Home / News / World Science Festival Brisbane Highlights: The First Scientists

World Science Festival Brisbane Highlights: The First Scientists

While our previous report from the World Science Festival Brisbane covered everything from dying reefs to sustainable tech, news about coral bleaching is becoming increasingly, depressingly easy to come by, and new technologies are our bread and butter. But two things that have largely been underrepresented in the media are the history of Aboriginal science and the current contribution of Aboriginal scientists.

To that end, “The First Scientists: Aboriginal Science in Queensland” was one of the most important and utterly unique panels on offer.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian knowledge systems

Moderated by the director of Indigenous creative agency Gilimbaa David Williams, the event explored the realities of Aboriginal science and scientists with CSIRO marine ecologist Mibu Fischer, biocultural strategist and co-founder of BioCultural Consulting John Locke, and ATSIC director and the former Manager for Indigenous Engagement for CSIRO Jim Walker.

Panelists spoke about multiple systems of traditional Aboriginal knowledge, which include everything from medicine to astronomy to bushfire prevention, and how appreciation for these systems is growing within non-Indigenous communities.

For example, Walker spoke in an earlier interview about how Indigenous seasonal calendars have provided early examples of climate change detection; while working with NT and WA communities, CSIRO found that coastal groups could detect an increase in water temperature when freshwater mussels opened sooner than expected.

If you want to learn about the essence of how science works, how people learn to solve practical problems, the answer may be clearer in an Aboriginal community than in a high-tech laboratory. – Ray Norris, The Conversation.

Walker, who spent seven and a half years growing the CSIRO traineeship and cadetship programs, said that non-Indigenous groups have started to make the shift from simply engaging with Indigenous communities as informants, to being positively influenced by traditional scientific systems and promoting Indigenous scientists.

Forums such as the Indigenous Dimensions of Climate Change have spearheaded active Indigenous engagement in the debate around climate change policy, and academic institutions like the Australian National University promote Aboriginal astronomy. Even local initiatives like Advance Queensland have announced targeted funding opportunities for Aboriginal PhD and fellowship programs.

Protecting traditional knowledge

While there was some discussion around Aboriginal science itself, the panel conversation quickly gave way to more pressing issues for Aboriginal scientists: privacy and the protection of knowledge from misuse.

The rights to traditional knowledge belong to Aboriginal communities in lieu of a single individual, and there are certain cultural protocols around sharing knowledge when and if a community choses to do so. Both Locke and Walker spoke about their experiences protecting communities’ intellectual property and compensation rights as part of BioCultural Consulting and the CSIRO, respectively.

Fischer, who works with coastal groups and is studying sustainable marine resources, challenged the need for outside intervention at all. When asked what non-Indigenous scientists and members of the public could learn from these groups, she expressed a wish to see Aboriginal science simply recognised as an independent system.

“Working in fisheries, everything is sensitive and there’s lots of information I can’t share,” Fischer said. “But in terms of benefiting Western science, why does it have to? Why can’t it be a standalone science system?”

Specifically, Walker referred to natural medicines that might be exploited by drug companies. Systems such as bioprospecting, or biopiracy, have meant that individuals and companies have been able to patent specific chemicals found in natural medicines or food, often at the expense of Indigenous communities.

Jim Walker spent seven and a half years working on Indigenous engagement with the CSIRO. Photos: World Science Festival Brisbane.

Jim Walker spent seven and a half years working on Indigenous engagement with the CSIRO. Photos: World Science Festival Brisbane.

For example, the “Enola bean” case saw a US citizen successfully patent a bean native to Mexico. The ensuing lawsuits majorly disrupted trade and caused economic damage to 22,000 Mexican farmers before the patent was ultimately revoked.

Luckily, there are Australian initiatives designed to prevent this kind of exploitation like the Tropical Indigenous Ethnobotany Centre, where Locke has worked to both record and protect Indigenous intellectual knowledge around plants.

For a positive, culturally respectful example of traditional knowledge sharing, check out the essay “Listening to Country: The inseparable links between family and Dreaming on ‘The Canning Stock Road'” by Monique La Fontaine, which includes a map of the Dreaming and other sensitive information that was provided after two years of close consultation.

Spreading awareness and appreciation

The panelists agreed that one of the greatest challenges for Indigenous people is holding on to traditional knowledge and ensuring it remains protected. Walker also told Aboriginal students not to underestimate their scientific potential, and that they may have inherited a great deal of traditional scientific knowledge from their elders without realising it.

As a potential solution to these challenges, panelists suggested that digital databases might become useful in creating secure, private resources for Aboriginal communities. A publicly accessible example of this kind of system can be found in Locke’s work with the Australian Indigenous Biocultural Knowledge Working Group, which records literature around traditional biocultural knowledge.

But while the event was effective at highlighting the complexities of traditional knowledge systems, more needs to be done to address the recognition of Indigenous scientists generally. The fact that this was the only WSF Brisbane panel to include Indigenous scientists at all is unfortunately not surprising, and hopefully future festivals can improve the diversity of panelists.

I think this might be the first time an Indigenous panel has the opportunity to talk about these things,” Walker said in praising the event. “However, I think that there are other forums, science forums, that certainly should include Indigenous knowledge, because it’s recognised in, say the Convention on Biodiversity, and the International Platform on Biodiversity and Environmental Science.

“Parts of IPBES certainly recognise that traditional knowledge has a lot to add to science,” he said. “Not just here in Australia; talk to Sami people, Inuits, people from New Zealand, and Indonesia in international forums, who want to protect it, because it’s valued.”

The media obviously has a huge role to play in highlighting the contributions of Indigenous scientists, and, while there are initiatives like Indigenous Digital Excellence and local creative studios like Gilimbaa and Ingeous Studios, TSJ has for the most part failed to cover the work of Indigenous innovators. We can and will do more to tell these diverse, exciting stories, and the panel has been a terrific jumping on point for a conversation we hope to engage with further.

If you identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and would be interested in contributing to TSJ, please email editor@tsj.io. We provide editorial feedback and payment for all published articles.

About Chris Woods

Chris Woods (@tophermwoods) is the Tech Street Journal's Editor-in-Chief. He lives in Brisbane, has worked in places like Sydney and New York (State of), and will someday update his media-news blog.