4.3 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research capability

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The vision of this Review is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are pursuing education and research across all fields and that both understanding of Indigenous knowledges and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research capability are deepened.

There is considerable research undertaken in Australia that affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across many fields, such as health, education, history, anthropology and the spectrum of sciences. However, comparatively little of this research is undertaken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves.

This means Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not directing and guiding research to most benefit their communities. It means loss of opportunity in terms of the creation of new knowledge that may emerge from the interface between Indigenous and Western knowledge systems.

It also means a loss of ideas and human potential to undertake research in communities, and means that Australia is not experiencing the full social, economic and environmental benefits of its investments in science and research.

The Panel believes that the potential for the broader Australian research system to impact on the higher education outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is immense. This can be achieved in a variety of ways, including fostering in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school students an interest and enthusiasm in research through work experience, capacity building, and agency targets for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR students and early career researchers.

Supporting and fostering research produced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is the critical element in realising this potential. This is the challenge for governments, universities and research organisations in a system where excellence is driven by the highly competitive nature of research funding. Strategies and approaches are needed that support Indigenous researchers to undertake research specifically relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Current situation

While there is a great deal of research undertaken on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the footprint of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on the world of research in Australia is small, except in small isolated programs such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fellowships. Individual researchers with research interests that intersect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities occur across the system; however, these interests are ad hoc and relatively few outside of priority areas such as health and education.

At the university level, strategies to build Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research capability vary considerably. Currently there are only a few Indigenous research units at universities that are led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers. This situation further exacerbates the current low levels of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research capacity.

What needs to change?

The Panel suggests a range of initiatives be put in place to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander–led research. Australia’s national research priorities need to appropriately value and enhance the contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to research. Work is required to ensure that research practices when dealing with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are respectful of Indigenous ownership and knowledge and foster engagement and participation.

The Panel believes that there is a need for universities to adopt strategic approaches to supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers and their research, considering elements of good practice identified in this report, and that these strategies should be reported throughout compacts.

Australia’s universities need to give due consideration to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and early career researchers are well trained and competitive in selective research funding processes and that there are opportunities for high-quality research to be undertaken. Across all universities and research agencies, this involves recruitment and employment policies that foster development.

These elements of work should be part of a national approach that is visible and understood to drive outcomes.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research strategies in universities

In their National best practice framework for Indigenous cultural competency in Australian universities, Universities Australia and the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council have made four recommendations to support research involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These are:

  • creation of an adequately funded Indigenous research strategy to build Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research capacity
  • appointment of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander senior executive or professorial-level position to lead and coordinate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research
  • identification of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues as key research themes within the university
  • creation of mechanisms, guidelines and protocols to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research is culturally safe and methodologically sound (Universities Australia 2011).

These are good starting points for universities. This high-level support is needed to change the culture of universities and ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research issues are part of core research business. Intentions and objectives need to be clear and visible to all staff to help turn Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research policy into appropriate behaviour and effective practice. Leadership within universities is particularly critical to driving change.108

Quality of ethical research practices

Ethical research practice in research involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and their knowledge refers to the conduct of research that ensures that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their cultural materials and knowledge are treated respectfully and that research is acceptable to all involved (Laycock et al. 2009, p. 12).

Importantly, ethical research practice ensures that the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to their stories and knowledge is respected and the ownership over the products of the research is negotiated and agreed with community members at the beginning of the research process.

Fundamental to the practice of ethical research is that the research is undertaken in partnership with communities and that communities should be informed and consent to all phases of the research. The research should also be of benefit to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities involved.

In the National best practice framework mentioned above, the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council and Universities Australia recommended that universities ‘create mechanisms, guidelines and protocols to ensure that Indigenous research and research with Indigenous participants is culturally safe and methodologically sound’ (Universities Australia 2011, p. 184).

The main sources of guidance in the research sector are the AIATSIS (2011) Guidelines for ethical research in Australian Indigenous studies, and the NHMRC’s Values and ethics: guidelines for ethical conduct in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research (2003). The AIATSIS guidelines were reviewed in 2011 to reflect advances in practice, particularly in health and the social sciences, the impact of the digital era, and significant legislative changes impacting on treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.109

The uptake and support for ethical research practice is evident in broad terms wherever there is research being undertaken with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, whether in universities or within competitively funded research. However, it appears that the quality of practice may be patchy across the system.

