Few cross-cultural environmental research partnerships exist in New Zealand where Māori have been given the autonomy or resources to govern the decision-making process. Māori representatives and scientists from two collaborative research partnerships in New Zealand were interviewed to determine conditions required for successful partnerships, the costs and benefits involved and the roles of kaitiakitanga (environmental guardianship by Māori) and mātauranga (Māori traditional knowledge). Ninety per cent of Māori participants reported that a collaborative partnership should be defined by equitable power sharing and decision-making responsibility, however all the scientists perceived the term was ambiguous and was represented in New Zealand by a continuum of weak to strong power-sharing relationships. Developing trust, distilling and communicating scientific concepts and results, facilitating access to traditional knowledge and building scientific capability within a community can be fundamental to the success of a strong collaborative partnership, but demands a large time commitment, and at times a re-evaluation of priorities, from scientists. Kaitiakitanga and mātauranga can be key to directing and guiding research, but may require scientists to adapt and work within unfamiliar cultural systems. Strong collaborative research has a role to play initiating dialogue and partnership-building, demonstrating environmental, justice, economic and social outcomes, and indirectly building a consciousness in society about problem definition and potential solutions could that lead naturally to co-management of the environment by aboriginal communities and local or central governments.