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Reflections during medal season

This piece written by Professor Annie Goldson ONZM, FRSNZ reflects on being the recipient of the Aronui Medal for Humanities, recognition of the ‘softer disciplines’, and the next steps for a diverse range of voices to address the very real challenges our society faces.

"It is medal season at Royal Society Te Apārangi and much to my delight, I am the recipient of one, the Aronui Medal for Humanities for my career as a documentary filmmaker. The award has caused me to pause for reflection about the involvement of the ‘softer disciplines’ in the organisation, so I’ve been doing a bit of data wrangling. Arts, Humanities and Social Science scholars now sit at about 27% of the roster. Without a deeper dive, it is hard to chart the rate of increase over recent years, but I can only assume there has been one.

"To be honest, as a filmmaker and a humanities scholar, I hadn’t registered the Royal Society Te Apārangi particularly until I was nominated as a Fellow a few years ago. I had overheard chatter about a reasonably-priced accommodation in London, had some thoughts of Isaac Newton and Joseph Banks, but Royal Societies were not part of my world despite having taught at universities for decades. According to Wikipedia, the Royal Society of London began in the mid-1660s as a science-based institution. Tradition of course, can cut both ways, at times, providing a solid base for future developments, at others, resisting change.

"Te Apārangi is making an admirable effort to engage with contemporary debate and the wider community on a number of fronts. Along with the (presumed) jump in the proportion of those working in the ‘soft disciplines,’ it is collating and publishing statistics on the D-word (diversity) on an annual basis in its ‘who we are’ documents. Its reports analyse how its staff, Fellows and Members, grant recipients, judges, and speakers shake down into various categories. As indicated by its name expansion, Te Apārangi is acknowledging, even embracing, Te Ao Māori, a welcome shift in a country that is still to come to grips with its past.  The organisation has waded into the recent debate around mātauranga Māori, science, colonisation and free speech, indicating it is prepared to swim in some choppy transdisciplinary waters.

"According to my reading of the published stats, the number of those identifying as women within the ranks of the Fellows - wāhine, tau iwi and more – has been steadily increasing. Collectively, we currently sit at 18% of the Fellows, a five per cent jump since 2017. Today, according to my calculations, three-quarters of us work in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, as it is within these disciplines that most of us research and work. This is not to disparage the women scientists amongst our ranks. Hats off to them. The odds stacked against them succeeding in science right up until the pretty recent past would have been huge.

"But biases continue. Recently, I overhead some older scientists complaining that a shift to accommodate women in leadership positions was clearly an instance of ‘affirmative action’, and that women were better at ‘networking’ than actual science. What were they suggesting? That women are gaining admission due to political correctness rather than merit? That there had been an unfortunate softening of disciplines from the Society’s more muscular beginnings? The refusal of this male banter to engage with historical context was unpleasant to hear. Colonisation, the realities of prejudice, both external and internalised, the unfair weight of domestic responsibilities are all swept away by an insistence on a meritocracy, without considering on whose shoulders such a meritocracy is built - and the consequences of burdens borne.

"One of the few positive results of the COVID pandemic is the realisation there is no better time for broad-based interdisciplinary debates around some sticky subjects. These are complex times. The science behind the COVID vaccines is extraordinary and to be applauded, but international need and national interest has blurred discussion about the profit-motive of pharmaceutical companies, a lack of an IP commons, and the accessibility of the vaccine to poorer and middle-income countries. As I write, Omicron is shouting ‘I told you so.’ Social unrest over lockdowns and vaccine mandates is exploding virtually everywhere, fuelled by a mix of deprivation, distrust and infiltration by far-right messages and wellness ‘influencers.’ Unregulated social media platforms and the erosion of a public sphere, if we ever had one, are playing a critical role in stoking disruption and anger. The mainstream media too is deploying squeaky-wheel soundbites and sensationalism, undermining a very real need for a functioning Fourth Estate at a time that governments are granting themselves new political powers.

"All this to say, Te Apārangi’s mandate to ‘explore, discover and share knowledge’ seems more critical than ever, and the greater inclusiveness across disciplines and communities is to be welcomed. Given my long career within universities, I should have known about the Society, indicating that its reach has been historically narrow. Its challenge will be how to reach out more widely, deploying multiple disciplines and a diverse range of voices to address the very real challenges our society faces."