Consultations indicated, for example, that the methods used to approve research involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities varies considerably across the sector. For example, the University of New England has a specific ethics panel to consider Indigenous research; and Charles Sturt University and Charles Darwin University have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation on human ethics committees. A number of other universities such as Flinders University and the University of South Australia require research proposals to be submitted to directors of Indigenous research areas. Some universities rely on ethics committee processes that are not specifically designed to consider issues relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. AIATSIS also has an ethics committee to review the ethical aspects of research projects, including ethical suitability and oversight as appropriate during the course of a project to be funded under the AIATSIS Indigenous Research Grants program.

The issue of culturally appropriate assessment of research is a critical one to ensuring that an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander world view is taken into account when assessing the quality and merit of a research project. To this end, the Panel recommends ensuring that there is a specific body linked to all university human ethics committees to assess Indigenous research drawing on expertise from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

As indicated in the National best practice framework for Indigenous cultural competency in Australian universities, establishing dedicated subcommittees of human research ethics committees:

would stimulate Indigenous peoples to consider [the University] as a preferred education provider, especially at the post-graduate level, as Indigenous peoples would gain not only a greater sense of true cultural safety, they would also feel empowered to work within the framework of their own cultural intellectual paradigm (Universities Australia 2011, p. 98).

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Indigenous Grant Review Panels ensure that applications for research are assessed against the ‘criteria for health and medical research of Indigenous Australians’.

The NHMRC strongly recommends the use of ethical research practices, with some mandatory elements, for example the construction of ethical relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the research community, taking into account the principles and values of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.110

Feedback from submissions and consultations suggests that there is room for improvement in most universities and publicly funded research agencies and a need for further national conversations on what represents good practice.111

Given this feedback, the Panel considers that there may also be value in an organisation such as AIATSIS extending its role to provide more formal guidance to universities on ethical research practice. This could include, for example, information on the AIATSIS website such as case studies and materials to assist Australian researchers.

Valuing and elevating Indigenous knowledge and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research within the National Research Priorities

The Panel found there was support for increasing understanding of Indigenous knowledge and research as knowledge systems. This was evident in submissions from Universities Australia, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, the National Tertiary Education Union, the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council, and a number of universities and private submissions; as well as in the Panel’s consultations, including its consultative forum with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander PhD holders. Some argue for an equivalence of such knowledge systems and academic disciplines. As discussed earlier, the Panel identified this as a matter for debate among academics, not one on which it felt appropriate for the Panel to pronounce.

An important way to afford higher recognition of the value of research for and by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is through the National Research Priorities.

The National Research Priorities are a national statement of the outcomes that the Australian Government seeks to realise from publicly funded research. The 2011 Focusing Australia’s Publicly Funded Research Review considered the National Research Priorities and found that they are generally appropriate as a broad articulation of Australia’s key interests in public research. To continue to be relevant, however, the review concluded that the description of the National Research Priorities needs to be refreshed and, in particular, that the priorities should be augmented to better reflect the importance of the humanities, arts and social sciences disciplines to the national research enterprise.

A process to update and refine the National Research Priorities is underway ( DIISRTE 2012d).112

A consultation paper, Refreshing the National Research Priorities, was released in February 2011. Among other changes, the consultation paper proposes the introduction of new priority goals on Indigenous knowledge and research and supporting the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The Panel supports the inclusion of priority goals on Indigenous knowledge, closing the gap and strengthening the capacity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to deliver better outcomes for their communities.

Excellence of Research in Australia and measuring research impact

The Excellence of Research in Australia (ERA) initiative assesses research quality within Australia’s higher education institutions using a combination of indicators and expert review by committees comprising experienced, internationally recognised experts (ARC 2011b). In 2010, the Australian Research Council conducted the first full ERA evaluation across all eight discipline clusters. Outcomes of the ERA 2010 evaluation, which applied to research undertaken between 1 January 2003 and 31 December 2008, were published in January 2011 (ARC 2011b).

In 2012, the eight clusters of disciplines for ERA evaluation are:

  • mathematical, information and computing sciences
  • physical, chemical and earth sciences
  • engineering and environmental sciences
  • biological and biotechnological sciences
  • medical and health sciences
  • humanities and creative arts
  • education and human society
  • economics and commerce.

‘For the purposes of ERA, “disciplines” are defined as four-digit and two-digit Fields of Research (FoRs) as identified in the Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification (ANZSRC)’ (ARC 2011a, p. 9).

