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Blak, loud and proud: celebrating First Nations scientists

Indigenous knowledge has huge potential to lead research to help meet some of Australia’s biggest challenges, particularly under a changing climate, with First Nations scientists representing and facilitating 65,000 years’ worth of deep insight and analysis.

This year’s NAIDOC Week theme is ‘Keep the fire burning! Blak, loud and proud’, calling for a reclamation of narratives, an amplification of voices, and an unwavering commitment to justice and equality.

In celebration of the vast and deep scientific knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and thinkers, Water Source caught up with CSIRO Indigenous Science and Engagement Director Dr Chris Bourke and Indigenous Research Scientist Max Fabila.

A proud Gamilaroi man with decades of experience in health, politics and leadership, Dr Bourke began his role at CSIRO in 2021 following a critical shift within the organisation towards being more responsive to the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“This shift needed to occur. It aligns with the 2020 Closing the Gap Agreement made between all state and territory governments, the federal government, as well as the Coalition of Peak Aboriginal and Torres Strait organisations,” he said.

“The essence of this shift was to instigate an Indigenous science and engagement program with a vision of creating a science landscape in respectful partnership with Indigenous Australia that brings innovative and sustainable solutions to meet our greatest national challenges.

“There has been great investment in this vision, bringing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in to lead this research at CSIRO, as well as the critical protection of Indigenous cultural and intellectual property, and driving research that includes Indigenous perspectives.”

Co-designing new place-based and Indigenous-led research methods with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as part of CSIRO’s Drought Resilience Mission, Jabirr Jabirr man Max Fabila said there’s nothing new about First Nations science, and it’s time to take up space.

“For me, Indigenous science is the first science. The push for Indigenous science and engagement is really an exercise in reclamation and recognition,” he said.

“It’s not really about learning or ‘discovering’ new things, it’s more about unlocking, through good cultural engagement and strong relationships, Indigenous peoples’ inherent capability to rightfully contribute to all of these big problems that CSIRO are trying to solve.

“Indigenous science has the capability to be an incredible leader of science, using our cultural values to solve the complex issues this continent and nation are facing. We should be leading science into the better and shared future that we are aiming for.

“Traditional Owners are inherent scientists. We are subject matter experts on our Country. Western scientists are subject matter experts in terms of applying tools and technologies, but they are not experts on Country. This movement must be Indigenous-led.”

Building the pipeline

Bourke said that to drive this transformation, within CSIRO and more broadly, there needs to be a strong focus on building the Indigenous STEM talent pipeline, as well as a dedication to building capability to support the work.

“We have been very successful in increasing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff within CSIRO. One of the greatest successes has been our Indigenous Graduate Program, which we instigated last year,” he said.

“We have so far had 40 graduates through that program. This work is built upon our experience with the Indigenous STEM Education Project, which we delivered many years ago. We also have the Young Indigenous Women’s STEM Academy, engaging students from year 9 right through to university undergraduate study. Some of those students have made their way into our graduate program.

“We also have an Indigenous Research Grants program supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff engaged in higher degree tertiary qualifications, such as a PhD, to support their research projects.

“We have very purposefully built an overall stream of people coming from school, right the way through to post-doctoral work. All this effort is very important due to the national scale of the organisation, and the breadth and depth of science that we touch upon.”

Internally, CSIRO has also been busy developing an Indigenous Research Program, which has so far driven about $6.5 million worth of research within the organisation, all of which is considered and assessed by CSIRO’s Indigenous Science and Engagement team, Bourke said.

“Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff assess each proposed project against a set of criteria. Researchers then pitch their research idea and a recommendation comes to me as the decision maker,” he said.

“This process is not to focus on the research topic, but how the research is being done. Have the researchers formed a relationship with the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander organisation or community? What do the people involved in this research want to get out of it?

“It’s about making sure we are providing opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as well as Indigenous researchers and scientists.”

Starting from culture

Working within the CSIRO’s Drought Resilience Mission, Fabila’s project is developing cultural indicators of drought and drought resilience, by taking a culture-first approach to research.

“Within a drought resilience context, Indigenous people are likely the most drought resilient people in the world. We have 65,000 years of indicators of drought, and also really great scientific principles that are inherent in our cultural protocols,” he said.

“My role leading this project is about respectfully sharing knowledge and speaking up for mob and our communities. I do my best to represent the communities we are working with in all of the really important conversations occurring in this space.

“This is about starting from a cultural place and letting that guide all of the research. It leans into the idea of a research project as a journey, even the structure of a research project is something Indigenous people have a lot of experience with.”

Fabila said allowing culture to guide the direction of the research not only unlocks the complex scientific practices of Traditional Owners, it also empowers communities to lead work on their Country appropriately.

“Non-Indigenous people dominate the discussion around drought despite Indigenous communities being drought resilient for thousands of generations,” he said.

“This project tries to go beyond co-design. The majority of the project, including the design, management and findings is based on Traditional Owner knowledge and Indigenous ways of researching.

“The other parts are about trying to create a common language for this knowledge to be understood in today’s drought resilience discussions, while maintaining the cultural integrity of the work.

“We are hoping to build sets of place-based indicators and baseline understandings of Indigenous drought resilience. Hopefully, this can build more culturally informed drought responses from an Indigenous perspective. From there, that gives Indigenous communities more decision-making power at a local level, which can hopefully be scaled up to a regional or national level.”

The approach also aims to give communities tools, experiences and opportunities to be able to contribute to the conversation and help drive policy that is more aligned with Indigenous values, Fabila said.

“We need Indigenous leadership, we know a national understanding of drought cannot be achieved without Traditional Owner voices and cultural governance systems from around the country. This is going to be a long journey, but we hope we can build a methodology that respects those protocols,” he said.

Respect in partnership

The shift is certainly underway, Bourke said, but there must be a sustained focus on acknowledgement and respect for Indigenous science to create sustainable change and positive outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have thrived on this continent for a very long time using a body of knowledge that was developed with scientific methods, such as experimentation and observation,” he said.

“We have passed on this knowledge throughout generations upon generations through story, dance, song and marking of the landscape. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of knowing, being and doing on this continent are incredibly important and valuable.

“Respectful partnership is about enabling people to share what they wish to share. There needs to be respect in these partnerships and an acknowledgement that there will be things people don't want to share. So be it: that’s their knowledge.

“It all starts first with a connection, followed by the development of a relationship, and then the willingness of an organisation to change enough internally to do the work, to build the capability to do it.

“We should be aiming to have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff at all levels, and to incorporate power sharing into governance. Extractive transitions are over, they are on par with systems of colonisation, and that is not where we want to be.”