From STEM to stern

Indigenous scientists have a story to tell.

Map: First Languages Australia.

Good news stories about Australia’s first peoples rarely appear in mainstream media, let alone stories about Indigenous scientists. Yet we as Indigenous Australians have much to celebrate and offer as storytellers and scientists; we are descendants of the oldest continuing cultures on the planet, having survived for thousands of generations. Of the 200-plus languages that existed on the Australian continent at the time of invasion/settlement (that’s another debate) many go back millennia.

Even now in 2017, Indigenous people are not well represented in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), whether you count those enrolling in university courses or practising as scientists. The Australian government’s own 2015 Vision for a Science Nation acknowledged that “the Indigenous share of domestic undergraduate enrolments in the natural and physical sciences, IT, and engineering disciplines in 2013 was under 1 per cent”.

The media is an important tool to help turn this around and to spread the word about the importance of science in our everyday lives. Science challenges the status quo and can improve human existence. Our ability to communicate this to the public and inspire the next generation of scientists has never been more important, considering the human-induced and natural threats we currently face. There have been some superstars of science that appear on our televisions or in our social media feeds, but we don’t see Indigenous scientists telling their science stories.

To try to rectify the imbalance, and to attract more Indigenous people to science, the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) hosted the second Indigenous Science Media Mentoring Program in Sydney in August 2017 as a part of National Science Week.

Bradley Moggridge. Photo: ACU

I was one of the eight participants. My name is Bradley Moggridge and I am a proud Murri from the Kamilaroi Nation (North-West NSW), now living in Canberra. I was lucky to be selected along with other brilliant Indigenous scientists to participate in the program. The program received grant funding from the Australian Government as part of the Inspiring Australia — Science Engagement Programme and was also generously supported through a partnership with NITV and SBS.

During the training we were exposed to how the media operates. We worked with print, television and online journalists, heard tips on how to make your story a scoop, worked on using jargon-free language and refining our presence on camera.

I describe myself as a #STEMORIGINAL on Twitter (a combination of STEM and Aboriginal) and although I have more than 25 years as a water scientist under my belt, it was humbling to be surrounded by other great #STEMORIGINALS including professors, doctors, research directors and research scientists.

After the initial training at NITV, I spent a further two days at The Canberra Times, working alongside their journalists, going out on an assignment to get a story and getting a feel for how an active newsroom operates.

As a scientist, my expertise is in water and the environment. Water is always going to be a key topic for Australia as it is the driest inhabited continent on earth. But much of our water policy was developed without consultation with Indigenous people or without using traditional knowledge.

Even though water management is again in the media spotlight, thanks to allegations of mismanagement and water theft in the Murray Darling Basin, Indigenous voices and certainly Indigenous science voices are still not heard in the debate. We need scientific research to show credible evidence of the value of water for Australia’s first peoples, and how modern-day water planning can accommodate these values.

I hope to fill this gap through my PhD at the University of Canberra’s Institute for Applied Ecology.

Science is often seen by kids and the media alike as not being “sexy”, and I believe we need to make science more appealing for the current and next generation of Indigenous students to consider science as a career pathway. Programs such as the AusSMC’s Indigenous Media Mentoring Program provide this opportunity, celebrating Indigenous Australians doing great things from cancer research, mental health, epidemiology and mathematics to bush fires, astronomy and infectious diseases.

Indigenous people’s knowledge can work alongside scientists to understand current threats, such as climate change, natural disasters and sea level rise. In the Australian context, our first people survived through the generations, facing droughts, sea level rise, volcanism, and natural climate change. Validation of this traditional knowledge, so that it can sit alongside western science, is a crucial next step for understanding the Australian landscape.

Before beginning my PhD in 2016, I had the honour of leading what was at the time the only Aboriginal water unit in Australia, the Aboriginal Water Initiative (AWI) within the NSW Department of Primary Industries. Unfortunately, the AWI has been disbanded by the NSW Government. Perhaps if I had completed the AusSMC media program earlier I may have been better equipped to save the AWI.

I now have the ability and opportunity to honour my old people and also leave a legacy for my children through influencing western science with traditional knowledge of water. I can also tell a good story to the media who, I hope, will listen. You can find me on the Australian Science Media Centre’s online expert database — on Scimex. Look me up — let’s have a yarn.

Bradley J. Moggridge is a proud Murri from the Kamilaroi Nation, now living in Canberra as a water scientist and a PhD Candidate at the University of Canberra.