OPINION: The Health Research Council of New Zealand’s chief executive, Professor Kath McPherson, adds her voice to the debate stimulated by a Stuff column published earlier this week.

Earlier this week, Stuff published a piece titled The Treaty has no place in scientific endeavour. The twittersphere responded swiftly and reading the comments has been a mix of challenging, distressing and inspiring. 

So, where does the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) stand? Well, we are one of the government agencies responsible for setting New Zealand’s health research priorities for the next 10 years, and I can tell you that the whole process is taking place in partnership with Māori. It must.

If you aren’t involved in science or the process of consultation in science, you might read the Stuff article and be persuaded that science is values-free, should be disconnected from societal views, and that it’s somehow pure in a way that consultation with Māori would negate.

The author is likely not entirely alone in thinking consultation with Māori or with lay members of society about what goes on in science is non-essential (or limiting). At times, I suspect, many have seen it to be more of an after-thought rather than integral. However, science leadership in New Zealand, and a growing number of scientists, are committed to supporting a different view, to get the very best science we can to benefit New Zealand. 

I won’t repeat here all that has been said by the University of Otago’s Associate Professor William Levack or Professor Margreet Vissers responding to the original piece, as to why consultation with Māori is a fundamentally legitimate part of what, and how, we do things in New Zealand. These researchers and many others clearly know the Treaty has a rightful place in science and that consultation with tangata whenua – and other citizens – helps improve their work, and the relevance of their work to New Zealanders. 

In my own experience as a researcher, consultation with Māori (and people with disabilities, given my area of research) has always lifted my game, challenged me to rethink some assumptions I have made (what can be more scientific than that!) and pushed me to do better work. Being challenged about why I have chosen a particular topic or methodology has actually been helpful in refining my focus, or building a better argument as to the meaningfulness of the project, or why I thought it mattered. 

A recent documentary about Stan Walker illustrated what consultation or partnership can, and does, achieve between Māori and researchers. It was Stan’s whānau who stimulated some of our best minds to focus on just why so many people were dying of the same variant of cancer. The basic biomedical science that was done was stimulated by a question that mattered to Māori. As a result, more New Zealanders are surviving and the Health Research Council is proud to have supported that work. 

The same thing is true in Huntington’s Chorea, sudden infant death syndrome, and should be true in many other health conditions where Māori have higher incidence, greater prevalence of difficulties, and worse outcomes.

Science is about people (both scientists and those who use their results); it is about values (most scientists go into the fields they do because they care, and are motivated to make a contribution and a difference); it is political (as is clear from the Stuff piece), and it is about debate and argument (ideally respectful) to move thinking, knowledge and a range of benefits forward. 

I welcome the commitment of the scientists we support, and the challenge they provide us in thinking about how to ensure New Zealand health research is the very best it can be. 

For the Health Research Council, a pillar of our strategy is to ensure our research investment improves equity and sees our indigenous people and their capacity in science strengthened. You cannot separate consultation with Māori from good science in New Zealand. They are connected and, in fact, depend upon one another.