Athena Swan programme for gender equity, well established now in the UK.
The overall baseline of research funding in our universities, in the form of the PBRF, is already based, in part, on aggregate outcomes, such as the number of PhD students trained at a given University. Linking institution-level funding of this kind (the core funding awarded to our Crown Research Institutes also comes to mind) to demonstrable progress on diversity measures would be a straightforward way to support institutional change.
- Transparency vs privacy
There is an acknowledgement at the bottom of the MBIE website that “We need to refine our data collection techniques so that these issues will be addressed in future data collection cycles and be expanded to cover ethnicity and career stage.” In essence, there have been barriers in place to reporting the necessary data, which might optimistically be seen as well-motivated, due to privacy concerns. More cynically, our institutions are aware of the reputational risk associated with data collection on diversity, and there will need to be transparent and universal standards set for what that data should look like.
As an aside – the use of particular examples, such as the leadership of the National Science Challenges, should not be presented in isolation from the broader context. There are ten Challenges; an equally meaningful data set might be the Vice-Chancellors of our Universities, or the CEOs of our Crown Research Institutes. I’ll leave it to you to do the exercise on whether those numbers would look better or worse, but: this is cherry picking, and as such undermines honest analysis.
If these kinds of issues are addressed, and quickly, then I have room for optimism about the extent to which real change can be created in our research sector at a national level to deliver improved diversity, and equity. But – as the Minister acknowledged, this is a first step. Measurable progress will require many more.