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Blog entry

Tackling the hard issues – trust and relationships

By Claire Grant, Genomics Aotearoa Communications Manager
Community consultation is becoming an increasingly important aspect of research programmes in New Zealand, and with that comes the art of relationship building.

Engagement between scientists and user-groups is certainly nothing new. But as stakeholder involvement becomes more of a requirement for science, it becomes harder to define what constitutes effective consultation, and what a community partnership looks like in practice.

And that has implications for our traditional skill sets - it’s no longer simply packaging science through education and disseminating published science results. It requires a meaningful relationship.  

Engagement is not a tradition taught subject and may not necessarily be something we're all good at. But I'd argue we could stop thinking of “soft skills” as an add-on, and instead consider them a list essential for career success.  In other words, we may have to require social dynamics capability alongside the skills taught in the lab.

And while it’s part of personal development, strengthening relationship capability is also the responsibility of organisations throughout the research process.

So what can we do?
One thing we can do to improve the art of maintaining relationships is to understand what consultation really means, in all of its nuances.

Consulting a community group is much more than a phone call. It's face-to-face – yes that's more challenging in a Covid19 operating environment but person-to-person trust can be developed digitally.  

It opens with a desire to learn from a diverse group of people. It operates in an environment where people listen, ask questions, explain why, respect differing viewpoints and capabilities, and is honest and authentic. It progresses with working together on a common research interest, actively incorporating the scientists core skills and knowledge alongside the identified needs and the involvement of the community.  It continues through the lifecycle of each project and beyond.  

Effective engagement comes from discussing what matters, to whom and why – meeting best practice standards. Research programmes design should address what has value to those in the project, and what is needed for ideas or practices to make sense. What processes and resources particular to this setting, may influence how the science is carried out or applied? 

Understand who you are talking to – what do you know about them, what drives them? Framing and focus differ across diverse stakeholders in a multidisciplinary programme, despite a shared interest in the topic; communicating effectively requires learning about and adapting to different social and cultural contexts.

Enter discussions with an open mind; a partnership approach means meeting and discussing not presenting a solution and expecting uptake. Benefit sharing is fundamental.

This investment also requires a time commitment - researchers and managers should expect impactful research programmes to be more challenging to design, manage and deliver. Patience is required.

And bear in mind consultation is only the minimum standard, good practice is active engagement. 

What's happening in New Zealand

Some New Zealand researchers are already earning respect for their inclusiveness, creating working relationship with community groups to benefit health and to improve the local environment.   

Their research plan has included nurturing conversations, providing a respectful forum and an environment of openness, active listening, incorporating different perspectives, and by maintaining an agreed plan. 

For other researchers however, the duty to consult may yet be unfamiliar or misunderstood. There may be confusion about who to consult with and how to initiate conversations. And some may need better understanding of how to work with communities for meaningful involvement.

But it’s clear consultation should never be a tick-box exercise - claiming support for your project does not come from a single phone call, email, query or one-off meeting.  

The researchers giving consultation a token effort or ignore requirements by their institutes to consult with iwi, are ignoring the obligations of the Treaty of Waitangi.  In the process they are alienating a community.  

That creates mistrust and threatens future prospects. It damages the reputation of science and researchers.

And poor communication risks material damage as alienated communities miss out on the benefits that come from the research. 

Some guidelines for consultation are underway.  Genomics Aotearoa is developing statements to describe the expectations for research to engage well with Māori and Māori communities that include data storage and data access. That goal is methodology of research that offer clear documented beneficial opportunities for Māori as treaty partners with the Crown, not as stakeholders or end users.

Researchers and the professions that support good consultation can facilitate the public to interact with science in a positive way. If we get it right and take the community with us, the benefits will be societal. And that will be good news for the health and wealth of all New Zealanders and preservation of precious taonga.