The Review heard concerns of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander PhD holders during consultations that the ERA as a framework does not sufficiently provide for the assessment of research regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The National Tertiary Education Union’s submission argues that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research should be treated separately from ERA because it:

may not conform with Western research methodologies and protocols ... [and] is applied ... and motivated by achieving practical outcomes rather than prioritising publication in prestigious international journals (submission no. 45, National Tertiary Education Union, p. 8).

Whether or not one accepts this view, there is an issue in the counting of Indigenous research towards rankings. There are currently no two- or four-digit Fields of Research codes within ANZSRC pertaining to Indigenous-specific topics, and the ANZSRC therefore does not explicitly or separately identify research as relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

A preliminary Australian Bureau of Statistics ( ABS) review of its research classification system is due to be undertaken in 2013. The Panel notes that there would be value in the ABS, in consultation with the Australian Research Council, considering the viability of including an Indigenous knowledge research code as a separate field of research to then be utilised in future ERA collections.

There are limitations in the sorts of adjustments that can be made to the ERA framework. However, as the ERA initiative is increasingly influential in driving support for research in universities, it reinforces a culture that gives priority to the production of research that is published in high-ranking journals.

There is a risk that while a number of universities have a focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research, without levers to balance the ERA mechanism, such research may not receive sufficient ongoing support to make it viable or productive in the longer term, which could result in further degradation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research capacity.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research in its many forms has important value for communities.

The Panel supports effort to balance university research culture to ensure that the social, economic and environmental impacts of research are measured and valued along with excellence to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research is appropriately valued and recognised.

It is relevant that the Research Workforce Strategy notes that a key factor that may discourage the transition of researchers between the broader workforce and higher education institutions is a lack of reward structures for non-academic research and innovation contributions.

The strategy also notes that the Australian Government will investigate metrics for measuring excellence in applied research and innovation activities in order to encourage research transitions between sectors. The government has accepted a recommendation from the Focusing Australia’s Publicly Funded Research Review to conduct a feasibility study on possible approaches for developing a research impact assessment mechanism to evaluate the wider benefits of publicly funded research. The Panel supports these efforts to find additional system levers that will support better recognition and reward of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research and researchers.

The Panel also notes that there are alternative ways to evaluate research and that these methods should be explored to ensure that the economic, social and environmental impact of research undertaken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is taken into account when allocating funding for research. For example, New Zealand’s Māori Knowledge and Development research evaluation model provides a system of performance evaluation and recognition of Māori knowledge (both traditional and contemporary) and research methodologies. A separate and dedicated Māori Knowledge and Development panel is used to consider and assess research where there is evidence of Māori world views across all research topics. The Panel would like to see this approach considered by universities, the wider research community and government in assessing the quality and impact of research.

Strategic approach to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers and their research

In 2012–13, the Australian Government will spend $8.9 billion to support publicly funded science, innovation and research activities through funding to universities, industry research partnerships and to business for research and development (Australian Government 2012a). Australia’s universities and publicly funded research agencies, the largest of which is the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), carry forward Australia’s diverse and extensive research interests.

A strategic approach encompassing all of the national research system can complement and reinforce the work of universities. This approach has been discussed in the previous section.

Such a strategy could consider opportunities for publicly funded research agencies to significantly support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers and their research. These include:

  • establishing protocols for ethical research practices and community engagement adopting benchmark standards (discussed earlier in this section)
  • recruitment policies fostering opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • collecting data identifying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • building on successful models and approaches to support
  • promoting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement in science through the work of Questacon and activities such as supporting work experience and placements and collaborative research models that build the capacity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Research agencies can also make large contributions to fostering interest in science and mentoring both young people and new researchers. Dr Megan Clark, CSIRO’s chief executive, remarked to the Chair of this Review during consultations:

The problem we have in supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into science careers is getting students with enthusiasm early enough to come here for example for work experience placements. High school science is desirable for study in the sciences so we need to get to students early. We can give lots of support and guidance once they are with us—and we can be pretty persuasive.

Building on existing efforts

CSIRO has an agency-wide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement strategy to foster capacity and deepen engagement with Indigenous knowledges and perspectives. The four areas of the strategy are:

  • a 2.5% target for Indigenous employment in CSIRO to be achieved incrementally
  • engagement in research using ethical practice that benefits Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
  • broadening the knowledge among scientists of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, issues and cultures in CSIRO
  • education outreach to increase the participation and education outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school-age children and beyond within science.

