November 9, 2020

Indigenous rangers and a marine scientist search for sawfish on the Daly River floodplain
Each year, Malak Malak Rangers work with scientists to rescue and relocate Largetooth Sawfish (tyemirerriny) trapped in drying water holes on the Daly River floodplain. Image: Michael Lawrence-Taylor

This article is also published in Ecos.

Australian marine scientists demonstrate positive aspirations to engage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in research. Many scientists are unsure about where the responsibility for engagement lies, however, and what research is of interest to Indigenous communities.

These are key findings of a Marine Biodiversity Hub study that surveyed 128 marine scientists to understand how they had engaged with Indigenous communities during their research careers. The survey has established a baseline for monitoring future changes in the scientists’ motivations, perceptions and practices.

The study team included Marine Biodiversity Hub deputy director, Paul Hedge, and Ingrid van Putten, Cass Hunter, and Mibu Fischer of CSIRO. Here are their reflections on the survey, and the pathway to building respectful engagement that delivers mutual benefits for researchers and Indigenous Australians.

Paul Hedge
Paul Hedge.

Paul Hedge, Marine Biodiversity Hub

This study moves us beyond what we think is happening across Australia – based on our individual limited experiences, knowledge and biases – towards an evidence-based understanding of what marine scientists are collectively thinking and doing. It provides useful insights about where (often scarce) resources should be targeted to improve Indigenous engagement, and outcomes for both Indigenous communities and scientists.

For me, the survey points to the need for increased investment to minimise uncertainty about when to engage and who has responsibility. It is also important to reward researchers who engage for the life of a project and beyond, rather than just to provide access to field sites or support data collection. Engagement at the start of a project is critical for conceiving and agreeing on the benefits that will flow from research. Engagement at the end is critical for reflection, learning and building relationships that endure beyond the life of a project.

It would be great to see an ongoing commitment to build on this survey to support future decision making and investment in this area, including collection of similar information from Indigenous communities. We are seeing signs of increased levels of professionalism across marine research institutions for engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Future surveys of this type will be important for confirming whether or not the right types of changes are happening.

Cass Hunter
Cass Hunter. Image: Leigh Harris

Cass Hunter, CSIRO, Kuku Yalanji and Maluiligal woman

Developing the survey was not straightforward. As an Indigenous researcher I wanted to ensure we were asking useful questions, given engagement is core to building respectful partnerships. I began to realise that efforts to pinpoint an issue are complicated by the many factors affecting perceptions, motivations, and efforts to resolve misunderstanding.

I found it surprising and encouraging that many survey respondents did not avoid engagement, given its inherent complexities. I hope this positivity persists as the marine sector strengthens its capacity to equip all researchers with the understanding they need to conduct science with cultural integrity. We need to end the perception that the main responsibility for engagement sits only on the shoulders of Indigenous practitioners. Team commitment, and relationships built on trust and willingness to listen, learn and respond will be key to progressing respectful engagement.

I think it is good for senior managers and staff to reflect on what respectful and successful engagement looks like. Authentic efforts to listen to Traditional Owners, and to openly discuss experiences and challenges, creates opportunities to cultivate practices that are respected by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Building science with cultural integrity does not happen by chance, it needs real long-term commitment. Research institutions may need to invest in further capacities and Indigenous roles in their organisation to strengthen the level of due diligence.

It is important for the marine sector to understand that co-designing science involves more than holding a participatory workshop. Co-design replaces top-down hierarchies with willingness to work together on an equal platform as this respects the knowledge, views and preferences of Traditional Owners. It is about the genuine willingness of parties to fairly shift their behaviour and practices when ideas stretch them beyond the business-as-usual approach.

INgrid van Putten
Ingrid van Putten

Ingrid van Putten, CSIRO

The study highlighted to me the importance of capturing the voices of social and interdisciplinary scientists, who were under-represented in this survey. Natural scientists are relatively easy to target through existing professional organisations. This suggests there may be a need for social and interdisciplinary scientists to form knowledge groups with a focus on marine science.

I was heartened to see that more than a third of respondents thought the whole project team is responsible for engagement. In my mind it makes sense for everyone to have the insights, knowledge, and training on how to engage well, regardless of their level of participation.

The survey identified the top motivation for engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities was to seek mutual benefits for research and Indigenous communities. I was surprised to learn after the survey, however, that we have no idea whether the benefit is indeed mutual. As scientists we publish in peer-reviewed literature that is ill-equipped to capture non-scientific (alternative) voices. I think we need to critically examine the way we do business as scientists and reflect on alternative ways to balance voices, stories, and narratives in our scientific ‘end-products’. I hope to see more opportunity to straddle the bridge between marine science and Indigenous knowledge, and that researchers can lead the way to finding mutual benefit in marine research and ensuing publications.  

MIbu Fischer
Mibu Fischer.

Mibu Fischer, CSIRO, Quandamooka woman

The majority of survey respondents indicated they preferred to learn about culturally appropriate engagement from discussions with experienced research colleagues or Indigenous people. Less than a third of respondents said they used Indigenous community engagement protocol documents to develop their understanding of engagement. It would be interesting to know why these documents were not widely embraced.

I would like to see engagement become an integral part of marine research. Even in situations where the link may not be apparent, building relationships with Indigenous communities is essential. It is the responsibility of all staff members, supported by research leaders, to be respectful, inclusive and welcoming of a new way of working. Everyone should be encouraged to join activities happening in this space, to increase their knowledge and ability to change our work culture for the better.

Funding and research bodies need to change processes to include engagement, to extend timeframes to allow for proper engagement and relationship building, and to adequately support and remunerate Traditional Owners who participate. As scientists we also need to be aware of the pressures we place on under-resourced and over-extended communities. This is likely to escalate with the increasing understanding of Indigenous connections to offshore environment, such as sacred sites that were covered from historic sea-level rise.

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