Pages tagged "Royal Society"

  • The intimidation of the Fellows


    Graham Adams

    Seventy notable academics have sent a motion of no-confidence to the Royal Society over its handling of the professors’ letter to the Listener — but some of their colleagues say they are too fearful to sign it. Graham Adams reports.

    If anyone ever believed universities are institutions where academics can speak their minds freely and openly, the stoush sparked by the letter that seven University of Auckland professors sent to the Listener last July should have thoroughly disabused them of that notion.

    What should have been an uncontroversial statement that mātauranga Māori is “not science” and therefore should not be included in the NCEA science syllabus led to a wave of condemnation and vilification of the professors. And this despite the fact they made it clear that indigenous knowledge was valuable both “for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices” and in “key roles in management and policy”. What’s more, prominent Māori scholars such as Professor Sir Mason Durie had already acknowledged that science and indigenous knowledge are incommensurable.

    Even the professors’ own Vice-Chancellor, Dawn Freshwater, hung them out to dry with what one British journalist described as a “hand-wringing, cry-bullying email” that referred to the “considerable hurt and dismay” the letter had caused staff, students and alumni.

    Three of the professors, Robert Nola, Garth Cooper and Michael Corballis, were Fellows of the Royal Society NZ, but — rather than supporting their right to speak publicly about their concerns about mātauranga Māori in a science syllabus — it responded with a statement on its website that said their views were not only “misguided” but caused “harm”. 

    Last November, it also instigated disciplinary action against Nola, Cooper and Corballis after complaints were laid. (Corballis has since died.)

    After a barrage of criticism from famous international scientists, including Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and Steven Pinker, our premier academy for science and the humanities abandoned its pursuit of the two professors in March. But if it hoped that would be the end of the matter it was sorely mistaken.

    Last week, 70 of the society’s more than 400 Fellows signed a letter to the society calling for a no-confidence motion to be debated at the 56th hui ā-tau o Ngā Ahurei Annual Fellowship on 28 April. 

    It began: “Many of us have lost confidence in the current Academy Executive and Council, whose actions seemingly have brought the society into disrepute, shutting down useful debate and bringing international opprobrium from leading scientists. 

    “We are further concerned about the lack of agency that Fellows have following the many restructures of the society over the last several years, and the spending of fellowship fees to cover lawyers’ costs and, presumably, public relations consultants to defend the society’s very poor processes and actions.”

    The three specific objections made in the letter were to the statement published on the society’s website last year (described as “ill-conceived, hasty and inaccurate in large part”); the way the society handled the complaints against Professors Nola and Cooper; and lastly the “unfortunate” fact the pair felt compelled to resign.

    As the letter put it: “It is extremely unfortunate that this process has led to the resignation from this Academy of two of its distinguished Fellows. One is a renowned philosopher of science, and the other is perhaps the strongest scientist of Māori descent in the society and is someone who has been active in supporting Māori students in education for decades, and who, along with other experts in science, offered an expert opinion that was rejected by the society as being without merit, and characterised as racist by members of the Academy Executive (and current and former Councillors).”

    The motion was moved and seconded by two of the nation’s most prestigious and accomplished mathematicians, Distinguished Professor Gaven Martin and Distinguished Professor Marston Condor.

    Among the 70 signatories were internationally renowned heavyweights, including Distinguished Professors Brian Boyd and Peter Schwerdtfeger — celebrated scholars in literature and theoretical chemistry respectively — and Professor Alan Bollard, a former Governor of the Reserve Bank, and chief executive and secretary to Treasury.

    Having a substantial chunk of the Royal Society’s Fellows formally object to its handling of the Listener letter and the fallout is momentous but what is also remarkable — and remarkably depressing — is that the number of signatories would have been even higher if other Fellows had not feared for their livelihoods and careers by signing.

    Gaven Martin’s covering letter included these dismal paragraphs: ”Sadly several other Fellows have also indicated they will vote in favour, but because of the potential harassment and bullying they believe they would receive (from some current and former members of the Academy and the RSNZ Council, and from colleagues in senior and other positions within their university), they do not wish to disclose their names in this document, especially if it becomes public.  

