Science has been described as promoting exclusion and oppression by rewarding those who practice entrenched norms, including individualism, hypercompetition and productivism, and penalizing those who challenge them1. Today, these norms permeate the design of scientific institutions and funding — reified in overt hierarchies and short-term funding cycles that disincentivize participatory and collaborative approaches.

The science system picks winners

Harré et al.2 describe the science system as one that ‘picks winners’ through a zero-sum finite game in which it is perceived that for one individual to gain, another must lose. The opportunity to ‘win this game’ is not equally shared; scientific successes tend to accumulate with individuals and organizations who are structurally and socially advantaged3. People who experience relatively few intersecting forms of marginalization remain uniquely privileged and visible in science, including in promotions, grant success, pay and publication rates4. Meanwhile, demographically underrepresented researchers remain undervalued and underrewarded5. These intersecting patterns of privilege and marginalization are wielded or experienced (knowingly or unknowingly) by all who participate.

Enabling broader societal participation in the science system does not only matter from an egalitarian perspective; collaborative knowledge creation is urgently needed to address the complex global challenges that humanity faces6. Here, we assert that collective action is also necessary to transform our science system and that complexity theory could help to achieve this.

‘Solutions’ can have unintended consequences

Scientific institutions are increasingly engaged in structural reform, including policies and practices intended to improve diversity, equity and inclusivity. Depending on how they are defined and enacted, these initiatives have the potential to hold unethical behaviours such as discrimination and bullying to account, and to support diverse and everyday forms of care, resistance and reworking. Yet accountability and context are often neglected during their conception and implementation and, as a result, many diversity, equity and inclusivity initiatives disguise or deepen inequities7.

When implemented as standalone solutions, even the most well-intended initiatives can drive perverse outcomes. In 2005, the Athena Scientific Women’s Academic Network (SWAN) Charter was established to increase the representation, progression and success of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. Organizations who signed up were expected to adopt ten key principles, develop an action plan and apply for awards that conferred accredited status. From 2011, Athena SWAN accreditation allowed organizations to apply for ring-fenced government funding. Early iterations of the charter were criticized for a binary focus on gender and lack of attention to intersectionality, whereas today’s expanded Athena SWAN scheme addresses issues of equity more broadly. Despite its promise, the charter is still too often implemented in ways that are perceived as ‘box-ticking’ and that lead to women — particularly those from other underrepresented and marginalized groups — taking on the bureaucratic and administrative heavy lifting, sometimes at the expense of their careers and wellbeing8.

In Aotearoa–New Zealand, the ‘Vision Mātauranga’ policy framework was developed by the former Ministry of Research, Science and Technology to recognize and support the ‘unlocking of the innovative potential of Māori [Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa–New Zealand] for the benefit of all New Zealand’. To help to achieve this, the framework provides strategic direction for funding decisions on research of relevance to Māori across four broad themes (economic growth, environmental sustainability, health and social well-being, and Indigenous knowledge). Although Vision Mātauranga has made critical steps towards its original purpose, its primary author Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal notes it has ‘not had the amount of activity, inspiration or spirit … initially envisioned’, owing to patchy implementation across the national research system and a lack of strong incentives. The mismatch between the aspirations of Vision Mātauranga and the realities of the wider system result in scientific and cultural ‘double shifts’, most often borne by Māori researchers9.

Embracing complexity

When birds flock together for flight, they move from an individual state to an ordered group, easing their collective journey (Fig. 1a). The flock represents an emergent state that arises from the behaviours of individuals acting in interconnected ways. This emergence is one of several critical features that distinguish complex from simple systems. Complex systems may also exhibit sensitivity to initial conditions (that is, path dependence), nestedness, nonlinearity, feedback loops and critical transitions, such as the moment birds assemble into a flock.

Fig. 1: Complex systems and six conditions of change.
figure 1

a, The ordering of birds into a flock is an example of a complex system. Triangles represent actors (for example, individuals, communities or institutions). The actors on the left are homogenous, disconnected and unable to effectively respond to interventions. The actors on the right are connected to one another; their ability to receive and respond to feedback enables rapid transitions to an ordered and collective state, such as birds flying in a shared direction of travel. In the flock example, regular switches between leading and trailing positions also share and reduce the overall energetic cost of flight. Image courtesy of Jo Bailey. b, An adaptation of the six conditions of systems change, translated into Māori by M. Kirby (Ngāti Whakaue) for Healthy Families Rotorua. This heuristic identifies six conditions required for sustained and equitable change in complex systems. Adapted from ‘The Water of Systems Change’ FSG, by John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Peter Senge, 2018.

Like a flock of birds, the science system is relational and dynamic with emergent potential: an assemblage of people, places, knowledge and other heterogeneous entities, whose combined interactions are understood in relation to each other; and with an effect that is more than the sum of each part10. This was a feature of Aotearoa–New Zealand’s response to COVID-19. In the absence of formal advisory bodies, networks of researchers leveraged trusted relationships with policymakers and Māori communities to support a rapid and coordinated response. The response was widely considered a success by social, health and economic measures11.

