Aotearoa: Mistakes and Amends

By Kevin Esvelt

Researchers should hold themselves morally accountable for all of the consequences of their work. That can require publicly acknowledging when we have done wrong and striving to make amends.

In trying to remedy a past error — my suggestion that self-propagating CRISPR gene drive might be used for invasive species control — I singularly failed to uphold the ideals of Responsive Science.

It was inexcusably wrong of me to publish a manuscript relating to gene drive and Aotearoa New Zealand without thinking to invite my new Māori partners to offer suggestions during the revision stage. My mistake could jeopardize a primary goal of our partnership: to ensure that daisy drive can only be developed and considered for use in Aotearoa under a co-governance model with Māori, the kaitiaki (caretakers) of the sacred taonga species.

As Melanie Mark-Shadbolt said of me (quoting with permission):

“… his naivety of the political situation Māori are in, and the publication of this paper without talking to the other partner (Māori) more than likely will have consequences for that partner (Māori) that the author (Esvelt) did not consider.”

Her words are searingly true. This is precisely why Māori co-governance of daisy drive development is necessary if the method is ever to be used in Aotearoa: I know as little of the local ecosystem as I do of the local politics, meaning that I cannot possibly evaluate the likely consequences. It is why the matauranga Māori, the wisdom and way of knowing of the Māori people accumulated over generations in Aotearoa, will be essential to help ensure that any action taken is in the best interests of the taonga species.

She goes on:

“Pessimistically, it is now possible that Māori may never get co-governance in the discussion and/or development of gene-drive technologies in Aotearoa. Optimistically, however, this paper could be a wake-up call that the science sector in Aotearoa New Zealand needs to work in partnership with Māori and preserve New Zealand’s leadership on the world stage.”

I hope that the latter will be true, but hope is not enough. Since I did not think to invite suggestions on a matter relevant to our partnership, I must hold myself responsible for any consequences of my thoughtlessness. That requires publicly acknowledging my failure, attempting to make amends, and striving to better uphold my duties in future.

Acknowledging mistakes is painful, but honesty requires it: better that we publicly admit wrongdoing and strengthen our resolve than continue to do wrong.

In February 2018, I will be meeting with Te Tira Whakamātaki (the Māori biosecurity network) and the Te Herenga Māori (the Māori National Network). At those meetings, I will bring up this story of my failure because it illustrates the necessity of inviting local wisdom and governance. It is my hope that hearing diverse Māori and New Zealander perspectives will not only aid my understanding of whether and how my inventions may benefit Aotearoa, but also shed light on how I might best fulfill my broader responsibilities to the world beyond.


This post was originally published in November 2017 in Responsive Science.

Cross-posted to Medium.

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