13.7 Research teams and models for research success

Fostering and supporting the development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research students and early career researchers depends on the existence of high-quality research collaborations and opportunities to participate in them.

13.7.1 Critical success factors

Critical success factors include:

  • strong and trusting partnerships are cultivated with non-Indigenous colleagues to access expertise, and support advocacy and mentoring
  • collaborative teams are formed between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR students and postdoctoral researchers
  • professional development and research opportunities are provided (for example, to attend international conferences or to undertake leadership courses).

13.7.2 Key challenges

Key challenges include:

  • limited time availability of lead researchers
  • the often disparate nature and geographical spread of different research projects
  • different and sometimes confronting research approaches and methodologies.

13.7.3 Examples

Telethon Institute for Child Health Research – Aboriginal capacity building and Centre for Research Excellence

The Telethon Institute for Child Health Research has two research programs to improve the health outcomes of support programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities:

  • NHMRC Indigenous Capacity Building Grant in Population Health Research: Not just scholars but leaders: learning circles in Indigenous health research
  • Centre for Research Excellence in Aboriginal Health and Wellbeing.

The aim of both of these collaborative five-year programs, which have run sequentially since 2004, is to build the capacity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers in the broad areas of health and wellbeing to become future leaders in research, to conduct research of the highest quality embedding strong cultural contexts and knowledge, and wherever possible, to utilise this knowledge to improve the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.

The programs are an integral part of the institute’s commitment to improving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wellbeing. The institute strongly feels that the only way to undertake high-quality research that is relevant to communities is to train Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to lead and control the research process.

The Indigenous Capacity Building Grant has supported various PhD candidates and research projects:

  • an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parenting program being trialled and delivered to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families in Perth
  • bullying and its relevance to closing the gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health
  • helping families to achieve a smoke-free environment for their children
  • foetal alcohol spectrum disorders and associated issues
  • developmental, health, socio-economic, racial and demographic factors associated with risk, protective and resilience factors that contribute to juvenile delinquency
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander racial identity and impacts on self-esteem, mental health and wellbeing
  • contribution of primary health care to maternal, infant and child health of communities in Western Australia
  • care-giving for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living with a serious mental illness.

The first five-year program was aimed at graduating 10 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander PhD candidates and supporting their postdoctoral experiences. Eight of the 10 chief investigators were Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, most of whom had completed their PhDs.

Based on the success of the Indigenous Capacity Building Grant, in October 2010 the Telethon Institute was awarded funding under the National Health and Medical Research Council Centres of Research Excellence Scheme to establish a national collaboration in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing. The Centre for Research Excellence in Aboriginal Health and Wellbeing aims to radically improve the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through the use of community participatory action research, and to transfer research outcomes to health policies and practice. A key aim is to advance the training of researchers, particularly those with a capacity for independent research and future leadership roles.

Since October 2010, the Telethon Institute has published over 20 peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters and its first research and policy brief. The centre is still in development; however, accomplishments to date include finalising its governance structure, employment of a full-time research coordinator, completion of a draft strategic plan and communication plan, a two-day research retreat, and a website. The centre has also been involved in capacity building for several Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous staff and students through both national and international visiting scholars and roundtable discussions.

Four Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research participants have completed their PhDs through the Indigenous Capacity Building Grant. One participant is about to submit their PhD from the Centre for Research Excellence. Several researchers have gone on to set up independent research groups of their own as a result of the endeavours of the institute.

The sense of transformation and empowerment from the institute’s research efforts is illustrated by Cheryl Kickett-Tucker and Juli Coffin on behalf of team investigators:

Alone we are one, together we are a critical mass, a group to be listened to, acknowledged and respected for our knowledge and skills in promoting and advocating our influence for change. Such a bond is formed for life as are our links back to our family, kin, culture and country. We have all shared this time of collective growth and development and we will make a difference (Bessarab et al. 2009, p. 3).

Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education – Collaborative Research Network

In 2011, the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education was awarded a Collaborative Research Network funding allocation from the then Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research to build a research development network, intended to increase and focus the research work of the institute. Beginning in 2012, this three-year project is directly tackling a national need for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research and researcher capacity building, researcher critical mass and effective nodes and networks of collaboration across the institute’s existing areas of research concentration, namely the creative arts, language and linguistics, and education.

The project is building on existing researcher and institutional relationships and is bringing together the expertise and resources of the Australian National University, Monash University, Charles Darwin University, and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies to design and implement a range of integrated strategies, programs and activities including:

  • joint HDR supervision
  • supervision training and mentoring
  • joint research proposals
  • publication support
  • shared seminars and HDR/researcher workshops
  • HDR staff/supervisor exchanges.

The project has commenced by inducting three Indigenous ‘staff fellows’ into the research program. Two fellows are commencing PhD studies (one at the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, the other at the Australian National University) with one relocated into the Collaborative Research Network and supported by it for completion in 2013.

All staff fellows have had significant research exposure but with few opportunities to pursue full-time research awards at the doctoral level. All are long-term institute employees and have demonstrated an enduring commitment to the privileging of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and epistemology. They have meaningful research career pathways before them.

The key challenges for both the project, and more broadly the capacity-building efforts at the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, have been distance, a small cohort and an equally small pool of research supervisors and mentors. The establishment of this project is intended to transform these challenges into a strength, by building capacity in specific and targeted areas of research activity beyond the life of the funding.