These emergent qualities, and other features such as path-dependence, emphasize the importance of recognizing and engaging with complexity in deliberate and care-full ways. Complexity theory offers one way to understand barriers (and clues) to systems change, including why intervening only at specific points (as with Athena SWAN and Vision Mātauranga) can generate unforeseen consequences.

In Aotearoa–New Zealand, our health system has also been unsuccessfully grappling with how to address long-standing and increasing inequities. Although these emergent outcomes have been known for decades, and despite targeted policy and resources, our underlying health systems — and thus trajectories of community health and well-being — remain largely unchanged12.

The whole-of-community systems approach (Fig. 1b) taken by Healthy Families NZ has been described as a game changer in its most recent evaluation report. The initiative makes a strategic move away from fragmented, small-scale and time-limited programmes by supporting existing local action on health, while influencing local and national funding and policies to be more responsive to communities and their diverse contexts (Box 1). Sharing success and failures across the community teams has been key to the initiative’s success, along with fostering a responsive, timely and trusting contractual relationship with the central agency funder.

Towards systems change

To realize a science system that demonstrates a relational duty of care to all its participants — including those on the margins, in precarious positions and in support roles — systematic, collaborative and whole-of-community action is needed. We advocate for action that is responsive to diverse geopolitical, cultural and temporal contexts, made global by a shared ethical orientation and mobilization towards a science system that enables individual, collective and scholarly flourishing13.

We see promise in five interconnected pathways, with each intersecting with most or all six conditions of systems change (Fig. 1b):

How we act

We encourage scientific communities and organizations to identify their shared values and uphold contextually responsive ethical and professional principles. For instance, our approach to research at Te Pūnaha Matatini (a Centre of Research Excellence in Aotearoa–New Zealand) is guided by four principles, which are expressed through a Māori lens. Pono, or a commitment to truth and genuineness, provides the foundation principle to guide both the purpose and practice of our research, and thereby frames the following: tika is to undertake research in ways that are just or right for a given context; and tapu is to do so in ways that recognize the intrinsic value, and rights, of every person and thing. Manaakitanga is to do so in ways that enhance reciprocal relationships of care.

How we lead

We encourage a shift towards models of mentorship, learning and respectful collaboration that demonstrate reciprocity and engender trust. Research communities such as Te Pūnaha Matatini offer pathways to pursue relational models in which everyone has something to gain and to give; here, mentoring and advisory roles are built into projects to foster growth into research leadership, with early-career members supported to lead research clusters and applications for seed funding.

How we resource

We support funding models that provide long-term support and equitable access to funding opportunities (for example, as signalled by Canada’s Tri-Agency EDI Action Plan). For example, high-trust, flexible contracting and meaningful investment into relationship building, codesign and growing capability will better enable sustained participatory and transdisciplinary work.

How we evaluate others

Many institutions and funding schemes — even those designed to address complex intergenerational challenges — still rely on narrow market-based metrics such as publication productivity and journal impact factor to evaluate ‘excellence’. We support the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), which promotes practical, robust and community-driven approaches to research evaluation14. DORA’s recommendations have informed NSERC Canada’s recent guidelines and the widespread introduction of narrative-style CVs, including in Aotearoa–New Zealand. Initiatives such as these can be used to recognize and affirm diverse expertise, societal impact and care work (such as equity work, mentorship, teaching and peer support) in promotions, hiring and funding decisions.

How we evaluate ourselves

We encourage reflexivity when performing relational duties of care. We urge scientific communities, organizations and funding bodies to recognize diverse histories; to investigate how funding and authority are distributed; to attend to qualitative and quantitative data15 about why people enter, leave and remain in the science system; and to evaluate and adapt policies accordingly. In general, ongoing reflection on how we are situated in relation to others in the science community — including the purpose and consequences of our work — will help to navigate real-world complexity in ways that are consistent with our principles, and which support the messy work of ‘getting along’ in just ways.

Our challenge

Kia mau tau ki tēnā

Kia mau ki te kawau mārō

Whanake ake! Whanake ake!

Stick to that, the straight-flying cormorant!


The leading kawau (cormorant) extends its neck forward as it flies, knowing that when it tires another will move forward into its place. Maniapoto, ancestor of the people of Ngāti Maniapoto, translated this phenomenon into an effective military strategy based on coordinated, collective action: te kawau mārō.

To be responsive to the critical challenges of our time, the global science community needs to travel forward in a shared and purposeful direction — one that moves us closer to a better, more just society. We challenge the science community to harness the processes of complexity with intent and urgency to build a science system that is prepared to address the complex global challenges in which we all have a stake.