Questacon—the National Science and Technology Centre—has a vision for a better future for all Australians through engagement with science, technology and innovation. Questacon’s outreach programs take to the roads each year to bring science and technology to Australians across the country. Questacon ScienceLines is one of Questacon’s outreach programs dedicated to working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, teachers and community members all over Australia. Questacon has developed and provided presentations and workshops for regional and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities since 1988.

Competitive funding arrangements

The Panel considers that competitive grant funding bodies should adopt strategic approaches to ensure that high-quality research by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is being fostered and encouraged. Strategies can be implemented to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers’ ability to gain access to competitive funding without compromising quality or the merit-based principle.

The National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council are well placed to reward research teams achieving results in capacity building for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR students and early career researchers and to make funding options responsive to take advantage of successful team models and research endeavours. There needs to be sufficient flexibility within funding mechanisms to be able to direct funding to successful research team models and approaches.

The Panel notes the work of the National Health and Medical Research Council in this regard.

The National Health and Medical Research Council

The National Health and Medical Research Council has made considerable commitments to supporting capacity building and participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in research over a number of decades as part of its work to close the gap in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health. Current approaches include:

  • the development of a strategic roadmap for improving the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • ensuring that a minimum of 5% of all research NHMRC funding is dedicated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health
  • capacity-building programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advisory panel that provides advice to the NHMRC on issues relating to research on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
  • a separate Indigenous Research Grant Panel that considers grants relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.

Since the launch of The NHMRC road map: a strategic framework for improving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health through research (NHMRC 2002; see also NHMRC 2010), funding directed at Indigenous health research has increased from $20 million in 2006 to almost $44 million in 2011, representing 5.8% of research funded by NHMRC.

The NHMRC has, through its main council and Research Committee, implemented several aspects of its research funding schemes that support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers. These additional elements of support include consideration of community and policy contribution, specific peer review processes and additional funding to enable travel to conferences or to support short-term exchanges for Postgraduate Scholarship holders and Early Career Fellows. In 2011, the Postgraduate Scholarship and Early Career Fellowship schemes awarded specific Indigenous Researcher grants.

In terms of its scholarships and fellowships, the NHMRC also takes into account the potentially different entry points to research that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people might have experienced. For example, in applications from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, valuable information about applicants’ knowledge and experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and community, as well as formal academic and research achievements, is sought. Community contributions made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are also expressly recognised in assessments of an applicant’s track record.

The NHMRC has also enacted a change in its approach to public release of publications, which has a beneficial application for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in terms of ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are aware of and can benefit from research involving their communities. From July 2012, the NHMRC will mandate the deposit of publication outputs arising from NHMRC-funded research into an institutional repository within 12 months of publication. This brings the NHMRC into alignment with the practices of other international health and medical research funders such as the US National Institutes of Health, the UK Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom.

The Australian Research Council

The Australian Research Council’s main source of targeted support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers is the Discovery Indigenous scheme. The scheme provides funding to support research programs led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers, build research capacity of HDR and early career researchers and expand Australia’s knowledge base and research capability.113 The program in its various forms has allocated funding of $9.45 million through 121 grants from 1996 to 2011.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Researchers’ Network, recently established by the Australian Research Council under its Special Research Initiatives scheme, has the potential to fill an important gap and is likely to significantly contribute to the council’s efforts to build the capacity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers.

The Panel suggests that there would be considerable value in the Australian Research Council examining the adoption of a strategic approach to capacity building for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers across its funding programs. Such an approach could be used to drive greater contributions to research by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across all fields of research, as the NHMRC has done in health.

In examining a strategic approach, the Australian Research Council could consider:

  • approaches to addressing current barriers to research outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (for example, assistance with grant application processes)
  • the effectiveness of the revised Discovery Indigenous scheme and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Researchers’ Network at regular intervals
  • the appropriateness of availability of opportunities across scholarships and grant categories, and grant funding mechanisms to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers to achieve research outcomes
  • identifying funding across funding categories (for example, Linkage grants could be considered to ensure that a diversity of opportunities exist for different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers at different career points).

Increasing the amount of research undertaken in relation to Indigenous knowledges and perspectives by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers

Consultations and a number of submissions supported the building of an Indigenous institute or centre of excellence dedicated to supporting high-quality Indigenous research.114 While concepts such as establishing an Indigenous centre of excellence or academy may have merit, the Panel strongly favours an incremental approach at this time, given the current lack of critical mass. The Panel believes that it is more important to focus on better support in universities and more focused capacity building for research in universities and across the research system.

