The underserving and under-representation of Māori scientists in New Zealand’s science system

Published online: July 2021

Synthesis by: Dr Tara McAllister, School of Biological Sciences and Te Pūnaha Matatini, University of Auckland (tara.mcallister @

Tara McAllister doing field work, Ōpihi River

Tara McAllister doing field work in the Ōpihi River, South Canterbury (Credit: Emma Mackenzie)

The problem:

Māori scientists are severely under-represented in the publicly funded science sector, including universities and crown-research institutes (CRIs). Between 2008 and 2018, Māori comprised only 0–8% of the scientific workforce employed in these organisations. Shockingly, one university failed to employ even a single Māori scientist over a period of 11 years, despite increasing numbers of Māori obtaining degrees in higher education (Table 1). This indicates that universities and CRIs are failing to build a sustainable Māori workforce and highlights that despite espousals of valuing diversity, that they continue to ignore their obligations outlined in Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Although in Aotearoa, leaders within the science sector often state that Māori have low participation in science, this is an inaccurate assertion. Rather, Māori are actively and passively excluded from the science system due to colonialism, institutional racism and the continued privileging of western knowledge and non-Māori researchers.


Table1. The percentage of Māori full-time equivalents (FTEs) of academic staff in science faculties at each of Aotearoa New Zealand’s eight universities. Data from McAllister et al. (2020).

University 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
A 7.3 5.5 5.1 5.1 5.4 5.6 5.8 7.1 6.6 6.4 6.4
B 4.2 4.2 3.7 3.7 4.3 4.3 4.1 4.7 4.8 4.5 4.4
C 1 1 1.3 1.2 1.1 1.1 1.1 1.4 1.5 2.2 2.5
D 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
E - - - 1.5 1.3 0.7 1.1 1.4 2 2.6 2
F 3.5 3.8 3.3 3.4 3.4 3.7 3.4 4.1 3.8 4.2 4.2
G 1.8 3 2.6 3.8 3.8 3.8 3.6 3.2 3.2 3 3.5
H - - - - - - - 0.7 0.6 0.6 0.5


Māori were the first, and arguably the most successful, scientists in Aotearoa, so why do we still have such dismal representation within the science sector? Understanding the experience of Māori scientists provides insight into why this is the case. For example, in Ngā Kete Mātauranga Dr Naomi Simmonds describes why she had to ‘divorce her discipline’ and leave university: “Colleagues openly asked for ‘cultural’ advice for their research proposals, asked me to write sections of their proposals for them, and gave me unsolicited advice to ‘go easy on the colonisation stuff’ and to ‘ease students into the Māori worldview’.” Indeed, Māori scientists are negatively impacted and overworked as they operate with a ‘cultural double-shift’, where expectations to fulfil cultural capacity targets are weighted on top of their full-time responsibilities of their research roles. There is immense pressure to indigenize our departments/ institutions/ curriculum, provide ‘cultural advice’ and assist others in funding applications, all whilst trying to progress our own careers and carry out research that uplifts our own communities. It is therefore unsurprising that the small number of Māori present in the science system experience burnout as they attempt to do multiple jobs, when being paid for one and being a single person.


Next steps:

There is a clear need to deconstruct the colonial system in which science both actively and more subtly excludes Māori. For example, obvious actions such as renaming fellowships that glorify white supremacists and their colonial legacies, such as the James Cook Fellowship and Endeavour Fund, should be relatively straightforward to implement. Addressing the more subtle ways in which Māori people and knowledge are marginalised is more nuanced. Actions to address the lack of Māori scientists, particularly in leadership positions, are urgently required. A stronger emphasis on mātauranga (Māori knowledge) and the colonial history of science in the curriculum is also necessary to ensure that future generations of scientists are equipped with the knowledge and understanding that scientific frameworks of thinking exist beyond the discipline of colonial science. 

Our science system will never reach its full potential without Māori. We know that diversity leads to more novel and innovative research so all New Zealanders benefit when Māori voices are present and heard. The solutions are numerous, some are more complex than others. Institutions need to urgently hire, retain and promote more Māori scientists. Cluster hires of Māori scientists, targeted postdoctoral fellowships, removing institutional overheads and lifting PhD stipends will all help nurture the Māori scientific workforce. However, the solutions for addressing the under-representation of Māori scientists do not simply lie in getting more people through a fundamentally broken system but require the removal of systematic barriers that prevent Māori from progressing in science. The structural side of these issues is much more difficult to address but will help to create spaces in which Māori are able not only to survive but thrive within the sciences.



Haar, J., & Martin, W. J. 2021. He aronga takirua: Cultural double-shift of Māori scientists. Human Relations, DOI:10.1177/00187267211003955.

McAllister, T. G., Naepi, S., Wilson, E., Hikuroa, D., & Walker, L. A. 2020. Under-represented and overlooked: Māori and Pasifika scientists in Aotearoa New Zealand’s universities and crown-research institutes. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, DOI: 10.1080/03036758.2020.1796103.

Ruru, J., & Nikora, L. W. 2021. Ngā Kete Mātauranga. Māori scholars at the research interface. Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago University Press

Simmonds, N. 2021. Ancestral Geographies: finding my way home. In J. Ruru and L. W Nikora (Eds), Ngā Kete Mātauranga- Māori Scholars at the Research Interface (pp. 129-137). Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago University Press.


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