    “Many younger Fellows and others have said (again in writing) that their jobs would be at risk signing this letter. 

    “Two Fellows (major Royal Society NZ medallists) said this: ‘Better not [sign] at this stage… I agree with all the statements — but you can’t imagine the pressure being put on us. I will vote for the motion though.’”

    And: “In confidence I am disillusioned with RSNZ and I am too scared to sign anything for fear of what may happen to me at [the University of Auckland] if I do so.” 

    Martin noted: “This is a startling indictment of the situation in the research community in New Zealand at the moment, and of the way in which the RSNZ handled and exacerbated the controversy over the letter to the Listener.”

    The letter’s signatories ask that the society write to Professors Cooper and Nola, and to the estate of Professor Corballis, and apologise for its handling of the entire process. 

    They also want the society to “review its current code of conduct to ensure that this cannot happen again, and in future the actions of the Academy/Council are far more circumspect and considered in regards to complaints concerning contentious matters”. 

    Lastly, that the entire society “be reviewed, examining structure and function and alignment with other international academies, and the agency given its Fellows upon whom its reputation rests”. 

    While it is at it, the Royal Society might also like to apologise to the other four professors who signed the Listener letter but are not Fellows given that their reputations were all sullied by the statement the society put on its website about their views being misguided and harmful.

    However, you’d have to say that right now the society will have its hands full just dealing with the explosive no-confidence motion placed before it.

  • Why Robert Nola quit the New Zealand Royal Society

    Notes by Robert Nola just after quitting (March 2022)

    (1) The reasons have to do with lack of good support by the Royal Society NZ (RS) for important issues concerning science in a free society.

    (2) The dispute discussed here arose over a letter to the 31 July 2021 issue of the NZ Listener, called In Defence of Science. I was one of seven signatories to the letter.

    (3) Many good things are done by good researchers in RS; but not always because they are in it. Much of the good work might have been done before being made a fellow while the use of the acronym “FRSNZ” comes as a later bauble.

    (4) I received supporting comments from many Fellows during the dispute with the RS. And we should note that the Investigatory Panel (IP) set up by RS to look into the complaints against professors Garth Cooper and Robert Nola ended up largely in support; it recommended not to continue the investigation. But the views of the IP set up by the RS are not necessarily the same as those of RS itself.

    (5) The RS raised three lines of objection. The first was based on what we said in the letter. The main critical target in the letter was a claim in a Government NCEA working party report that science itself has been used to support Eurocentric views and colonisation (as opposed to people as agents of colonisation who might also use science). We strongly objected to this view. But I am not aware of any response to this from RS (though there should be one given the state of science and mathematics education in New Zealand). This did not get as much critical comment in the ensuing discussion as the final sentence of the letter which said: ‘indigenous knowledge … is not science’. This is a contestable claim which is worthy of debate, but none was given through the RS. Its response was to shut down dogmatically such discussion, as will be seen.

    (6) The second line of objection was a note on the RS website set up by the President Dr Brent Clothier and the Chair of the Academy Executive Committee Prof Charlotte Macdonald (it remained up for about 5 months).

    (7) It made false claims about what we allegedly said in the Listener letter about Mātauranga Māori. And it added that ‘it deeply regrets the harm such a misguided view can cause’ (presumably the view being that indigenous knowledge is not science!). No evidence was ever given concerning the harm allegedly caused. But this is also part of a view in which any harm caused by free speech, and even the extent of academic freedom, ought to lead to the curtailment of such freedoms. In fact, it has now become much more common for there to be requests for restrictions on academic freedom as defined in the relevant 2020 Act. I regard this as an unwelcome development.

    (8) Even though the Code of Ethics of RS endorses freedom of speech (but not obviously academic freedom), the Code clearly admits restrictions which I would regard as highly contestable. I am strongly of the view, contrary to the Code of RS, that no Code of Ethics should impose restrictions on the freedoms that the laws of the land would permit. This is a problem with many codes of ethics; they need to be challenged in the courts.