Growing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researcher communities is best undertaken across all universities, not just in isolated parts of the system. It is undesirable to divert effort from the excellent work already happening in the sector and other centres of expertise already being established such as the Australian Centre for Indigenous Knowledges and Education at Charles Darwin University and the endeavours of a number of other universities.

Contributions from the broader research system are also important. The two Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) that work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the CRC for Aboriginal Health and the CRC for Remote Economic Participation, are excellent examples.

A ‘hub and spoke’ approach and a focus on building the capacity particularly of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers needs to be the current focus, building on successful models for supporting such researchers.

Building on existing efforts

The research model and outcomes produced by the work of the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research—led by Professor Fiona Stanley AC—in Aboriginal health in Western Australia are impressive. The institute received an NHMRC Capacity Building Grant in Population Health Research (Not just scholars but leaders: learning circles in Indigenous health research) of $2.5 million in 2005 for a period of five years with the aim of graduating 10 Aboriginal doctoral candidates and supporting their postdoctoral experiences. Partly based on the outcomes being achieved, in 2010, the National Health and Medical Research Council awarded a grant (From marginalised to empowered: transformative methods for Aboriginal health and wellbeing) to fund the Centre for Research Excellence in Aboriginal Health and Wellbeing with a group of 10 chief investigators headed by Professor Stanley. This is a collaborative research venture between seven research institutions, and is funded with a grant of $2.5 million over five years.

Through the work of the institute, four Aboriginal 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. Also, several researchers have gone on to set up independent research groups of their own as a result of the endeavours of the institute.

The Telethon Institute for Child Health Research attributes its success to:

  • the assistance and support of the National Health and Medical Research Council
  • Aboriginal research leadership and community partnerships
  • strong and trusting partnerships with non-Indigenous colleagues to access expertise, support advocacy and mentoring
  • non-Indigenous mentors and supervisors with cultural competency
  • collaborative team models which provide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR students and postdoctoral researchers to support each other
  • the provision of professional development and research opportunities (for example, to attend international conferences or to undertake leadership courses)
  • a culturally safe research environment and commitment to equal partnerships with Aboriginal communities.

The role of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies

Since its establishment, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies ( AIATSIS) has helped build the capacity of a high-quality cadre of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers through its research grant programs and fellowships such as the Indigenous Visiting Research Fellowship.

Its cultural collection represents one of the most important archives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artefacts in Australia. The histories contained in its collection have been critical for thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and others seeking to learn about their heritage and connect with their families.

Under its legislation AIATSIS has a wide range of functions that include:

  • conducting research in fields relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies and encouraging other persons or bodies to conduct such research
  • undertaking and promoting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies
  • publishing research relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies
  • assisting in training persons, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as research workers in fields relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies
  • establishing and maintaining a cultural resource collection consisting of materials relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies
  • encouraging understanding in the general community of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies.

AIATSIS identified a number of challenges and opportunities relevant to the Review in its recent budget statements. Some of the challenges include:

  • maintaining its capacity and reputation for conducting and supporting rigorous ethical, community-based research in Indigenous studies. As a publicly funded research institute, AIATSIS is uniquely placed in the nexus between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, the research sector and public policy. Its reputation, built over 50 years, continues to set the standard for research in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies.
  • maintaining commensurate levels of service in relation to requests for access and information generated from academia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the general public, and compliance reporting
  • suspension of the AIATSIS research grant program pending a review of the effectiveness of the funding and where the funding may be better utilised.

Some of the opportunities include:

  • the increasing demand for AIATSIS to conduct research to underpin or support policy development, program design and delivery and evaluation. Requests for assistance from government and community far outstrip the institute’s capacity.
  • the success of the Indigenous Visiting Research Fellowships program, which has revealed the need for targeted support to facilitate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in the research sector and the direct impact this can have on Indigenous research output and higher degree completion
  • developing new tools and resources for access, repatriation and discovery of collections and information and developing information and educational material for schools and general public on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues. Digitisation of the institute’s collections has generated advantages in the discoverability and reuse of its collection materials.

It is perhaps timely to consider how best to maintain the institute’s unique place in developing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academic and research activities and the relationship it has with universities.

The Panel recommends there be a review of AIATSIS to examine its future strategic direction, its role and functions, governance structures and levels of resourcing with a view to strengthening its capacity to preserve and disseminate Indigenous knowledge and support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research. The review could also examine its role, including advisory roles, in relation to:

  • supporting networks of researchers and HDR students
  • providing services to universities, particularly in relation to supervision
  • developing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research capacity, particularly early career Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers and HDR students
  • research on Indigenous knowledge and community-based research such as language collection and revival, family history, native title and other cultural information
  • maintaining a digital collection.

