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Leading Aboriginal researcher raises some critical questions for the NHMRC

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) promotes its investment in building capacity among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers – but what about its own capacity to do this work?

Dr Chelsea Bond, an Aboriginal (Munanjahli) and South Sea Islander Australian and a Senior Lecturer with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit at the University of Queensland, raises some important questions in the article below about the NHMRC’s capacity to envisage and enable Indigenous-led research.

She suggests the NHMRC should attend to the structural barriers within its own institution that might be hindering the careers of Indigenous health researchers.

This is the second article in a series at Croakey examining research ethics, arising from the Lowitja Institute International Indigenous Health and Wellbeing Conference 2016, held recently in Melbourne. (See the previous article in this series).

*** This post was updated on 25 November to include a response from the NHMRC – see bottom of article ***


What is NHMRC’s capacity to resource Indigenous-led research?

Chelsea Bond writes:

This month ANU researcher Gaetan Burgio published an article in The Conversation about the 2017 NHMRC grant outcomes. Titled “Is the NHMRC funding process fair?” Burgio noted that some applicants may have an unfair advantage over others, observing that “younger researchers” and “women” were less likely to be successful.

He failed to make mention of the challenges facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health researchers in the NHMRC grant process. He did point out that funding had been awarded to a “centre of excellence to find a solution to alcohol-related health problems in Aboriginal populations”.

Interestingly, the Centre of Research Excellence funding was actually targeted toward “Indigenous researcher capacity building”, not alcohol problems.

The Centre of Research Excellence in Indigenous Researcher Capacity Building was, we were told by the NHMRC, intended to:

build capacity among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers, facilitate networks of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders in health research and/or produce a leadership cohort able to provide training and development opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research students and early-career researchers. Some applications may address both Indigenous researcher capacity building and Indigenous health and well-being”.

The successful bid was awarded to an investigative team led by a non-Indigenous researcher, with only two out of nine of the chief investigative team identifying as Indigenous. The other unsuccessful teams shortlisted were all led by Indigenous researchers, and most were situated within specified Indigenous health research centres or institutions (just for the record, I was not an investigator on any research team bidding for the CRE).

There is no suggestion here that the successful team won’t make a meaningful contribution to building the capacities of Indigenous health researchers; rather this decision raises broader questions about NHMRC’s Indigenous health capacity building agenda and most critically their capacity to invest in Indigenous-led research.

imagemdWhile the recent funding decision suggests that Indigenous health researchers don’t have the capacity to lead an Indigenous Centre of Excellence in Indigenous researcher capacity building, the recent International Indigenous Health Conference hosted by the Lowitja Institute (Australia’s National Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research) reminded us there is currently a critical mass of Indigenous health researchers leading the way in both improving Indigenous health and building the capacities of other Indigenous health researchers.

It also argued, via the Lowitja Conference Statement, the importance of investing in Indigenous-led research.image2jacksonIndigenous-led research is more than a numbers game of including Indigenous researchers on research teams. It is, according to Rigney about ensuring that Indigenous peoples’ “interests, experiences and knowledges [are] at the centre of research methodologies and the construction of knowledge about us”, which is necessary to counter the “racialized research industry [which] still prevails in Australia”.

We can witness in the recent NHMRC decision how the benevolent agenda of ‘Indigenous health researcher capacity building’ has been used to remind us of our incapacities, including racialised imaginings of the “drunken Aborigine”.

It would seem wherever we go, we are reminded of Indigenous people’s propensity to alcoholism despite the fact that Indigenous people are more likely to abstain from alcohol than non-Indigenous people.

image3lisawhop

While alcohol is a significant contributor to the burden of disease experienced by Indigenous Australia (8%), it also remains a significant contributor to ill health and premature death in the broader Australian population (5%).

A crude analysis of NHRMC’s funding over the past 15 years reveals alcohol-related research in the general population accounts for less than 1% of all NHMRC funding while over 6% of identifiable Indigenous health research funding (with Fields of Research (FoR) code = Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health or Indigenous Health) has been allocated to research addressing alcohol-related problems (not counting the additional $2.4M investment for the CRE).

Indigenous health researchers understandably are questioning just who exactly is benefitting from this investment as well as the knowledge that is being produced about Indigenous peoples.

image4me

The NHMRC boasts of its commitment to Indigenous health, by committing a minimum of 5% of all research expenditure to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and indeed it often exceeds this amount.