    (9) Clearly, we had no support in advocating views about science and knowledge which were not sanctioned by RS, especially in the case where indigenous “knowledge” systems are given a privileged protection immune from criticism. We are simply not permitted to say that indigenous knowledge is not a science (even though many scholars working in the field of Mātgauranga Māori say that it is not!). Even if one might disagree with these views, at least support of the doctrines of academic freedom and free speech would not lead one to reject these views out of hand. In sum, I regard the website note as obnoxious, as did many who commented to me about it.

    (10) The third line of objection arose when the RS took up five complaints about the letter to be addressed by their Complaints Procedures and their Code of Professional Standards and Ethics in Science, Technology and Humanities. Of the five complaints only two were made public and were investigated by an Investigatory Panel (IP). The final conclusion of the IP was that the complaints be taken no further. Their grounds were clause 6.4(i) of the Complaint Procedures which provides circumstances in which a Panel can conclude no further action should be taken, viz., “the complaint is not amenable to resolution by a Complaint Determination Committee, including by reason of its demanding the open-ended evaluation of contentious expert opinion….”. This an important win in the complaints’ procedure. But it is something which might have been arrived at by a more appropriate vetting procedure of the original complaints in the first place.

    (11) Clearly the investigation got bound up in the legalisms of a Code of Ethics rather than a discussion of a substantive issue about science, such as whether indigenous knowledge is, or is not, science. But one would have thought that this was something for which the RS might have at least provided a forum instead of evading it by retreating behind its Code. This is just one example of how codes might be employed to stifle free speech. It is a serious failure of the RS that it cannot have such a discussion of some claim rather than dogmatically adopting some stance which is then put beyond the pale of criticism.

    (12) Ten and eight years ago I published two papers on the nature of science with a co-author, Professor Gürol Irzik, a professor of Philosophy at Sabanci University in Istanbul. We have now been invited to write about the same themes after ten years and are in the process of completing the paper. Has the dispute I have had within the Royal Society in dealing with the complaints brought against me produced anything I could use in the paper? No! The dispute has been entirely unproductive of any research in this area and has been a waste of time. My complainants have produced nothing which would be of value for this paper.

    (13) In sum, why resign? The main issue underlying this dispute has to do with freedom of speech in the area of science. It has been long recognized that science best advances when it is open to the critical discussion of any of its doctrines, whether alleged to be indigenous or not. This is something found in the 19th-century discussion of freedom of speech by John Stuart Mill. If anything is given privileged protection from criticism, then this undermines the advance of science. At the moment the dogmatic stance seems to be in the ascendancy for the RS. And it is supported by the acceptance of a Code of Ethics which can be used all too easily to curtail free speech. The remark in the letter that indigenous knowledge is not science has clearly been taken by many within the RS to be an unacceptable claim to make, given the way in which it has been challenged by reprimands and investigations. But this stance should never have been accepted if the Royal Society NZ was a fully “open society”. A resignation can be a sharp reminder that it ought to provide a better forum for the discussion of contentious views instead of condemning them on websites or having panel investigations into them.

  • Foreign academics and media weigh in on Royal Society investigation

    Dear Jonathan,

    Young's Spectator Article

    News of the Royal Society's troubling decision to investigate three of its distinguished Fellows for defending science in a letter to the New Zealand Listener magazine has now made international headlines.

    Toby Young – the General Secretary of our sister organisation (the UK's Free Speech Union) who is an Associate Editor of the Spectator Magazine – couldn't believe his ears when we told him about the NZ Royal Society's investigation into its members who signed the Listener letter. You can read his full piece here.

    Toby Young, founder of the Free Speech Union UK'In a rational world, this letter would have been regarded as uncontroversial. Surely the argument about whether to teach schoolchildren scientific or religious explanations for the origins of the universe and the ascent of man was settled by the Scopes trial in 1925? Apart from the obvious difficulty of prioritising one religious viewpoint in an ethnically diverse society like New Zealand (what about Christianity, Islam and Hinduism?), there is the problem that Maori schoolchildren, already among the least privileged in the country, will be at an even greater disadvantage if their teachers patronise them by saying there’s no need to learn the rudiments of scientific knowledge.' 

    Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, one of the world's most well-known public intellectuals, also tweeted an article by Emeritus Professor Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago on this issue.

    Professor Dawkins (who is a Fellow of the British Royal Society) wrote 'SHAME on the NZ Royal Society' and called on his Twitter followers to write to the President of the Royal Society, Roger Ridley.  Richard Dawkins Tweet

    In a letter to the President of the Royal Society, Professor Coyne wrote 'I hope you will reconsider the movement to expel your two members, which, if done, would make the Royal Society of New Zealand a laughingstock.' Jordan B. Peterson TweetJordan B. Peterson

    Tweeting Young's Spectator column, Jordan Peterson asked the question on everyone's mind, "Why punish a scientist for defending science?"

    The bullying and 'pile-on' which is being orchasrated by the Royal Society and cultural elites like Siouxsie Wiles is baffling the scientific establishment around the world. 

    If you are an academic, we encourage you to join with these eminent international academics and scientists like Professors Dawkins, Coyne, and Peterson, and call on the Royal Society to drop this witch-hunt- you can email the President at [email protected]

    The Free Speech Union will again be contacting every academic in the country to ensure that they are aware of what an embarrassment this investigation is (and the witch-hunt it represents). 

    Times Higher Education is another global publication that has reported on the NZ Royal Society's investigation (behind a paywall - republished with permission at the end of this email). It added its voice to condemnation:

    'The RSNZ said that it was unable to comment until the disciplinary process had run its course. THE also unsuccessfully sought comment from the society’s president, the chair of its academy executive committee and several high-profile critics of the Listener letter.' 

    To defend free speech with people power, we need you onboard

    Jonathan, as we've built momentum this year, our opponents have looked for ways to discredit us. They like to say that we are just a small group of disgruntled individuals out of step with progress (the irony being progress has only ever come because of free speech). 

    When we first broke the story about the Royal Society's investigation, we were referred to as 'the so-called Free Speech Union' or 'the organisation calling itself the Free Speech Union', like this tweet from Dr Siouxsie Wiles:

    Tweet by Dr. Siouxsie Wiles

    But someone needs to be there to call out bullying and craziness like the Royal Society's investigation. If we band together, our opponents' smears just won't work. Going into 2022 we need as many individuals as possible standing up for free speech. 

    Jonathan, will you join us in this fight to defend free speech and debate in New Zealand? 

    Membership means you'll have a team in your corner if someone comes after you because of your speech. Whether it's with embattled professors, local councillors, activist groups, or DHBs, we have a track record of standing up for our member's speech- and winning. Click here to join.

    Join the Free Speech Union

    Thank you for your support and making this effort possible. 


    Jonathan Ayling

    Free Speech Union

    Article from Times Higher Education:

    New Zealand academics investigated over Māori knowledge letter 

    Royal Society asked to expel decorated members who criticised plans to incorporate mātauranga Māori into curricula 

    December 6, 2021 

    John Ross 

    A debate about the nature of science has become a litmus test for academic freedom in New Zealand, as some leading scholars face possible expulsion from the country’s learned academy. 

    The Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ) is investigating current and former University of Auckland professors whose controversial letter to the editor of The New Zealand Listener, published in July, criticised plans to embed mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) in the school science curriculum. 

    The RSNZ received five complaints demanding disciplinary action against the three society fellows who had contributed to the letter: medical scientist Garth Cooper and philosopher Robert Nola, along with psychologist Michael Corballis, who initiated the letter. Professor Corballis, who won the Rutherford Medal – RSNZ’s highest honour – in 2016, died suddenly last month. 

    New Zealand’s Education Act guarantees academics and students the freedom to “question and test received wisdom, put forward new ideas and state controversial or unpopular opinions” within the law. The Listener letter authors insisted that they were exercising this right in criticising the incorporation of mātauranga Māori in school and university science programmes, which they likened to giving creationism the same scientific status as evolutionary biology. 

