Māori professor under investigation for views on mātauranga Māori

Dr Garth Cooper has devoted his career to helping fellow Māori but he now finds himself in the gun over his opinions about science and indigenous knowledge. Graham Adams reports from the front lines of the culture wars.

Prof Garth Cooper

New Zealanders like their heroes talented and modest and preferably devoted to public service as well. Sir Edmund Hillary is the exemplar of that breed and very few have the mana he enjoys in our collective consciousness. Nevertheless, there are many others similarly talented and dedicated to the collective good but who go largely unnoticed outside their professional lives. One such is Professor Garth Cooper, who is suddenly in the news because he is under disciplinary investigation by the Royal Society Te Apārangi, the nation’s premier organisation promoting science and the humanities.Cooper is a Fellow of the society and — alongside eminent philosopher of science Robert Nola — risks being expelled from the nation’s most prestigious academic club.

The reason for the investigation is that Cooper and Nola were among seven professors who wrote to the Listener in July questioning a government working group’s proposal to give mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) parity with what were described as other “bodies of knowledge” — “particularly Western / Pākehā epistemologies” — in the school science curriculum. In other words, Māori knowledge would effectively be given equal standing with physics, chemistry and biology.

While the professors acknowledged “Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy,” they concluded that, “In the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.” They also responded to the working group’s claim that science had been used as “a rationale for colonisation of Māori and the suppression of Māori knowledge”. The professors conceded that science — like literature and art — “has been used to aid colonisation” but stated: “Science itself does not colonise.”

In the uproar that followed, their views were denounced by organisations including the Royal Society, the New Zealand Association of Scientists, and the Tertiary Education Union — as well as the professors’ own Vice-Chancellor, Dawn Freshwater. Notably, none of the professors’ critics defended mātauranga Māori as being scientific. Freshwater, for instance, lamented the “hurt and dismay” caused by the professors’ stance on “whether mātauranga Māori can be called science” but she never went beyond faintly praising it as a “distinctive and valuable knowledge system”.

Dr Siouxsie Wiles and Dr Shaun Hendy — who have been highly visible in providing scientific backing to political judgments by the Prime Minister over the past 18 months during the Covid pandemic — went as far as to co-author an open letter, announcing they “categorically” disagreed with the professors’ views. Curiously for a pair of prominent scientists, they responded to the professors’ assertion that, “Science is helping us battle worldwide crises such as Covid, global warming, carbon pollution, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation” with the baffling statement: “Putting science on a pedestal gets us no further in the solution of these crises.” Dr Wiles also tweeted a request for reinforcements: “Calling all academics in Aotearoa New Zealand. Add your name to the open letter if you are also appalled by that letter claiming to defend science published last week in the NZ Listener. It's caused untold harm and hurt & points to major problems with some of our colleagues.” More than 2000 academics, students and alumni from all over New Zealand answered her call and signed (although how many had actually read the original letter to the Listener remains uncertain).

Shortly before news of the Royal Society’s disciplinary action against Cooper and Nola broke, the Times Higher Education — the bible for hundreds of thousands of academics internationally — discussed the “unintended consequences” of the push for the “incorporation of Māori understandings into curricula”, and asked whether debate was being stifled. 

On November 11, under the heading “Does the teaching of indigenous knowledge need to be examined?”, the magazine’s Asia-Pacific editor, John Ross, outlined the expanding role of Māori language and culture in New Zealand before interviewing some of the protagonists in the national discussion that erupted in the wake of the Listener letter. The Royal Society declined to answer Ross’s question of how it had decided the professors’ letter was not only “misguided” but caused “harm”. Others — no doubt mindful of possible risks to their academic careers — offered their opinions anonymously. Professor Cooper was happy to respond. He said that although he didn’t speak te reo — because his Maori grandmother “thought my brother and I should learn English” — he nevertheless knew “quite a lot” of words in the language. He went on to explain that the main reason he signed the Listener letter was because he was “concerned [that teaching] Māori kids about the colonising effects of science [would] lead to loss of opportunity”. 

Crediting Ross Ihaka — a Māori mathematician who co-created the R open-source programming language — with producing “the most important thing that’s come out of New Zealand in the last 100 years”, Cooper worried about “young Māori scholars that would be the next Ross Ihaka basically missing out because they were told that science was a colonising influence of no interest to them.“ In response to this last assertion, a Māori academic — who had signed the open letter penned by Siouxsie Wiles and Shaun Hendy — emailed Cooper to ask if he “could please elaborate on how you came to the conclusion about what young Māori scholars want?”