Of the $398M purported to have been invested in Indigenous health research over the past 15 years (2000 – 2014), less than half of that investment (43%) is classified within the FoR codes ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health’ or ‘Indigenous Health’.

Regardless of the amount of investment in Indigenous health research, however, it would be most interesting to know what proportion of that investment has contributed directly to the ‘capacity building’ or career development of Indigenous health researchers in lead research roles.

image5connolly

Indeed, the NHMRC provides dedicated funding opportunities for Indigenous health researchers such as PhD scholarships and early career fellowships. In more recent years, they introduced an ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’ category within its Career Development Fellowship scheme.

I have tried (unsuccessfully) to apply for career development support from the NHMRC. In the year that I applied, I was the only applicant for this category, yet was unsuccessful as I was deemed ‘uncompetitive’ – with who exactly I am not sure.

I later realised that this ‘peoples’ scheme is not specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but for researchers to develop their careers via Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research.

This appears to conflict with international best practice in Indigenous health research, with several keynote presenters at the Lowitja Conference observing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the right to self-determination as it applies to Indigenous health research.

This begs the question; why is there dedicated support for Indigenous health researchers as PhD students and early career researchers and no explicit investment in career development and advancement of Indigenous health researchers?

image6karen

The NHMRC has expressed a firm commitment to gender equity by working toward improving “the retention and progression” of women in science. This agenda includes reportage on what proportion of funding allocated each year is for female researchers, appropriate consideration to career disruption in applicant’s track record, introduction of part-time schemes, seeking gender equity on review panels and reviewing institutional gender practices across the sector.

There is a clear demarcation in the NHMRC’s agenda when it comes to women and Indigenous researchers. One focuses on opportunities while the other focuses on incapacities.

The former seeks to enhance opportunities for women researchers through redressing the structural barriers within the NHMRC grant processes that have denied women a research career, rather than insisting that they lack ‘capacity’ or even for that matter, that capacity might be built by someone – possibly men – doing research on women.

Thus the challenge remains for the NHMRC and its Indigenous health capacity building agenda; what is its capacity to envisage and enable Indigenous-led research and attend to the structural barriers within its own institution that might be hindering the careers of Indigenous health researchers?

image8former

In highlighting the disjuncture between NHMRC’s commitments to Indigenous and female researchers, I am not suggesting that ‘equity’ should replace the current ‘capacity building’ agenda.

At the recent Lowitja Conference, Associate Professor Gregory Phillips cautioned of the dangers of inclusion and equity discourse. Instead, he called for a new terms of reference in Indigenous health which centre Indigenous sovereignty.

image9socialjustice

Centring Indigenous sovereignty demands a relationship between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australia that is premised upon justice instead of benevolence.

It requires an ideological shift away from ONLY building the capacities of Indigenous peoples to recognising our EXISTING capacities as Indigenous peoples and as Indigenous health researchers, as well as our right to drive Indigenous knowledge production.

More importantly, according to Phillips, it demands “a constructive critique of the enabling environment and systems of privilege within which we operate.”

image10finlay

It does not necessitate the exclusion of non-Indigenous health researchers in our affairs, but it does mean ending the monopoly they hold, which at present is being masked by a lack of transparency in reporting on Indigenous health research expenditure.

Who knows – perhaps such moves might bring about the necessary changes so desperately needed to improve Indigenous health outcomes?

Dr Chelsea Bond is an Aboriginal (Munanjahli) and South Sea Islander Australian and a Senior Lecturer with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit at the University of Queensland. Follow on Twitter: @drcbond

• See the first article in this series on research ethics at Croakey: Courage, honesty, celebration, imagination and other ethics for Indigenous health research.

And stay tuned for the next article in this series, in which Dr Chelsea Bond shares a letter to herself as a young researcher.


Note from Croakey

(The response from the NHMRC was added on 25 November).

The NHMRC has responded to the following questions raised by Dr Bond.

1. What proportion of the NHMRC investment in Indigenous health research has contributed directly to the ‘capacity building’ or career development of Indigenous health researchers in lead research roles?

NHMRC:

In 2015–2016, expenditure for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research was $53,417,684. This expenditure covers all NHMRC funding schemes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research.

People Support expenditure for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research in the same period was $8,303,288. This figure shows only expenditure of People Support schemes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research derived from the overall expenditure above.

In 2015–2016, four per cent of awarded grants had an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander researcher as a Chief Investigator. The above information is publicly available from the 2015-2016 NHMRC Annual Report.