    But the complainants alleged that the authors had committed at least nine breaches of the RSNZ Code of Professional Standards and Ethics – including failing to “behave with…integrity and professionalism”, “claim competence commensurate with their expertise” or “take reasonable…precautions to protect vulnerable people” – and violated the society’s “good character obligation”. 

    The RSNZ then launched a formal investigation. Its complaints procedures state that the society’s council “may initiate an inquiry if it has reason to suspect that a member may have breached…obligations”. 

    Massey University theoretical chemist Peter Schwerdtfeger, who won the Rutherford Medal in 2014, said the society’s approach was baffling. “I think they had a choice, but it was just bluntly rejected. The Royal Society now is so influenced by mātauranga Māori ideology that they started an official procedure, and once you start it, you can’t stop it,” he said. 

    Professor Nola said the investigation was currently determining whether the complaints could be pursued under the RSNZ rules. He said the Listener letter was not a piece of research and therefore not covered by the society’s code. 

    “The Education Act and the code give us the right to express our views, in a clause about being a critic and conscience of society, even though the views might be unpopular. We had no idea at the time how popular or unpopular they were. They’ve proven to be more popular than we thought,” he said. 

    Critics have questioned how the RSNZ can undertake an impartial inquiry after its president and the chair of its academy executive committee denounced the Listener letter authors in a statement posted on the society’s website. 

    Times Higher Education understands that two of the three panellists originally enlisted to investigate the complaints were removed after it emerged that they had signed an open response condemning the Listener letter. 

    The RSNZ said that it was unable to comment until the disciplinary process had run its course. THE also unsuccessfully sought comment from the society’s president, the chair of its academy executive committee and several high-profile critics of the Listener letter.

  • A professor without honour in his own country

    A professor without honour in his own country

    Renowned psychologist Steven Pinker marked the death of his former teacher New Zealander Michael Corballis with a laudatory tweet. NZ’s Royal Society — of which Corballis was a Fellow and recipient of its most prestigious award — still hasn’t provided an obituary after putting him under investigation for his views on mātauranga Māori. Graham Adams reports.

    The late Prof Michael Corballis

    After Auckland University emeritus professor Michael Corballis died on November 13, the celebrity scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker tweeted to his 736,000 followers: “Sad to learn of the death of cognitive psychologist Michael Corballis, who taught me stats at McGill (I cite his lectures in Rationality) & did brilliant work on handedness, mental rotation, & [evolution] of lang. Also urbane, charming, witty, irreverent.”

    The Harvard University professor of psychology expressed similar sentiments last December when Corballis published his autobiography, “Adventures of a Psychologist: Reflections on What Made Up the Mind”, which tracked his brilliant career from growing up on a sheep farm in New Zealand to teaching at McGill University in Canada before returning to Auckland University.

    Pinker: “Michael Corballis is among the world’s deepest and most creative cognitive scientists, and he illuminates every subject he takes on with insight, wit, and charm. We’re fortunate that he has stepped back to and applied these gifts to the science of mind.” Five years ago, the Royal Society of New Zealand thought very highly of Corballis too. In 2016, it awarded him the Rutherford Medal, its most prestigious award, for his work on brain asymmetries, handedness, mental imagery, language, and mental time travel. 

    Prof Steven Pinker

    The award — named after Ernest Rutherford, our most famous scientist and Nobel laureate, who pioneered the orbital theory of the atom — bestows a medal and prize of $100,000. In its statement, the awards panel outlined Professor Corballis’s achievements: “He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association of Psychological Scientists, the American Psychological Association and the Royal Society of New Zealand. 

    “He is an Honorary Fellow of the International Neuropsychology Symposium and the New Zealand Psychological Society. He was awarded the Shorland Medal from the New Zealand Association of Scientists in 1999, a James Cook Research Fellowship from the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2000 and the Hunter Award from the New Zealand Psychological Society in 2006.”

