Engaging Indigenous Communities in Science: Q&A with Dr. Bradley Moggridge

ACSGCI
Honored Contributor
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By ACS Green Chemistry Institute

Bradley Moggridge, Associate Professor in Indigenous Water Science at the University of Canberra, spoke with us about how scientists can improve collaborations with Indigenous communities. He also provided guidance on resources that international societies can offer to engage more Indigenous students in STEM.

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Dr. Bradley Moggridge is a proud Aboriginal man from the Kamilaroi Nation (inland eastern Australia) who has over 25 years' experience in Aboriginal engagement and water and environmental science. Through his doctoral studies at the University of Canberra, Bradley examined how Indigenous knowledge can be applied to influence water management. He currently sits on the Boards of the New South Wales (NSW) Environmental Protection Authority, the Biodiversity Council Board, and the National Youth Science Forum, and he is the current President of the Australian Freshwater Science Society. Recently, he has been a contributing author on Chapter 11, Australasia for the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (2022) and the co-lead author for the Inland Waters chapter for the National State of the Environment (SOE) Report (2021). 

We had the privilege of asking Bradley about his unique experience as an Indigenous leader and scientist in advance of the GC&E session, “Unheard Voices and Global Perspectives in Global Green Chemistry and Sustainability,” where he will be speaking. 

Q. It’s rare to find someone who is both a representative of an Indigenous community and an active researcher in an academic community. Could you talk a little about the challenges in getting academic researchers and communities to effectively engage with one another, and what helps facilitate positive interactions? 

A. This is a genuine challenge for research and a genuine bugbear for Indigenous communities. The traditional researcher generates hypotheses, challenges, and questions they seek to answer  especially in natural resource management and the sciences  within a funding or study timeframe. I am somewhat lucky having lived experience in engaging my people in projects while thinking and being Indigenous all the time.  

Sometimes the researcher may see an Indigenous community as a source of knowledge (which can be true) for localized challenges. The researcher may create a relationship with that Indigenous community  whether that’s the Elders or specific members of that community  and may receive answers for their questions, then walk away. This in the past has left the Indigenous community feeling empty/used as that researcher may advance their studies or career with their findings and leave that community with nothing.  

The challenge today is for researchers to flip the paradigm with no pre-determined research questions in mind and engage with a community of interest, using my three Ts for that engagement  build Trust over Time over lots of cups of Tea. This may take some time as those communities may have been burnt before by a researcher just taking knowledge or higher priorities. Through the three Ts, the engagement may move to a positive space, and the community may seek your help in answering their questions. This can be somewhat special moment for all. 

Q. Your knowledge of water resources as an Indigenous person seems essential in how you approach water management in your work. What do you think is necessary in Australia and on a global scale to get more people who are experts in their communities doing the science in and for their communities? What resources are lacking, and - in your opinion - where do those resources need to come from?  

A. Indigenous people in the Australian context don’t really head towards science after school to university, then research, or as a career. Our communities do have many challenges that face them through the impacts of colonisation and laws and policies that exclude their input. The bulk of our universities see Indigenous people trending towards health/medical, law, teaching, and employment services rather than the sciences. Why don’t our people do science? Is it because Indigenous students are poorly advised into not doing it (like I was)? Or is it because Indigenous knowledge is not taught in curricula at all levels, or do students believe it is out of reach or too hard, they are not interested, or don’t feel they have what it takes to study science, or do other professions attract them earlier? It could be one or many of these. 

Australia is a big place, and many Indigenous communities may be remote to our capital cities that have the university campuses which are mostly on the coast. If you are a young person that loves to query everything, have questions about nature you want answers to, or have the urge to learn more, then science is for you, but it may be unattainable for many reasons, especially if [you are from a remote area]. Science at school may not be taught, access to big cities is not realistic away from traditional lands and family, or there may be inadequate cultural resources in place to ensure an Indigenous student feels safe and not isolated. 

Moving forward, I see the biggest challenges for many professional Indigenous people to be cultural isolation (away from communities) and colonial loading. At times, being the only Indigenous scientist / person present in an organization, you are seen as the one to fix anything Indigenous-related. These challenges are tough, and being a minority within a minority is sometimes lonely. I have been part of a group of Indigenous STEM professionals that has worked with our learned academies to create an Indigenous STEM network, it is in its early days but hoping to build something special that supports and celebrates Indigenous STEM professionals. 

Possible other solutions include building curricula from junior school to university level that has Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing and being included and that becomes normal. Indigenous knowledge has much to offer modern society. For instance, with climate change, Indigenous people contribute the least but are impacted the most, up to 80 percent of remaining biodiversity is on Indigenous lands, we are the custodians, and have a cultural obligation to care for land, water, and sky  this has been the case for 65,000 years. We have old knowledge entwined in stories, hold generations of observations that can contribute to better understanding landscapes, and that may just provide solutions for modern-day issues.  

Q. What advice do you have for scientists/chemists who aren’t sure how to align their research with the needs of the local communities? 

A. I have a few things to live by. If you are in a meeting that is talking about Indigenous people or their territories, have the courage to stop the discussion and ask where the Indigenous people are; the saying, “Nothing about us without us” comes to mind. Another is if you have an interest in Indigenous knowledge and people’s territories, reach out to them. This requires courage to have that first cup of Tea on your way to the remaining two Ts, Trust over Time.  

Think about reciprocity. What is in it for that Indigenous community, and what can you provide that community if they engage with you? As a researcher you may have access to resources, training, or answers to their questions, but that will take Time and Tea. This may lead to the co-design of projects and then onto co-delivery, co-authorship, or co-presentation of the findings and that can be very rewarding for all involved. 

An opportunity exists for many societies in the science space to reach out. This may be doing an audit seeking if there are Indigenous members already within, allowing for them to build a network, or having an Indigenous Statement of Commitment on the webpage (through working with Indigenous members). I am a member of several Australian and International science-based societies, and I am currently the president of one. Many of these have Indigenous executives and committees that can advise a society on upcoming conferences, Indigenous sessions (like the “Unheard Voices” session), or plenaries. Further, conferences can offer waived fees or travel scholarships to attend.  

Work with Indigenous communities and their schools and take science to them or have mentor programs for Indigenous students to access. These sort of things I wished for as a young scientist. 

Q. What does it mean to you to communicate the work you’re doing to a global scientific audience, and what do you hope the audiences at the Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference will take away from your talk in the “Unheard Voices” session? 

A. I am always humbled to talk about my career and state how lucky I have been through my privilege (of education) in the science world while still living by my vision from many years ago that if I am not having an impact through evidence for my people, it is time to move on.  

The way I see it is that Indigenous and Western scientists provide diverse and often complementary approaches to knowledge gathering and interpretation of the natural environment. Yet to date, there have been few opportunities for Indigenous scientists and Western scientists to interact in a manner that allows both to understand each other’s knowledge systems and methodologies and to share them, benefitting the scientific community more broadly.  

I hope telling my story and giving my experiences will give a young or old Indigenous person hope to go down a science career pathway, answer their questions or test their hypotheses themselves, or give a non-Indigenous scientist the confidence to have that first cup of Tea.

 

Our sincere thanks to Bradley for his time and insight! You can further explore Bradley's publications and projects on his University of Canberra profile page. Register for the 28th Annual GC&E today to attend the session where Bradley will speak, "Unheard Voices and Perspectives in Global Green Chemistry and Sustainability: Research, Leadership, and Revolutionary Ideas for the Future."