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Published 5 April 2017

President's speech at launch of 150th Anniversary celebrations dinner

This speech was delivered by Professor Richard Bedford QSO FRSNZ, Royal Society Te Apārangi President at the launch dinner of the Society’s 150th anniversary celebrations on 5 April 2017.

E ngā waka, e ngā reo, e ngā mana, tena koutou katoa

E ngā iwi o te motu, e ngā hau e wha

Mi mihi ahau ki a koutou

Mihi mai, whakatau mai, haere mai

Tena koutou, tena koutou tena tatou katoa

It is a great honour to have the privilege of joining Dame Anne Salmond in welcoming you all to a dinner where we are officially launching our 150th anniversary as New Zealand’s national academy of the sciences, technology, engineering, the social sciences and the humanities. 

We are delighted that our Prime Minister, Bill English, our Minister of Science and Innovation, Paul Goldsmith and the Chairperson of the Education and Science Select Committee in Parliament, Dr Jian Yang, are present as we begin these celebrations to mark the 150th year since an Act of Parliament in 1867 established an Institute in New Zealand “to promote the general study and cultivation of art, science, literature and philosophy”.

Since the 1860s successive New Zealand governments, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and generosity, have invested in an organization dedicated to the promotion of excellent research and scholarship.   This will be readily apparent to anyone who reads the history of the Royal Society Te Apārangi that will be launched later this evening.  And while there are always researchers who would like more investment in their particular areas of inquiry, the increased investment your government has been making, Prime Minister, in a range of contestable research funds and infrastructure developments that support research and scholarship more generally, is greatly appreciated. 

We look forward to working with you and your parliamentary colleagues as we deliver on the key objective specified for the Royal Society Te Apārangi in its current Act, namely to “foster in the New Zealand community a culture that supports science, technology and the humanities”.  In fostering this culture the academy, the government and the public all have vitally important roles to play.   

There is a famous Māori whakatauki or proverb that captures well for me the inclusive nature of this mandate:

Ma wei e to te waka o te mātauranga?

Maku e to, mau e to, ma te whakarongo e to.

Who will bear the canoe of knowledge?

I will, you will, all who listen will.

In the 21st century this canoe of knowledge has taken on several new outriggers or, perhaps more appropriately if it is an Americas Cup racing canoe, “dagger boards”, that go by the names of youtube, twitter, instagram, Facebook.  It is perhaps ironic that at a time when information can be disseminated instantaneously on the internet many people are choosing to access only that information that aligns with their beliefs rather than allowing themselves to be challenged by other ideas and arguments. 

One of the most important challenges facing the New Zealand Institute from the 1860s, and which continues to challenge all academies in the 21st century, is reaching people with evidence-based information that will be of value to them, while showing understanding and respect for their beliefs and values.   It is here that we need to embrace much more effectively our younger generations of scholars who are very familiar with the social media outriggers/dagger boards and who reflect, most obviously, the contemporary diversity of our society. 

In doing this we are actually reliving the origins of many of our academies.  If we go back to the origins of the Royal Society of London in November 1660, which Bill Bryson describes in his introduction to Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society, we find that  it was a group of young men, who had gathered to hear Christoper Wren (twenty eight years old) give a lecture on astronomy, who decided to form a Society "to assist and promote the accumulation of useful knowledge".

In the case of the Royal Society Te Apārangi, it was a young geologist, James Hector (34 years old), a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and his colleague William Travers, an MP who was also a naturalist, who persuaded the New Zealand Government in the 1860s to form an Institute "for the purpose of encouraging the spread of scientific knowledge throughout the country".  

It was talented young researchers and scholars who created these academies.  In my view, it will be talented young scholars, like many of those who made presentations in the new Fellows symposium this afternoon, who will help us to keep the Royal Society Te Apārangi relevant for the wider research community, the public and the government in the 21st century.

Our celebration of 150 years as New Zealand’s national academy in 2017 is marked with recognition of some great achievements over the years.   Equally important though is an acknowledgement that we need to do much more to recognize and promote the research excellence and achievements of scholars who are women.  Barriers and biases over many years and in many institutions have limited their progress.  The Royal Society Te Apārangi is not alone in addressing significant gender biases in their Fellowships and research excellence awards – this is a challenge facing many national academies.

In the New Zealand case, we also need be much more proactive in recognising and promoting the work of researchers who are Māori, who work in the private sector, and who are recent migrants or their descendants. Our strategic plan identifies these challenges and we are working hard to remove barriers and support engagement, to reduce unconscious bias and become more diverse. 

You may have picked up that I am no longer referring to the Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi.  As from today we have become simply the Royal Society Te Apārangi.  Our Māori name, which loosely translated means “distinguished group”, and which we were gifted by Wharehuia Milroy in the late 2000s, clearly signals our New Zealand heritage.

As we commence a major drive during our anniversary year and beyond of becoming more relevant to Māori and to many other groups who are not well represented in our academy, we have adopted an iconic kiwi symbol, the koru, as our logo.  This reflects new growth while keeping a strong connection to our roots in Aotearoa. 

We have also refreshed the pin which our Fellows receive on election to the Academy – a pin which reflects the three baskets of knowledge: te kete-tuatea (“basket of light” or present knowledge), te kete-tuauri (“basket of darkness” or things unknown) and te kete-aronui (“basket of pursuit” or knowledge we currently seek).

Our 150th anniversary is thus a time for both reflection and revitalization.  We are acutely aware that we will only stay relevant if we maintain the trust of the research community, the government and the public.  In doing this we must continue to maintain the highest standards of research excellence and integrity as well as our independence as a source of robust and reliable knowledge. 

We must ensure that expert knowledge and advice are not only readily available in a wide range of media but that they remain valued and respected.  We need to ensure we are communicating in ways that empower rather than undermine people whose ways of knowing are embedded in cultural beliefs and practices that are different from epistemplogies that are rooted in western scientific method.

In this context, as the entrée is about to be served, it is appropriate to conclude these observations with another famous Māori saying:

Nau te rourou, naku te rourou, ka ora ai te iwi

With your food basket, and my food basket, the people will be well-nourished.

Hopefully you will be well nourished this evening.  Please enjoy the entrée.

No reira, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena tatoa katoa.