    The panel also noted: “Professor Corballis has written a string of popular books including: The Lopsided Ape, From Hand to Mouth, The Recursive Mind, Pieces of Mind and The Wandering Mind. These titles have made the latest thinking on difficult topics such as the origins of human language, mental time travel and the question of human uniqueness easily accessible to a broad audience.” 

    Some senior academics say Corballis was the best chance Auckland University has ever had to snare a Nobel Prize given that he was arguably the leading authority in the world on left-hemisphere / right hemisphere issues in neuropsychology. Yet — despite having awarded him the Rutherford Medal — a full fortnight after his death the society had still not written an obituary. Unfortunately, Corballis had lately been relegated to zero from hero. His crime was effectively one of heresy.

    At the time of his death, he was being investigated by the Royal Society — along with two other Fellows, Professors Robert Nola and Garth Cooper — with a view to expulsion.

    They were among seven eminent professors who signed a letter published in the Listener in July that objected to mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) being given equal status in the school science curriculum with what an NCEA working group referred to as “Western” science. The Royal Society quickly denounced the professors: “The recent suggestion by a group of University of Auckland academics that mātauranga Māori is not a valid truth is utterly rejected by Royal Society Te Apārangi.

    “The society strongly upholds the value of mātauranga Māori and rejects the narrow and outmoded definition of science outlined in The Listener letter to the editor. It deeply regrets the harm such a misguided view can cause.”

    What was baffling about the society’s statement — apart from the fact it felt moved to make one at all — is that it appeared to be responding to a letter the professors hadn’t actually written. They never said anything that implied mātauranga Māori isn't a “valid truth” — whatever that means — but simply that, in their opinion, it isn’t science. The professors also upheld “the value of mātauranga Māori” in their letter, stating that, “Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy.” They also acknowledged that “Indigenous knowledge may indeed help advance scientific knowledge” — even if “it is not science”.

    The society’s assertion that the professors were using a “narrow and outmoded definition of science” also seems odd given that the society itself didn’t go as far as to claim mātauranga Māori is scientific — even if its statement implies it might be able to be roped into a more expansive and more modish view of science than the one the professors hold.

    Listener Letter

    The society has dropped its charges against Corballis posthumously but Professors Nola and Cooper are still in its sights. Unsurprisingly, the issue is causing deep divisions within the Royal Society. 

    Theoretical chemist Peter Schwerdtfeger  a German scientist, who holds a chair in theoretical chemistry at Massey University in Auckland and is the Director of the Centre for Theoretical Chemistry and Physics, the head of the New Zealand Institute for Advanced Study, and former president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, one of Germany’s premier scientific and research institutes, commented:

    “This witch hunt against the authors of the Listener article has to stop immediately. And shame on those who are drawing the racist card without even having allowed for a much needed and timely discussion on the involvement of mātauranga Māori in science teaching. 

    “Many of my colleagues are too scared to speak out because they are attacked by the post-modernist ideologists. As a (yet) Fellow of the Royal Society, I am deeply embarrassed and shocked about this investigation, and perhaps a review of the Royal Society NZ is required to avoid leaving a sizeable stain in their history books.”

    It is an open question whether the Royal Society can survive this scandal. Like  other organisations that have abandoned their founding principles for more fashionable standards, oblivion and irrelevance awaits.

    Perhaps what is particularly telling about the nature of this “witch hunt” is that it has been reported that three of the five complainants to the society dropped out when it became clear they would have to be identified for the inquiry to proceed.

    It seems they were happy to help damage others’ careers and reputations anonymously but not quite as keen to put their own on the line by coming forward in public.

    In contrast, in an interview with Kim Hill on RNZ on Saturday, Pinker made his own position very public.

    “Silencing or punishing someone for an opinion runs counter to reason. … No one is infallible; no one is omniscient. The only way our species has been able to do anything worthwhile is by voicing opinions and allowing them to be criticised…

    “If you’ve got a regime where merely voicing an opinion gets you silenced or punished then we’ve turned off the only mechanism we have of discovering knowledge. It is a way of locking ourselves into error…

    “If we have a regime that can subject someone to an investigation based on an opinion, we know from history that’s the way totalitarian autocracies work and oppressive theocracies work.