A further search of ‘capacity building’ as a keyword revealed that in 2015, the following grants were awarded:

  • Associate Professor James Ward for a Centre of Research Excellence—Health Services ($2,496,848) and
  • Professor Brian Smith, for a project grant—Training health professionals in tobacco cessation and evidence translation for Aboriginal Australians ($832,723).

2. Why is there dedicated support for Indigenous health researchers as PhD students and early career researchers – but no explicit investment in career development and advancement of Indigenous health researchers?

NHMRC:

We understand ‘dedicated support’ to refer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research streams for Postgraduate Scholarships and Early Career Fellowships.

There is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stream for Career Development Fellowships (CDF). Section 6.5 of the 2016 CDF funding rules refers to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Fellowships:

‘NHMRC is committed to ensuring opportunities are available for researchers who are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent in health research across all its People Support programs. Applicants to this category must be of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent and may be conducting research in any health or medical research field. The Fellowship can be full-time or part-time.’

In 2015–2016:

  • Postgraduate Scholarships—three were funded
  • Early Career Fellowships—nine were funded
  • Career Development Fellowships—five were funded
  • Research Fellowships—three were funded
  • Practitioner Fellowships—zero were funded
  • Translating Research into Practice Fellowship—one was funded (page 41, Annual Report)

NHMRC also has funding for the Facilitation of International Indigenous Researcher Networks (FIIRN) in Postgraduate Scholarships and Early Career Fellowships, where we provide $11,000 to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholars or fellows to travel overseas to establish linkages/mentorships with other Indigenous researchers. This aims to build on the intentions of the former Tripartite Agreement and current ‘Letter of Intent’, and specifically targets early career Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers to:

  • Facilitate appropriate international mentoring linkages
  • Support NHMRC’s strategic objectives in relation to building capacity aimed at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers.

3. What is the capacity of the NHMRC and its Indigenous health capacity building agenda to envisage and enable Indigenous-led research and attend to the structural barriers within its own institution that might be hindering the careers of Indigenous health researchers?

NHMRC:

The Principal Committee Indigenous Caucus (PCIC) provides advice to the NHMRC Council and CEO on issues relating to Indigenous health research and the implementation of Road Map II. More details of the PCIC is available here—https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/health-topics/indigenous-health/indigenous-advisory-and-stakeholder-engagement

Capacity building among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers is a major issue under consideration by PCIC.

Road Map II also includes capacity exchange as one of its seven action areas. NHMRC with PCIC are currently developing Road Map III and will hold a series of national consultations in 2017.

The Structural Review of NHMRC’s Grant Program is examining and providing advice to the CEO of NHMRC on:

  • the structure of the grant program, including:

– The impact of the grant program on the health and medical research sector and

– The flexibility of the grant program to meet future needs for health and medical research in Australia; and

  • Alternative models and their potential to overcome the current challenges.

Support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research and researchers is one of the key issues being considered in the Review. Associate Professor Noel Hayman is on the Review’s Expert Advisory Group.


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Comments 2

  1. Dr Sandy O'Sullivan says:

    Struggling to avoid saying something about dickishness about this Burgio bloke! I mean it’s easy to mess up increasing Indigenous researcher capacity with fixing up us drunkies, right?

    Also, Chelsea, I mean they let us be involved… sure, almost none of us, but still! That’s nice, isn’t it? And we get to learn from clever white people who know so much more than us about all things Aboriginal… so there’s that. I realised when they parachuted someone into a job above me with less skills, qualifications, publications, research awards, years in service, connections – you name it – but who was a white man, that with all of that enormous amount of ‘less’ to offer, that I could – of course – learn from him. He had so much to teach me.

    I loved your line about ‘competitive with who?’. Chelsea, I think you know the answer to that, the people who don’t have the answers and keep coming back to us for help when they do get the funding. As with most things you write, you’ve got a killer line in there that I am citing the bejesus out of… “There is a clear demarcation in the NHMRC’s agenda when it comes to women and Indigenous researchers. One focuses on opportunities while the other focuses on incapacities” – you said it, sister!

  2. researcher relocating abroad says:

    …and if you are a researcher who happens to be Aboriginal, woman and located in a regional university where your ECF score includes an Institutional score … and your institution scores low (even if you personally) score high… you won’t get an ECF… period! Not only will your own non modifiable attributes disadvantage your chances of NHMRC grant success (ethnicity & gender)… but the poor track record of your regional colleagues will pull you down another peg… or two. Real lived experience of an Aboriginal female researcher…

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