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Why it’s important to have Māori-led capacity in genomics research

Genomics research is an emerging frontier that will mean applications such as personalised medicine being developed for New Zealand-specific problems, and something that will see an increasing focus on the needs of Māori populations.

However, Māori are significantly under-represented in genomic sciences.

One successful way of building capability to improve understanding of genomics among Māori has been the Summer Internship of Native peoples in Genomics (SING) Aotearoa internship programme, an innovative initiative now co-sponsored by Genomics Aotearoa that we have been running since 2016.

Phil Wilcox at SING Aotearoa 2019

Phil Wilcox at SING Aotearoa 2019

This year, 20 SING interns spent a week in Palmerston North with some our best genomics researchers, the aim being for pākeke (Māori adults) and graduate-level Māori students to improve their understanding of the technologies, as well as the associated ethical and cultural issues. The interns are expected to share this knowledge for the benefit of Māori communities.

So why is it so important for New Zealand’s future to have Māori-led education in this cutting-edge research?

The challenge for New Zealand is to make sure that the substantial benefits expected from genomics benefits us all. Currently, there is very little involvement of Māori in genomics-informed research. In addition, the science is moving forward very quickly, making it increasingly harder for meaningful engagement with genomics researchers on a technically-equitable basis.

SING Aotearoa is one way we have found to address the gap between iwi Māori and researchers in Aotearoa New Zealand to protect the rights, interests and taonga of Māori, and to acknowledge Māori cultural perspectives within the research.  

Our programme helps in two ways – we empower young Māori to incorporate their cultural practices into research, which will, in turn, inform and develop the traditional science approach in New Zealand.  At the same time, by training pākeke and kaumatua we help to take knowledge back to Māori communities to start discussions on what community-led programmes are needed to develop and take advantage of these emerging technologies for improving health and for preserving our taonga species in the natural world.  

SING alumni are already active in facilitating communication; they are furthering careers in science, and many are beginning conversations with their communities on potential collaborations and innovative new ways of doing things. I now have five Māori graduate students working in health, the primary sector and conservation. There are others at various universities and Crown Research Institutes, so our collective presence as genomics researchers is steadily increasing.

Their confidence in the sciences is also highlighting a potential career pathway for other young Māori which will help Māori representation in sciences while ensuring their research is tika.

Māori have long-held concepts of inheritance that pre-date arrival of Europeans. By adding genomics to the kete of knowledge, Māori are on a path to reclaim this space – in a way that is relevant to contemporary Māori contexts. As with other professions, this is possible by having Māori practitioners leading the way.

Dr Phillip Wilcox (Ngāti Rakaipaaka, Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Kahungunu ki te Wairoa) is a Genomics Aotearoa researcher and SING Aotearoa co-ordinator.

SING Aotearoa

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