    “We know that the countries that have done well — the liberal democracies — have had freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry.”

    Later in the interview, Pinker made it explicit who he was referring to as having been silenced: “My beloved former professor Michael Corballis…”


    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.

  • 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 Letter

    In 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.”

    Donate to the Academic Freedom Fund

    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

  • Exclusive: Royal Society Is Investigating Academics For Defending Science

    17 November 2021


    Exclusive: Royal Society Is Investigating Academics For Defending Science

    The Free Speech Union can reveal that two academic fellows are being investigated by The Royal Society of New Zealand for being among those to put their name to a letter in defence of science which was published earlier this year in The Listener Magazine.

    Two distinguished New Zealand scientists and members of The Royal Society of New Zealand co-authored a letter to the Listener in July in which they claimed that “...Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices and plays key roles in management and policy. However, in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself…”.

    Emeritus Professor Michael Corballis was a third individual who signed the letter to also be included in the investigation, yet he sadly passed away on Saturday morning after a battle with cancer. This leaves Professor Garth Cooper and Emeritus Professor Robert Nola to face investigation by the Society after several complaints were made against them. They have been informed that their membership could be terminated.

    And the investigation appears to have a preconceived outcome, as The Royal Society has already published criticism of the 7 letter signers, including the two fellows who face disciplinary action.

    Free Speech Union Spokesperson, Jonathan Ayling, says the investigation is an affront to free speech.

    “The Royal Society was set up for the purpose of advancing and promoting science, technology, and the humanities in New Zealand. This investigation sends a chilling message to other academics: defend science at your peril.

    “The process of the human pursuit of science depends on free speech, including of those who may hold views contrary to the mainstream. The Royal Society are abandoning its own heritage and tradition of academic freedom.

    “Academics should be the critics and conscience of society, not group-thinkers aligned to any particular ideology."

    The Free Speech Union has launched a crowdfunder to defend these individuals and academic freedom from the Royal Society and similarly close-minded organisations.

    “We stand behind the academics freedom of speech and are proud to help them defend their right to critique and raise consciousness of important contemporary issues” said Mr Ayling.

    The Royal Society Te Apārangi has strategic objectives to “better inform and educate Aotearoa New Zealand” and “develop an increasingly diverse Academy and membership”. Their code of conduct states that members must “not harass, bully or knowingly act with malice towards individuals or groups of people;” Yet the authors seem to have been subjected to bullying themselves.

    “The academics have been called ‘racist’ and smeared by fellow scientists and are now having to engage lawyers to defend their opinions on science from an institution that should, instead, be encouraging debate and promoting science.”

    Scholars within a university frequently disagree, and the role of academic institutions is to maintain the ground on which that disagreement can take place, in good faith and in a scholarly fashion. That means that The Royal Society of New Zealand, like the FSU, ought to take a neutral stance, to unequivocally defend the right and duty of its academics to make good-faith arguments, and to defend them from unfair attacks on their reputations. Instead, the Royal Society has chosen to proceed with disciplinary investigation and so has made it more difficult for academics in New Zealand to voice honestly-held views on contentious topics in the future.

    New Zealanders who wish to support the Free Speech Union’s efforts to defend the two academics and the principle of academic freedom are encouraged to support the cause at

    Similarly, all academics, and members of the Royal Society are encouraged to join the Union at


    mid-July Listener letter published

    July 23 Counter letter published (Hendy/Wiles)

    Oct 06 The three co-authors notified of complaints and process

    Nov 10 Three of the complaints withdraw; two remain. New investigation panel also named.

    There were 5 complainants; now there are only 2.

    Jacinta Ruru was part of the original investigation panel and a Prof of Law at Otago; she also signed the Hendy/Wiles letter. Also a signature to that letter was Prof Blaikiw, who was convenor.

  • Auditor General Letter

    If not showing view here – Auditor General Letter

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