The Listener LetterIn his reply (supplied to this writer), Professor Cooper thanked her for her query — and took the opportunity to “elaborate” as requested. His reply is worth quoting at length to give some idea of the calibre of the doctor and medical researcher the Royal Society is now considering expelling over his defence of scientific method: 

“I have taught young Māori scholars in medicine and in science for more than 30 years; during that time, I talked to several hundred (I estimate more than 400) about their career aspirations. Before that, I served as a medical officer (MB ChB) in Rotorua (1979-1980) where I served as house officer for Sir Peter Tapsell) and then in Auckland (1981-1985), including several years in South Auckland (based in Middlemore Hospital), where I looked after many (i.e. a large number) of young Māori as patients). During my time in Auckland, along with Dr David Scott, I pioneered a programme for a new approach to health care delivery in Ōtara, where a large proportion of the patients were Māori (1983-1985). I wrote and delivered the first course in New Zealand for lay community health workers, who went on to receive recognition by the Mayor of South Auckland (1985). The place where this programme was developed was the Whaiora Marae, where I worked part-time along with my roles in Middlemore. In my role as Professor in Biochemistry and Medicine at the University of Auckland (1995-present), I have personally written courses for young Māori and Pasifika students — specifically as part of the Māori and Pacific Admission Scheme programme at the University of Auckland — perhaps you know of it? This was between ~1994-2006. These courses were credited with leading to a substantial increase in the overall pass rate…" 

“I contributed, along with Profs Michael Walker and Linda Smith (~2005-2007), to the initial writing of the first (successful) application that led to the funding of Te Pai o Te Māramatanga, during which time I discussed their futures with numbers of Māori scholars who were entering into research careers through that programme. I have supervised young Māori and Pasifika scholars to completion of MSc and PhD programmes in science and in medicine. This involved in-depth interaction with these students over several years. They worked on my research programme on the origins and experimental therapeutics of type 2 diabetes, which I have undertaken over 40+ years because it is of major interest to Māori (kaupapa Māori research; vision Mātauranga). I have presented my teaching and research programmes to iwi at Hui a Tau, including Tainui/Waikato (with Dame Te Ata present), and to Te Rarawa and to Ngā Puhi. My teaching/research programmes were endorsed on each occasion."  

“I was elected and served as a member of the Māori committee of the Health Research Council of New Zealand (for six years if I remember correctly), during which time I had the privilege of meeting with large numbers of young Māori at different marae from the deep South (Ngai Tahu) to the far North (Te Rarawa, Ngā Puhi). I served in a supervisory role on the Health Research Council for three more years, where my role was as an advocate for research in Māori Health. I also had the good fortune to be mentored during this time by people including Irihapeti Ramsden and Eruhapeti Murchie and was able to learn from them their views of the aspirations of young Māori. I also spent several years providing oversight and governance for a therapeutic intervention programme in the Bay of Plenty and East Cost of Te Ika-a-Maui for hepatitis B; this involved several thousand patients, most of whom were Māori, many of whom were young. I had the opportunity to learn from many of them at that time. Recently, I spent in-depth time with a young Māori MSc student who explained to me that he was very upset at Māori staff members who insisted on taking a one-sided view concerning his background, which was Pākehā (i.e. Ngāti Pākehā) as well as Māori, and that he was equally proud of both his Māori and non-Māori backgrounds. Finally, I also know what I think personally as one with Māori heritage (Ngāti Mahanga of Tainui/Waikato as well as Ngāti Pākehā) who underwent primary, secondary and tertiary education in New Zealand. In all, I estimate that I have provided substantive input and career guidance to as many as 5000 young Māori over 30+ years in these various roles. So this is how I know about young Māori and their aspirations.”

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Astonishingly, this response to a specific query is not an exhaustive résumé of Professor Cooper’s work. As someone who is well acquainted with the extent of his contribution to medicine and health said: “There is much more he has done which he doesn’t discuss. Calling him ‘humble’ risks understatement.” So, we have ended up in a situation where a very distinguished Māori-Pākehā scientist who has helped thousands of Māori in their careers over several decades is being investigated by the Royal Society for what can only be described as holding a heretical view about the distinction between science and mātauranga Māori.

Who knew an eminent scientist expressing an honestly held opinion — that mātauranga Māori, while valuable as a form of knowledge, is not science — would end up dealing with an Inquisition in 21st century New Zealand?



Graham Adams has been involved in publishing in New Zealand for the past 40 years as a journalist, columnist, reviewer, magazine editor and subeditor. He has also worked as a book editor and screenwriter. He has a BA in psychology and French, and a MA in classical Greek, from the University of Auckland. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore with his partner, Megan. He believes strongly in free speech.