As noted by AIATSIS, there may also be merit in the government working with the universities and AIATSIS on the future role of the Indigenous Visiting Research Fellowship (IVRF) program and the AIATSIS Indigenous Research Grants.

AIATSIS has offered support for PhD and research masters students and postdoctoral researchers since 2008 through the IVRF program. The objective of the fellowships is to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers to visit AIATSIS for short periods to further their research, access national collections, including that of AIATSIS, or to engage with current policy debates. Successful applicants are paid at Lecturer A or B level, taking into account their experience over and above their qualifications. Each researcher has access to research funds of up to $8,000 per annum. The IVRF program is designed to complement, not compete with, university programs and supervision. The fellowships are predominantly accessed by postgraduate students and early career researchers requiring intensive supervision and coaching. The fellowships are regarded by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers as a successful model, meeting important needs. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics indicated, for example, lack of time to complete their PhDs and publish from their research because of heavy teaching loads.

The AIATSIS Indigenous Research Grants filled an important role in supporting research by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers, for example, for work requiring large amounts of fieldwork in communities. The Panel notes that this program is not available in 2012. The role of this program should also be examined in the context of a review of AIATSIS.

Recommendations

Recommendation 23

That universities develop Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research strategies within their business planning processes, for inclusion in their mission-based compacts. Strategies should include increasing the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics with completed higher degrees by research and the use of ethical research practices when undertaking research involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Recommendation 24

That the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies ( AIATSIS) provide more formal guidance to publicly funded research agencies, universities and researchers on ethical research practice. This could include, for example, information on the AIATSIS website of case studies and materials to assist Australian researchers.

Recommendation 25

That the Australian Government consider revisions to the National Research Priorities that recognise the importance of:

  • closing the gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and all other Australians
  • protection of Indigenous culture and knowledge.

Recommendation 26

That the Australian Research Council and the Australian Bureau of Statistics work together to create an Indigenous research code to better identify research relating to Indigenous knowledges.

Recommendation 27

That the Australian Research Council (ARC) examine the adoption of a strategic approach to building capacity in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers across its funding programs, building on the experiences of the National Health and Medical Research Council. The ARC should examine:

  • current barriers to winning competitive grants experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • whether available funding programs can better assist in supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers achieve research outcomes, particularly early career researchers
  • the performance of the new Discovery Indigenous scheme
  • whether ethical research practices are sufficiently supported within its competitive grants and grant approval processes.

Recommendation 28

That the Australian Government undertake a review of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies to consider how best to maintain the institute’s unique place in developing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academic and research activities and the relationship it has with universities.

108 As stated in submissions by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium (no. 26); University of Newcastle (no. 28); University of Sydney (no. 33). It was also a key recommendation from the IHEAC Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Academic Doctors’ Forum, November 2011.

109 Recent developments in law and policy internationally include the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2007 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN 2007). It presents a significant incentive for countries to strengthen their mechanisms for recognition and protection of Indigenous rights. In the area of Indigenous cultural heritage, the adoption by UNESCO in October 2003 of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (UNESCO 2003), and in October 2005 of the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (UNESCO 2005) creates impetus to develop better ways of recognising and protecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander intangible heritage. Australia supports the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 2009), has invited submissions to consider ratifying the convention on intangible cultural heritage (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 2008), and has become party to the UNESCO convention on cultural diversity (Garrett 2009).

110 Information provided by the NHMRC.

111 For example, submissions by Universities Australia (no. 59); Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (no. 56); Australian Catholic University (no. 37). It was also raised at the IHEAC Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Academic Doctors’ Forum, November 2011.

112 In 2011, the Australian Government undertook a review of the publicly funded research system to examine the degree to which the current public investment model for research is effective in meeting the government’s aspirations, as well as to examine opportunities to further maximise the returns from the government’s investment in research.

113 Changes were made to the previous scheme and released as the Discovery Indigenous scheme in 2011 to better tailor the grants to meet the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers. Notably, a more flexible Discovery Indigenous award is now available at five academic salary levels to support researchers at all career stages. Also, the project leader must now be an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researcher.

114 For example, submission no. 42, University of Queensland; and a number of participants of the IHEAC Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Academic Doctors’ Forum, November 2011.