How scientists are working for greater inclusion of indigenous knowledge

When the second part of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was released earlier this year, it had a notable inclusion. Focusing on the human and ecological impacts of climate change, the installment featured indigenous knowledge alongside Western scientific research for the first time.

The Australasian chapter, however, did not include any indigenous lead authors. Instead, three First Nations academics were invited to contribute to specific sections of the report through the goodwill of the lead authors, rather than government selection.

It was a reminder, the contributors wrote in March, of how “indigenous Australians have been largely excluded from climate change decision-making.”

Related: Earth’s anguish is evident. To care for it, Australians must embrace First Nations values ​​| Jack Pascoe

One of the IPCC contributors was Bradley Moggridge, a Kamilaroi man and associate professor of indigenous water sciences at the University of Canberra. “We are always advisors, we never make decisions,” he says. “We should have a voice.”

It is well known that indigenous communities around the world contribute the least to greenhouse gas emissions, but are disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

“In Torres Strait, they have been experiencing climate change for a number of years,” says Moggridge, citing the 2016 extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys. The disappearance of the rodent, which lived on a small island in the eastern Torres Strait, was the world’s first mammal extinction thought to have been caused by anthropogenic climate change.

history of exclusion

Western science has a history of excluding and exploiting First Nations people. The rise of scientific racism in the 19th century, tied to European colonialism, resulted in the widespread collection and distribution of Tasmanian Aboriginal remains, says Zoe Rimmer, curator of Pakana and academic fellow at the University of Tasmania.

“Museums played a big part in that, in collecting and distributing human remains and then having various anthropologists… looking at these collections and making really broad and racist assumptions based on measuring skulls and things like that,” she says. “A very high value was placed on the remains of our ancestors because of scientific theories that supposedly meant we were on the lowest evolutionary rung.”

The discredited pseudoscience of phrenology, which linked blows to the skull with mental faculties and personality traits, was also used to justify slavery and reinforce gender stereotypes.


“Theories are completely debunked today, but the myths that came out of science still cause a lot of pain and trauma within the community,” says Rimmer, adding that museums played a role in “creating myths around the ‘extinction’ of our community as well.”

Although First Nations people weren’t counted in the Australian census until 1971, “data on Aboriginal people was still collected from early colonial times,” says Maggie Walter, a Palawa woman and Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Tasmania.

“It was specific data from the powers that be, what the powers that be in government… I thought was important to know. It was almost never what Aboriginal people thought was important to know and it almost always positioned Aboriginal people pejoratively,” he says.

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Walter is a leader in the data sovereignty movement, asserting the right to own and apply indigenous data and challenging its historical use by governments.

Global conservation policy has failed to recognize the importance of indigenous land management, says Michael-Shawn Fletcher, a Wiradjuri scientist and associate professor at the University of Melbourne. “Biodiversity loss and catastrophic fires: started immediately after the British invasion of the Australian continent and removal of aboriginal burning,” he says.

“Landscapes that were deliberately curated and maintained as lower fuel loads are considered deserts, as non-human, with no human influence.” Modern science, says Fletcher, has largely ignored “the subtle influence that the Aborigines had throughout this continent.”

Moggridge believes that the exclusion of First Nations peoples from scientific decision-making and politics stems from the devaluation of indigenous knowledge. “Our knowledge is still seen as myth, legend and fable, and it’s not seen as evidence, it’s not seen as thousands of years of observations connected to your country,” she says.

“The country has changed over the generations – the stories of the mafia on the continental shelf who had to move to a higher country because the sea level started to rise at the end of the last ice age, there is evidence of it’s. Stories of volcanic activity and meteorites — those country sightings are told over and over again through generations,” says Moggridge. (Aboriginal stories have been linked to the identification of meteorites previously unknown to Western science.)

What constitutes science is an assumption worth questioning, says Walter, a topic he will discuss at next week’s Beaker Street Festival in Tasmania. “If you take science as a point of view, using the scientific method, which is empirical observation, analysis, and then interpretation through theory on how to explain that, then obviously indigenous knowledge is also science.

“The idea that somehow Western science is true and non-Western science is somehow culture or folklore is what needs to be challenged,” he says. “The scientific method says you have to go back repeatedly, and paradigms break, and what everyone believes at some point isn’t necessarily true.”

Related: Pre-colonial First Nations oyster fisheries sustained millennia of heavy harvests, study shows

Science is often thought to be objective. “It’s not,” says Fletcher. “The questions that he asks, the way that he views an issue, which then leads to the generation of his hypothesis… is deeply cultural and comes from his set of understandings of the world.

“The exclusion of different perspectives limits our ability to really understand what is going on.”

The long-awaited recognition of indigenous knowledge has begun in recent years in Australia. The 2021 State of the Environment report, released this month, included historic input from First Nations. “It was the first time that indigenous peoples have been seen as equals in terms of being…taxpayers,” says Moggridge. “There are 11 of us who are co-lead authors of our respective chapters.”

More needs to be done to create opportunities for indigenous peoples in science, he says. A 2020 report published by Science & Technology Australia found that while one in 20 non-Indigenous people of working age has a STEM degree, that figure is one in 200 for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people.

“The culture of science needs to change itself,” says Moggridge. “The whole paradigm is changing: indigenous peoples are not the research, they become the researchers.”

  • Maggie Walter and Zoe Rimmer will speak in a panel discussion, “Is Science Really for Everyone?” on August 5 as part of the Beaker Street Festival, a celebration of science and art in Lutruwita/Tasmania from August 5-14.

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