Decolonizing Science

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We are witnessing a resurgence of indigenous knowledge and growing acknowledgment of its scientific value worldwide.

Before we can indigenize science, we need to decolonize science – the pūtaiao model provides a pathway.

In Aotearoa1, there’s been some progress, including the introduction of a public holiday to mark Matariki, the beginning of a new year in maramataka – the Māori calendar based on the phases of the Moon, the movement of stars and the timing of ecological changes.

But progress has not been straightforward, with some scientists publicly questioning the scientific value of mātauranga2.

At the same time, Māori scientists have drawn on and advanced mātauranga and continue to make space for te reo, tikanga3 and honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi in research.

Our recent publication explores pūtaiao – a way of conducting research grounded in kaupapa Māori4.

In education, pūtaiao is often simplified to mean science taught in Māori-medium schools that includes mātauranga, or science taught in te reo more broadly. But science based on kaupapa Māori is generally by Māori, for Māori and with Māori.

Our research extends kaupapa Māori and the important work of pūtaiao in schools into tertiary scientific research. We envision pūtaiao as a way of doing science that is led by Māori and firmly positioned in te ao Māori5 (including mātauranga, te reo and tikanga).

Pūtaiao as decolonising science

Pūtaiao privileges Māori ways of knowing, being and doing. It is a political speaking back for the inclusion of te ao Māori – mātauranga, te reo, tikanga and Te Tiriti o Waitangi – in science.

Conducting research this way is not new. Many Māori scientists have drawn on mātauranga and kaupapa Māori in their research for decades. Our conceptualisation of pūtaiao is an affirmation of the work of Māori scientists and a pathway for redefining and transforming scientific research for future generations.

Decolonising science is at the heart of pūtaiao. It challenges and critiques the academy and disciplines of Western science. Decolonising science requires a focus6 on histories, structures and institutions that act as barriers to mātauranga, te reo and tikanga.

We argue that decolonising science is a necessary step before we can Indigenise science.

Like mātauranga, pūtaiao is embedded in place and in the people of those places. It centres, prioritises and affirms Māori identity in the context of scientific research and science identity.

The importance of the researcher in pūtaiao

How we identify as Māori – tangata whenua7 or rāwaho (people not related to the hapū8 or whānau9), ahi kā (people who keep the home fires burning) or ahi mātaotao (people who may have been disconnected to the land through lack of occupation over generations) – fundamentally changes how we interact with people and place through research.

To practise pūtaiao effectively, researchers are required to understand who they are and how that informs the research questions asked, the research relationships formed, the location of the research and the way research is conducted.

Kaupapa Māori, as articulated by distinguished education scholar Graham Hingangaroa Smith, requires two approaches to decolonisation: structuralist and culturalist.

Culturalist approaches centre te reo, mātauranga and tikanga. The groundbreaking work led by professor of marine science and aquaculture10 Kura Paul-Burke, using mātauranga to enhance shellfish restoration, is an excellent example of a culturalist approach to decolonising science.

A structuralist approach means paying attention to and dismantling the structures within science which continue to exclude Māori knowledge and people. It encourages us to think about the colonial roots of science and how science has been used to justify colonial violence and oppression of Māori.

Captain Cook’s “scientific voyage” to Aotearoa is a great example of how colonisation occurred under the guise of science.

Challenging the status quo

Pūtaiao reframes the conversation around the inclusion of mātauranga Māori11 in science. It considers the relationship between te ao Māori, the researcher and science to imagine how to decolonise, Indigenise and transform science.

We understand science not simply as scientific knowledge but as a knowledge system that spans research, education, academia, scientific practice and publications, as well as the evaluation and funding and access to science, its legitimacy and its relationship to policy and government.

There has been much research on Māori experiences within the science system, including the cultural double shift when Māori scientists are expected to lift their colleagues’ understanding, racism and the difficulties of inclusion. A lone Māori scientist is often tasked with upskilling their colleagues, representing Māori on committees and leading cultural practices in addition to standard loads of supervising, teaching and research.

“You want us to publish in Nature, get a high PBRF grade and help everyone else “Māorify” their funding applications. We want to do research that is driven by mana whenua12 aspirations.” — Dr Tara McAllister @taramcallister4 https://t.co/EKIp5MGLw8 — e-Tangata (@etangata) May 27, 2023

To challenge the status quo, we explored different ways of creating ecosystems13 or “flourishing forests” of Māori scientists to advance pūtaiao. This includes creating networks of Māori staff in science by establishing research centres such as Te Pūtahi o Pūtaiao and the Centre of Indigenous Science.

It also means creating research projects that move beyond the siloed disciplines within the science system. In this way, pūtaiao enables Māori to see themselves and be seen within science.

Pūtaiao offers a practical foundation, connecting Māori science leaders to transform14 science. Whether this happens through new university courses, academic programmes, research centres, institutions or regional and community hubs remains to be seen.

It is certain, however, that pūtaiao, conceptualised as kaupapa Māori science, offers many pathways for Māori scientists to continue to draw on and advance more than mātauranga to decolonise and, ultimately, redefine science into the future.


  1. Aotearoa: The Māori name for New Zealand, meaning Land of the Long White Cloud.
  2. mātauranga: Māori cultural knowledge and understanding of the world; Māori wisdom.
  3. tikanga: Māori customs and traditions that have been handed down from the ancestors.
  4. kaupapa Māori: Generally refers to a foundation of understanding and knowledge created by Māori that expresses Māori aspirations, values and principles.
  5. te ao Māori: Māori world view (belief system), which provides a Māori epistemology (study of knowledge) of source, origin, knowledge, and application.
  6. focus: The point on a fault where the first break happens, and where the seismic waves radiate out from.
  7. tangata whenua: A Māori term that literally means ‘people of the land’, used to refer to Māori as the indigenous people of New Zealand.
  8. hapū: A division of a Māori tribe or iwi. Māori clans or subtribes.
  9. whānau: Extended family.
  10. aquaculture: The farming of aquatic organisms such as fish, crustaceans, molluscs and aquatic plants.
  11. mātauranga Māori: A contemporary term referring to Māori knowledge, Māori ways of knowing and associated practice.
  12. mana whenua: Māori people who have customary authority over an area.
  13. ecosystem: An interacting system including the biological, physical, and chemical relationships between a community of organisms and the environment they live in.
  14. transform: To be given a completely different form or appearance.
  15. scientific community: The total body of scientists, their relationships and interactions.
  16. estuary: A partially enclosed body of water where freshwater mixes with saltwater from the sea.
  17. postgraduate: A student who has obtained a first degree and is now working towards a higher degree such as master’s or PhD.
  18. indigenous: Originating and living or occurring naturally in an area or environment.

Originally published at Science Learning Hub Pokapū Akoranga Pūtaiao

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