Issues Magazine

Indigenous Knowledge and Students Neglected by Science

By Diana Day

Universities need to be more committed to attracting Indigenous students to science and incorporating Indigenous knowledge in curricula.

Time is up for Australian universities in their tentative attempts to increase the number of indigenous science students. Western science is shy of the richness of traditional indigenous knowledge. Why does tertiary science ignore 45,000 years of the longest cumulative knowledge base on Earth?

The dearth of indigenous science students starts at school. In NSW, 149 indigenous and 36,543 non-indigenous students completed HSC science and technology courses in 2003, a stark illustration of the shrinking pipeline of students who might get to university.

In 2004 only 25 indigenous students completed natural or physical sciences degree in Australia (compared with 9004 non-indigenous students), with 13 in environment/agriculture (1843 non-indigenous). Of the 1146 research doctorates completed in physical sciences and the environment, one was by an indigenous student.

Career outreach to schools by universities often misses indigenous students. My research shows that indigenous high school students need culturally targeted materials and exposure to indigenous undergraduate science ambassadors. They need to become familiar with university science faculties and visit the campus’ indigenous teaching centre as a future “home base”. University science staff have to make personal visits to the campus’ indigenous units to co-create programs that encourage secondary school students to continue with science.

Indigenous students have preconceived notions that science at university is for bright white kids; that science is something that someone else would do; that right or wrong answers conflict with their world view; and that scientific knowledge will not help them to support their communities. All of the five successful science students and graduates whom we could locate and interview in our project identified family encouragement as a key.

While the University of South Australia recently stated its aim to have indigenous content across the curriculum by 2010, this is a tall order. We are tempted to turn indigenous knowledge into scientific data, but indigenous knowledge is highly integrated with many physical and social factors. One Australian Research Council project has listed traditional knowledge research for northern Australia.

Examples of knowledge out there include regional and site knowledge of freshwater ecology and animal behaviour. Then there is unique knowledge of surface and groundwater fluxes during changing weather and climate regimes. Indigenous people have great understanding of sustainable wildlife harvesting, landscape ecology and the seasonality of impacts on flora and fauna. The catalogue continues with sea resources, impacts of feral animals on wetlands, indigenous medicine and pharmacology. Complementing this treasure trove is seasonal fire management, ethnobiology and clay and toxic plant technology.

Traditional knowledge integrates millennia of observational evidence and management of resources for survival. Natural phenomena are considered part of a living process of sharing and sustaining. Customary sea rights and resource allocation rules form part of this knowledge base. However, much of this is fragmented and unprotected due to the disruptions of colonisation.

Right now our terrestrial and marine environments and their genetic sources are being pored over by greedy corporate biopirates. More businesses are quietly entering lucrative water markets and expanding privatisation of the water commons, leaving no room for traditional owners. Even a bank wants to privatise the Botany Aquifer – the traditional territory of the Eora nation!

Contemporary science and natural resources management systems are failing global ecological sustainability. Taking more note of indigenous knowledge might just help.

Young indigenous scientists can only be encouraged through collaborative linkages between university, secondary school and the indigenous community. These scientists may help defend and protect indigenous knowledge resources and form a basis for identifying and protecting indigenous property rights over land and water. An undergraduate science curriculum that is inclusive of these elements would support all of our science students.

Reproduced from Australasian Science (